The Babylonian Captivity of the Jews began with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE and ended when the Persian emperor Cyrus allowed them to return from exile as of 538 BCE. Zerubbabel, a prince of David’s line, and Jeshua the high priest undertook rebuilding of the temple beginning in about 521 BCE.
Many now use the term “Babylonian Captivity” to describe any period when apostasy overwhelms the kingdom and no temples operate. The “abominations” of the Jews caused their destruction (1 Ne. 1:13), but because of their humiliation and repentance in Babylon, the Lord permitted a restoration of the temple and the kingdom in Jerusalem.
When the light of Christ breaks forth again, we call it a restoration of the gospel. That’s what happened in Jerusalem at that time. “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” and charged him to facilitate the rebuilding of the temple (Ez. 1:1), thus making the saving ordinances of the gospel available once more to the house of Israel.
Restoring the Priesthood
To restore the saving ordinances, the priesthood must first be restored. The high priest Jeshua was charged to restore the priesthood and the rites of the temple. His transformation into the true high priest of Israel was symbolic of the restoration of sinful Israel to purified Israel, as the prophet Zechariah explains. He says that the Lord showed him:
“Jeshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him” (Zech. 3:1). In Hebrew his name would be Yeshua ben Yehozadak, which in our tongue would be “Jesus, son of the God of Righteousness,” in other words, the Messiah. “Now Jeshua was clothed with filthy garments,” which would represent the sin of the world. Satan is there in his role of Resister, disputing the Messiah’s rights and pointing to the dirty clothes as symbols of man’s worthlessness.
But the Lord dismisses Satan and says, “Take away the filthy garments from [Jeshua]. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment.” Jeshua is then invested with the robes and headdress of the high priest of Israel. (Zech. 3:3-5). The burden of sin laid by, the high priest now stands as proxy for the Redeemer of Israel, resplendent in the robes of the Messiah.
This is not the high priest’s usual “golden garments” of luxurious tunic, crown, and breastplate; it is the simpler white garment worn only on the Day of Atonement when he presented himself barefoot at the veil of the temple to do penance for the sins of the house of Israel. At the veil on that day, he wore “the holy linen coat,” cap, and sash of a common priest (Lev. 16:4) to symbolize the purity and humility of Christ.
“And when the seventh month was come . . . the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem. Then stood up Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and builded the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings thereon” (Ez. 3:1-2).
The Day of Atonement was observed on the tenth day of the seventh month. Under the supervision of the high priest, a holy altar was raised in Jerusalem for the first time in many years just in time for the observance of that holy day. Dressed in white, Jeshua the high priest offered the burnt offerings required to atone for the sin of all Israel.
Then, as the law of Moses provided, “they kept also the feast of tabernacles,” an annual event five days after the Day of Atonement when all the families of Israel gathered at the temple to perform sacrifice and to hear the words of their leaders—rather like a general conference (Ez. 3:4).
We too, like Jeshua the high priest, stand before God in the filthy rags of our unworthiness to be judged. Satan is there to exploit every shred of our sins. But if we are repentant, Father simply sends the devil away, clothes us in the white robes of the priesthood, and welcomes us into His kingdom. The Savior has paid the debt we owe. Jeshua symbolizes our divine potential in the figure of the risen Lord; and if we become “as He is,” we too will be clothed with glory, to minister to our loved ones in our own dominions forever.
Restoring the Temple
The Lord entrusted the Davidic prince Zerubbabel and the rightful high priest Jeshua to lead the captive Jews from Babylon back to Jerusalem after the exile. He compared them to “two olive trees” that pour golden oil into the menorah, the seven-branched temple candlestick, thus giving light to the people (Zech. 3:4).
The return to the Holy Land was like a second Exodus, and the chief goal—always the same—was to restore the temple. “What was the object of gathering the Jews together or the people of God in any age of the world?” asked Joseph Smith. “To build unto the Lord an house whereby he could reveal unto his people the ordinances of his house and glories of his kingdom & teach the people the ways of salvation” (“Discourse, 11 June 1843–A,” Joseph Smith Papers).
When the foundation of the new temple was laid, “many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house . . . wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy: so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping” (Ez. 3:12-13). It was a tremendous outpouring of grief for the sins of the past and joy for restoration and atonement.
They met the dedication of the finished temple with similar gratitude. “The children of Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the rest of the children of the captivity, kept the dedication of this house of God with joy.” They were no longer the “children of captivity” because through the ordinances of the temple they would be made free of the power of Satan.
“And the children of the captivity kept the Passover upon the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites were purified together, all of them were pure . . . and the children of Israel, which were come again out of captivity, and all such as had separated themselves unto them from the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the Lord God of Israel, did eat.” Once again, the saving ordinances of the house of God were administered to all by the authority of the priesthood, “and the Lord had made them joyful” (Ez. 6:16-20).
This pattern of temple building marks the restoration of the gospel in every dispensation. At the beginning of our dispensation, the Lord restored the priesthood and the ordinances of the temple through the Prophet Joseph Smith. He focused the energy of the saints on the building of temples, first at Kirtland and then at Nauvoo, which were also met with unspeakable joy. Eliza R. Snow recalled of the dedication of the Kirtland Temple:
“The ceremonies of that dedication may be rehearsed, but no mortal language can describe the heavenly manifestations of that memorable day. Angels appeared to some, while a sense of divine presence was realized by all present, and each heart was filled with ‘joy inexpressible and full of glory’” (in Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom, New York, 1877, 95).
Building the Walls of Zion
For nearly a century after the return of the Jews, the walls of Jerusalem were still broken down. The Persian emperor sent his servant Nehemiah as governor of Judah with the mission to rebuild the walls. This project aroused the anger of one Sanballat, the governor of neighboring Samaria, who saw Nehemiah as a competitor for mastery of Palestine.
Sanballat tried to get Nehemiah into his power by inviting him to parley in a neutral place. But Nehemiah gave this classic response: “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?” (Neh. 6:3).
Sanballat had built at Mount Gerizim a competing temple that was not authorized by the Lord. As such, it represented the mingling of scripture with the doctrines of men. Sanballat wanted all of Israel to acknowledge his counterfeit temple and his governorship. So, he was determined to hinder the work of Nehemiah and make sure Jerusalem remained defenseless. He conspired with others to invade the city and stop the work (Neh. 4:7-8).
In response to this threat, Nehemiah ordered half the workers to continue raising the wall while “the other half of them held spears, shields, and bows” to defend the city against the invaders. He also set a twenty-four-hour guard around the city (Neh. 4:15-16, 20-22). Within 52 days, the wall was finished.
The same pattern of opposition arises whenever a temple is built. As in Nehemiah’s day, when the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples were under construction, envious political and religious powers tried many times to stop the work. Brigham Young recalled watching “the great Prophet Joseph, in the stone quarry, quarrying rock with his own hands; and the few then in the Church, following his example of obedience and diligence wherever most needed; with laborers on the walls, holding the sword in one hand to protect themselves from the mob, while they placed the stone and moved the trowel with the other” (Brigham Young, “Necessity of Building Temples,” Journal of Discourses 18:31).
The walls of Jerusalem symbolize the protective boundary between Zion and the world. Within the walls the temple is safe and the people are sheltered from destructive influences. Likewise, we build spiritual boundaries around our homes and our families to fortify them against those influences. We raise protective walls against evil by prayer and devotion to our gospel duties, thus inviting the power of the Holy Ghost to shield us. We keep one eye on threats from the outside while we continue the work of building faithful families.
As for Nehemiah, for a faithful Latter-day Saint this is a “great work” that will not cease regardless of the distractions the world may offer.