2. Persian Conquest of Babylon.
Forty-eight years after the destruction of Jerusalem the whole of the Babylonian kingdom passed into the power of Cyrus the Persian. Two years after his conquest he told the Jewish exiles in Babylon that any or all of them, if they liked, might return to the land of their fathers, and become his Syrian instead of his Babylonian subjects. He gave them permission also to rebuild their temple, and he restored to them the holy vessels which had been taken away by Nebuchadnezzar’s troops when they sacked Jerusalem.
3. The Influences of the Exile.
Fifty years, we must remember, had come and gone since the fall of Jerusalem. Sorrows, that seem quite unbearable at first, grow with time to be lightly borne. ‘By the waters of Babylon,’ the first exiles had sat down and wept, but on its banks by-and-by their children ran and laughed. They ‘hung their harps on the willow trees,’ and refused to sing the songs of Zion for a year or two, or may be ten. But by degrees the ‘strange land’ grew homelike, and the harps, we may be sure, were taken down, and strung, and tuned. After a while every one has to live in the present, however dear or sad the past may be.
The Jews in Babylon learned to face their life in captivity, and to make the best of it. In many respects they were the better for it. They grew, indeed, to be truer patriots in exile than for generations they had been in possession. The loss of their country seemed to rouse them and to steady them. They became more patient and united, and less childish and discontented. The counsels of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and of the other unnamed prophets of the exile, were listened to in Babylon as they never had been in Palestine.
The law of Moses was read, and the Psalms of David were probably sung in mean little meeting-houses, but these poor places were crowded, and included more devout worshippers than had ever assembled in the marble courts of the temple. Many people think that it is to these earnest exiles in Babylon that we owe the small beginnings of our present synagogues. The word ‘synagogue’ comes from the Greek, and means an assembling together; and though the word itself does not come into use till long after the return from the captivity, yet places of assembly for prayer and praise were quite common all throughout Judea long before historians talk of them by the name of synagogue.