The first wave of exiles from Judah left Jerusalem in 597 B.C. when “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came against the city, and his servants did besiege it” (2 Kings 24:11). At that time, Nebuchadnezzar “carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land” (2 Kings 24:14). Even though Nebuchadnezzar took away what could be considered the heart and soul of Jerusalem in 597 B.C., the city remained in tact for another 11 years while king Zedekiah reigned. Zedekiah was what might be called a puppet king. Zedekiah was placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar and was expected to follow his commands, but eventually, Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar and was also taken into captivity (2 Kings 24:7) along with the remainder of his kingdom (2 Kings 25:11). It is believed that on August 14, 586 B.C., Judah’s 70 years of captivity officially began.
A final wave of exiles was taken from Jerusalem in 581 B.C. that consisted of people who had returned or migrated back to the city after Nebuchanezzar’s conquest in 586 B.C. After that, the city lay desolate, completely empty, until Ezra returned with 42,360 people in 538 B.C. to rebuild God’s temple (Ezra 2:65). Some of the people that came back with Ezra had actually been taken from Jerusalem, had survived their period of captivity, and were there to see the temple structure rebuilt. It says in Ezra 3:12, “but many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy.” Their mixed reaction to completing the laying of the foundation of the second temple may have been due to these older mens’ memory of their former life. No doubt some of them suffered from a type of post-traumatic stress syndrome that brought flashbacks to them of the violence they suffered when the temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army.
“The people of Israel were accustomed to showing their emotions in visible and audible ways” (Note on Ezra 3:13). The psalms of David are filled with heartfelt pleas and agonizing cries for mercy that were sung to God for many generations after David died. While they were in exile, it appears that God’s people continued to praise him and were at times even forced to sing the songs that meant so much to them. Psalm 137 is believed to be “A plaintive song of the exile – of one who has recently returned from Babylon but in whose soul there lingers the bitter memory of the years in a foreign land and of the cruel events that led to that enforced stay” (Note on Psalm 137). Contained within Psalm 137’s nine verses are: the remembered sorrow and torment (vv. 1-3), an oath of total commitment to Jerusalem (vv. 4-6), and a call for retribution on Edom and Babylon (vv. 7-9). The notable first verse of the Psalm recalls, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
Among the men that returned to Jerusalem were descendants of the king of Judah, Jehoiachin, who was taken into captivity in 597 B.C. at the age of 18 (2 Kings 24:12). Jehoiachin, his son Shealtiel, and grandson Zerubbabel are listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:12). Although Zerubbabel never sat on the throne as king of Judah, he played a prominent role in the reestablishment of the city of Jerusalem and was present at the dedication of the altar. It says of Zerubbabel and his counterpart Jeshua, son of the high priest Jozadak in Ezra 3:2-3, “Then stood up Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priest, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and builded the altar of the God of Israel, too offer burnt offerings thereon, as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God. And they set the altar upon his bases, for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries: and they offered burnt offerings thereon unto the LORD, even burnt offerings morning and evening.”