Bible Text: Ezekiel 5:5–8; 36:22–32; Zechariah 1:1–6
Lesson Focus: Even when we feel separated, God always welcomes us back.
Big Question: How can I be sure that God is really with me?
Key Words: EXILE, BABYLON, JERUSALEM, FAITHFULNESS, PROPHET
• The Babylonian exile of the Jews from their homeland was a turning point in the life of God’s people, reshaping them for new life with God. This forced exile happened over several years and lasted for about 60 years.
• The prophets who served during the exile and the return emphasized God’s presence and purpose among the people and in all events—even painful and tragic ones. Ezekiel recalled the people to a life dedicated to Yahweh.
• The release from exile came in stages, beginning with the edict of Persian King Cyrus in 538 B.C.E. that allowed exiles to return and reestablish their worship of God.
• Ezra and Nehemiah were concerned with religious reform, organizing the returning community around Torah, and rebuilding the temple. Both Ezra (a priest) and Nehemiah (a political leader) had a strong sense of God’s working in history and God’s ability to use whomever God wills.
• The prophets of the post-exilic period (including Ezekiel and Zechariah) laid the basis in language and imagery for the development of biblical apocalyptic writing. Unlike much popular apocalyptic literature today, biblical apocalyptic literature was written to reassure oppressed people of God’s power and abiding presence and mercy.
This session covers a 200 year period between the Babylonians’ capture of Jerusalem in 598 B.C.E. to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem by Nehemiah in 445 B.C.E. (Check out the timeline of this period in the Lutheran Study Bible, pp. 30–32). During this period, the Jews lost the Jerusalem temple, which had been overrun with false idols and unfaithful sacrifices, and lived without any sign of God’s presence except the words that they remembered and the words spoken to them by prophets. Only then was Yahweh, who had remained faithful, able to regain their attention and recall them to the covenant promises. After decades in exile in Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return.
The exile came about in stages. In 598 B.C., Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar deported several thousand people, including the elite of society. Deportations continued for several years until all but the poorest people were exiled from the land. In Babylon, the exiles lived “freely” as long as they did not try to escape and return. Many made permanent homes. From the time of the first deportations, the exile lasted about 60 years, or almost three generations (597 to 445 B.C.), so that most deportees died in Babylon. Of those who finally returned, most had never known life in Palestine.
Through the prophets, God’s people came to understand that the exile and their suffering was important to the people’s readiness for a new relationship with God. Ezekiel includes oracles of warning (chapters 1–24) from before the fall of Jerusalem, oracles against foreign nations (chapters 25–32), and oracles of hope (chapters 33–48) from after Jerusalem’s destruction. Ezekiel emphasized God’s presence and purpose among the people and in all events. Ezekiel recalled the people to a holy and just life dedicated to Yahweh (36:26–27).
The return from exile, as the exile itself, came in stages. After the death of Nebuchadnezzar in 562 B.C.E., the Babylonian empire weakened from internal strife and lack of leadership, and in 539 B.C.E., the Persian Cyrus conquered Babylon. In 538 B.C.E., the Persian King Cyrus, whom Isaiah (45:1) names the Lord’s anointed (“messiah”), issued an edict allowing the exiles to return and reestablish their worship. Ezra led another wave of returning exiles under Persian King Artaxerxes I (464 to 423 B.C.E.), and Nehemiah led a group under King Artaxerxes II (404 to 358 B.C.E.). Judah remained subject to the Persian Empire from 583 to 332 B.C., when the Macedonian Alexander the Great conquered Persia and its lands.
How was the post-exilic community to be defined? What was the source of their identity as a people? The temple rebuilding was crucial, but what was the central meaning of the temple? A building in itself did not give them an identity as God’s people. For Ezra and Nehemiah, a strengthening of the Zadokite priesthood and an emphasis on Torah were to be the basis for the community’s identity. Nehemiah also emphasized prayer. Having witnessed the role in the community’s restoration not only through Cyrus but also through subsequent Persian rulers, both Ezra (9:8–9) and Nehemiah had a strong sense of God’s working in history and God’s ability to use whomever God wills.
After the exile, the prophet Zechariah continued to call the people to repent and return to God (Zechariah 1:1–6). In eight visions, Zechariah proclaimed judgment, restoration under Zerubbabel and Joshua, and the coming of a messiah (1:7—6:15). At the restoration and coming of the messiah, all the exiles would return (chapters 9–11). Zechariah prophesied a day when God, who rules the earth and all history, would overthrow all the rulers and reestablish Jerusalem (chapters 12–13). Despite Zechariah’s prophesying a king and messiah to come, their focus was not on kingship or the Davidic dynasty. Their emphasis was priestly. They focused on rebuilding the temple and establishing true, purified worship of God in preparation for the coming of a messianic age.
God is God of history. Believers have witnessed God’s activity in history, for example, through the Persian kings, the priest Ezra, and the governor Nehemiah. God works where and through whom God wills. In considering where God is at work in the world, It’s important not only to look around for signs of God’s grace and for times and places where justice and compassion are found but also to take a long view and consider the perspective of history. What future does God have in mind? Where is the current conflict or controversy going? In our actions, being faithful means not only showing compassion and acting for justice in the immediate moment but also participating in the long arc of history that bends toward God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. This always means change, which is something we humans often resist. Taking the long view—from the perspective of God’s working in history to bring the kingdom of grace and peace—helps us see more clearly and act more faithfully.
How can I be sure that God is really with me?
This lesson on exile and return teaches us that disaster and disconnection often come out of disobedience. But we also learn of God’s constant desire to lovingly reconnect with us and restore us through our confession and the promise of forgiveness in Christ. Time-honored ways of behaving can keep us connected with God and God’s people. Students will discover how God’s demands and God’s promises are both intended to keep them walking with confidence and hope through difficult and confusing days. God’s will for us always longs for reconciliation and return.
Welcome and Review
Help kids dive into the Key Words by asking for definitions and/or providing these definitions:
EXILE: removal from one’s homeland for an extended period of time. God’s people were in exile for more than 50 years.
BABYLON: a city in the area now known as Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. King Nebuchadnezzar exiled several thousand of God’s people from their homes in Jerusalem to Babylon from 597 to 539 B.C.E
JERUSALEM: the home of God’s people and the city where they returned after the Exile.
FAITHFULNESS: the demonstration of loyalty or allegiance. God remained faithful to God’s people, even while they were exiled in Babylon. God’s people also demonstrated their faithfulness to God during this time.
PROPHET: a person who is called by God to preach and speak fearlessly for God.
Choose one of the following three options to introduce the lesson. Then lead students in the Opening Prayer.
Option 1: Music Option: The Times They Are A-Changin’
Play the song “The Times They Are A-Changin'” by Bob Dylan (from The Times They Are A-Changin’, Sony BMG Music Entertainment). Please preview this content to determine its appropriateness for your setting.
In today’s stories of exile and return, we learn that God’s people were struggling to define who they were in the midst of changing times. They had just come back from exile and were rebuilding the temple. But what was their identity apart from the temple? Times were continuously changing. Even today, we struggle with these same questions of identity. This song by Bob Dylan challenges every person to wrestle with these questions and become part of the conversation.
Debrief the song with these questions.
• What do you think are the biggest recent changes in our world?
• What do you think are the biggest recent changes in your life?
For this prayer, have students spread out in “exile” at the outer edges of your gathering space. Tell them that they’ll move in a few steps after each prayer response so that everyone has returned by the time you say, “Amen.” Teach the response to the group: “Thank you for your presence.” Then pray together.
LEADER: God, you have promised to never abandon us.
GROUP: Thank you for your presence.
LEADER: God, you led your people out of captivity in Babylon.
GROUP: Thank you for your presence.
LEADER: God, you rebuilt the temple and established your law.
GROUP: Thank you for your presence.
LEADER: God, you continue to reform your church in new and exciting ways.
GROUP: Thank you for your presence.
LEADER: God, you speak to us today and always.
GROUP: Thank you for your presence.
My Faith Story
Ask kids to respond to the Big Question: How can I be sure that God is really with me?
Then share a part of your own faith story using the suggestion below or another way to share about exile and returning to God.
Use a personal story about a time in your life when you felt as if you were in your own type of “exile.” This could be a time when you felt alone or when it felt as though God was a million miles away. Share with the group how God’s promises of unfailing love, constant presence, and mercy saw you through that difficult time.
Open the Bible
Make sure each student has a Bible. Have students turn in their Bibles to Ezekiel 5:5–8. Ask someone to read these verses aloud while the class reads along silently. Point out that even though we don’t like to think of God as angry and destructive, the prophet Ezekiel spends a lot of time portraying God as instrumental in the destruction of, as well as the redeeming of, Jerusalem. Do you ever find yourself blaming God when things don’t go your way?
Now have students turn to Ezekiel 36:22–32. Explain that these verses were written to offer comfort to God’s people, who had been taken captive and had seen their homeland destroyed. Indicate that this event was called the Babylonian exile and it lasted from 597 to 539 B.C.E. On a whiteboard or chart paper, make a list of things from this passage that prove that God remained faithful to God’s people. Do you think these things are important for us to know about God today? Why or why not?
Read about the end of the Babylonian captivity in Ezra 1:1–11. King Cyrus defeated Babylon and established the Persian Empire. He allowed the exiles (Jews) to return to their homeland. As a group, reread verse 1 together. How does this verse show that God was behind the return?
Have students turn to Nehemiah 2:17. Ask everyone to read this verse aloud together. Here we gain additional insight as to why rebuilding the temple was so important. Additionally, we learn that Nehemiah is concerned with restoring not only the temple but also the entire city of Jerusalem. The “disgrace” he refers to comes from the belief that God’s people were exiled because they turned away from God. Nehemiah knows that rebuilding Jerusalem will restore power to the people of God. Nehemiah’s enemies tried to keep him from succeeding. What tricks did the enemies use? See Nehemiah 4:1–23 and Nehemiah 6:1–13.
Have students turn to Ezra 7:10. Ask the class to read this verse aloud. Ezra, a priest, felt that it was not only important to restore Jerusalem in the physical sense but in the spiritual sense as well. Studying and keeping the law was a major concern for Ezra. Ezra focused on studying and teaching the law in this “new” community. The people not only returned to their homeland, but also to their faith, and Ezra wanted to help renew their faith and their mission in the world.
Open the Catechism
On the board or chart paper, write the phrase “confession is good for the soul” and ask students for explanations. Explore how confession reconnects broken relationships. The exile was a time when the sins of Israel separated them from God and from each other. Of the 12 tribes, only one, the tribe Judah (whom we call “the Jews” today), returned from captivity to rebuild their city, their temple and—most importantly—their relationship with God and one another.
Student Book page 306: Read together “What is Confession?” Because we sin daily, every day we experience mini-exiles in which we find ourselves separated from those we love. But because of God’s forgiveness in Christ, we can also enjoy many happy returns from our daily exiles. Talk about the importance of and difference between public and private confession.
1. In the Babylonian exile, God’s people were taken from their land and held captive in the city of . . .
d. Babylon. (Correct)
2. The ancient city of Babylon is currently found in modern-day . . .
b. Iraq. (Correct)
3. When someone is in exile, he or she is . . .
a. held captive against his or her will.
b. usually unhappy.
c. fearful of what will happen to him or her.
d. all of the above. (Correct)
4. The time in exile for God’s people was more than . . .
a. 100 years.
b. 500 years.
c. 50 years. (Correct)
d. 150 days.
5. Ezekiel’s images of God included . . .
a. a God filled with anger.
b. a God of judgment.
c. a God of faithfulness.
d. all of the above. (Correct)
6. An important thing to remember about the exile is . . .
a. God was always with God’s people. (Correct)
b. God stopped loving God’s people because they were mean.
c. God makes bad things happen to us so we will love God more.
d. Babylon isn’t such a bad place to live.
7. A prophet is someone who . . .
a. works for the Internal Revenue Service.
b. ignores God and does what he or she wants.
c. proclaims a message from God. (Correct)
d. none of the above.
8. The prophet Zechariah called the people to . . .
a. learn a new dance move.
c. return to God.
d. both b and c. (Correct)
Take a Break
Take a break and have your group celebrate the end of long journeys. For today’s snack, provide trail mix. Point out that we eat trail mix when we’re on the move. The Israelites had to travel a long distance from exile in Babylon to return in Jerusalem. They had a plan and pack for a really long journey.
Select one of the options below to explore in your small group. Then finish with the Best/Worst activity and prayer.
Option 1: Science Option: The Impossible Egg
Before the lesson, assemble the supplies, read through the experiment, and do a trial run.
Prepare the following supplies:
Glass bottle, such as a baby bottle
Several hard-boiled eggs, shells removed, that are slightly larger than the mouth of the bottle
Matches or a lighter
Several 5″ (13 cm) squares of paper
Ask a volunteer to wipe the mouth of the bottle using some oil on a paper towel. Have another person accordion-fold a square of paper. Light the paper with a match and drop it into the bottom of the bottle. (Before lighting candles, check your local fire codes and your congregation’s fire policies regarding the use of open flame.) Have a student immediately place an egg in the mouth of the bottle. Watch what happens.
Getting from one place to another can be pretty hard. Sometimes it may seem impossible! That was true of God’s people in Babylonian exile. They thought they’d never be able to return home. But God shows us love and power in ways that bless the faithful. This bottle represents Jerusalem—the home of God’s Old Testament people. The egg represents the people themselves. What seems to be the problem? It probably seemed impossible to them that God could deliver them from exile, but the Lord can work wonders to move us to where we should be.
If you want to unpack this object lesson a little more with students, explain that Jerusalem literally means “foundation of peace.” God wants to move us to places of joy and peace. Ask students if they are feeling like exiles in any way. Stressed out? Ready to crack up? How does God move us from here to there? Does it seem impossible? What made the egg move? Oil? The Bible says that God’s grace is like oil (Psalm 23:5–6). What does the flame do (Matthew 3:11, 2 Timothy 1:6–7)? In what ways does God draw us close?
Option 2: Music Option: “On the Willows”
Play the song “On the Willows” from the musical Godspell. Please preview this content to determine its appropriateness for your setting.
Have students turn to Psalm 137:1–6 in their Bibles. Ask the class to read these verses aloud together. These same words are used in the song. Point out verse 4, which represents a great struggle for God’s people who were captive in Babylon. Prior to the exile, God’s people felt that they could only worship God in their land. They had to develop new understandings of worship and adjust some of their customs so they could continue to be God’s people in a different place. How would you worship God if you didn’t have a Bible, couldn’t go to church, or didn’t have any hymnals or songbooks?
Option 3: Art Option: Set in Stone
Brainstorm words and short phrases about what it means to truly return to God. Examples: Speak Truth, Judge Justly, Keep Promises, Don’t Plot Evil, Love Peace, and Welcome Everyone. Pass out smooth flat stones and permanent markers to kids. Kids can write messages on the stones with the markers and carry the stones in pockets or backpacks. If you don’t have stones available, have kids write their message on a piece of duct tape and stick it to the bottom of a shoe so they travel with this message.
Best/Worst and Prayer
Go around the group and have each student share the best and worst thing from his or her week. Remind them to pay special attention to (for example) the person on their right, as they will be praying for that person in a moment. Alternate prayer partners from week to week.
For this prayer, use washable markers and hand wipes. Ask students to think about a way they have been separated from God. Have them write it on their hand with washable marker. Explain that in the prayer, they will pass a hand wipe to their prayer partner so each of them can wash off their words of separation.
Dear God, you have followed your Old Testament people into places of despair. You have used prophets, priests, and leaders to support your people through the worst of times. Be with us during our worst of times. Give us comfort. Help us to know that you are with us even when things seem hopeless. Enable us to take comfort in your presence with us when everything seems hopeless. (Give kids time to pass hand wipes to their prayer partners.) Thank you for giving us hope. Amen.
Pass out pencils and Student Sheets. Look at the front of the Student Sheet together. Pick a volunteer to read each bullet point aloud for the group. Talk about the points with students.
• What is the most important point on this list that you want to take to heart?
• What kinds of exiles do people find themselves in today?
• What does this lesson teach us about returning to God?
Turn to this week’s activity called “Exile and Return Word Search.” Let your kids pair up to work through the activity page together. After a few minutes, discuss the answers as a group.
Use the cartoon and questions on the Student Sheet to kick off a conversation.
• What other sorts of exile do we face today?
Remind students of what they heard during the teaching time, how every time we break God’s rules is like a mini-exile. Discuss how our sins separate us from God and one another.]
• In what ways has God provided “inxile” (opposite of exile) for you? Based on the cartoon, create a definition of “inxile” that reflects what you’ve learned today.
This cartoon is a pun on exhaling and inhaling. Have students hold their breath for as long as they can. Make a competition out of it. Ask why holding our breath is like being in exile—the trapped air and lack of oxygen is stifling! In what ways is exhaling the old and inhaling new air like confession and repentance?
• Read Zechariah 1:1–6. What do you think God meant with the words in verse 3, “Return to me . . . and I will return to you.” How does Zechariah 8:14–23 describe ways we can “return” to God today?
Pair up students and have them write as many examples of people returning to God on the back of this sheet as they can? Compare lists. Then talk about how many of those things still relate to our lives as Christ followers today.
Student Book Connection
Student Book page 46: Read together “Ten Important Things that Happened Between the Old and New Testaments.” How is this a reminder of today’s lesson? Use points 1–3 in this article to review the lesson. Go on though the rest of the points to talk about how important these 400 years were in getting the world ready for Jesus. If time permits, pass out colored pencils and paper and invite students to create a timeline of this period with pictures instead of words.
Student Book page 242: Read together “How to Receive God’s Grace Daily.” It was very difficult for the exiles to live in Babylon. Many thought that God had abandoned them. The prophets taught that this experience was intended to return their hearts back to the Lord. Ask students why it may be hard to receive God’s grace when we feel hopeless or separated from God.
Talk about last week’s Life Connection. Ask your group what they did this week to live out last week’s lesson. What did they learn? What might they do in the future to keep living out that Life Connection?
Identify someone this coming week you think is in some kind of exile. Pass out sticky notes and ask kids to write this person’s name on one and place it somewhere in their Bibles. Like the prophets of old, their challenge is to be the voice of God’s hope. Brainstorm ideas for bringing hope to someone. Encourage your group to complete this week’s life connection and report back next time you gather.
Kids this age have lots of questions about right and wrong, stories in the Bible, and faith and life. Provide time for them to ask questions. Remember, there isn’t always a right answer, but encouraging discussion is great! Questions help kids explore their faith. Help them explore on their path to confirmation.
After their questions, ask one or more of the following questions to connect your conversations with the Lesson Focus:
• In what ways has God been faithful to God’s people throughout the ages?
• In what ways have God’s people been faithful to God throughout the ages?
• How can you demonstrate your faithfulness in the way you treat others this week?
Form a close circle together that shows you have “returned.”
Leader: The Lord be with you.
Group: And also with you.
Leader: Let us pray. Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love is supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (From:Lutheran Book of Worship, page 137)
Before students depart, give the following blessing to each one.
Have small groups gather in circles and place their arms around each other. Each person should take a turn to look at the person next to him or her and say, May you always remember that God is faithful to you and loves you very much.