The book of Ezra begins with King Cyrus of Persia offering Jews the freedom to return to Jerusalem. Ezra 1:5–6 records, “Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.”
So not all the Jews went back home. Some of them took advantage of Cyrus’ decree and left Babylon, while others stayed in Babylon and helped by donating gold, silver, and other resources.
Several factors were involved in the decision to remain in Babylon. Some Jews would have been too old to return. It had been 70 years since the destruction of Jerusalem, and there were many who would have been unable to endure the journey of approximately 900 miles. The same would have been true for families with young children and those who were sick or disabled.
Some of the Jews probably refused to move due to the comforts of Babylon. Many of them had been born in Babylon during the exile, and they knew nothing else. Further, many Jews had attained significant status during the reign of Cyrus. They were comfortable where they were.
Another reason some Jews would not have returned to Jerusalem was a concern for personal safety. The road to Jerusalem and the land of Judea itself were fraught with peril. In fact, Ezra led those with him in a time of prayer and fasting for safety on their journey—a journey considered “fast” because it only took four months (Ezra 8:24–36). Verse 31 notes, “The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way.”
Unfortunately, some Jews were living in disobedience to God at this time. As a result, they would not have sensed the need to return to Jerusalem.
Finally, another reason some of the Jews elected not to return was the amount of work it would take to reestablish the nation there. Jerusalem would have to be rebuilt. It was not an easy challenge to rebuild an entire city, including the city wall.
The Jews who remained in Persia later faced their own troubles, as detailed in the book of Esther. Those who did return to Jerusalem were part of God’s plan to rebuild the city and restart temple worship in fulfillment of God’s promises (Jeremiah 29:10).