When the Lord says to His people, "Return to Me that I may return to you" (Zech. 1:3; Mal. 3:7), He is issuing to them both a command and a promise.
The command "Return to me" does not end in the return of the exiled Israelites in Palestine or in Jerusalem. For truly though many have returned to Israel yet they have never *returned* to God. In fact many have reverted back to their old idolatrous practices. Their disobedience made the Lord all the more angry at them.
To return to the Lord carries the idea of true repentance from sin. To return to the God our Creator and Redeemer is a solemn resolve to be loyal to the Lord again, forsaking idols and other objects of love and worship. To return to the Lord is to love Him above all else obeying His commands.
Israel, however, resorted to the old pattern of living demonstrated before the exile. Their heart was not changed by the exile. Their depravity still clings at the very core of their being.
Yes, they were troubled and opposed by their Samaritan neighbors making their life more challenging and hard. However, they ought not use the hostility and persecution of these neighbors as their excuse for their disloyalty to God.
Thus upon return from the exile, the people of God built their own homes while the temple of the Lord remained unfinished (see Haggai's prophecy). They continued to offer sacrifices but they offered that which is not according to the law of God (Mal. 1).
The Israelites have priests and Levites also, but these temple ministers likewise desecrated the worship of God (Mal. 2). Many of them married those who were not from the covenant community, even their priests (Ezra 9). And some who married in the covenant eventually divorced their wives (Mal. 2).
God was also angry at them for robbing Him with their tithes and offerings (Mal. 3). Additionally, the people of God oppressed their fellow Israelites and took advantage of them during the time of Nehemiah (cf. Mal. 3:5).
All these prove that Israelites in general have not *returned* to the Lord even though they were back in their land. That's why the Lord has not *returned* to them also in the sense that they really haven't tasted all the covenant blessings that the Lord has promised them.
They may have labored and toiled and became prosperous but they were not truly filled and satisfied. They may have gone through the motion of temple sacrifice but their hearts were far from the Lord.
Through the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, God continued to speak to His people to return to Him, to repent from their sin, to look to Him in humility, that He may come to them like a father to his children and like a husband to his wife.
The Lord is truly gracious that He will not let His people stay in their sin and wickedness. He told them to send another prophet who will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, one who will turn their children's hearts back to their fathers (Mal. 4:5-6).
God did send His last prophet, the One who spoke His words to His people and purified their hearts from sin with His precious blood (Heb. 1:1-3). He did give them a new heart but sin still lives in them that they have to fight against still.
In Zechariah 12, God has said He will restore the fortunes of His people. He promised protection and safety for them from their enemies. He also prophesied salvation and purification and forgiveness from their sin. The fulfillment of this prophecy is in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God has filled His people with grace when, through His Son, He poured His Spirit and filled them with His power making them witnesses of Christ's saving work throughout the whole world. God's mercy has triumphed over judgment upon His people fulfilling His promise.
But God is not yet finished returning to His people. And there are some who are still in *exile*. God shall bring them also in. He will surely do what He said: complete renewal of creation and full salvation for all His people at the return of His Son who will change them and glorify them by the Spirit's power.