Last week we began looking at the question why did Jesus live? (You need to start from the beginning of this series for it all to make sense.) To do this, we’re telling Israel’s story to see where Jesus fits in. So far, God’s original image-bearers have rebelled, but God has acted in mercy to choose for himself a people who will be his image-bearers, showing the world what life is like when lived the way God intended. But God’s people again rejected his “Plan A,” asking for a human king (like everyone else had). So God graciously gave them one, firstly Saul (the typical human king, who was a failure) and then David (a king after God’s own heart). “Plan B” started well, with great ideals (we saw them in Psalm 72), but by the end of Solomon’s reign, things had started to go wrong…
Plan B fails
King Solomon married many foreign wives, which was a common strategy for political security – a foreign power will think twice about attacking you if you’re married to their daughter. But in Solomon’s case it showed that he didn’t quite trust in God to protect Israel. And the foreign wives brought their foreign gods, and ended up leading him astray. The chief image-bearer repeated the mistakes of the past.
Further, Solomon started favouring his own tribe over the others (exempting them from heavy taxation and compulsory military service) – hardly ruling the nation with God’s justice! No longer was Israel the theocracy it was meant to be, but now it was just another state with a human king who’s in it for themselves. (Just like Samuel warned them would happen in 1 Samuel 8.) His son stupidly pursues this policy even further, and the northern tribes end up rebelling – leaving only the tribe of Judah to David’s line.
Not that this goes well for the northern kingdom. They have a series of bad kings, and end up being destroyed by Assyria in 722BC. The southern kingdom has some good kings who turn it around briefly, but in the end God leaves them to the consequences of their rebellion, and they’re exiled to Babylon in 587BC. God’s presence is last spotted by Ezekiel leaving the temple before the Babylonians overrun it, like the last chopper evacuating Saigon. The temple is then destroyed, and the people are in a faraway land.
God’s plan in trouble
It looks like God’s plan is in trouble. God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule? Hah! God’s presence has gone. They’re thousands of miles away. And there’s no king – they’re ruled by foreigners. It can’t be any worse. What will happen to them in Babylon? Will they simply assimilate with the local population, and cease to be the people of God? How can they bless the nations if they barely exist as a people? And what about that promise of a king from David’s line? It looks hopeless.
But Israel didn’t entirely give up hope. They believed God would come through on his promises. The end of Deuteronomy was a key text for them:Deut 28:58, 64 If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the LORD your God— … Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known. Deut 30:1-6 When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, 2 and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. 4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. 6 The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
Right back in Moses’ day, before they entered the promised land, God had told them what would happen. The penalty for rebellion (exile), and the fruit of repentance (restoration). So Israel began the process of repentance, and waited in hope for God’s promised restoration.
The return from exile: what will it look like?
The prophets expanded on this, with visions of a new golden age that would happen when Israel truly repented and returned from exile. This time would be associated with miraculous healings:Isa 35:3-6a Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
And the raising of the dead:Isa 26:1,19 In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah… But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise — let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy — your dew is like the dew of the morning; you will make it fall on the spirits of the dead.
And God’s justice finally coming to those who longed for it:Isa 61:1-4 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.
Further, God would work in the hearts of his people, changing them so that they wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past. This is described as being given a “new heart,” and the Spirit of God within them:Ezek 36:24-28 For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people,and I will be your God.
So to sum up: when God’s people return from exile, it will be a time of healing, peace, self-rule, and justice. And a time in which God’s image-bearers will finally be able to do their job of bearing his image to the world.
To think about
From what you know of Israel’s history after the exile (think Ezra, Nehemiah, up to the time of Jesus), did this happen? If so, when and how?