(If you’re just joining us, you’ll need to start with Part One for the series to make sense.)
Yesterday, we arrived at the point in the story in which “Plan B” (God’s people with a human king) had failed. Unjust and idolatrous Israel had been exiled to Babylon – away from the land, away from the presence of God, and under foreign rule. How were they going to fulfil their calling to be God’s image-bearers to the world?
But God’s people hadn’t given up hope. In Deuteronomy, God promised them that if they repented while in exile, he would gather them back. In Isaiah, they were told that this return from exile would be a time of healing, peace, justice, and self-rule. In Ezekiel, they were promised a new heart – the indwelling Spirit of God – who would enable them, finally, to live as God’s image-bearers under his rule. But when would all this happen? That’s what we’re asking today.
(And if you’re a long-time Christian who’s heard this big story many times before, today is where you might find a new detail in the plan that often gets overlooked.)
The return from exile: when will it happen?
The question gets a reasonably straightforward answer from the prophet Jeremiah. (At least, straightforward for an Old Testament prophet.)Jer 29:10-15 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
OK, so we have a timeline. 70 years. The exile was in 587BC, so we’re looking at around 517BC. And although the first wave of exiles did start to trickle back in the 530s, a larger grouping did return in 520-515 under the governor Zerubbabel, and laid the foundations for a new temple. So the chronology works out.
But were all of the expectations from Isaiah and Ezekiel fulfilled? Hardly. They were still under foreign rule, there was still plenty of sickness and death, the people were poor, and there was a distinct lack of peace. (If you can imagine the ancient world as a giant football field with Egypt at one end, and Mesopotamia at the other, Judah was unfortunately situated right on the halfway line. So during the regular battles between empires, Judah was regularly trampled by one army or another on their way through.)
A second return: after seventy sevens
So what did God’s people do? After 70 years or so, did they conclude that God had forgotten them. (Or that he’d over-promised and under-delivered?) No. The Jewish writings after the exile still looked forward in hope to a day when these promises would be properly fulfilled. For example:Hag 6:6-9 “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”
“In a little while.” Thanks for that. Can you be more specific?
Well, yes. In the vision of Daniel. Daniel was given the vision in the 6th century BC while still in Babylon, but the book of Daniel most likely dates to the 2nd century BC, when the Jews are again being brutally oppressed by a foreign nation. And this vision seems to be responding to the problem of the “Little Return From Exile That Couldn’t.”Dan 9:1-3 In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom— 2 in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the LORD given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. 3 So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.
Hey God. What about that whole 70 years thing? Time’s up. What’s going on? God replies:Dan 9:24 “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.
We’ve had ten “sevens” so far. And that’s the first instalment of God’s restoration. But there are still seventy “sevens” to go before the promises are fully met. (Approximately 70 x 7 = 490 years. Leviticus 25 prescribed that every seven sevens – rounded to 50 years – there was a year of Jubilee, when debts would be cancelled and the land wasn’t farmed, allowing it to be rejuvenated. Here, the return from exile will be a “jubilee of jubilees.”) There is a double-return from exile, in which they’d first be back in the land, but still have to wait until the full return with all of the blessings that entailed.
But when would this second phase happen? Where are we right now? There seems to be a word in the next few verses for those living early in the 2nd century BC:Dan 9:25-27 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”
After sixty two “sevens” (about 434 years, but let’s assume we’re dealing in approximate numbers) there will be a ruler who destroys the city and the sanctuary, setting up “an abomination that causes desolation.” This fits with the events around 168BC where Antiochus IV invaded Jerusalem and desecrated the temple by (among other things) sacrificing pigs on the altar, sparking the Maccabean revolution.
In other words, by 168BC it’s not long (another seven “sevens”) until the full return from exile. Indeed, this is how Jewish writers at the time* interpreted Antiochus’s invasion – as a sign that the exile was soon to end:2 Maccabees 2:18 We have hope in God that he will soon have mercy on us and will gather us from everywhere under heaven into his holy place, for he has rescued us from great evils and has purified the place. Tobit 14:5-7 But God will again have mercy on them, and God will bring them back into the land of Israel; and they will rebuild the temple of God, but not like the first one until the period when the times of fulfilment shall come. After this they all will return from their exile and will rebuild Jerusalem in splendour; and in it the temple of God will be rebuilt… They will all abandon their idols… All the Israelites who are saved in those days and are truly mindful of God will be gathered together; they will go to Jerusalem and live in safety for ever in the land of Abraham, and it will be given over to them.
Not long now!
So you can see that by the time of Jesus, the expectation that God would soon act to end his people’s exile (by abolishing foreign rule and bringing peace, prosperity, and justice) had reached fever pitch. From reading Jeremiah, and Daniel, and recent history, the Jews had concluded that the seventy “sevens” were just about complete. (We can’t be too precise, as numbers in the Bible are often symbolic and approximate.) God will act soon!
But how will he act? This is the question we look at tomorrow.
* These writings are found in what are called the “Apocrypha.” If you have a Roman Catholic Bible you’ll find them there. Although Protestants don’t view these as inspired Scripture, they are a helpful window on Jewish thought in the centuries leading up to Jesus. The two books of Maccabees are important history, filling in the gaps of Israel’s history between Nehemiah and Jesus. And many of the other books help us understand Israel’s mindset – how she understood (or misunderstood) the prophecies of the return from exile and the coming Messiah.