The unraveling of Israel...and God's compassion.
Last week, we studied the Fear of God, which was a topic that came up as fundamental to the books of wisdom, and ultimately the whole Bible from beginning to end. So, we went from looking at the kings of Israel in the books of Kings and Chronicles, eventually ending up with Solomon, which led us to the wisdom books, which led us to the Fear of God.
Today, we are going to kind of backtrack to where we left off before going down that tangential path, to return to the “main road” so to speak, and resume our journey through the main narrative of the Old Testament. And at this point we are getting to really the final major time period of Israel’s history (in the OT), which we refer to as The Exile. This was a critical, landmark period.
Note: The word “Exile” should not be confused with the word “Exodus” which describes Israel’s escape from Egypt. These are two totally separate concepts and events (though…they are somewhat related, but everything in the bible is, isn’t it!).
Exodus = Escape from Egypt
Exile = Getting kicked out of home
Can you think of any exiles in the OT prior to Solomon’s reign?
The word “Exile” can also be used to refer to other events, like Adam & Eve getting kicked out of the garden. But from a historical standpoint, Israel’s definitive “exilic period” occurred after the various kings described in the books of Kings and Chronicles, around 597 BC.
A LOT of literature was produced during this time (over ~200ish years total)—including a large portion of our scripture, but also non-scriptural commentary & narratives. These writings shed a lot of light on what Israel went through, how God was working, and what he was teaching them. It also makes abundantly clear what Israel’s hopes and dreams were for the future.
Various prophets & other notable figures and stories show up before, during, and after the exile. For example, Jeremiah, Elijah & Elisha, Daniel, Shadrack Meshach and Abednego, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah. This was an extremely formative time period for Israel, and it is full of these big names. We’ll explore some of those people and their stories, and where they fit into the timeline in the coming weeks, but a common factor in all of them is this concept of Exile. So today we’re going to focus on how Israel ended up right in the middle of total exile.
To start with, let us look at what went down after Israel & Judah’s kings went from bad to worse. Remember, the nation of 12 tribes was no longer united, it was split into two separate kingdoms, with essentially 10 tribes in one and 2 in the other. A few weeks ago, we saw how all the kings of each kingdom were listed and categorized as either good or bad, and the vast majority were bad.
Israel drops out of the picture early on, back in chapter 17 of 2 Kings:
2 Kings 17:6–7 (CSB):
6 In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria. He deported the Israelites to Assyria and settled them in Halah, along the Habor (Gozan’s river), and in the cities of the Medes. 7 This disaster happened because the people of Israel sinned against Yahweh their God who had brought them out of the land of Egypt from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt and because they worshiped other gods.
[a bunch more detail about how they sinned]
2 Kings 17:21–23 (CSB):
21 When Yahweh tore Israel from the house of David, Israel made Jeroboam son of Nebat king. Then Jeroboam led Israel away from following Yahweh and caused them to commit immense sin. 22 The Israelites persisted in all the sins that Jeroboam committed and did not turn away from them. 23 Finally, Yahweh removed Israel from his presence just as he had declared through all his servants the prophets. So Israel has been exiled to Assyria from their homeland to this very day.
So as far as the different kings go, the rest of the book is going to focus mainly on Judah. remember that’s where Jerusalem is, which is where Yahweh’s temple is. So, there is maybe some hope here that Judah can be redeemed. And they do hold out longer than Israel, but eventually lose control over time.
Judah had a good king, Josiah, who tried to get the people to turn back to God. But in chapter 23 he is killed rather anticlimactically by Pharaoh Neco, the king of Egypt. That’s, in a way, the beginning of the end, because Egypt was then able to basically strong arm some control over Judah by controlling who was on the throne (all of whom were evil in Yahweh’s sight), and by taxing the people heavily.
While they still nominally had a king and kingdom, in reality this is feeling more like they’ve downgraded all the way back to the way things were before they were rescued from Egypt and brought into their home in the land that was promised to Abraham.
Chapter 23 ends with this somewhat boilerplate description of Jehoiakim, which is similar to that of all the “bad” kings preceding him (which was most of them) and the few that came after him:
2 Kings 23:36–37 (CSB):
36 Jehoiakim was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Zebidah daughter of Pedaiah; she was from Rumah. 37 He did what was evil in Yahweh’s sight just as his ancestors had done.
And then in Chapter 24 things get even worse:
2 Kings 24:1–7 (CSB):
1 During Jehoiakim’s reign, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon attacked. Jehoiakim became his vassal for three years, and then he turned and rebelled against him. 2 Yahweh sent Chaldean, Aramean, Moabite, and Ammonite raiders against Jehoiakim. He sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of Yahweh he had spoken through his servants the prophets. 3 Indeed, this happened to Judah at Yahweh’s command to remove them from his presence. It was because of the sins of Manasseh, according to all he had done, 4 and also because of all the innocent blood he had shed. He had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and Yahweh was not willing to forgive. 5 The rest of the events of Jehoiakim’s reign, along with all his accomplishments, are written in the Historical Record of Judah’s Kings. 6 Jehoiakim rested with his fathers, and his son Jehoiachin became king in his place. 7 Now the king of Egypt did not march out of his land again, for the king of Babylon took everything that had belonged to the king of Egypt, from the Brook of Egypt to the Euphrates River.
So now even Egypt has no use for Judah because they have been so totally ransacked. Notice that statement in verse 4, that Yahweh was not willing to forgive. That is a bleak, depressing thought, is it not? Does that not seem to go against God’s nature? We will come back to that.
Let us skip to verse 10 and continue reading:
2 Kings 24:10–20 (CSB):
10 At that time the servants of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched up to Jerusalem, and the city came under siege. 11 King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it. 12 King Jehoiachin of Judah, along with his mother, his servants, his commanders, and his officials, surrendered to the king of Babylon. So the king of Babylon took him captive in the eighth year of his reign. 13 He also carried off from there all the treasures of Yahweh’s temple and the treasures of the king’s palace, and he cut into pieces all the gold articles that King Solomon of Israel had made for Yahweh’s sanctuary, just as Yahweh had predicted. 14 He deported all Jerusalem and all the commanders and all the best soldiers—ten thousand captives including all the craftsmen and metalsmiths. Except for the poorest people of the land, no one remained. 15 Nebuchadnezzar deported Jehoiachin to Babylon. He took the king’s mother, the king’s wives, his officials, and the leading men of the land into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 16 The king of Babylon brought captive into Babylon all seven thousand of the best soldiers and one thousand craftsmen and metalsmiths—all strong and fit for war. 17 And the king of Babylon made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in his place and changed his name to Zedekiah. 18 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hamutal daughter of Jeremiah; she was from Libnah. 19 Zedekiah did what was evil in Yahweh’s sight just as Jehoiakim had done. 20 Because of Yahweh’s anger, it came to the point in Jerusalem and Judah that he finally banished them from his presence. Then Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.
NOTE: another topic you can trace, especially since the giving of the Mosaic laws, is ”just as Yahweh has predicted”.
There are at least two major things to notice here. First, this mass deportation. This is really the culmination of exile. It is not just about losing control of the kingdom at this point, now they are physically banished, kicked out, exiled. Now, all the strongest, brightest and best, the lifeblood of Jerusalem and Judah, are forced to leave their homes and go to this foreign, unfamiliar land to be ruled and subjugated by a foreign king.
The second thing that really stands out in this passage is in verse 20. The statement that it came to the point in Jerusalem and Judah that he finally banished them from his presence. That is like the ultimate statement of finality when it comes to God’s judgement, and it echoes the almost identical statement that was made about Israel back in chapter 17:23. Remember, God’s presence is the greatest gift, the greatest blessing, at the core of God’s promise to Abraham, Moses, and David. It is what was lost in Eden and restored in Jerusalem but now it has been totally ripped away, ushering in a very dark period in Israel’s history.
The book of Lamentations was written during the exile. Just look at it if you want a sobering reflection on how painful and tragic this was for the Jews.
2 Kings 24:20 ended with this statement that Zedekiah “rebelled against the king of Babylon.” Well, we will not read through all the details of what happened, but suffice it to say that, without Yahweh on their side, it did not go well for Judah. Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem, Zedekiah sons are slaughtered in front of him, he is captured and blinded, and brought to Babylon in chains, utterly humiliated.
After that, Jerusalem was destroyed, including the temple, which was plundered of all its riches and glory. Chapter 25 is essentially an obituary for Jerusalem and the temple.
If you take a step back for a minute, you can see this whole playing out of events as a systematic unraveling of Israel as a nation.
First, the tribes were split up and the larger chunk was dispersed. So, you see the undoing of the twelve original tribes, which came from the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel. The reason Israel’s descendants became such a great nation is because they prospered in Egypt after reuniting as a family under Joseph’s leadership. As a united family over generations they grew strong and numerous. Leading up to the exile, we can see that unity dissolving.
And while Egypt, back in Joseph’s day, started off as a source of salvation for Israel, they eventually were enslaved and oppressed by Egypt, until God rescued and them and brought them back home to the land promised to Abraham, Israel’s grandpa. So, Judah, the remnant of the nation, being subjugated to Egypt is like a terrible case of déjà vu and a major step backwards in their development.
The thread keeps on pulling. They were kicked out of their land completely, and into Babylon, which is like the hotspot of rebellion against God (remember the story of the tower of Babylon). The city was founded by people who wanted to rival God, and it was out of those people that God called Abraham to a different land, to begin the roots of a nation that would grow and prosper in the presence of God and bless the whole earth.
With Solomon, they were at their peak since humanity was originally exiled from the garden of Eden. The temple in Jerusalem symbolized a return to Eden and a return of God’s presence the way it was with Adam and Eve. But then they just slowly unraveled to where they were barely even recognizable or existent as a nation, and they are all the way back to where they started, figuratively and literally, outside the garden. Banished from God’s presence.
Now, before we move on let us compare how these events are described in Chronicles, versus Kings which we just read. As is typical, and as we have seen in the last few weeks, Chronicles offers much less detail, but comes with some helpful perspectives that I think are afforded by hindsight.
Towards the end of 2 Chronicles, we find a retelling of a lot of the same stuff…Josiah, then Pharaoh Neco and Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar and Zedekiah.
And then we get to this little summary towards the very end, in Chapter 36. It tells about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, but with a preceding caveat, and an interesting footnote at the end. Let us read through this passage, beginning in verse 15:
2 Chronicles 36:15–21 (CSB):
15 But Yahweh, the God of their ancestors sent word against them by the hand of his messengers, sending them time and time again, for he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they kept ridiculing God’s messengers, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until Yahweh’s wrath was so stirred up against his people that there was no remedy. 17 So he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their fit young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary. He had no pity on young men or young women, elderly or aged; he handed them all over to him. 18 He took everything to Babylon—all the articles of God’s temple, large and small, the treasures of Yahweh’s temple, and the treasures of the king and his officials. 19 Then the Chaldeans burned God’s temple. They tore down Jerusalem’s wall, burned all its palaces, and destroyed all its valuable articles. 20 He deported those who escaped from the sword to Babylon, and they became servants to him and his sons until the rise of the Persian kingdom. 21 This fulfilled the word of Yahweh through Jeremiah, and the land enjoyed its Sabbath rest all the days of the desolation until seventy years were fulfilled.
BOOKMARK: you really should bookmark this passage! In it you have a summary of Jeremiah, Elijah & Elisha, Ezra, Nehemiah - they are all alluded to here. We will probably refer to this passage to provide an outline for the rest of our time in the OT.
So, again, it is a similar description of what happened, but notice how it begins a reminder of how they got there. King’s had this statement that God refused to forgive Israel, and this passage makes a similar statement by saying there was “no remedy” for God’s wrath. But just before that, it is qualified by first pointing out how many times God tried to offer mercy, “time and time again, for he had compassion.” So, this is characterizing God not as cruel, unforgiving, or with any lack of patience, rather as compassionate, merciful, and just. Ultimately his actions were necessary in order to fulfill the promise he made about what would happen when they turned away from them.
The other statement of interest here is at the end. Verse 21 says that this fulfilled the word of Yahweh through Jeremiah, and that the land enjoyed its Sabbath rest. The land enjoyed this? What on earth does that mean? Well, it’s really two statements here, isn’t it?
First, Jeremiah was exactly one of those pre-exile messengers mentioned in verse 15. He warned about everything happening exactly the way it did.
Jeremiah 25:11 (CSB):
11 This whole land will become a desolate ruin, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.
But notice there is an end date to this scheduled event: it says this will last for 70 years, so there is hope! In fact, we find a very famous verse of hope a few chapters later:
Jeremiah 29:10–11 (CSB):
10 For this is what Yahweh says: “When seventy years for Babylon are complete, I will attend to you and will confirm my promise concerning you to restore you to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you”—this is Yahweh’s declaration— “plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.
Verse 11 gets quoted out of context a lot, its original intent was to provide hope to the Jews during the exile. But there is a lot of hope offered in Jeremiah, as much as there is promise of punishment and destruction, it shows God’s character of mercy, love, and of wanting to provide hope even for obstinate and rebellious people. God’s goal has always been of reconciliation and redemption, along with justice and peace, which can only be accomplished his way.
So, the Exile was part of God’s plan for redeeming the people, but also the land itself! What does it mean that the land enjoyed its sabbath?
This goes all the way back to Leviticus and how the people were supposed to take care of the land when they got there:
Leviticus 25:4 (CSB):
4 But there will be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land in the seventh year, a Sabbath to Yahweh: you are not to sow your field or prune your vineyard.
So they were supposed to let it rest every 7 years, but clearly they didn’t, because they totally disregarded Yahweh and his guidelines. Those instructions in Leviticus were provided for them to function as a society, in their relationships with God, with each other, with surrounding nations, and with the land itself.
In the next chapter of Leviticus, we can also see how Chronicles is describing a fulfillment of what God promised would happen if they failed to follow his instructions:
Leviticus 26:33–35 (CSB):
33 But I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw a sword to chase after you. So your land will become desolate, and your cities will become ruins. 34 “Then the land will make up for its Sabbath years during the time it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies. At that time the land will rest and make up for its Sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate, it will have the rest it did not have during your Sabbaths when you lived there.
So, we see God’s purposes in all this, not only to bring his people to repentance, but to redeem the land itself. It is like the land is personified as having been trampled and punished by the evil ways of the people living there, and it is finally getting a chance to breathe and relax and recover. Kind of a cool image, isn’t it!
The very last bit of Chronicles mentions how at the end of 70 years, under the Persian empire the Jews were allowed to return as God promised. However, if when we look at the rest of what was written in the post-exilic period, we will find that this was only a partial, and temporary fulfillment of hope. The people’s hearts remain as corrupt as they were before they left, and their spiritual relationship with God just as broken.
The Old Testament concludes thoroughly unresolved. God’s people are left still longing and looking forward, into the future, for God to send another messenger, another prophet, another king, to restore his people.
Of course, we know that hope is fulfilled in Jesus.
However, it did not look quite the way the Jews were expecting, did it? He did not kick out the Romans and restore Jerusalem to its glory days. But what he did bring was the presence of God, and a path of redemption for all of humanity, not just Israel, to return to our true home, one for which we all long whether or not we realize it.
Colossians 1:13 (CSB): He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.
Jesus took on the consequences of sin so that God’s justice could be satisfied AND his mercy and love given freely to us! But the story is not over yet, and in this age we are in, the world is still corrupted by sin. In this way, we have a taste of home, but we are not quite there yet. Jesus set us on a path to get there, but in the meantime we are sojourners, surrounded by the darkness of Babylon, but called to spread the light so that as many as who receive it can be rescued from darkness and return home.
Philippians 3:20 (CSB): but our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the lord Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 13:14 (CSB): For we do not have an enduring city here; instead, we seek the one to come.
In the book of Revelation, we get a glimpse of what homecoming will look like, and, surprisingly, home comes to us! (John speaking)
Revelation 21:10–11 (CSB): He then carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, 11 arrayed with God’s glory. Her radiance was like a precious jewel, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal.
Revelation 21:22–27 (CSB): I did not see a temple in it, because the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because the glory of God illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never close by day because it will never be night there. 26 They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. 27 Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Revelation 22:12–16 (CSB): “Look, I am coming soon, and my reward is with me to repay each person according to his work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. 14 “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. 16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to attest these things to you for the churches. I am the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
By these words, Jesus reveals himself in no uncertain terms to be the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant to David. When Jesus comes again, it will be to fully bring us home, or rather, home to us.
But as we look forward, we also must live in the present. So, what do we do in the meantime? Well, when Jesus came the first time, it was rather inglorious by human standards. He did not bring back the wealth of Solomon. He did not bring back the conquests of David. He did not bring back the cosmic ferocity of Moses. In that way, he did not look like the king, prophet, or priest the Jews were looking for. But he did look a lot like some of the people living in exile in Babylon.
During their time in exile, the Jews were told to prosper and seek the prosperity of their captors. At the same time, there were moments when they had to be subversive and even defiant in order to follow God. Jesus displayed this same tension; he was not a political revolutionary, but he did non-violently oppose both Jewish and Roman leadership, calling out corruption and idolatry much like the prophets of the Old Testament.
Lord willing, we will explore more of this dynamic in the coming weeks, as we look at some of the specific situations in which the Jews had to navigate this seemingly paradoxical responsibility to each other, their human authorities, and to God. Looking at those people, along with Jesus and his disciples, we can gain some wisdom for living away from home.
For today, I think the big takeaway is how we see God portrayed in the Exile.
On the surface, and without much context, one might believe that God is a cruel punisher of those that disobey him. But the exile does not truly portray God that way. Instead, we see God as: