Philip Greenslade bridges the gap between the Old and the New
The exile of Judah to Babylon that began around 606 BC and was sealed by the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC was traumatic.
The human pain of invasion, killing, defeat and deportation were bad enough.
But the larger implications were no less acute.
In humiliating fashion, 'all the tangible marks of empirical Israel vanished' (Bill Dumbrell).
The deep-seated belief in the absolute security of Israel's position, focused towards the end in the over-complacent trust in the 'inviolability of Zion' had been ruthlessly exposed.
The withdrawal of Yahweh's presence, culminating in the heart-breaking news that the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, seemed the end of Israel's distinctive identity as the people of this God, and perhaps even spelled the death of God Himself!
Felt most keenly was the loss of the Land, so long ago promised to the patriarchs and so dearly won. To lose the Land – long regarded as a 'spiritual index of Israel's political health' (Dumbrell) – was to fall under the ultimate curse laid on covenant unfaithfulness by the Deuteronomic charter (Deut 28:63; 29:27–28).
The twin poles around which the whole Old Testament story of Israel revolves are thus Exodus and Exile:
- Exodus from slavery, in Egypt
- Exile to slavery, in Babylon
To come from slavery and to end up back in slavery was painful and ironic, all the more so since Babylon was where Abraham had come from over a millennium before!
The initial reaction naturally enough was an intense outpouring of grief. The exiles 'hung their harps on the willow trees', unable to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, even when urged to do so by their mocking captors (Psalm 137).
The hurt caused by exile is compressed into the aptly-named Book of Lamentations. It has been described as the most tear-stained book in the entire Old Testament, and for good reason.
'Judah has gone into exile … and there is no one to comfort.' This refrain is repeated again and again in the opening chapter, as if the writer is stuck in a deep groove of paralysis and pain.
Jeremiah's message touched several stages. Controversially, he began by advocating that people submit to the Babylonian invasion because he read it (correctly) as the judgment of God on His people.
Later, writing to the exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah urged them not to think about a quick return, but to settle down for the long haul. The prophet advised this approach in a remarkable letter to the exiles (Jeremiah 29).
Here he urged them to face facts without being overwhelmed by them, as if to say, 'You are where you are: bloom where you're planted'.
He encouraged them to make the most of living in exile, to build their homes, raise their families and seek work for their living in ways consistent with faith in Yahweh.
If you seek the peace and prosperity of the city, and indeed if you can bring yourselves to pray for it, then you will prosper too, says the prophet! Trust God for the future.
'"I know the plans I have for you", declares the Lord … "plans to give you hope and a future"'! (Jer 29:11.)
Jeremiah offers hope beyond exile in the wonderful promise of a new covenant in which God would work to change His people from the inside out, so creating a truly faithful covenant community (Jer 31:31).
In fact, this possibility of restoration and salvation even beyond the judgment of exile from the Land had been anticipated by Moses even before the people got into the Land.
Even more remarkably, the saving possibilities Moses envisaged for the future made no mention of the sacrificial system as a means of expunging the sin of Israel's deep-rooted covenant unfaithfulness and disobedience. Instead, Moses hints at an astonishing new kind of covenant arrangement.
In this the command to 'circumcise your hearts' (Deut 10:16) becomes transformed into a promise of what God will do – 'I will circumcise your hearts' (Deut 30:6).
It was this seed that came to flower in Jeremiah's vision.
It was Ezekiel, himself a deportee to Babylon, who added a further impetus to the hopes of the exiles.
He describes to them a vision he has seen on the banks of the canal in Babylon in which the glory of God appears swirling in on Yaweh's mobile chariot-throne. God is not dead but alive. God is not absent but gloriously with us even here in Exile, the prophet is able to tell the exiled community.
Later Ezekiel prophesies about the radical work God will do to restore and save his people. He will act by his creative Spirit to change the hard, rebellious hearts of his people into soft, responsive hearts, so making them into a New Covenant people.
He will put the Spirit of life into his 'dead' people in what amounts to an act of 'resurrection' (Ezek 36–37).
The prophets of the Exile took seriously the fact that not only the people but the kings had failed. With the demise of Israel's last king at the hands of the Babylonians, hopes began to be raised that a new kind of kingship would emerge.
Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel looked forward to the day when God's New Covenant people would be ruled by God's new Davidic king, the ideal Messianic ruler (Jer 23; Ezek 34).
To Ezekiel it is unclear whether God will send a Davidic prince or come in person to do the job of bringing His kingdom in.
The prophet Isaiah gathers up all these various strands into a wonderful message of good news (Isa 40:9). God will come in person to take up His rightful place as king once again (Isa 40:3ff; 52:7).
God will lead His people out of slavery to sin, eclipsing the deliverance from Egypt (Isa 43–44).
God will do this through the obedient suffering and sacrificial death of a mysterious Servant-King (Isa 42–53).
Eventually, the salvation God has in mind will be tantamount to a renewal of all His created works (Isa 65–66).
The prophetic sequence of salvation then looks like this:
New Exodus > New Covenant > New Kingship > New Creation
This is the theological sequence – it can be argued – which the New Testament apostles worked to in unfolding the implications of the Gospel of Jesus.
Paul certainly is shadowing this scheme of salvation: for example, in 2 Corinthians chs 1–6 and in Romans 8.
Let's look at how this might work out.
The return from exile in Babylon to Jesus's entry into Jerusalem are the two events which frame the chronological readings in Cover to Cover Complete. These two events are 500 years apart. So what on earth connects them? In a nutshell, exile and restoration.
As we saw in Isaiah, for Israel to return to the Land was one thing; to return to the Lord, quite another.
God achieved the first through His unlikely agent, Cyrus, the pagan Medo-Persian conqueror of Babylon whose edict sent the exiles home (2 Chron 36; Ezra 1).
But the second – the restoration of His people to covenant faithfulness – remained a larger need and hope even after the return to the Land began in 520 BC.
In the five hundred years between our two events, a growing number of Jews began to believe that though they were indeed back in the Land, they were in effect still 'in exile'.
This is acknowledged in post-Exilic Scriptures. 'We are slaves … even in the Land' (Ezra 9:9; Neh 9:36).
As Daniel prayed about the 70-year limit on exile promised by Jeremiah, he is told of its extension to 490 years! (Dan 9:24ff).
Later Jewish apocryphal writings preceding the New Testament echo this realisation (eg Baruch ca 150 BC, and the Dead Sea scrolls).
Two things prompted this recognition:
1 – Except for a brief period under the Maccabees, Israel had remained subject to foreign domination, from Persian through Greek to Roman. This suggested that Israel remained under the judgment of God for her sins.
2 – The glorious hopes of restoration and promises of salvation beyond exile, first predicted in Deuteronomy 30:1–8 and amplified in the exilic prophets (eg Jer 31–33; Ezek 34–37; Isa 40–55) – had evidently not yet materialised.
It was one of the claims of the 'Covenanters' at Qumran (who left us the Dead Sea scrolls) that they were at last the long-awaited New Covenant community.
In this sense awareness of the condition of exile persisted in Jewish thinking right up to the time of Jesus.
In the words of leading New Testament scholar N T Wright:
Most Jews of this period … believed that, in all senses which mattered, Israel's exile was still in progress. Although she had come back from Babylon, the glorious message of the prophets remained unfulfilled. Israel still remained in thrall to foreigners; worse, Israel's God had not returned to Zion.
The undiminished reality of exile and the unsatisfied longing for New Covenant restoration thus forms the backdrop to the coming of Jesus and the best window through which to grasp His significance.
Isaiah's long-awaited signal for the end of exile and start of restoration – the 'voice crying in the wilderness' (Isaiah 40) – is linked by all the evangelists with the ministry and message of John the Baptist as he seeks to prepare Israel for the coming of God's kingdom through God's agent, Jesus the Messiah (king).
So Jesus announces the end of exile in the forgiveness of sins and the welcome to outcasts, inviting them to come home to God. He inaugurates the restoration of Israel by appointing the Twelve as his chosen heads of the renewed people of God.
He obliquely refers to Himself as Isaiah's Suffering Servant, the mysterious agent of salvation.
In His final parables, such as that of the Talents, He speaks not so much of His second coming but of His first coming as the arrival of the Lord and Master to call His people to account. Mark 12 makes this explicit.
In the shadow of death, Jesus will inaugurate the New Covenant (promised in Jeremiah) through His own blood and go to the cross to bear the curse (Deut 29:25–28) of exile and judgment in place of God's rebellious people.
It is with this ministry behind Him and this destiny ahead of Him that we see Jesus climbing up to Jerusalem and entering the city.
After all, where else would Israel's King go to be crowned and then rebuild God's Temple? Where else would Israel's God return to in order to re-establish His saving rule? And the 'death' and 'resurrection' of God's people, envisaged by Ezekiel as the means by which ultimate salvation will come, is something Jesus enacts 'solo', not as a mere figure of speech but as a stark reality.
The release of the Spirit at Pentecost as described in Acts 2 is, therefore, to be viewed not so much as the birth of the Church as the renewal of Israel as the New Covenant people of God.
To this forgiven, cleansed, Spirit-filled people – according to the Exilic prophets' perspective – God would rapidly add the Gentiles who repent and believe.