Exile

The exile proves that there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves. All that’s left is to wait for God to keep His promises; wait for the Son of David to come for us. “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel.”

Anson Kroeker on November 4, 2018
Exile
November 4, 2018

Exile

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Passage: 2 Chronicles 36:15-20
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This morning brings us to the final week in this first section of our “You Are Here” series. You’ll remember that this series had three distinct movements, and this first movement is centred in what we call the Old Testament. And that’s what we come to the end of today.

To review, last week talked about the covenant with David, and God’s promise to raise up David’s offspring and establish his kingdom. We saw the connections that link this offspring of David to the offspring promised to Abraham and the offspring promised to Eve, and how the entire storyline of the Bible has built up to this one person who will come and crush the serpent and break the curse and bless the nations and establish the kingdom of God on earth.

And we saw that David had a son, King Solomon, and many of the things God promised seemed to be fulfilled with him. But then our hopes were dashed when we saw Solomon beginning to go after other gods and abandon the one true God.

We read about this downfall in the heart-wrenching words of 1 Kings 11: “And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the LORD commanded.

“Therefore the LORD said to Solomon, ‘Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen’” (1 Kings 11:9–13). 

And after Solomon died, it happened just like God said. Ten of the tribes of Israel rebelled and chose their own king, and the house of David was left as a shell of its former glory, with just Judah and Benjamin and likely Simeon staying loyal to the crown.

And those ten northern tribes that broke away immediately fell into wholesale apostasy. Their king didn’t want people going to worship at Jerusalem, so he set up a couple of golden calves for the people to worship—just like Aaron did at the foot of Mt. Sinai, even repeating the exact same phrase that Aaron spoke: “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28). 

It could not have been more deliberate. It was like they were spitting directly in God’s face. And God would have been just to destroy them right then and there.

But he was patient with Israel. For two hundred years He sent them prophets like Elijah, and he gave them every possible opportunity to turn and repent. But then He finally did what He promised to do, and He gave them what they deserved. The Assyrians invaded the land in 722 B.C., destroying their cities and taking their people into exile.

See, when the Assyrians conquered a land, they essentially tried to erase the identity of the people who had lived there before, to make sure that they would never be able to band together and rebel against them. So they would deport mass amounts of the population out of the land and settle them in other places, and they would take people from other places and settle them in the land instead. Israel wasn’t just conquered by the Assyrians; they essentially ceased to exist as a nation.

In the south, the kingdom of Judah under the house of David did slightly better than the northern kingdom. Many of their kings followed Solomon into rebellion against God, but every once in a while a king would come along who would be more or less faithful to the Lord. And under their leadership the people would serve God again. So they had these short little seasons of faithfulness, but they never lasted for long. The overall picture was bleak.

And so the southern kingdom only survived about 140 years longer than the north before they too eventually received what God promised. In 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came and destroyed Jerusalem. The temple was burned, the city was destroyed, and thousands of the people were taken into exile, just like we read about in 2 Chronicles 36:15-20 at the beginning of the message. That passage reminded us that God had warned the people over and over, but they wouldn’t listen, so they finally received what they had deserved all along.

And so began the exile.


What Was the Exile?

The exile should not be a surprise. It was promised as a part of the covenant curses in Deuteronomy 28. If God’s people Israel broke their covenant with the Lord, He promised them that He would “bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 28:36). 

And further down in the chapter it says, “And the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known” (Deuteronomy 28:64).

So the exile was a part of the covenant curses, but I think it’s easy to see that it was different from all the others. It was the endgame, the capstone. Instead of people coming to them and oppressing them, they were the ones being removed from their land. The land that God had done so much to give them. It was as if God was pressing “undo” on the exodus from Egypt, and sending Israel back to being a people with no land and no leader.

But the worst part of the exile was being away from the presence of God. You’ll remember that God manifested His presence to them in the tabernacle, and later the temple. That was the dwelling place of God where they would go to be near God and worship Him.

You read over and over in the Psalms about the desire to be with God, to be in His presence. And it’s easy for us to forget that most of that is talking about the temple. That’s where God’s presence was at that stage of redemptive history. The people who loved God wanted to be there in that physical location with God.

And so to be ejected from the land was to be cut off from the presence of God. They were back in the place of Adam and Eve, kicked out of Eden and sent east. The exile essentially rolled back all of the ways that God had been working to remove the curse and bring His people back to Himself. All of it, gone.


Promises in the Darkness

But not quite gone. Because as we’ve touched on before, just two chapters after the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 28 came words that spoke of hope and forgiveness and restoration, even from exile. Listen to these words from Deuteronomy 30:1-4:

“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you.”

And as the exile approached and then actually took place, God continued to speak to His people through the prophets, reminding them of these promises, and reminding them that He had not abandoned them. Even in the darkness of exile there was hope.

There is so much that the prophets said in this time, but for our purposes this morning I want to highlight three messages that they brought form God to His people.

1) First, the exile will not be permanent. Many of the message that God sent to His people through the prophets were reminders of His promise to restore them and bring them back from exile and establish them in the land again. He even gave them a timeline. Through the prophet Jeremiah He told them that the exile would only last for 70 years (Jeremiah 29:10). They could almost count it down. They knew that it would end before it even began.

2) Second, the prophets told that the Son of David was still coming. And this was so important, because when Jerusalem was destroyed, it made people ask questions like, what happened to God’s covenant with David? Does an empty throne in Jerusalem mean that God is finished with us? And so through the prophets, God assured His people that He hadn’t forgotten the covenant with David.

Writing around the time of the exile of the northern kingdom, God gave Isaiah those famous words, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6–7). 

A century or so later, with the armies of Babylon surrounding Jerusalem itself, Jeremiah prophesied, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’” (Jeremiah 33:14–16). 

And we could go to so many other places that say the same thing. Right in the midst of the darkness of exile, God was promising to keep His covenant with David. The promised son was still coming.

3) Third, the prophets foretold that a new covenant was coming. And this was also such an important message for them to hear. Because the exile was the final proof that the people could not keep the covenant God had made with them at Mt. Sinai.

And the reason for this wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the covenant. It’s that there was something wrong with them. This is the dynamic that the Apostle Paul explains in Romans chapter 7. And it’s what we’ve seen all along in the series: the problem with the world is us. It’s our sinful hearts. We want the wrong things and love ourselves more than God. Our hearts are desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).

And the covenant God made with Israel, for all its glory, did not cure this problem of our sinful hearts. In fact, by requiring faithfulness and obedience, it really just served to highlight the fundamental problem. It showed us that all of the promises and threats and second chances and 500th chances aren’t enough to change our hearts. We need something more.

And so God promised through the prophets that something more was coming. He was going to establish a new covenant that would finally deal with this problem.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, writing in the shadow of the Babylonian invasion, these incredible words came:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31–34). 

We could spend a whole morning on this passage, but do you hear the big idea here? A new covenant is coming, and it will finally deal with our sinful hearts. It’s not going to get broken like the old covenant. God is going to ensure that this covenant is kept.

And He’s going to do that by putting His law on our hearts. So we’re going to obey Him from the inside.

And so what that means is that all of the members of this new covenant—from the least to the greatest—will know the Lord. You won’t have this covenant full of people who don’t actually know God, which is what had happened before.

And God promised to forgive His people’s sins and remember them no more.

Similar things were spoken some years after this by the prophet Ezekiel, who was himself one of the exiles, carried away to a far-away land. And from the place of exile itself God spoke through Him and promised, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:24–27).

Those are such important words that we will return to later in this series.


The Return

And so in the darkness of the exile, these promises were there on the books, waiting to be fulfilled. And after seventy years of exile, just like He promised, the Lord began to fulfill some of these promises.

We read about this in the book of Ezra—how the new emperor Cyrus told the Jewish people to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, and even made the nations around them give them materials and supplies so they could do this.

And as we read through Ezra, we see all these amazing things happening: exiles returning to Jerusalem, the temple being rebuilt and dedicated, the priests returning to their service, and the passover being celebrated again. 

Things are finally looking up again. But then we read the pit-in-your-stomach words in Ezra chapter 9: the people are breaking the covenant again. It’s almost unthinkable. Seventy years of wrath and desolation, and then unfathomable grace and mercy as they return and rebuild, and it's still not enough.

And so the book of Ezra ends with the people repenting and coming clean. And then after Ezra comes Nehemiah, which is chronologically the last historical book in the Old Testament. And Nehemiah was used by God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and cause the city to be populated again. And we read about all the people gathering in the rebuilt Jerusalem to dedicate the city to the Lord, and to have His law read and explained to them, and to pray and confess their sins.

They go so far as to draw up an official document in which they pledge themselves to obey the law of God and be faithful to his covenant (Nehemiah 9-10). If all of that happened today, we’d call it a revival.

So then Nehemiah goes back to Persia, because he had a job there. And after a few years, he made another visit to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:6-7). And he found the people obediently following the Lord and keeping the covenant. Right?

Wrong.

Nehemiah chapter 13 is the last recorded history in the Old Testament. And it is gut-wrenching. Nehemiah comes back and finds that the sworn enemies of Israel had moved in to the temple itself. The people had stopped giving to the priests like God had commanded, and so the Levites had to abandon the temple and go work in the fields just to survive. People were working on the sabbath in direct disobedience to the law, and many—including the High Priest's own grandson— were once again disobeying God by intermarrying with the pagans around them.

And one last time again Nehemiah cleans house. And then the book ends. 

Now Nehemiah is the last book of history in the Old Testament. If you turn to the actual last book in the Old Testament, you’ll find the book of Malachi. Malachi was a prophet whom God raised up at the time of Nehemiah to support his reforms. 

And so Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament, was prophesying at the time of Nehemiah. And it shouldn’t surprise us that Malachi did not have a very warm and fuzzy message. Malachi is the final warning that if things do not change, then irreversible judgment is coming.

We read these words in Malachi chapter 4, the last prophecy of this last prophet:

“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. 

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:1–6). 

And that's it. The book is closed. God has spoken, giving one last final warning. And then, heaven was silent. Years stretched into decades which stretched into centuries, and God said nothing.


400 Years of Silence

History tells us that a lot of important things happened in these so-called four hundred years of silence. As Malachi was speaking in Jerusalem, a philosopher by the name of Socrates was doing his thing in the halls of Athens. His student Plato passed on his teaching to another guy named Aristotle, who became the personal tutor to a man we know as Alexander the great. And one hundred years after Malachi’s time, Alexander the Great began to conquer the known world.

So the city of Jerusalem in the tiny province of Judea now became a part of the Greek empire. And after Alexander died, his empire was divided up into four, and Jerusalem eventually found itself under the control of a king named Antiochus. He was vicious with the Jews, and did everything he could to force them to stop practicing their religion and to worship the Greek gods instead. He even sacrificed a pig on the altar in Jerusalem to stop them from using the temple.

But there was a revolt. The Maccabean revolt—you may have heard of it. It’s what’s celebrated at Hanukkah. And in 160 BC, after seven years of fighting, the Jews finally won their freedom. For the first time since being conquered by Babylon almost 400 years before, they were free to rule themselves and worship God as they chose. 

But you probably won’t be surprised to hear that things did not go well. The Jewish rulers became increasingly seduced by Greek culture and religion, and over the next decades they became more and more corrupt and even pagan.

And in 63 BC, two brothers were fighting over the office of High Priest, which had become a very politically powerful position. And this fight actually turned into a literal civil war. Just think about that—fighting and killing over who gets to intercede before God for the people’s sin.

But it’s what happened next that is the most staggering. Both brothers turned to the new world superpower—the Romans—and asked for the Romans to come and settle this dispute. I remember learning this for the first time, and almost being unable to believe that the Romans didn’t just choose to invade and conquer the land. They came by invitation.

And so those decades before the birth of John the Baptist, the people of Israel once again found themselves oppressed by a foreign power. And it was their own fault.


Conclusion

The reason I took this time to give this history lesson is to demonstrate a really important point: Israel never really came back from the exile.

Yes, many of them physically came back from Babylon. But Babylon was still in them. In other words, their hearts were still far from God. So even when they were free, they really weren’t. Their hearts still hadn’t been changed. They might have returned from physical exile, but they were still in spiritual exile.

And so what could they do now? Nothing. Except wait. Wait, in the words of Luke 2:25, for the consolation of Israel. And hope against hope that God had not just finally forgotten about them and left them there for good. Hope against hope for the promises to finally be fulfilled. For the Son of David to finally come.

And that’s where we end this morning.

I know this is not a typical place to end a message, but I’m doing this intentionally. Because I want us to feel it. I want us to feel the waiting, the longing, the hoping. I want us to feel how desperately the people needed a saviour, and how bleak and hopeless everything would be had God not stepped in to keep His promises.

Because this is not just about them—it’s about us. We need to remember how desperately we need a saviour, even today.  We need to feel just how much at God’s mercy we are. How helpless we are apart from His initiative and grace.

And I also want us to remember how much of this world is still living in that place of desperate lostness. We are surrounded by people who are without hope because they are without God. And it’s good for us to be reminded of what that feels like.

Now if you are here this morning and you don’t know how this ends, you don’t know who this saviour is that I’m referring to, please don’t leave today without talking to me or someone else here about this. You need to know who this is.

But for those of you here do know who this saviour is, I’m inviting you this morning and even into this week to taste again how badly you need a saviour.

We’re going to end this morning by singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” These words were written about Israel in exile. And yet they were written for all of us. We are all hopeless apart from Emmanuel, God with us. We so needed Him to come and we so need Him to be with us today. And it’s good for us to remember that this week.

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