Return from Exile
I have always found it challenging, to say the least, to get a grip on the Major and the Minor Prophets simply because the material is very complex and there is such a formidable amount of it—the Major Prophets alone being about the same size as the New Testament.
Some years ago, I was helped in this by an approach that I first came across in Tom Wright’s book Jesus and the Victory of God, and since then it has become the template I now always use when reading and teaching these books. His basic idea is the “The Return of Israel from Exile” provides us with a grid for interpreting most of the prophetic books. It does not cover them all, nor does it cover everything they contain, but it does provide an access point that I personally find incredibly helpful in navigating my way through.
The theme of exile in scripture begins, of course, with Adam being cast out of the garden, and as Paul points out in Romans, Adam’s exile was in fact the exile of the whole race. Paradise lost is now the reality that all of us are born into.
However, the rabbis said that, because Adam failed, God started again with Abraham. The covenant with Abraham was to undo what had gone wrong in Genesis 3, so that the original project of creation, set forth in Genesis 1 and 2, could go forward to its climax and consummation. This recovery movement then becomes the theme of salvation history and the core of the biblical narrative.
The exile motif continues in Genesis with Jacob and his family going down to Egypt, and then returning 400 years later, via the Exodus. This was such a pivotal moment in their history that when, years later, Israel comes back from exile in Babylon, they describe it in terms of a second Exodus.
After the Exodus from Egypt, Israel moves into the promised land under Joshua, which is described as the garden of the Lord and the conquest as a symbolically returning to Eden. What did not bear fruit, because of the fall in Genesis 3, is now abundantly fulfilled as Israel inhabits a land flowing with milk and honey. Eventually the three fold segmentation that originally comprised of: one, the garden; two, Eden (the garden was not synonymous with Eden, but according to Genesis, was located in a region called Eden); and three, earth—this three fold segmentation of garden, and earth, is now recovered (at least in microcosm) by the Holy Land, the holy city, and the holy temple.
However the tragedy of Israel is that despite being the vessel that God had raised up to birth the Messiah and heal the wound of the world, they themselves become unfaithful and are eventually cast out into exile, recapitulating the exile of Adam from the garden.
However, the prophets saw this crisis coming and spoke into it repeatedly. Many of their words are, of course, warnings to repent before it is too late. But many also seem to accept the inevitable and speak openly of the coming judgement and eventual exile of the nation. However, in most prophetic books there is a note of hope, and this hope is spoken of as a return from exile into a future with God that would far exceed even the days of David and Solomon.
In summarizing these prophetic promises Tom Wright bundles them under seven categories. There is a mass of prophetic scripture to back each one up but I will only mention a few by way of example.
Returning from exile would mean:
1. Their sins would be forgiven and the covenant would be renewed (Jeremiah 31:33)
2. The temple would be rebuilt and the Shekinah glory restored. (Ezekiel 47)
3. The Spirit would be poured out, not only on Israel, but upon all flesh (Joel 2)
4. The Gentiles would be converted and flow into Jerusalem. (Isaiah 60)
5. God’s enemies would be defeated (Isaiah 27)
6. The resurrection would take place (Isaiah 26; Ezekiel 37; Daniel 12)
7. The creation would be renewed (Isaiah 35, 55, 65)
It might seem strange to us that the resurrection and the renewal of creation are included in this list. But the return from exile was seen as an eschatological event, which becomes important as we move into the New Testament.
As I mentioned, there is a mass of prophetic scripture that could be grouped under each one of these points and my citations are just by way of examples.
As we know, Israel eventually went into exile in 722 and Judah followed in 586 BC. The land was devastated, the temple destroyed, and the northern tribes get assimilated and disappear from history. However, as prophesied by Jeremiah, a remnant eventually returns in 538 with the blessing of Cyrus after Babylon is overthrown by Persia.
But this is where the plot thickens, as not only did most decide not to come back (in our Lord’s day there were twice as many Jews in Babylon as there were in Palestine) but the promises describing the glorious return mentioned above, did not come to pass. It was a geographical return but was not the expected restoration and glory that the prophets had predicted.
1. The covenant was not renewed.
2. A small temple was eventually rebuilt, but there was no ark, no Shekinah glory, and no fire from heaven. In other words, the furniture was in place, but nobody was at home. Which is why Malachi, one of the post-exilic prophets, speaks of “the Lord [one day] suddenly coming to his temple”.
3. The Spirit was not poured out on all flesh.
4. The Gentiles were not being converted and flowing into Jerusalem.
5. God’s enemies were not defeated. Those who returned from exile were now a small province under the thumb of the mighty Persian Empire.
6. The resurrection didn’t take place
7. The creation was not renewed
And in consequence, Israel was thrown into confusion as the prophet’s words spoken before the exile had not come to pass. And for this reason Ezra himself (9:36, 37) said that the exile was not over and said twice that they were still slaves.
In order to identify with their perplexity, it’s important to emphasis that the prophets did not describe the seven characteristics of the return that I spoke of as being fulfilled over the temporal horizon, but within the historical process, not outside of it—they were to be fulfilled in this world, not in a world to come.
And this is why they were bewildered. The promises simply had not been fulfilled. And it is easy to identify with their perplexity as they now had no Davidic king, they only now had a tiny piece of their original land, Samaria was now the capital of the province—not Jerusalem, and the Northern tribes, to whom the promises were also given, had virtually disappeared.
Tom Wright takes this further and says “if you had asked a Jew, even in the days of Jesus, ‘Is the exile over?’ he would emphatically reply, ‘No, in no way’”. The glorious vision of the return, as described the prophets, simply had not taken place. And to prove it, he could simply point to the Roman soldiers outside in the street.
So what the Jews were desperately looking for in the first century was not an easier way to get to heaven but the fulfillment of the prophetic promises that would signal that their exile was over. And this was captured in the phrase, “the redemption of Israel”. So when we move into the infancy narratives in the Gospels, its all the more startling when we read that Anna spoke of the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel (Luke 2:38). She saw in the Spirit that this child would indeed be the one to bring the exile to an end.
Thirty years later, after his baptism, and to everyone’s astonishment, Jesus takes the promises of the return from exile and the inauguration of the kingdom of God and applies them to his own ministry. His proclamation “that the kingdom of God was at hand” would have been understood by the Jews as a statement that the exile was now over.
In his very first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from Isaiah 61, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach good news (euangellion) to the poor and sent me to proclaim release to the captives”, etc., which in its context is a reference to Israel, a nation in the poverty of captivity, coming back from exile. In fact the word “gospel” (euangellion) appears five times in the Septuagint of Isaiah and is always describing the return from exile. And this indeed was the good news that Israel had been looking for since the remnant had returned so many years before.
However, the miracle is of far greater proportions than they had ever envisaged. Now Jesus, as the last Adam, brings back not just Israel and Judah but the whole human race from the far country, back into the inheritance that we all lost through the exile of sin. All that was lost in the exile from Eden is now restored in Christ.
And Tom Wright points out that as we move into the book of Acts we discover that Paul’s shock on the Damascus Road was that he discovered God had done in the middle of time what Paul thought he would do at the end of time. The resurrection had happened—but in one man, Jesus, the representative Israelite. And if this was so, the exile was indeed over, sins could be forgiven, the Spirit could be poured out, and the Gentiles could come in. Paul’s shock was not simply that Jesus of Nazareth was now alive and standing before him, it was that the implications of this meant that God had decisively acted to inaugurate the kingdom and to end the exile.
And the fact that this was indeed true is now vindicated in the church and the personal experience of each believer:
The seven characteristics of the return are realities in our lives.
1. Our sins have been forgiven and the covenant has been renewed
2. The temple has indeed been rebuilt and the Shekinah glory restored. However, this temple is now, not a building, but a people who have become the habitation of God by the Spirit (Eph 2).
3. The Spirit has wonderfully been poured out upon all flesh and we have received the gift of the Spirit.
4. The Gentiles (which includes you and me) are being converted and are metaphorically flowing into Jerusalem.
5. God’s enemies have been defeated, not the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, but the real enemies of humankind, Satan, sin, bondage, oppression, and death itself.
6. The resurrection has taken place, not only for Jesus, but we have also been raised up and seated with him in heavenly places.
7. The creation is being renewed. And this is why Paul says, “that if any man is in Christ he is a new creation”. I am a tiny piece of creation and this little piece has indeed now been made new. It is not yet the consummation of what one day be global and cosmic, but it is the first fruits and the initiation.
Having said all that, it is important to add that the Jews saw the promises of the return as eschatological. Their fulfillment would mean the dawn of the Messianic Age and the inauguration of the kingdom of God.
However, again, much to everyone’s surprise, the eschatological age inaugurated by Jesus did not happen in the expected manner. The Jewish expectation was that the present age would abruptly come to an end and the age to come would be immediately and fully inaugurated.
Instead the New Testament teaches us that the new age (eschatological age) is indeed decisively inaugurated in Jesus, but not yet consummated. As we know, there is an overlap between this age and the age to come. All the features of the kingdom and the return, as we often say, are both “now” and “not yet.” We now live in the “all ready” of Jesus’ resurrection; we also live in the “not yet” of his parousia.
And this why Christianity is technically described as eschatological, God’s future has invaded the present and we now live in the age of fulfillment. We are not, like Israel, waiting for the big thing—the big thing has already happened in incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The kingdom has come, the bell for the final lap of world history has sounded, and the nations are returning from the exile of sin and death.
So the paradigm of the return becomes a very helpful template to use when seeking to interpret the prophetic books and sift through the complex material that they present. But I should also point out that this grid is not just an exegetical tool, but that it also has many important practical applications and I will try and briefly point out a few of them before finishing.
First, as those who are returning from exile in Jesus, we are called to be now what the world is called to be ultimately. For us the return means that the kingdom is already in our midst and we are responsible to demonstrate God’s rule of justice, joy, and peace in our common life together. As a prophetic community we are called to be a sign of the kingdom, and the river of kingdom life must flow richly in our midst before it can flow out from us into the society in which we live.
Second, as those are returning from exile, we must be a people who, instead of just looking “up” (a focus on going to heaven), are a people whose focus is on looking forward. Our focus is not primarily on going to heaven, but rather on seeing God’s purposes achieved in the earth. God’s loyalty to the creation project and his refusal to abandon it means that we must stay engaged in the issues of justice, peacemaking, poverty, ecology, economics, and education—as returning from exile means that every sphere of human life are now being invaded by the life of the kingdom.
Third, our present experience is somewhat like canoeing in the turbulent white water at the confluence of two great rivers. It’s a wild ride. The return form exile is upon us, the age to come is invading this present age, and we know that the new river released at Pentecost will eventually overwhelm the old order. But meanwhile we often come close to capsizing as we paddle through the rapids and negotiate the white water. Living in the overlap of the ages means that we experience both sickness and healing, victory and defeat, conflict and reconciliation, flesh and Spirit, justice and oppression. However in the midst of such turbulence the promise (written by Isaiah and repeated by Matthew) is that “he will not rest until he brings justice to victory”…and this means that the kingdoms of this world will indeed eventually return from their exile, become the kingdoms of our Christ and of his God.
Fourth, return of the remnant as recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah should forewarn us of the type of opposition we will face as we seek to establish the kingdom. Despite having the authority of Cyrus to back them up the opposition at times was overwhelming. And it’s the same for us. We are dislodging the powers of darkness that have been long established in the land and they will not give up without a fight. Roger Forster often said that Jesus never told us how much of the kingdom we can have. He never put a limit on how much of the kingdom we could experience in this present age—not only in the church but also in society at large. But he did bestow on us the Word and the Spirit and now expects us to exercise authority over the Sanbalats and Tobiasis that will come out against us as we seek to reclaim the inheritance that is rightfully ours.
Finally it is important to add that the fulfillment of the promises of the return described by Tom Wright do not exclude the possibility of all Israel being saved as described in Romans 11. The one does not cancel out the other. However, this is, as you know, a long and complex subject and is not central to the argument here.
Tom Wright’s template will not unscramble all the conundrums that we find in the prophetic literature, but he has done us a great service by providing us with a grid that is a good beginning. Understanding the broad contours of the prophetic books is crucial if we are to understand the nature of the kingdom of God and how it can advance to the ends of the earth in the age in which we live.