The Story of Israel
TIME OF EXILE
The rise of Babylon and the fall of Judah
In 612 BC the Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell to the Babylonian armies. The Assyrian empire struggled on for the next few years until 605 when they were decisively defeated at the battle of Carchemish, along with their Egyptian allies. The new power in the middle east was now Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar. He made Babylon one of the greatest cities in history. Nebuchadnezzar constructed the Hanging Gardens, a pleasure palace with terraces of trees and plants, for his homesick wife who came from the mountains. These were later named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Below is a modern recreation of the famous Ishtar Gates of Babylon, showing some of the splendor of the city.
The last two chapters of 2 Kings tell the story of the fall of Judah to Babylon. Judah was invaded at least three times. In 605 many of the people were taken back to Babylon, including Daniel (whom we will read about shortly). In 597 Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, took king Jehoiachin captive, and raided the temple of most of its treasures. Some believe that the Ark of the Covenant vanished during this time (it is never mentioned again in the OT). The prophet Ezekiel was taken to Babylon as well. Finally, in 587 the puppet king that Babylon had set on the throne rebelled, and Nebuchadnezzar returned to finish the job once and for all. He made the king watch as his sons were killed, then they put out his eyes and took him into slavery. They set fire to the temple, the royal palace, and all Jerusalem, tearing down the walls (2 Kings 25:1-10). Many people fled to Egypt, including the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 39-44).
During this time the Babylonians also destroyed many of the surrounding cities. “A new city of Lachish had risen on the ruins of the city destroyed by [the Assyrian ruler] Sennacherib. In the gate house of the rebuilt city, the famous Lachish Letters were found. These letters consist of the correspondence between the commander of the city of Lachish and an unidentified Judean outpost at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judah in 587 BCE. As the Babylonian army advanced through the region towards Lachish, the unknown commander of the outpost wrote to his superior at Lachish that ‘we are watching for the signals of Lachish, according to all the indications which my lord gave, for we cannot see [the signal fire of] Azekah.’ This simple account by a minor officer to his superior confirms the biblical account of Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion. Jeremiah records that Azekah and Lachish were the last cities to fall to the Babylonians before they lay siege to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 34:7).” http://www.bibarch.com/ArchaeologicalSites/Lachish.htm
God’s people have in some sense always been exiles. “When God desires to purify or prepare his people, he displaces them in some way. Abraham and his descendants wandered as aliens in Canaan (Genesis 23:4; Hebrews 11:13). Subsequent generations lived in Egypt, first as guests and then as oppressed slave laborers. After their liberation from Egypt they spent forty years in the wilderness. Even after Israel began to dwell in the land of promise, the wise recognized that they remained aliens in a sense because God is the true owner of the land. ‘We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors’ (1 Chron. 29:15). Now Israel lives in exile, first under the Babylonians and then under the Persian empire. … In light of the prominence Scripture attaches to this alien/exile status, it should not be surprising that the New Testament applies the same outlook to the Christian (Phil 3:20; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11)” (Briley). The lesson for us seems that God never wants us to become too comfortable in this world, reminding us that it is not our final home.
Read Jeremiah 1:9-10, 3:6-18
God determined Jeremiah would be his spokesman before his birth. Starting in the time of Josiah, Jeremiah warned the people of Judah of the impending crisis, pointing to the example of Israel over a century before. Israel was an adulteress, forsaking her true husband (the word is literally “baal” but here it refers to God as lord). However, the people of Judah were no better in their faithlessness. They rejected Jeremiah’s message. Josiah’s son, king Jehoiachim, threw Jeremiah’s scroll in the fire when he read it (Jer. 36). Later Jeremiah was falsely accused and thrown in a pit filled with mud.
Read Jeremiah 7:1-15
God told the prophet to warn the people that they should not place their trust in the temple. Jeremiah told them that their rituals of worship meant nothing to God if they did not repent of their sins and obey His commands. “Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house which bears my Name and say, ‘We are safe’ –safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house which bears my Name become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord” (9-11). Too many people today believe that simply going to church will keep them in a right relationship with God, while they continue to live self-centered lives, not caring for others and the higher goals of God’s kingdom. Jeremiah’s message rings true today as well.
Read Jeremiah 20:7-18
Jeremiah complained about his duty as a bearer of bad news. He felt that God had tricked him. However, he also felt compelled to speak the words of the Lord. His emotions swing back and forth, from praising God to cursing the day he was born.
Read Jeremiah 23:5-8; 25:11; 29:10-14; 31:31-34
Jeremiah told the people that the exile was God’s punishment for their many sins. However, Jeremiah’s message was not all gloom and doom. He also delivered a word of hope. God promised to bring his people back. The exile would last 70 years, then Judah would be allowed to return to the land. God would forgive them, provide a new king like David, a “branch” off the original root of Jesse. He would establish a new covenant with his people and write his laws on their hearts (31:31).
In the NT, Jesus at the last supper declares that this new covenant would be fulfilled through his death: “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). We now can have a new relationship with God because of Christ.
Jer. 29:11 has become a popular slogan among many Christians today: “‘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.'” Believers often interpret this verse to be a promise to them personally that God will bless them with a prosperous life. However, this is another example of misreading one verse by ignoring its original context. This text refers specifically to God’s promise to the nation of Israel to bring them back from captivity.
We must be cautious of the tendency to read every passage of scripture thinking, “What does this verse mean for me personally?” This practice derives from our culture’s excessive focus on individuality. The culture of ancient Israel placed more emphasis on the larger social unit: family, tribe, nation. Notice that in this passage God’s promise was made to the nation, not to each individual Jew, as most of those taken away by the Babylonians died in foreign lands before the 70 years were up. Earlier in ch. 29 God tells them to build houses and have families in Babylon because they would be there for several generations. The promise that the nation would return to their land was not fulfilled for every individual, nor was the promise of prosperity since there continued to be poor people in Israel. During his ministry Jesus often spoke about the poor and needy.
Jeremiah also wrote the book of Lamentations. I encourage you to read this very inspirational short sermon (2 pages) by J. P. Conway about the hope we can have during times of trouble.
Read Daniel 1-3, 5-6
Daniel was one of the Israelites taken into captivity during the early stages of the Babylonian campaign, about 605 BC. These stories record the remarkable faith that he and his companions demonstrated during this difficult time. In these circumstances, most people would assume that God had abandoned them, but Daniel remained loyal to his God.
His first test concerns eating food forbidden to the Jews by OT laws. Daniel and his friends keep the dietary laws and remain healthier than the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar is impressed and places them in his service. (The tablet on the left is one of the records of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign.)
Next, in a scene similar to Joseph explaining the dreams of Pharaoh in Genesis, Daniel interprets the king’s strange dream of a statue made of different metals. This prophecy tells of four kingdoms. Gold stands for Babylon, silver represents the Medes, bronze the Persians, and iron the rule of Alexander the Great who spread Greek culture throughout the middle east in the 4th century BC. However, these powerful world empires eventually would fall, giving way to an everlasting kingdom, represented by the rock cut, not by human hands, from the mountain. Most Christians believe that this symbolizes the kingdom established by Christ, a spiritual empire rather than worldly, which will last forever. In ch. 7 (which you don’t have to read) there is another vision of four beasts which represent these same four kingdoms.
Note: some readers of Daniel claim that Rome is the fourth kingdom to be destroyed, but this doesn’t make sense. First, the Roman empire lasted over 400 years after the coming of God’s kingdom in the work of Christ. Second, Christianity did not cause the demise of Rome; in its last 150 years Christianity was the official religion of the empire.
Although the king appears to acknowledge God as the true lord of all (2:47), he continues his pagan ways by constructing a huge golden idol in the next story. Think about it: how do we, like Nebuchadnezzar, sometimes outwardly acknowledge God but then pursue our own “idols” today?
Ch. 3 tells a remarkable tale of faithfulness. Daniel’s three friends face the temptation of following the king’s orders to worship an idol. When they refuse, they are placed at the door to a blazing furnace. Notice what they say to the king in vs. 16-18. They profess that God is able to deliver them from the flames, a strong statement of faith in God’s power. But I believe what follows shows an even more amazing faith. They say, “Even if He does not, we will not worship another god.” Many believers in Christian times have become martyrs for their faith, holding the hope of life everlasting. However, in the Old Testament there is little clear teaching about an afterlife. Unlike in the New Testament, there are few passages in the Old Testament which talk of resurrection or going to heaven after this life. As far as we can tell, these three men had no hope of a better life to come. Nevertheless, they chose to obey God simply because He is God. They did not say, “If God helps us, we will obey.” Instead, they did what was right because it was right, not because of hope of any reward or compensation in this life or the next. To me this is one of the most impressive examples of faith in the Bible.
One further note on this story: in v.25 the guards mention that they see a fourth figure who looks like a son of the gods. Some Christians will teach that this was Jesus protecting them, but that reads too much into the text. The text in v. 28 says that this was an angel.
Ch. 5: After Nebuchadnezzar died in 562, he was succeeded by Nabonidus according to Babylonian records. Those same records (now in the British Museum) describe Belshazzar as the crown prince who acted as king in his father’s absence. (In 5:11, when the text calls Nebuchadnezzar his father, this actually means his royal predecessor, not his parent. Nabonidus was not related to the earlier king.) The Babylonians had raided the temple in Jerusalem and used the gold cups in their pagan feast. But these sacrilegious festivities would not last long. The finger of God writes a message of doom for Babylon, which Daniel interprets. That very night in 539 BC, the Persian armies snuck into the city and overthrew the empire of Babylon, as recorded in the Greek histories of Herodotus and Xenophon.
Finally, we come to the most famous of stories about Daniel in the lions’ den. The text mentions Darius as the ruler of Persia, but we know from other sources and other books in the OT that Cyrus was the Persian emperor at this time; see 6:28. One of my former Bible professors at Lipscomb believed that Darius might have been another name for Cyrus (as rulers often were known by many names); another idea is that Darius is the regional governor under Cyrus at this time.
Psalm 137 was written during the period in exile. It speaks movingly of the people’s despair and loss:
By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs.
Our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Read Isaiah 41:8-10; 42:1-7, 17-25; 49:5-6; 53:1-12
The Servant of God in Isaiah
The first 39 chapters of Isaiah occur during the 8th century BC, before and after the Assyrian conquest of northern Israel (see unit 4a). Beginning with ch. 40, the setting jumps ahead to the 6th century during the midst of the Babylonian exile of Judah. For this reason most OT scholars believe that the second part of this book was written by another author, referred to as 2nd Isaiah (this question of authorship poses no serious problems for those who believe that all the Bible was ultimately inspired by God).
In this second part of Isaiah, the prophecies shift from warnings of coming judgment to offering hope for the future when God still has plans for His people. In 41:8-10 God calls Israel and Jacob (Judah) – both parts of the nation – His servant whom He has chosen and has not rejected despite their sins which led them into exile. In ch. 42 God promises to provide the servant with His Spirit and help him establish justice on earth, becoming a light for the Gentiles, demonstrating that God’s plans always included more than just the Jews. Unfortunately, God describes this servant-nation as blind and deaf because of the people’s idolatry, and for this reason God allowed them to become the loot of the Babylonians.
Because of Israel’s failure to fulfill its task, the servant imagery begins to shift from a personification of the nation to an actual individual. In ch. 49 the servant now works on behalf of Israel to bring God’s salvation both to the nation and to the ends of the earth. The servant will bring both Jacob (southern Judah) and northern Israel back to God. Sinful Israel cannot save itself but must now rely on God’s servant.
Who is this servant? In Isaiah 53 we read the most complete description of this figure whom Christians have long identified as a prophecy of Jesus (see Acts 8:32-35). Only Jesus, being sinless himself, could bear the sins of the people and by his sacrifice bring us healing. Isaiah presents a startling prophecy of a suffering servant, not the powerful worldly king which the people came to expect. “The intended impact of this developing figure [of the servant] appears to be twofold. First, it reminds Israel of their own sin and failure, requiring outside intervention both to redeem them and to accomplish God’s purpose for them. Second, it balances the triumphal aspects of the typical messianic expectations by valuing the role of sacrificial redemption” (Briley).
RETURN FROM EXILE
God’s punishment of both Israel and Judah by sending them into exile should not be considered malicious or vindictive but as potentially redemptive. The ultimate purpose of divine punishment was to bring the people back to a faithful relationship with God. His intentions always included the offer to return to Him.
Note: during these 70 years, not all Jews were in exile. Some were allowed to remain in the land. Some of these Jews married Gentiles, which was the beginning of the Samaritan people. As we see in the Gospels, many Jews hated the Samaritans, considering them “half-breeds.”
Read Ezra 1:1-8; ch. 3
The Persian ruler Cyrus had a different policy from that of the Babylonians. When they conquered lands, they sought to gain the people’s loyalty by allowing them to return to their original places. The first of the Jews began to return to Canaan in 536 BC. Their leader Zerubbabel and the priest Jeshua (Joshua) began the long task of rebuilding the temple which the Babylonians had leveled to the ground. The temple was completed in 516 BC, 70 years after it was destroyed just as Jeremiah had prophesied.
Ezra, a priest of the tribe of Levi, led another return in 457 BC. His contemporary Nehemiah began rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem around 445. Both these leaders (as recorded in the books named for them) must deal with the more important spiritual restoration of the people. Many of them have returned to the practice of marrying pagans living in Canaan which in turn leads to the temptation of idolatry. Some of the returning exiles were taking advantage of their struggling fellow Jews and charging high interest on loans, then confiscating land or even selling into slavery those who could not pay. Nehemiah accused them of escaping slavery in exile only to return to their land to sell their own kinsmen. The people were neglecting the Levites who were supposed to receive support so they could devote themselves to temple work, and some people were starting to conduct business on the Sabbath. Sadly, no sooner had God returned his people to their land did they begin to fall back into their old sinful ways.
Around the time of Jesus, Herod the Great made massive improvements to the temple and the temple mount, making it one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, but the Romans destroyed this temple in 70 AD. Below you can see a model of what this second temple might have looked like in Jesus’ day (Israel Museum).
Read Isaiah 45:1-4
God calls the Persian king Cyrus, “my messiah.” The term in Hebrew means “anointed one,” and is used for a king, high priest, or anyone whom God chooses for a special task. (In the OT “messiah” does not refer to Jesus.) In conquering Babylon and allowing the Jews to return home, Cyrus did not know that he was being used by God for His higher purposes (“though you do not acknowledge Me”). As we have seen in the lives of Jacob, Samson, David, and Jehu, God often uses those who are not perfect examples of faith and obedience.
In 539 BC, Persian troops entered the city of Babylon without meeting resistance by diverting the Euphrates river and walking in the river bed under the city walls (recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus). Cyrus himself entered the city, assuming the titles of “king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four corners of the world.” The Cyrus Cylinder was placed under the walls of Babylon as a foundation deposit, following a long Babylonian tradition.
The Cyrus Cylinder (now in the British Museum) has been described as the world’s first charter of human rights, predating the Magna Carta by more than one millennium. Passages in the text have been interpreted as expressing Cyrus’ respect for humanity, and as promoting a form of religious tolerance and freedom. The Bible records that some Jews returned to their homeland from Babylon, where they had been settled by Nebuchadnezzar, to rebuild the temple following an edict from Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-4).
The Persian empire reached its height under the reign of Darius I (522-486) — not to be confused with Darius the Mede in the book of Daniel. The famous Behistun inscription in Iran was engraved on a cliff about 100 meters off the ground. Darius tells us how the Persian god Ahura Mazda (seen above them riding the winged disk) chose him to dethrone the usurper Gaumâta (522 BCE) who had claimed to be the son of Cyrus. The text, written in three languages, allowed archaeologists in the 19th century to decipher ancient Persian, Babylonian, and Elamitic. Ironically, some earlier observers had thought the sculpture, difficult to see from the ground, depicted Christ and the apostles.
Lessons from the Exile:
“Why me, Lord?” We have all asked this question in times of trouble. The answer may be found in a passage from Malachi 3:3, where God is pictured as sitting over a refiner’s fire making silver: “And He shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering of righteousness.” A woman read this verse and was curious enough to seek out a silversmith to ask his opinion. She found him sitting before a crucible, gazing intently into a boiling pot. She asked, “Do you have to sit here all day or just come back when it’s finished?” He replied, “I have to keep an eye on it. If it gets too hot, the silver is damaged. I know the process of purifying is complete when I see my own image reflected in the silver.” God uses the fires of trouble to make us in His image.
“The Bible insists that though the fall has created a broken world, God’s sovereignty takes every expression of sin and brokenness and molds it to His plan and purpose. … God is not responsible for evil. Yet He has chosen to tolerate its existence as He unfolds His plan of reconciliation. … God’s goodness and power are [seen] not by His negating all daily sin, oppression, and tragedy, but in moving a fallen world toward reconciliation and the consummation of His plan. … How then do we as Christians respond to the horrific events and personal tragedies that happen around us? First, we should not jump to the conclusion that tragedy is punishment from God. That is only one of several possibilities. Instead, we should be prepared to testify to our confidence in God’s ability to weave tragedy into His plan and purpose. … People always want to know ‘why.’ We cannot tell them what God is doing or why the tragedies have occurred. We can tell them who God is and what He is like” (John Walton, Old Testament Today, 2004, 220).
In the NT the apostle Paul who was well acquainted with suffering writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). The old King James version incorrectly says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God,” but this is a mistranslation based on a less reliable manuscript tradition. It’s undeniable that in this life all things do not always work together for our good. We see this even in the Bible with its record of martyrs like Stephen and James. Sometimes faithful believers suffer great tragedies without God rescuing them. But as the modern translation correctly says, in every event, no matter how terrible, God is working toward the good, even if we may not see the results until the life to come. At the end of Romans 8, Paul concludes, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
AFTER THE OLD TESTAMENT
The historical record of the Old Testament ends after the 5th century BC. Jewish writings outside the Bible fill in some of the events which happened between this time and the coming of Christ.
In world history, the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great in 333 BC. After his death, the empire was divided among his generals. From that time, the Jews were caught between struggling factions, with Syria in the north and Egypt in the south.
In the 2nd century a Syrian king, Antiochus IV, tried to wipe out Judaism as a religion. He prohibited circumcision and desecrated the temple in 167 BC by sacrificing a pig (an unclean animal) on the altar. The people, led by the family called Maccabees (meaning “hammer”), rose up in civil war and defeated him. The cleansing of the temple by the Maccabees is still celebrated today at Hanukkah. These events are described in the second half of the book of Daniel and are recorded in the historical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, included in some Bibles in a section called the Apocrypha.
The Jews were able to rule themselves for about 100 years, until the Roman general Pompey conquered the land in 66 BC. In New Testament times, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
The Jewish people did not govern this land again for over 2000 years until the modern nation of Israel was formed in 1948 after the Second World War.
Many conservative Christians have been taught that this event was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and a sign of the End-times. However, this interpretation does not fit the facts. Modern Israel is predominantly secular. The majority of Israelis today describe themselves in surveys as non-religious, some even calling themselves atheists. This is not the spiritual restoration of a faithful nation which the prophets foresaw. That event was fulfilled in the establishment of God’s new people, the church, which includes those Jews who originally made up the early church after Pentecost and all messianic Jews who believe that Jesus is the Christ.