Someone in the church observed that after two of the six sessions of “Bible Basics” we had only made it as far as Exodus 20, and that I was going to have to speed things up to cover it all in just four more weeks!
Thankfully, my intention in the Bible Basics class is not to survey everything but to give the big picture. A lot of our energy had to be focused on those initial stories of God’s intentions for his world as our Creator and on the gathering of a people to bring God’s blessing and salvation to the world.
In last Sunday’s session, “Failure and Longing: Kingdom and Exile,” we covered a lot of ground (sort of!) by thinking in broad strokes about these two important strands of Old Testament material. Yes, we’re skipping a lot (everything from mid-Exodus to Judges and Ruth is being left out), but we’re trying to understand what occupies the center as we read with our eyes on the coming Jesus.
The Kingdom of Israel
In 1 Samuel we read that Israel asked their leader, Samuel, for a king so they could be “like all the other nations.” Thomas Torrance points out that the people of Israel weren’t happy being God’s laos (special people) or God’s kleros (inheritance), but wanted above all to be ethnos (a nation like all the non-Israelite nations). In other words, they wanted to reject what made them special and be like everyone else. What that meant in practical terms was that they wanted to have a king ruling over them whom they could see, not a God they couldn’t see. God warned them that it would not turn out well (1 Samuel 8:11-18); kings usually wind up looking out for themselves first of all, and Israel’s king would be no different.
The first king, Saul, was outwardly impressive: handsome and tall. He seemed like a good choice to be king. He would be a strong leader. But he became proud and his reign was a disaster.
In response, God decided to provide Israel with a king who was outwardly much less impressive: David, the youngest boy among several brothers, “the family runt.” Just as God had earlier chosen Abraham, a man from idolatrous country in the east, Joseph, nearly the youngest in his family, and Moses the hot-tempered murderer, to fulfill God’s purposes, so here he again chooses those who are “weak” to overcome the “strong” and to show that the only power that really matters comes from the Lord himself.
As the generations followed after David, most of Israel’s kings did not follow in the ways of the Lord. More often than not they continued to fulfill the warning that God had issued at first about what the king would be like: selfish and power-hungry. Within two generations of David, in fact, the kingdom was split in two: the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah, still based in Jerusalem. Most of the time, both kingdoms were mired in disobedience to God: they were stuck in idolatry (sinning against God by putting other things/gods ahead of him) and/or injustice (sinning against other people).
Their failure to fulfill the Law in this basic way (think “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbour as yourself”!) led to their punishment/correction by means of the exile. Nations from the east, powerful empires, came in and took over God’s people in their own land. Most of the key people in the communities were carried away captive, first the northern kingdom, carried away to Assyria in 721 BC, and later the southern kingdom, which was captured in 587 BC.
The experience of exile was disastrous: God’s people were separated from their home and their place of worship (which was also the place of the presence of God). Their devastation can be seen, for example, in the sad and ultimately horrifying Psalm 137. The prophets told them this life was a result of their sin. They were called to turn back to God. But now they had to come to grips with how to be faithful to God in a foreign land.
Special Note on the Literature of Exile
The literature of exile can be very instructive for us as Christians. The apostle Peter especially teaches us about this: in 1 Peter, he addresses his letter to the “exiles,” his term for Christians, who are called to work out their faithful obedience in hostile territory. For them it was Rome. For us it is modern secular society. We are here as citizens whose allegiance is to another homeland: God’s kingdom.” Christians are not first of all Canadians, Americans, Brits, Germans, Russians, Nigerians, Kenyans, or Australians… we are a special community in Christ called to be a light to the people around us. A book like Daniel (chapters 1-6), written all about living in exile, is extremely helpful for working this out, as is 1 Peter.
Hope for the end of Exile
In time, the prophets brought words of hope to exiled Israel. Ezekiel saw a vision of a valley filled with dry bones, completely lifeless (Ezekiel 37). The bones were without hope, just like Israel itself. But God’s Spirit breathed life into the bones, and they came to life. So too, Israel would be brought to life again, would be forgiven for their sins, and would return home. Isaiah 40 tells the joyous news of the return from exile and the announcement that Israel’s God really is king.
But even when God’s people returned home, something seemed unfulfilled. The rebuilt temple did not reflect the glory of the first temple. The people struggled to find their identity. They still were under the thumb of oppressive rulers. Was it possible the exile wasn’t really over? Perhaps they had not yet seen the fulfillment of Isaiah’s great words of good news:
A voice of one calling, “In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord…”