Getting a Handle on the Old Testament Story (Part 2): The Kingdom of Israel to Exile to Return

King David

King David and the Kingdom of Israel
It is in the book of I Samuel where we find the Hebrews demanding to have a king. YHWH did not want them to have a king like the other nations, because, He warned, kings abuse and oppress their people. YHWH Himself was the king of the Hebrews, and so when they demanded to have a king like the nations, it was seen as a slap in the face to YHWH. Even so, YHWH allowed it, and chose to incorporate the kingship into His covenant. The first king, Saul, was a failure. He failed to obey Samuel the prophet, and was continually ignoring YHWH’s commands. It was the next king, David, that figures so prominently in the history of the Jews.

Many of us now many stories about David: David and Goliath, David’s conflict with Saul, David and Bathsheba, as well as others. But it was the establishment of the Davidic line of kings that plays a central role in the core identity and beliefs of Israel.

  1. David was anointed by Samuel to become king. The Hebrew word Messiah means anointed one.
  2. It was David and his son Solomon who fully conquered the Promised Land. This was thus seen as a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, and also Moses.
  3. It was David who wanted to build a Temple for YHWH, as a place where YHWH could dwell among His people, much like He did with the Tabernacle during the Exodus. It was his son Solomon who actually built the Temple.
Solomon’s Temple

All three of these things can be seen in II Samuel 7. It lies at the heart of Jewish belief concerning the Davidic king/the Messiah, the Temple of YHWH, and YHWH’s covenant with Israel. What we see in this passage is that it was David who wanted to build a Temple for YHWH, but that YHWH did not seem to want one. Nevertheless, YHWH promises to make a “house” for David. He declares that the “offspring” of David will build a house for YHWH, that YHWH will be a father to him, and he will be a son to YHWH, that YHWH will punish him when he does wrong, but that He will never take away His steadfast love (i.e. hesed) from him, and that David’s throne would be established forever. This might seem a bit ambiguous, and indeed it is. Nevertheless, it was taken to mean that Solomon would build the Temple, and that YHWH would establish the throne of David forever.

Still, when one looks back at God’s covenant with Abraham, one might wonder, “How are the nations of the earth going to be blessed through Israel?” The idea seemed to be this:

  • Israel would be a light to the Gentiles through their covenant with YHWH.
  • Their king would be YHWH’s chosen ruler, and would in a sense be “YHWH’s son” who would rule righteously, who would look after the widows and orphans.
  • The people themselves would keep YHWH’s covenant, worship YHWH in the Temple, make YHWH’s land fertile and prosperous.
  • In doing this, the nation of Israel would be a true reflection to the Gentiles of the image of God, and the Gentile nations would then come to Jerusalem to worship the one true God, YHWH.

There was only one problem: the kings and people of Israel! II Samuel shows David to be a deeply flawed king; I Kings shows Solomon to be a conniving and oppressive king who sowed the seeds of civil war between Israel and Judah; and the rest of I and II Kings tells of the rest of the kings of Israel and Judah, most of whom were miserable failures. Despite certain good kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, the history of the kings of Israel and Judah is marked by idol worship, immorality, and bloodshed.

YHWH would raise up prophets to warn the kings and people of Israel and Judah that they were breaking the covenant with YHWH and that YHWH would punish them, yet most of the time they refused to listen to the prophets. The northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 721 BC, and the southern kingdom of Judah held on until 587 BC, when it was conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It was 587 BC, when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, that marked the complete and utter destruction of the nation of Judah and the people of YHWH. It was the Babylonian Exile that changed everything.

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” –Psalm 137

The Babylonian Exile
With the Babylonian Exile, the Jews essentially found themselves back where they began, captives in a foreign country. They were once slaves in Egypt, and now they were exiles in Babylon. The entire covenant of Abraham seemed to be gone, the curses in the covenant of Moses had happened, and now promises God had made to Abraham and Moses seemed would never come true:

  1. They were no longer a national people because their nation was destroyed
  2. They had been taken out of the Promised Land, the tangible symbol of YHWH’s salvation
  3. Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH, where YHWH dwelt among His people, was destroyed, therefore He must not be with them anymore
  4. There was no longer any Davidic king.
  5. No King, no Temple, no Land = no People of God.

Because of their unfaithfulness to YHWH and His covenant, the united kingdom of Israel had been torn apart, the northern kingdom had been destroyed in 721 BC, and the southern kingdom had been destroyed in 587 BC—there was no more nation of Israel, no more people of God. Consider this section from the book of Lamentations, which is a lament over the destruction of the kingdom of Judah:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. (Lamentations 1:1-3)

By reading these verses, one can feel the heartbreak of a people who have lost everything. The people of Judah are in exile, forced to live among the pagan nations, and Jerusalem, the holy city, is destroyed. YHWH has become an enemy to Judah, He has destroyed the Temple, abolished Jewish customs, and has rejected the Jewish kingship and the priesthood. Surprisingly though, the exiles found that YHWH had not completely deserted them. Even before the Exile, through prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, YHWH said that although He would judge their sinfulness, that He would save a faithful remnant. And in the Exile, in books like Daniel, Esther and Ezekiel, they find that YHWH is with the exiled Jews, even in Babylon. For the faithful Jews like Daniel who refuse to bow down to the pagan idols in the Exile, and remain faithful to YHWH, they find that YHWH is still with them.

The Return from Exile
It was 50-70 years later that the unimaginable happened. King Cyrus of Persia issued an edict that allowed the Jews in exile to return to their homeland. Isaiah 40-66 is all about this. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are also books that tell of the return from the Exile, and the troubles they faced. This was initially “good news” for the exiled Jews. There was hope and optimism that YHWH would once again re-establish His people, the Jews, in the Promised Land, and fulfill the covenant once again.

Yet things didn’t turn out as they had expected. Yes, some Jews had returned to the Promised Land, but not all. A lot of Jews had remained in various foreign lands—the Diaspora. Yes, they had rebuilt the Temple of YHWH, but it was nothing compared to the splendor of Solomon’s Temple. And although they were back in the Promised Land, they were not their own nation. They had no king, and were under continual rule of various foreign empires. And to top it off, by around 400 BC, it was pretty much generally agreed that the Presence of YHWH had left them.

By the time of Christ, the belief of many Jews was that these other things—king, Temple, great nation, the Presence of YHWH—would only be re-established once they had learned to fully obey and live by the Torah.

Conclusion
This is the basic overview, the basic blueprint, of the Old Testament Story. This is essentially the meta-narrative of the Old Testament Israel. If you understand this meta-narrative you will be in a much better position to read, understand, and interpret the smaller narratives within the Old Testament that contribute to the over-arching worldview of the Old Testament. Every individual narrative/story you find in the Old Testament somehow relates to this meta-narrative of Israel. Therefore, when you read and study a certain individual narrative, don’t just look at that particular narrative, but also look at how that narrative relates to and fits into the over-arching story of Israel.

1 Comment

  1. Another good, succinct summary. Your next-to-the-last paragraph sets the stage for the Jewish situation in the Gospels, doesn’t it?

    By the 1st c. AD the Pharisees had established themselves as a small, but influential popular “pressure group” who advised their Jewish brethren that the best way forward was not, as the Herodians and Sadducees urged, to make compromises with Rome and basically maintain the status quo, but rather Israel’s exile would be ended if all Jews ratcheted up their Torah observance, thereby showing YHWH how devout they were. The Pharisees were not legalists trying to work themselves into being saved so much as nationalists, which, when coupled with Torah observance, meant that the message many Pharisees were putting out was one, not of Israel as a light to the nations, but Israel as children of the light with the rest of the world walking in darkness, thus the Pharisees were saying that they had to be better Jews than everyone else (the Essenes thought all of institutional mainstream Judaism was corrupt and moved out to the wilderness to prepare for the final, eschatological battle).

    And the Pharisees, at least one sect of them, certainly Shammai’s students, were not above using “holy war” to help overthrow Rome if necessary.

    And of course for one hundred years either side of Jesus there were approx. a dozen men who claimed to be the Messiah; all of these movements ended with the violent death of the founder and the disappearance of the movement from history.

    Pax.

    Lee.

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