This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
The grand narrative of Scripture speaks to the most urgent needs all people have, including the needs to be connected and grounded, to be protected and to belong, to know who you are and where you fit in. The Bible contains the stories of the people of God when they lost all of that. People torn away from their land, torn up as a people, and torn down by humiliating loss. This is the meaning of the exile in the last sections of the Old Testament in which Israel in the north is destroyed by the Assyrian empire, and Judah in the south is taken into exile by the Babylonians.
It is a heart-rending and poignant part of the old covenant narrative. Remember that the land which the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah occupied is located precariously between the various empires of Mesopotamia to the northeast (Assyria, Babylonia, Persia), and Egypt to the southwest. The ruthless Assyrians waged war with Israel in the north, defeating the tribes in 722 B.C. Prophetic warnings about the Assyrian raids were sounded loudly and clearly by the prophets Amos, Hosea, Joel, Isaiah, and others. The Assyrians resettled their captured lands with other people groups, resulting in a mixed population. This is where we get the Samaritans in the New Testament.
The Babylonian empire under Nebuchadnezzar assaulted Judah in the south. This is when the unthinkable happened. Jerusalem, the City of David, Zion, the site of the temple, was put under siege in 597 B.C. The walls were eventually breached, and the Babylonian army took all of the educated and skilled members of the community into exile, hundreds of miles away, into Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel was among them.
But even though God’s people were displaced from their land, their homes, and their temple, God was still present with them: “While I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1). And what visions they were! Four fantastic living creatures, chariot-like wheels covered in eyes careening through the sky, a valley of dry bones, and on and on. The prophets Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Ezekiel also spoke about the impending exile.
I remember when I first read these parts of the Old Testament thinking I had no clue how to understand them. There were people and places and images that were a bit familiar to me, but the big question was how to put it all together. I also remember being put off by teachers, authors, and preachers who seemed to be connecting details of the oracles of the prophets with events in my own time in an arbitrary way. They seemed to be reading Ezekiel as if it were written just about us, and their interpretations seemed stretched, to say the least.
Remember, the meaning of the text of Scripture for us is grounded in what it meant for its original audience. So the prophetic predictions of war and exile and eventual return are primarily about the real history of God’s people six and seven centuries before Jesus. It is a compelling story, full of insight about human nature and the nature of this world, which we must apply fully to our lives today. But we must use all means to understand what these oracles meant back then. Here is where excellent commentaries and Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are indispensable. We must still read these late texts of the Old Testament in an uncluttered and unfiltered manner, letting all the images and pronouncements impact us. But then we ought to avail ourselves of the best tools to understand the details.
The exile is tragedy, but it is matched by the hopeful story of the return of God’s people to the land described in Ezra and Nehemiah, and in the last three books of the Old Testament, the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Even before the destruction of Israel and the exile of Judah happened, the prophets spoke of eventual restoration.
Indeed, some 70 years after Jerusalem was emptied and the temple was destroyed, the leader of a new dominant empire, Cyrus of Persia, decreed that Jews be allowed to return to their land and begin a process of reconstruction. The book of Nehemiah documents reconstruction of the city; the book of Ezra, the reconstruction of the spiritual life of the people. This is different from most history. In the story of the return of the Jews, we see the central importance of worship as the people begin sacrificing again on the site of the old temple, the importance of the word of God as Ezra reads the book of the Law in the hearing of all the people, the importance of moral leadership.
We also see in the return the unchanging covenant of God, the central theme of the Old Testament. Through Ezra and others, the people rediscover the Book of God, and through it they remember the God of creation, of the covenant with Abram, of the deliverance in the exodus, of the land. And all of this in spite of the disobedience and unfaithfulness of the people. This is God then, and God now.
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Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.