Israel in Exile

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Living in Exile

The seventy year exile of the Jews to Babylon was God’s punishment upon them for their unfaithfulness to the covenant they had made at Mount Sinai. Daniel, who was a young man when he was carried off into Babylon, acknowledged this in his prayer to the Lord towards the end of the exile: “Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame – the men of Judah and people of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you.” (Daniel 9:7).

Prior to the exile, Jeremiah warned the people not to resist their captors for they would be refined in their time of punishment and would be restored to the land after seventy years:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord (Jeremiah 29:4-9).

While Jeremiah was prophesying God’s judgement for the immediate future many false prophets were prophesying just the opposite, advising the people to resist because God would break the power of Babylon within two short years. Shemaiah, the foremost of these, sent letters to the high priest saying that he should, “…put any madman who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons” and he asked the high priest why he had not yet reprimanded Jeremiah (see Ezekiel 11:2 and Jeremiah 29:24-32).

Among the first to go into exile were the King and his household along with all his officials, craftsmen and artisans. These were the cream of the crop whose company included Daniel and his companions (see Jer. 24:4 and Daniel 1:6). However, they were regarded with contempt by those who resisted. The rebels reasoned that those who had gone into exile without a struggle had forfeited their rights to the land and they boasted that the allotted inheritance of the land belonged to them and not to those “feeble people” (see Ezekiel chapter 11). Those who remained and fought to keep their land – whether motivated by misplaced religious zeal, patriotism, or false prophets – were in fact refusing to acknowledge their unfaithfulness and accept the chastisement of the Lord.

This exile pre-figured the much longer exile that followed the Roman siege of Jerusalem between 66 and 70 AD as a consequence of their rejection of the Messiah. Jesus warned his disciples to flee from Jerusalem as soon as the Roman armies began to surround the city as this was the time of punishment in fulfilment of all that had been written (Luke 21:22). He compared the rebellious city of Jerusalem to Sodom, warning the people not to look back as Lot’s wife did.

God vindicated the faithful when Jerusalem was destroyed along with those who thought they would find refuge in the temple as, Isaiah had prophesied: Hear the word of the Lord, you who tremble at his word: “Your brothers who hate you, and exclude you because of my name, have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy!’ Yet they will be put to shame. Hear that uproar from the city, hear that noise from the temple! It is the sound of the Lord repaying his enemies all they deserve (Isaiah 66:5-6).

As in the first exile, those who heeded the word of the Lord and fled from Jerusalem were regarded as traitors by their brethren, widening the rift that already existed between the Jews who believed in Jesus and those who rejected him. This continues to this day, with Jews who believe in Jesus no longer being counted as Jews by the rabbinical authorities and being denied the “right of return” to the Land. But, as it was in the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, those who trust in the Lord will never be put to shame. Although they live as aliens in this world, they will receive their allotted inheritance, along with many Gentiles who have believed, at the resurrection (see 1 Peter 2:4-12 c.f. Isaiah 28:16 and 2 Peter 3:13).

‘All these people (i.e. the great men and woman of faith) were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them’ (Heb. 11:13-16).

All believers should keep in mind that we are “aliens and strangers on earth” awaiting the better country to which we belong. Our mortal life is likened to an exile, for here we have no enduring city (Heb. 13:14).

‘Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (1 Peter 2:11-12).

Worshipping in Exile

By the rivers 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 (Psalm 137:1-6).


When Christians point out that Rabbinical Judaism (i.e. post-temple Judaism), cannot keep the Law of Moses, albeit by force of circumstance, the usual response is that these circumstances existed during the Babylonian exile and God was still with his people. Does the experience of the Babylonian exile establish a precedent for rabbinical Judaism or does it point to the revelation of the Messiah and his church?

The Lord promised the exiles that after seventy years in Babylon they would return to the land, rebuild the temple and city and await the coming Messiah. Hosea prophesied: For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol. Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days[i.e. the days of the revelation of the Messiah] (Hosea 3:4-5). Although he was punishing them, the Lord assured his people through the prophet Ezekiel that he would still be a sanctuary among them during the seventy years of exile. In fact this assurance was given as a rebuke to those who remained in Jerusalem and considered the exiles to be far away from the Lord’s presence:

“Son of man, your brothers – your brothers who are your blood relatives and the whole house of Israel – are those of whom the people of Jerusalem have said, ‘They are far away from the Lord; this land was given to us as our possession.’ Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone’” (Ezekiel 11:15-16).

The Lord showed Ezekiel that he had withdrawn his presence from the temple, which was about to be destroyed along with the impenitent who thought they would find refuge in it. At the same time he would become a sanctuary among the exiles for a little while. This demonstrates that God’s mercy is present even in judgement to those who repent. But this was only a temporary measure. After their time of punishment was completed they were to return to the land, rebuild the temple and reinstate the sacrifices according to the Law of Moses while awaiting the promised Messiah. Doing away with two-thirds of the Law cannot be justified in order to accommodate the practical constraints of exile, for the covenant made at Mount Sinai does not allow for anything to be added or taken away from it. Only the coming of the Messiah and the establishing of the new covenant could effect such a radical change in the way that God’s people are required to worship him and be sustained in right standing with him.

That the Lord would be a sanctuary among his people in the exile pre-figured what was destined to be fulfilled with the coming of the Messiah. Jesus referred to himself as the temple, or sanctuary (John 2:29). The apostle John wrote: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [tabernacle or sanctuary] among us (John 1:14). In the same way that the glory departed from the temple in Jerusalem but remained with the exiles Jesus returned to the Father in heaven, but he told his disciples that it was for their good that he was going to leave them for then he would send the Holy Spirit to dwell within them (John 16:7,12). No matter how close and intimate the fellowship was that the disciples experienced with Jesus it cannot be compared to the privilege that every believer has of coming to know God in the inner sanctuary of their heart through the indwelling of His Spirit. Though the physical temple was destroyed, the faithful disciples of Jesus Christ would themselves become the temple in whom the Spirit of God lives even while scattered among the nations:

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him- you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (1 Peter 2:4-8).

The prophet Isaiah had also spoken of the time when the Lord would be a sanctuary among his people, but he also said that he would be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall:

The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare. Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured. Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob. I will put my trust in him (Isaiah 8:13-17).

In his commentary on the book of Ezekiel, Patrick Fairbairn describes, what he refers to as the “peculiar temptation” of those who lived under the old covenant “who could scarcely realize a present God apart from the outward temple and the land of Canaan.” Those who feel secure in the outward form and ritual of religion demonstrate that they do not know God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ. Paul rebuked those who were trying to entice Christians back into the outward form of Judaism according to the obsolete, old covenant – for such worship is not in spirit and in truth:

But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you (Galatians 4:9-11).

The Samaritan woman whom Jesus encountered was stuck in the old mode of worship: the Samaritans worship God on Mount Gerazim whereas the Jews claim that people must worship God at the temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus told her, “…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). This time there is no turning back to the old, obsolete mode of worship.

The Babylonian exile was limited to seventy years. But how long is the present exile? Jesus said that it will last until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. This means that it will last until Christ appears from heaven to finally overthrow all rebellion against the kingdom of God at the close of the present age.

James addressed his epistle to the church: “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” Peter likewise addressed the church as “God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood” (1 Peter 1:1). The church of Jesus Christ constitutes the true Israel of God that remains scattered among the nations until the end of the age. Even in exile we worship in spirit and in truth, constituting the true temple of God in which his presence dwells:

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Ephesians 2:22).

True worship of God is no longer restricted to a geographical location or a particular ethnic group or nation but one restriction remains. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”