Through the prophets, God has staked His reputation on doing something for Israel that is even more spectacular than the exodus from Egypt. This new exodus will not be just another shadowy affair that sin will eventually destroy. The Lord’s victory over sin will be so decisive that this coming kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, which will not perish, spoil, or fade (Dan. 2:44). For this reason, we say that the prophets have an “eschatological” hope—a hope that is ultimate and will never be eclipsed or surpassed by something greater.
When you walk into a movie that is almost finished, all your friends are on the edge of their seats, but you’re wondering what is going on. Much that they find thrilling you find perplexing. Likewise, when Christians open their New Testaments, they open to the climax of a story that has been going on for a long time. So much of its drama can be grasped only if we know the backstory.
In this three-part series of articles, I want to begin by arguing that as of the end of the Old Testament, Israel and all humanity find themselves in exile, awaiting God’s deliverance and the coming of His kingdom. Later articles will explore how this context opens up new avenues of insight into Christ’s work and the situation of God’s people today. Indeed, understanding the NT as an end-of-exile story is one of the most exciting and fertile insights of recent biblical scholarship.
Promises that Linger
The OT ends with a cliffhanger. Think about all the momentum that the biblical story has gained when the curtain falls: by the end of the story, we have seen Adam and Eve fling aside God’s glorious purposes for them, but nevertheless God has promised the eventual defeat of sin and Satan (Gen. 3:15). We have seen God begin to make good on this gracious promise by calling Abraham and promising him offspring, land, and, best of all, an unshakable relationship with Himself (12:1–3; 17:6–8). We have seen God add to those promises the hope that a son of David will reign and build the dwelling place of God (2 Sam. 7:12–16). And all these things God has sworn with irrevocable oaths (Gen. 22:16–18; Pss. 89:3, 35; 132:11; Heb. 6:17).
Yet, for all the expectation that these promises encouraged, and for all the initial excitement of seeing those promises fulfilled in Solomon’s kingdom (1 Kings 8:56), all seems lost by the end of the OT. Israel has repeated Adam and Eve’s sin of apostasy. They have hardened themselves against God’s ceaseless calls to repentance, and all that remained was God’s holy judgment. The curses of the covenant (Deut. 28:15–68) culminated in their exile, which was not merely their forcible removal from the land by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Exile also stood for the unraveling of all that God had promised to Abraham and David: the abundant offspring (“more than the stars and the sand”) was cut down to a tiny remnant. The son of David was dethroned and deported. The temple was burned to the ground. And worst of all, God had divorced His people with white-hot anger: “You are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hos. 1:9).
If we only read as far as 2 Kings 25, we might think it’s over. Israel had their chance, they enjoyed the promised land and fellowship with God for a time, but they have forfeited it forever by their sin. But King Jehoiachin’s mysterious rehabilitation (2 Kings 25:27–30) is a hint that the story is not over. Indeed, as we read on in the prophets, we realize it is far from over. For the prophets speak not only of judgment but of restoration out of judgment. Exile must come, and the prophets dedicate enormous space to demonstrating God’s justice and integrity in bringing judgment on His own people. But just as they seal the coffin on Israel, they speak of Israel’s resurrection as a people.
This restoration of Israel is founded on the profound reality that “[the Lord’s] steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 136). In other words, even after exile the Lord still remembers His ancient promises to Abraham and David, and those promises continue to animate Him. For example, after Micah details the coming judgment, he speaks of God’s restoration, saying, “You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old” (Mic. 7:20). The Lord promises to restore David’s line for the sake of His promise to David (Jer. 33:20–22). Even as a prodigal in exile, Israel is still God’s son: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still” (Jer. 31:20). Israel still stirs the deep wells of the Lord’s compassion.
Thus, when the prophets speak of Israel’s restoration, the restoration takes the form of a new and better fulfillment of all the promises to Abraham and David. Isaiah promises a new and better exodus, where a new and better people return to Zion (Isa. 40–66). Ezekiel promises a new and better temple, where the Lord dwells and enjoys renewed fellowship with His people (Ezek. 40–48). And best of all, the problem of sin—the entangling, enslaving sin that ruined Adam’s garden and Israel’s land—will finally be eradicated. Jeremiah promises a new and better covenant, where the law is written not on stone but on the hearts of Israel (Jer. 31:31–34).
These are enormous expectations. The prophets speak of this coming restoration in such glowing language that it makes Solomon’s glory look like child’s play. Indeed, God says that His second rescue will far outstrip the first: after His new exodus, they will no longer remember the exodus from Egypt (Isa. 43:18–19; 65:16–17; Jer. 23:7–8); in the return from exile, the Lord “will make [Israel] more prosperous and numerous than [their] fathers” (Deut. 30:5).
This is the momentum that has mounted like a surging tidal wave by the time of Israel’s exile. Through the prophets, God has staked His reputation on doing something for Israel that is even more spectacular than the exodus from Egypt. This new exodus will not be just another shadowy affair that sin will eventually destroy. The Lord’s victory over sin will be so decisive that this coming kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, which will not perish, spoil, or fade (Dan. 2:44). For this reason, we say that the prophets have an “eschatological” hope—a hope that is ultimate and will never be eclipsed or surpassed by something greater.
Exile that Continues
With such strong wind at our backs, the story of Ezra and Nehemiah poses as a conundrum. (The two books are meant to be read as one, so we will speak of Ezra–Nehemiah.) On the one hand, Ezra–Nehemiah begins with an explicit reference to the prophets: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1, emphasis added). This causes us to sit up! Will God at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? Are we about to witness all that the prophets have spoken?
No. Ezra–Nehemiah tells a story of disappointment. It tantalizes us with echoes of Israel’s past glories, with a shadowy exodus story (Ezra 1–2), and with shadowy temple- and city-building stories (Ezra 3–6; Neh. 1–6). But nothing here is remotely on the scale of what the prophets promised. Indeed, the story emphasizes how much smaller things are than in bygone days: Sheshbezzar only brings back a small quantity of gold and silver (Ezra 1:6–10), compared with the riches of Egypt that Israel despoiled in the exodus. A nation which was over six hundred thousand strong in the first exodus (Num. 2:32) is now about forty-two thousand (Ezra 2:64). The old men who knew Solomon’s temple wept when they saw how small the second temple would be (Ezra 3:12; Hag. 2:3). And the son of David, Zerubbabel, is nothing but an official subject to the Persian emperor (Hag. 1:1).
The question therefore arises: As of the end of Ezra–Nehemiah, where are we in the story? Can we say that Israel’s restoration has at least begun, albeit on a small scale? I hope you see that this is the very question we posed at the beginning, for the last chapter of Nehemiah is effectively the end of the OT narrative (Esther is probably a contemporary of Nehemiah). If we can accurately describe Israel’s situation at the end of Ezra–Nehemiah, we have also described the state of Israel’s story at the end of the whole OT. And if (as we will argue in the next article) no important advancements are made in Israel’s story in the intervening centuries leading up to John the Baptist, we have also described the state of Israel’s story as of the beginning of the NT.
Our contention is that for all Ezra–Nehemiah’s hints of restoration, it remains a story of ongoing exile. We can find four lines of evidence for this. First, as of the end of Nehemiah 13, Israel is still in a twofold bondage to their sin and to the nations. Second, they still have not received any of the restoration promises spoken of by the prophets. Third, Israel has yet to satisfy the one great condition for bringing exile to an end: whole-hearted repentance. Fourth, Israel remains unreconciled to God. We will now demonstrate each of these points in turn.
First, we know Israel’s exile continues because they remain slaves. “We are slaves,” Ezra says (Ezra 9:9), and the Levites echo him in their prayer: “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves” (Neh. 9:36). Why are they slaves? Because the nations continue to dominate them: “[The land’s] rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress” (Neh. 9:37).
But the bondage is much deeper than political: the progress of Ezra–Nehemiah’s narrative is constantly interrupted, not just by powerful external forces (e.g., Ezra 4, Neh. 4; 6), but by an even more powerful internal force: Israel’s unrelenting sin. Ezra safely returns to Jerusalem, only to find it rife with intermarriage with foreigners, and with the consequent ritual impurity and syncretism (Ezra 9–10). Amid the wall-building, Nehemiah discovers usury among the Judeans (Neh. 5). And despite a solemn resolution to end godless intermarriage, sabbath-breaking, and stingy neglect of the temple (Neh. 10), Nehemiah returns from travel to find them back at all three of these vices (Neh. 13). Morally speaking, Israel has made no progress since Solomon’s day (Neh. 13:26).