One of the most overlooked aspects of the Old Testament is the exile. God had promised to Abraham that he would bring his descendants into a land flowing with milk and honey. He would be their God and they would be his people. But there were stipulations given if they were to continue in the land (Leviticus 18-20, 26; Deuteronomy 27-28). If the people were faithful, honoring the Lord, then they would remain in the land. If they were not, then they would be vomited out of the land. It’s a graphic term but it was meant to illustrate that the land could not tolerate unfaithfulness to the Lord.
God was the one who had redeemed them from Egypt; he had brought them through the wilderness; he had brought them into the Promised Land. All of this, he tells them, was grounded in his love for them (Deut 7). It should sound familiar to us. A particular people, brought to a special land, and given a command for obedience and a curse if they are disobedient. It should remind us of Adam and Eve.
The people of God, in the Old Testament, were replaying the Garden of Eden. It’s like a case of inspired déjà vu. There are even markers in the language of the Bible to show us this truth. When Adam was told to keep and tend the Garden, the words used will be the same ones later used to instruct the priests in their duties in the temple.
The books of Kings and Chronicles, though, remind us that the people did not obey. They were like Adam and they fell. They were disobedient at Sinai; they were disobedient in the wilderness; and they would be disobedient in the land. By the end of Kings and Chronicles we learn that they are removed from the land. They are exiled.
The prophets will remind us that the exile was not the last word. If it were, then there would be no hope. Just like in the Garden, when God promised to send a redeemer to defeat the serpent (Genesis 3:15), so the prophets remind the people that God would bring them back from exile and that he would fulfill all the promises he had made to them. All the promises to Abraham would come to pass.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are important because they tell us how the return from exile happened and what it looked like. Ezra tells us that it happened during the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia. It wasn’t as though Cyrus just thought it would be a good idea; God moved him to allow the people to return and rebuild the temple. He provided all the funds necessary. Ezra and Nehemiah were the priest and governor, respectively, who oversaw the return.
We need to be careful, though, to understand what takes place. It’s not as glorious as the Prophets promised. It’s not as great as the people expected. In fact, when the temple foundations were laid and the people shouted with joy, there were others who wailed (Ezra 3). They mourned because the second temple was so small. It lacked any of the magnificence of the original. By the end of Ezra, when the temple is completed, there is something missing. The Spirit of God does not fill that temple. Something is very wrong. The exile is supposed to be over, but it all seems so weak, so sad.
What happened to the promises God made that the nations would come streaming to them? What happened to the promise of building a temple so large that it would fill the whole world? What happened to the great hope that Abraham would be a blessing to all the families of the earth? The temple rebuilding takes place in 516 BC, which means we’re still a few years away from the New Testament. But even by then, it doesn’t look anything like the promises. What happened? Did the people misunderstand? Were the prophets wrong?
The answer to these questions come in the New Testament. In fact, the coming of Jesus answers them all. The prophets were right, but they understood it in their own terms. Jesus comes as the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham. Jesus comes as the one who builds the real, glorious temple. It’s a temple that fills all the earth. It’s the church (Ephesians 2). And all the nations come streaming to the one true man of God, Jesus himself!
— Pastor Everett Henes, the pastor of the Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.