Many of the Old Testament prophets anticipate the return of Judean exiles to their homeland and to the temple in Jerusalem. I’m not sure that everyone captures the significance of this hope. It’s not just that the exiles were homesick or that the land that had been taken from them was better than the land of their captivity. The Judeans were victims of Babylonian imperial power, suffering physical and economic harm, losing their freedom and being threatened with cultural genocide, but neither is this simply an abstract matter of social justice.
The area between the Tigris and the Euphrates is hot and dry today, but Babylon may have been perfectly lovely in the 6th century BCE. Some Judeans may have even prospered under the Babylonian system. Many Judeans found a way to cling to some of their traditions, adapt others and to create some new ones, even in the face of pagan culture. None of this matters.
The issue for the prophets of this era was the same one that we see throughout the pages of Old Testament. God’s covenant was at risk. Would this be the end of the story God began with Abraham? Although Judea’s defeat at the hand of the Babylonians was the direct result of God’s judgment on Judean sins, it was also a direct threat to the covenants God had established through Abraham, Moses and David.
The prophets proclaimed the coming return of the exiles, then, not just because the return would right a wrong, but because God’s covenantal promises depended on it. The Judeans had to return to Judah because that was the land God promised to the patriarchs. They had to return to the temple in Jerusalem because that is where God had chosen for his name to dwell. They had to reestablish themselves as a political entity because God was their king, and they had to live under his reign and his law.
In exile, the Judeans lived under constant pressure to assimilate and abandon their way of life, threatening their unique place in the world as God’s covenant community. They also faced the less subtle threats of economic privation and violence, putting their very survival at risk. The Judeans had to return to their homeland, because only there could they reliably dwell in holiness and safety.
Ah, yes, you say, but the return from exile did not exactly work out as the prophets had hoped. The Judean homeland never again became a monarchy with David’s descendant seated on the throne. Foreigners with strange religions ruled the land. The temple was rebuilt, but destroyed again. The Jews lived as exiles for centuries, spread throughout the world without their own homeland and living a precarious existence among the Gentiles. All of this is true, but the gospel of Christ sees the story as taking a kind of a turn with the life of Jesus.
In Christ, God’s promises to Abraham, Moses and David are transformed. The kingdom is no longer a piece of ground wedged between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River; it is, rather, the age of the resurrection yet to come, and its anticipation in the Spirit-filled church of Jesus Christ. The place of worship is no longer a building of stone on a hill in Jerusalem, but wherever Christ’s people assemble around the word and the table. The pressures of assimilation, apostasy and persecution always exist as Christ’s church is sprinkled like salt throughout the nations, but Spirit-empowered faithfulness and endurance are part of God’s work in the world.
As Christians read the prophets’ vision of Judah’s restoration and return from exile, we should understand the role this vision played in the fulfillment of God’s great promises – and know that the prophet’s hopes are brought to their ultimate completion in the death, resurrection, ascension and coming return of Jesus Christ.