For followers of Jesus, the story of his life, death, and resurrection is the absolute center of our practice, belief, and worldview. It’s the central event which generated the entire Christian story and the New Testament. But these events didn’t occur in a vacuum. Jesus saw himself fulfilling a larger storyline that was told in His Bible, the Hebrew Bible, or as most Christians refer to it, the Old Testament. One of the most important events in Jesus’ Bible, which also changed Jewish history forever, is the Babylonian exile. This event left its mark on Israelite history in an unparalleled manner and played a key role in the formation of the Bible itself. For the Israelites, the exile was the watershed moment of their history through which the entire Bible gains its significance. Everything else orbits around the gravity of this faith-shaking moment.
The entire national structure of the kingdom, which was thought to be ordained by God himself, came crashing down. This event fulfilled centuries of prophetic warnings, as hundreds of years of tradition, culture, and history was destroyed in just one year. This was their Day of the Lord, and it left them absolutely devastated.
Read the book of Lamentations if you want some somber reflection on what it felt like to live through the tragedy of Jerusalem’s destruction and the people’s enslavement under Babylonian rule. You can understand how it may be hard to find hope in such a situation. That is why the book of Isaiah plays such a key role in the Old Testament, especially given its placement in the ordering of the Hebrew Bible (it’s situated after 1 and 2 Kings instead of after Songs). Isaiah’s entire focus is hope on the other side of the exile. From the very first chapter of the book, this hope shines bright, and it comes right on the heels of the most devastating moment in Israelite history. Let’s first explore the exile and then the hope we find in Isaiah.
Despair in Exile
Yahweh was eternally committed to his promises to Abraham, Israel, and David, which means he was committed to dismantling Israel’s kingdoms if they were unfaithful to their covenant obligations. God would allow Israel’s national structures to be wiped out so he could create a remnant who would return and be faithful (see Isaiah 10:21). God is faithful to his promises, those that come in the form of blessings, but also those that come in the form of punishment and exile. The Israelites made a promise long ago in Moses’ day. If they were loyal to their God and to each other, he would bless them and make them his treasured possession. However, if they rebelled and did not keep his covenant, he would turn his back on them ... at least temporarily.
“The LORD will exile you and your king to a nation unknown to you and your ancestors. There in exile you will worship gods of wood and stone! You will become an object of horror, ridicule, and mockery among all the nations to which the LORD sends you.”
Ouch. Hindsight being what it is, we could say that God was faithful to that promise, even in his correction and punishment. But that was a long time ago, right? You could have expected the Israelites to forget such a promise/warning. But they didn’t just have ancient scrolls to remember, they had the living, breathing prophets getting in their faces on a regular basis. For centuries the prophets had been warning Israel and their kings. If you read through the rest of the books of the prophets you’ll discover just how widespread Israel’s corruption and covenant failure had become.
Before the end, Kings like Hezekiah and Josiah tried their hands at reform and even took a few steps forward. But it was too little too late. The king who came in between these two, Manasseh, took Israel’s apostasy to a new level, unparalleled in the family of David.
“The Lord spoke by his servants the prophets, saying, “Because Manasseh, king of Judah, has done these abominations, things more evil than all that the Amorites did and has also caused Judah to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord God of Israel: I am bringing evil on Jerusalem and Judah, such evil that the ears of whoever hears about it will tingle. I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria and the level of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes out a bowl, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will disregard the remnant of my inheritance and give them into the hand of their enemies. They shall become plunder and spoil for all their enemies, because they have done evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.”
This is a difficult message for the people to hear. Remember what happened to the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E.? Samaria, under corrupt kings ruling in the spirit of Ahab’s ways, was hauled off into exile by the Assyrians. This is the same verdict and sentence rendered to Judah by Yahweh here. Five short chapters later Jerusalem falls, is systematically plundered, and methodically enslaved. Every item they had amassed in their storehouses was removed. This was the Egyptian exile all over again, but they were not the ones collecting the goods, and they were not being set free (See 2 Kgs. 25).
Is this how it ends? The prophets before this event were considered crazy, but now their words of warning were vindicated. That is why the writings of the prophets grew in importance after the exile. Nobody was listening before their predictions came true. Surely God was on the people’s side. Israel’s kings were divinely appointed and mandated. They were untouchable. After the fall of Jerusalem, the tables were turned. The prophets were right. So what now?
Hope for Israel
Yahweh is faithful to his people no matter what. If he was faithful to punish his people for disobedience, how much more faithful will he be to restore them and bring them blessings? We know that God will hold people accountable, but he’s also “slow to anger, abounding in covenant faithfulness and forgiving sin and rebellion” (Numb. 14:18a). If we turn to the same speech given by Moses at the end of Deuteronomy that predicted the exile in the first place, we can see threads of hope.
“When you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.”
Isaiah picks up this prophetic theme and runs with it. At first, it will be easy to think this first prophetic book is really disorganized, one moment warning Israel, the next moment promising blessing. Remember, you’re reading literature from an ancient culture very different from your own. The poetry of Isaiah will constantly shift back and forth from judgment to hope, each cycle offering more detail than the previous.
In a vivid vision in Isaiah 6, the prophet is first purified by a hot coal and then prepared to go and prophesy against the nation and its leaders. We then discover he has just symbolically undergone the same “purifying fire” that God is sending on all of Israel in the form of defeat before Assyria and then Babylon.
“For there will be many forsaken places in the land, but one-tenth will remain left over, and even it will be subject to burning. But, just as the terebinth or oak leaves a stump when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
There will be a remnant that remains on the other side of the exile, and it will be the holy seed from which a new kingdom will sprout. In chapter 1, Isaiah reflects on the reasons for the exile (there are many!), but before the chapter closes, we find a glimmer of hope.
“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”
Remember, Yahweh has told the people that he will punish sin and judge the guilty, but nothing can stand between Yahweh and his commitment to covenant faithfulness.
“I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward, you shall be called the city of righteousness, a faithful town. Zion shall be redeemed with justice and her converts with righteousness. But the destruction of the transgressors and sinners shall be together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.”
He means business, but Yahweh has not forgotten about Israel. And he clearly still intends to make them a blessing to all the nations and fulfill his promise to Abraham.
Isaiah Runs Deep
There are many ways in which Isaiah points forward to the hope of the messianic King from the line of David. But for the moment, let’s remember that in the midst of all this doom and gloom, Isaiah kept the embers of hope lit. God has not lost his love for his covenant people, and he has not abandoned them. This leads us back to the peculiar concluding story of 2 Kings. In chapter 25:27-30 of 2 Kings, the captive king from the line of David, Jehoiachin, is released from his Babylonian prison and exalted above all the other kings under Babylonian rule—invited to sit and dine with the king of Babylon.
It's easy to be confused by this passage. What exactly is going on here? Why are we being told this story? Think about the themes of this short episode. An imprisoned Israelite is taken into slavery in a foreign land. He is then suddenly released from prison by the king and exalted high above the other rulers of that land.Sound familiar? You’ve heard this story before in the book of Genesis in the story of Joseph (Gen. 37-50). You may also recall that he had to change his clothes before seeing the king in person.
Jehoiachin replays the Joseph story to the tee. And so this final short story of 2 Kings invites us to see a similar divine purpose at work in the disaster of Jerusalem’s destruction. Human evil will not have the day, and God’s purposes will be fulfilled.