The topic of exile and new life intersect with several pertinent matters today. The Assyrian and Babylonian exiles (or as some historians now describe it, “forced migrations”) are the primary example of corporate failure in the Old Testament. These events, moreover, play a major role in the shaping of the Old Testament canon. One of our most influential biblical theologians, N.T. Wright, has proposed that a continuing sense of exile in the post-exilic period among Jews is the matrix in which Jesus announced the advent of the anticipated Kingdom of God.
The concept of exile, therefore, has considerable sway in contemporary biblical interpretation. Many of us are interested in and disturbed by systemic failure in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Any insight we can gain from Scripture on defining and dealing with failure will be welcomed. Some of our contemporaries have suggested that the Babylonian exile is particularly worthy of study as a way to think about the broader phenomenon of post-Christendom and minority status in western societies. One American Christian has said recently, “Let’s stop the pity party and instead say, ‘We’re in exile and this is not the first time God’s people have been in exile.”
In what follows, I want first to give a survey of the impact of exile on the three largest prophetic books. Secondly, I want to look at Deuteronomy and its presentation of exile. And thirdly, I want to offer a few comments on the book of Lamentations and how it deals with identity and memory.
While there are multiple historical factors at work in bringing Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to completion as books, no other factor is as influential as the defeat of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Each of the three Major Prophets is decisively shaped by its critique of God’s people for corporate failure and its projection of God’s transforming initiatives in a future beyond the judgment of exile. Major paradigms of not just Old Testament theology but of biblical theology are built around the prophetic portrayal of exile and its aftermath. In sketching the following paradigms, it is their cumulative effect that is important, not the comprehensiveness of the sketch.
Covenant broken by Israel. Covenant renewed by God: Jer. 31:31–34. This dynamic is common to the Major Prophets, even as the terminology of covenant renewal varies among them. The term, new covenant, actually occurs only once in the entire Old Testament, namely in Jer. 31 (See Isa. 59:21 and Ezek. 37:26).Yet, as providence would have it, the terms old and new covenant became decisive for the shape of the entire Christian Bible. The end of political rule for the Davidic Dynasty in Jerusalem and a new David is anticipated. The Babylonians brought some four hundred years of Davidic rule in Jerusalem to a political end.
Jer. 52:31–34: The book of Jeremiah concludes with a report (52:31–34; 2 Kings 25:27–30), indicating that after 37 years of imprisonment in Babylon, Jehoiachin had been released and was treated well “all the days of his life.” 2 Kings ends its presentation of Israel’s history with this same passage. Jehoiachin and his descendants are the family of continuity in tracing the Davidic line into the post-exilic period, hence the ending of Jeremiah, and the recognition that his grandson Zerubbabel, the Jewish governor of Jerusalem in the Persian period, was a descendant of David. Prophecies of a new David or the rise of a descendant of David are also common to the Major Prophets and are obviously influential in the post-exilic period (Jer. 33:15–17; Ezek. 37:24–25). Jesus as the messianic Son of David is a core confession in the New Testament. I cite only one New Testament reference: Matt 1:1–17. Note how the exile influences Matthew’s portrayal of history. In a quite remarkable statement, Raymond Brown proposed: “Ulrich Zwingli maintained that if one understood the genealogy correctly, it contained the essential theology of the Reformation. I would be bolder: It contains the essential theology of the Old and New Testaments.”
Jerusalem destroyed and Jerusalem rebuilt: Each of the Major Prophets portrays Jerusalem’s demise and her children in exile. A physical rebuilding and return of inhabitants to Jerusalem are parts of their historical horizon as well (Isa. 54:5–8). But this brief description is woefully inadequate to describe the rich engagement of the prophets with the elect city and her fortunes. As God’s chosen vessel, she was daughter, wife, mother, and queen. In her failure and demise, she was prostitute, adulteress, orphan, and divorcee. In the post-exilic restoration, she was rebuilt and repopulated under Persian auspices. In an eschatological transformation to come, everything is made new. The New Testament adoption of this theme is also rich (Heb. 12:22–24).As Derek Kidner says succinctly, “What Jerusalem was to the Israelite, the church is to the Christian.” We shall return briefly to Jerusalem, but first a related word about the temple, the heart of Jerusalem.
First Temple, Second Temple, New/Eschatological Temple of God: The Babylonians destroyed the first temple in Jerusalem, bringing nearly 400 years of worship at that sanctuary to an end. Each of the Major Prophets assumes a rebuilt temple at the end of exile, a structure essentially completed by the year 516. As with the portrayal of Jerusalem, this brief description is woefully inadequate to the eschatological visions of the Major Prophets, particularly Ezekiel.
In terms of spatial transformation, Isaiah offers the largest paradigm of all the prophets, namely, that of a new heavens and a new earth, with a transformed, expanded Jerusalem at the center (Isaiah 65:17–25). A physical return from exile––restoration of life in Judah and Jerusalem—demonstrated God’s resolve to heal his people’s self-incurred wound, but it was not the ultimate fulfillment of the prophet’s grand vision. Exile had put God’s people among the nations. This was opportunity and new beginnings, not simply judgment and tragedy. And the nations would be drawn to God’s kingdom, coming to Jerusalem to receive divine instruction or judgment and ultimately to live in a restored creation, where death and predator relations were altered.
Ezekiel’s stunning vision of a reconstituted holy land, with a New Jerusalem and temple complex at its center, complements Isaiah’s conclusion. His book concludes with a 9-chapter portrayal of a reconstituted geography of the eastern Mediterranean, fresh water flowing into the Dead Sea, and city-temple complex with a new name: YHWH is there (Ezek. 43:6–8).Again, there are so many connections with the New Testament. Suffice it to say in this context that John’s concluding vision in the Apocalypse is the final scriptural fulfillment of Isaiah and Ezekiel’s territorial visions and transformed community where YHWH is there.
Death and New Life: In his incomparable vision of a valley of dry and defiling bones, Ezekiel finds himself squarely in the midst of death (Ezek. 37:1–14). Death, metaphorical and literal, depicts the exile and its consequences. The exile is a corporate grave for the whole house of Israel. The living God, who breathed the breath of life in the first earth creature, shows Ezekiel what it is like for dry bones to come together and to live again. Ezekiel can but trust and prophesy. God will do the rest.
We can say by way of summary that the exile, the result of Israel’s greatest failure, resulted also in the greatest expansion of transformational thought in the Old Testament and provided the primary building blocks of New Testament eschatology as well.
The impact of exile also plays a role in the book of Deuteronomy, the capstone of the Torah. Deuteronomy presents Israel poised on the edge of the Promised Land, with Moses giving, as it were, a last will and testament, mediating a covenant renewal for the second generation out of Egypt, and projecting the effects of blessing and curse for generations yet to come, including an exile of God’s people among nations, e.g. Deut. 30:1–10. Moses is rarely more prophetic than in Deuteronomy. A second generation from Egypt looks back over 40 years of rescue, hardship, judgment, and sustenance, and it looks forward to the tangible realization of God’s promise of a homeland, even as Moses instructs them of multi-generational challenges ahead.
Deuteronomy represents an already-not-yet hermeneutic at work. There is the already of deliverance from Egyptian slavery, foundational to Israel’s corporate life, and the not-yet consummation of covenant blessings, where the lures of Canaan and human fallibility are potent counterweights to Torah, and the spiritual life of any future generation hangs in the balance. The land of promise is also where mortal temptations reside; exile, while inevitable, is where repentance and new life will be birthed. Even as Israel is urged to choose life, its future blessing leads through an inevitable national failure in the land of promise and expulsion from it. That is the way that Torah ends. A future rupture of the Sinai covenant will occur, God will disperse Israel among the nations, while in exile God will circumcise Israelite hearts, and the people will return to him.
Deut. 30:3 and Jer. 29:14. As noted, Moses is rarely more prophetic than in Deuteronomy. Seven times the verb sub is used in 30:1–10, playing on its connotations of turning and returning. The verb is a prophetic term for repentance: The turning of direction in heart, will, and physical action. Prophets urge people to repent and they announce that God will enable repentance. In Deut. 30:3, God will restore the fortunes, literally “turn a turning” for his people. It is a common phrase for a positive change of circumstance (cf. Job 42:10), using the verb sub and a cognate accusative. Jeremiah uses the phrase 11 times, the most of any Old Testament book. When Israel is in exile, says Deuteronomy, God will circumcise the people’s heart, so that a physical return to the land of promise also entails the renewal of their spiritual relationship (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 4:4).
Jeremiah correspondingly pleaded with Judah to undertake rigorous self-examination and to circumcise, metaphorically, its collective heart. What God’s people failed to do, God would do in and through them, bringing them through the other side of judgment to restoration. Moses sounds like Jeremiah and Jeremiah sounds like Moses.
Torah and exile: In the Torah, exile is the result of Israel’s failure to maintain the covenant God graciously granted to them. Covenant breaking leads to a self-incurred curse; divinely initiated repentance on Israel’s part is a means of restoration. For all of the language about doing the commandments, it is clear in Deuteronomy that Israel’s repentance is not self-generated, but depends on God’s initiative. It is spiritual heart-surgery.
Mark Boda has recently published a volume on repentance in the Bible. Here is a conclusion worth some reflection: “The theme of repentance is closely related throughout the Old Testament canon to the exilic phase of redemptive history.” I would expand by saying that in response to the rupture of exile Israel is drawn into identity reflection and penitence unmatched in literary output elsewhere in the Old Testament. God’s self-revelation through the period of exile in judging Israel and announcing redemptive transformation is as fully set forth in the Old Testament as is his revelation in other event. The only possible rival would be God’s self-revelation in the exodus from Egypt.
Let’s take a brief look at this intersection of exile, reflection on identity, and penitence through the lens of the book of Lamentations. It is a collection of bitter and poignant poems with several voices, all of which lament Jerusalem’s humiliation and demise at the hand of the Babylonians and their lackeys. There is no reference to God speaking in Lamentations; it preserves what a humiliated and judged people say to God when a theological narrative about election goes awry in a historical moment. It does not offer an eschatological turn in the future like the prophets.
An unnamed man in chapter 3 does affirm that God’s mercies are new every morning, but he goes on to confess movingly that the community should examine its ways and return to the Lord, noting that such a thing is a matter of the heart as well as ritual (Lam. 3:40–42). Poignantly, he also laments that God has not forgiven them. How does he know that God is yet to forgive the people? Apparently it is because Jerusalem sits in ruins and Jews are still in exile at the time of composition. Note the book’s conclusion: Lam. 5:21–22. The Lord is implored to restore the people to himself and to renew them as in previous days—there is the historical narrative of election at work—even as the corporate voice raises the horrible question of a counter narrative at work, namely, whether God has utterly rejected them and there is no way back? What a way to end a biblical book!
So what does one do with these laments, once restoration is underway in Judah? Do you set them on the shelf as historical artifact? There is an important text in the post-exilic book of Zechariah that poses a similar question. According to Zech. 7:1–7, there was a custom of mourning and fasting in the fifth month, the month of Av, the same month in which the Babylonians destroyed the temple.
The question apparently is whether fasting and entreating the Lord during this month should continue, given the fact that now a second temple had been constructed in Jerusalem and there are priests of the Lord at work there. The immediate answer is oblique, in that in comes in the form of a question regarding whether the fasting in the last 70 years was for God or for another purpose. The 70 years is a reference to the exilic period (so Jeremiah, Daniel). In Zech. 8:19–20 the prophet says that current fasts in the 4th, 5th, 7th and 10th months shall eventually become times of joy and cheerful festivals, although a timetable is not provided.
Back to the 5th month fast: Such a regularized time of mourning during the exile is the best setting for the poems that now comprise the book of Lamentations. What does one do with mournful practices intended to lament a circumstance now under reversal? For some, the answer was keep performing and fasting. A thousand years later, Judaism regularized the reading of Lamentations on the 9th of Av as part of its liturgical year. In a striking act of telescoping, the 9th of Av ceremony calls to mind the destruction of both the first temple by the Babylonians and second temple by the Romans in AD 70. It has not turned the 5th month fast into a cheerful festival, regardless of what Zech. 8 projected for the future.
The rehearsal of pain and shame in Lamentations almost overshadows the confession and repentance that are also there. Why, we might ask, is this rehearsal so emphatic? Historically, one can answer by saying that it reflects the raw emotions of those who lived through Judah’s tragic demise, but the effect of rehearsal on subsequent generations inevitably has other dynamics. Santayana’s proverb is surely relevant here: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In the case of Lamentations, rehearsal of the impact of suffering can be understood as a teaching device to be shared with subsequent generations, irrespective of the fact that Jerusalem and the temple were subsequently rebuilt. As providence would have it, the Romans destroyed the city and temple centuries later. In some sense of the phrase, history did repeat itself. Lamentations answers the perennial question, “Can God’s people fail in the historical process?” with a somber “Yes.” Those upon whom the destruction fell have an authoritative voice to share, a painful portrayal intended to guide future behavior. The poetry also assumes a larger narrative of God’s election of Israel as it grapples with national collapse.
Lamentations works resolutely to hold up the impact of bad news for the important tasks of maintaining corporate memory and identity and in hope of future good news. It lets no one “off the hook” for systemic failure, even when voices ancient and modern cry out that such a corporate judgment is unfair. Once a year the synagogue gathers to recite the book of Lamentations and to recall the loss of the first and second temples. One day I hope that they will no longer do this because God’s future transformation will sweep them up and Zechariah’s prophecy will be realized: All the fasts will become cheerful festivals.
What about Christians and our way of dealing with ecclesiastical demise? We do not have a 9th of Av ceremony and there is nothing that says we have to read and meditate on Lamentations regularly as a way to see our particular predicament. Speaking personally, I want to cling to the prophetic model, whereby a historic moment of failure ushers in dramatic new ways of presenting the divine-human relationship, ways that are surely congenial with the paradigm of cross and resurrection in the New Testament. Good Friday’s death leads through Saturday’s deathly exile to the resurrection of Easter morning. I can hold also to the Torah’s proclamation that when my tribe and I are in exile, God can perform a miracle on our collective heart. But there is something both foreboding and formative about looking systemic failure squarely in the eye and admitting that I am complicit and feel helpless.
The Reverend J. Andrew Dearman, Ph.D. (Emory University), is Associate Dean and Professor of Old Testament, Fuller Seminary, Texas.
 Kirsten Powers cited in Sarah Pullam Bailey, “Moore on the Margins,” Christianity Today Sept. 2015, 33.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah. A Commentary on the Infancy Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 596.
 Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 470.
 Mark J. Boda, ‘Return to Me.’ A Biblical Theology of Repentance (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014), 159.