We've been looking at all the things the prophets said God would do in the new covenant. And in one sense, all these promises were fulfilled when the Lord restored His people from Babylon and brought them back into their land. But like every other manifestation of the Covenant of Grace, there is a dual fulfillment to these promises. When the prophets looked ahead and spoke of Israel's restoration, they knew it would include all the things we've mentioned, but they also knew that behind these things there was so much more: “Jesus Christ, and the gospel of sinners' salvation through faith in him, was preached to the Jews in their captivity.” All these promises ultimately looked forward to Jesus and the gospel. There was indeed a partial fulfillment in Israel's restoration from Babylon, but this deliverance God wrought for His people points to a greater deliverance yet to come.1
A) JESUS AND GOD'S PLACE: Earlier we mentioned that Israel's exile points us to the exile Jesus endured at the cross. Isaiah 53:8 tells us that “He was cut off out of the land of the living” for the sins of God's people. Here, Isaiah was speaking of the Servant of the Lord. Sometimes when Isaiah used this phrase he was referring to Israel in the corporate sense, speaking of God's people as a whole; but there were other times when Isaiah used this same phrase, “Servant of the Lord”, to describe Israel as a particular individual. Well, the prophet Isaiah foretold both exile and restoration for Israel; and when he did so, he wasn't only speaking of God's people as a whole, corporately; he was also looking forward and speaking of the Christ. Jesus is not only the second Adam; He's the second Israel. And as such, not only would He be cut off out of the land of the living; He would also be brought back in again: If the exile is a picture of Jesus' death, the restoration points us forward to His resurrection.2
There's also more that we can learn from Israel's exile and restoration. We saw earlier that the exile of Israel points us back to the exile of Eden. When Adam sinned, he was cast out of the garden; and all humanity along with him. Because of Adam's sin, every one of us are born into a state of spiritual exile; alienated from God and cut off from His presence. But if Israel's exile to Babylon teaches us about our ruin in Adam, then their restoration to the land teaches us about our redemption in Jesus. Israel was utterly powerless to deliver themselves; they were as helpless and hopeless as dead men in their graves (Ezekiel 37). But God would do for them what they could not do for themselves: They were as dead men in Babylon, but God would raise them up from the dead, deliver them from their captivity, and bring back to the land of promise. And is this not exactly what God has done for us in Christ? For just like Israel, we were dead in our sins, but God, being rich in mercy, “even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ. . .and raised us up with Him. . .” (Ephesians 2:5-6). And again, just as the Lord rescued Israel from Babylon, “He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son. . .” (Colossians 1:13-14). Truly, the temporal redemption God wrought for Israel when He brought them back from exile was always meant to point us forward to the eternal redemption He would accomplish for us in Christ.3
Lastly, Israel's being gathered home to their land from exile points us forward to the day when Jesus will gather His people home to glory. God's people lived as exiles in Babylon; they had to stay there many years, but it was never their true home. They longed for the day God had promised, when He would “bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land. . .” (Ezekiel 34:13), where the Lord himself would feed His flock and “lead them to rest” (34:15). Ezekiel declares that when God had gathered His people home, “They will live on the land” that He gave to Jacob; “they, and their sons and their sons' sons, forever. . .” (37:25). And so, the rest that God was promising to give His people was an eternal rest. Though in some ways God did these things for His people when He brought them back into their land, these promises can only find their ultimate fulfillment in Christ, on the day when He gathers us home to eternal glory. Peter writes that we live as exiles here on earth (1:1; 2:11); he even refers to Rome as Babylon (5:13). Like Israel, we are exiles in Babylon. But just as Israel looked forward to a promise of restoration, we look forward to “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21), when the Lord will gather His people out of this present “Babylon” in which we live as exiles, and bring us home to our eternal rest in the new Jerusalem.4
B) JESUS AND GOD'S PRINCE: In the exile, the Davidic king had been dethroned; but when the Lord brought Israel back to their land, He told them: “I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:23-24). A shepherd-king would lead God's people in the restoration. Jeremiah refers to this same king as “a righteous Branch” whom the Lord would “raise up for David” (23:5-6; 33:14-16). Along with being called a Branch, Ezekiel speaks of this Davidic king as God's servant: “My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. . .and David My servant will be their prince forever.” (37:24-25). In the restoration, God would raise up a shepherd-king for His people Israel. He would be called “a branch”, He would be called God's “servant”; and He would be a descendant of David. Later, the prophet Zechariah tells us he wouldn't only be a king, but “a priest on His throne” (7:13).
When God brings Israel back to their land, He raises up a man named Joshua to help shepherd His people. Joshua is the high priest (Haggai 1:1), and at one point God instructs Zechariah the prophet to make a crown of silver and gold, set it on Joshua's head, and tell him: “Behold, a man whose name is Branch. . .” (Zechariah 6:12). Joshua is a priest, and he's called the branch, and yet he can't be the shepherd-prince God was promising, because he was neither king nor a descendant of David. There is another man during Joshua's day named Zerubbabel; he was appointed the governor of Judah, and not only was he a descendant of David (Matthew 1:12), but the Lord calls Zerubbabel His “servant”, and even tells him that He would take Zerubbabel and make him like a signet ring (Haggai 2:20-23). But Zerubbabel was only Judah's governor—not their king; he was never called “the branch”; and he certainly wasn't a priest. And so, though Joshua and Zerubbabel both reflect some of the traits of the shepherd-king God had promised, neither one of them is able to meet all the qualifications entirely.
The Lord explicitly tells Joshua that he and those with him were “symbols” of the shepherd-king who was yet to come (Zechariah 3:8). In other words, Joshua and Zerubbabel were just pictures and types of the true shepherd-prince that God was going to raise up for His people: He will be one shepherd, not two; He will be both priest and king; He will unify God's people into one flock (Ezekiel 37:21-22); and He will reign as their prince forever (Ezekiel 37:25). Ultimately, these things are only fulfilled in Jesus: He is the good shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11). He is the seed of David and yet our High Priest (Psalm 110:1-4); He reigns as king, yet He is “a priest on His throne” (Zechariah 6:13). He gathers both Jews and Gentiles into His fold, making them “one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16). And it's He who will reign as shepherd-prince over God's people forever.5
C) JESUS AND GOD'S PEOPLE: After Israel had been sent away to exile, the Lord declared that He was going to make a new covenant. We may tend to think this new covenant would also be with a new people. Now that Israel had been sent away to Babylon, God can start afresh with a people who will worship and serve and follow Him instead of constantly turn away from Him. But that's not what God does. In Jeremiah 31, the Lord tells us that He would make this new covenant “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (verse 31). It was a new covenant, but God was going to make it with the same people; and He tells us why in verse 34: “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” The new covenant would be associated with forgiveness; indeed, the new covenant would be a covenant of forgiveness. As the Lord also told His people through the prophet Ezekiel: “Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, so that you may remember and be ashamed and never open your mouth anymore. . . when I have forgiven you for all that you have done. . .” (16:62-63). This is what God did for His people in the restoration. When He brought Israel back into their land, He was pardoning them for everything they had done.
God's promise to forgive Israel's iniquities was partially fulfilled in the restoration, but ultimately, the forgiveness God alludes to here is the outworking of what He would accomplish for us in Jesus. The Hebrew word that's translated here in Jeremiah 31:34 as “forgive” [Hebrew salah ] is the word used to represent the effect or result of atonement in the Levitical sacrifices. We read over and over again in Leviticus: “Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.” (4:31). There's a connection here: Forgiveness happens through atonement. And so, when the Lord declares that He will forgive Israel's iniquity, we're pointed forward to the atoning work of Christ. And this is what our Savior himself taught the night before His sufferings. For when Jesus took the cup, He gave it to His disciples, saying: “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27-28). God could forgive Israel their iniquities, and He can forgive us ours, because He “has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” (Isaiah 53:6).6
God would forgive His people in the new covenant, but He would also change them. He would do a mighty work for them in atoning for their sins, but He would also do a supernatural work in them in changing their hearts. After God had brought His people back to their land, He tells them: “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” (Ezekiel 36:25). There's a very real sense in which God did this for His people in the restoration. God's people struggled deeply with idolatry over the course of their entire history; from the days of the patriarchs, and in the desert under Moses, through the time of the judges, to the kings, all the way up to the exile. God's people can't seem to shake their addiction to idols. But when God restores Israel to their land, it seems as though they're all at once entirely healed. We read no more of Israel's idolatry. They're not perfect; they still have other struggles—but their idols are gone.7
And this is what God does for us in Jesus. The work God did in His people when He brought them back to their land is meant to point us to the work God would do in His people through Jesus in the new covenant. There's a sense in which the Lord did these things for Israel in the restoration, but the ultimate fulfillment of these promises is the work God would do in His new covenant people in the days following Jesus' death, resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whereas Israel suffered from a chronic unbelief and apostasy all their days leading up to the exile, God would perform a large-scale change in His new covenant people, for He would give them “a new heart” and put “a new spirit” within them (Ezekiel 36:26). So that, the Lord wouldn't only forgive them—but He would completely change them, giving them new hearts with new desires; this is called regeneration. And then He would put His Spirit within them, causing them to walk in His statutes (Ezekiel 37:37); this is a process called sanctification. God even promises their perseverance, for through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord not only says to His people: “I will not turn away from them”, but also: “I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me.” (32:40). God was not saying that His people would be perfect. They wouldn't. But in the new covenant, they would be changed.8
So then: God wouldn't just save His people from the punishment of their sin (forgiveness), He would also save them from the power and pollution of their sin (regeneration and sanctification). And once He claims them as His own, He'll never let them go (perseverance). Many of the other new covenant promises we've been looking at (IE: Place, Prince) are veiled: Jesus is there but we still have to open up the outer husk to get to the gospel seed. But here, what God would do for His people in the new covenant is described with such gospel clarity it's almost as if there's no outer husk at all; the seed has already burst through the shell. In God's promise to forgive His people and give them new hearts, it's as if the shadows are giving way to the substance; the types and pictures are giving way to the reality.
D) JESUS AND GOD'S PEACE: The exile was the ultimate covenant curse, but in the restoration, God would bring about a cataclysmic reversal of the curse of sin. Instead of famine, there would be abundance; instead of drought, showers of blessing. Ultimately, this reversal of the curse is meant to teach us all that God would do for us in and through Christ. Earlier we saw that the exile symbolizes Jesus' death. So, it's only fitting that when the exile was complete, God abolished the curse from His people and began pouring out His blessing upon them. Until Jesus was exiled for our sins, we lived under the curse. But in and through Jesus' exile at the cross, we've come out from under God's curse and entered into His favor and blessing. Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles. . .” When Adam sinned in the garden, he brought God's curse upon all of us; and we became the rightful inheritors of the covenant curses of famine, pestilence, and the sword; and ultimately, death. But at the cross, Jesus took God's curse for sin on our behalf; and in His resurrection, He reversed the curse, since “the resurrection is the ultimate reversal of the curse of sin.” So that, now, in Jesus, instead of being inheritors of God's curse, we're ever and only recipients of His blessing. Paul says in Romans 8 that as believers, we may still face “famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (v35), but in Jesus these things no longer come to us as curses for our sin, but rather as hidden blessings from the hand of our loving heavenly Father.9
So, the reversal of the curse teaches us about the blessing God lavishes on His people in Jesus. This is true for us as individuals, as we mentioned, but it's also true for the church corporately, as a whole. In fact, when God promised to reverse the curse in the restoration, He wasn't making that promise to individuals as much as He was to the entire people of God, collectively. God was promising to pour out His blessing on the whole corporate church. Now, God did this, to a degree, when He brought Israel back to their land. But after just a few short years, God is already telling His people: “because of you the sky has withheld its dew and the earth has withheld its produce. I called for a drought on the land” (Haggai 1:10-11). And later, God even says to His people: “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me. . .” (Malachi 3:9). We're left asking: What happened to God's promise that He would annihilate the covenant curses from His people and pour out His blessing on them? The answer is that though these things were partially fulfilled when God brought His people back to their land; ultimately, this promise of blessing looks past Israel's day and ours to a day yet to come. Here again, Israel's restoration points us forward to the restoration of all things. Jesus began to reverse the curse with His death and resurrection, but it's not until the new heavens and new earth that He brings this work to completion. It's true, as we said, that the resurrection is the ultimate reversal of the curse of sin. But though Jesus has been resurrected, it's not until He establishes the new heavens and the new earth that we as God's people receive the “redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). It's then, in the New Jerusalem, that Scripture tells us: “There will no longer be any curse” (Revelation 22:3).10
E) JESUS AND GOD'S PRESENCE: In the exile, the temple had been destroyed. But when God restored His people, He promised that He would set His “sanctuary in their midst forever” and that His “dwelling place” would be with them (Ezekiel 37:26-27). These two Hebrew words that Ezekiel uses to describe God's presence are significant. The Hebrew word that's translated “dwelling place” in verse 27 (mishkan) is the same word used for the Old Testament tabernacle. God was promising that His tabernacle would be among His people. And the Hebrew word that's translated “sanctuary” in verse 26 (miqdash) is most often used to refer to the temple. God's temple had been destroyed in the exile, but here, the Lord is telling His people it would be raised up once again, and in such a way that this time, it would endure forever. In one sense, God did these things for His people when He brought them back to their land. He assures His people that He's dwelling among them (Haggai 2:4-5); and He leads them in rebuilding the temple. But even this temple doesn't last forever, as Ezekiel promised. And the reason is that ultimately, these promises only find their true fulfillment in Christ.
It's when Jesus came into the world that Scripture tells us: “the Word became flesh, and dwelt [Lit. tabernacled ] among us. . .” (John 1:14); for Jesus himself was and is God's dwelling place among His people. And Jesus isn't only God's tabernacle, He's also God's temple. For indeed, in His life, Christ tabernacled among us; but in His death and resurrection, He was made to pattern Solomon's temple. The temple of Solomon was destroyed; but it would be rebuilt once again. And is this not exactly the pattern our Lord followed in His death and resurrection? Indeed, as Christ told the Jews: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). And John tells us explicitly that “He was speaking of the temple of His body.” (2:21). Jesus' body is God's temple; destroyed, as it were, at the cross; but after three days raised up once again. And though Solomon's temple was rebuilt, it didn't last. But Jesus, having been raised from the dead, ever abid