I. The CORRUPTION of God's People: The Sin of Israel
A) Israel in the north: After Solomon, things just continue to get worse.1 This was especially true of the kingdom in northern Israel. After breaking off from the Davidic tribe of Judah, these ten tribes appoint a man named Jeroboam as their new king. When Jeroboam came to power, he set his heart on keeping that power. But he realized there was something that could be a problem for him: God had commanded over and over again in His Law that true worship was to happen where the temple was. God had told His people: “you shall seek the Lord at the place which the Lord your God will choose from all your tribes, to establish His name there for His dwelling, and there you shall come.” (Deuteronomy 12:5).2 It was Jerusalem that God had chosen. So, in Deuteronomy 12, that's where God's people were commanded to offer up their burnt offerings. Further, in Deuteronomy 16, that's where all God's people were to go three times a year to observe the feasts of the Lord. Israel's new king didn't like the sound of this: “Jeroboam said in his heart. . .If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will return to their lord, even to Rehoboam king of Judah.” (1 Kings 12:26-27). So, to keep the allegiance of his people, he came up with a plan: He told the people it was too much of a hassle to go all the way up to Jerusalem. And he made two golden calves for them to worship instead, putting them in the northern and southern sides of his territory (Dan and Bethel). Then he appointed his own priests who didn't come from the tribe of Levi. Last of all, he invented his own feast, on his own day, a counterfeit of the one at Jerusalem.
Jeroboam is just the first king of northern Israel. But once he sets up the golden calves, the kingdom never recovers. The calves are never taken down. Throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles, there is only one essential criteria by which God assesses the kings of northern Israel: Did they tear down the golden calves or let them stay? The answer is always the same. With every new king, we read: “He did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel sin.” (1 Kings 15:34).3 Jeroboam's message to the people of Israel was basically: “This is good enough.” But it was a lie. As long as the golden calves stood at Dan and Bethel, there was no true worship happening in Israel. Earlier, when Solomon had sinned, it resulted in Israel's rebellion. But now, when Jeroboam sets up the golden calves, it results in Israel's corruption. A false king had stolen their allegiance, and a false worship characterized their lives. As long as they stayed in Israel, they continued in rebellion against their rightful king. And as long as the calves stood at Bethel and Dan, they may have been religious, but their religion was useless, and even offensive, to God. All of this is a picture of our natural condition without Christ and apart from Him. Apart from Jesus, this is a description of who we are: Rebels against God and corrupted to the very core of our nature.4
B) Judah in the south: Things were a little better in Judah. Abijah, the king of Judah, gives a pretty fair summary of things when he says to Jeroboam and all Israel: “Have you not driven out the priests of the Lord, the sons of Aaron and the Levites, and made for yourselves priests like the peoples of other lands? Whoever comes to consecrate himself with a young bull and seven rams, even he may become a priest of what are no gods. But as for us, the Lord is our God, and we have not forsaken Him; and the sons of Aaron are ministering to the Lord as priests, and the Levites attend to their work. Every morning and evening they burn to the Lord burnt offerings and fragrant incense. . .for we keep the charge of the Lord our God, but you have forsaken Him.” (2 Chronicles 13:9-11). It was true. Where Israel had failed, the tribe of Judah had continued to be faithful: They were led by the true Davidic king, their worship was performed by the proper Levitical priests, and they gathered together where God had set His presence, in the temple at Jerusalem. But they had their own issues. If Israel in the north was guilty of idolatry, Judah in the south was often guilty of religious formality. They had the temple, they had the priests, and they had their king, but their hearts were distant from God, and their lives were dishonoring to the Lord. Later, God asks them: “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me? . . . I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. . .Bring your worthless offerings no longer. . .I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.” (Isaiah 1:11-13). See, Judah had better theology; but in a very real sense, that made them all the more guilty.
Judah did have a few good kings who led God's people to seek the Lord (such as Asa, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Jotham, Hezekiah, and Josiah).5 But sadly, the good kings are the exception rather than the rule. On the whole, Judah's kingdom also proves unfaithful to the Lord, and increasingly so as time goes on: King Jehoram kills all his brothers to maintain control of the kingdom (2 Chronicles 21:4). Amaziah brings back the gods of Edom to bow down before them (2 Chronicles 25:14). Ahaz not only sacrifices to other gods, but closes the doors of the temple (2 Chronicles 28:23-24). Manasseh goes even further when he sets up altars for foreign gods inside the temple (2 Chronicles 33:4-5,7-8). Ahaz and Manasseh even sacrifice their own sons to other gods (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6). Manasseh practices witchcraft and sheds so much innocent blood that he fills Jerusalem with it “from one end to another” (2 Kings 21:16). And it wasn't just the kings. Zephaniah tells us: “Her princes within her are roaring lions, her judges are wolves at evening. . .Her prophets are reckless, treacherous men; her priests have profaned the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law.” (3:3-4). Jeremiah calls out the people for their idolatry, asserting they had as many gods as they had cities (2:28). And shortly before the exile, Jeremiah asks them: “Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, 'We are delivered!'. . .?” (7:9-10).
II. The EXILE of God's People: The Judgment of God
A) The Approach of the Exile: God had entered into a covenant relationship with His people. But from the very beginning, He had also warned His people about the seriousness of covenant-breaking. Even before Israel had entered the land under Joshua, God had warned Israel that if they forsook Him and worshiped other gods, there would be discipline. In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, the Lord tells Israel that this discipline would mostly take the form of famine, pestilence, and the sword. God also warns His people in these passages that if they refused to turn back to Him, this discipline would only become more and more severe as time went on.6 It could get to the point that the kinds of things that would happen to them are too horrible to even mention (see Deuteronomy 28:52-57). And ultimately, if Israel continued to turn away, the final judgment was exile: God would cast His people out of the land He had given them. After the dedication of the temple, these are the same warnings the Lord repeats to Solomon: “But if you or your sons indeed turn away from following Me, and do not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them, and the house which I have consecrated for My name, I will cast out of My sight. So Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples.” (1 Kings 9:6-7). Covenant-breaking is serious.7
God had promised to send famine, pestilence, and the sword if His people turned away from Him. And, as they continued to forsake Him, that's exactly what He did. The purpose of God's discipline was to wake His people up; to help them come to repentance. Sadly, it didn't have that effect. Isaiah describes God like a father who doesn't know what else to do for his son, when he says: “Where will you be stricken again, as you continue in your rebellion? . . . From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it, only bruises, welts and raw wounds, not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil. Your land is desolate, your cities are burned with fire, your fields—strangers are devouring them in your presence; it is desolation, as overthrown by strangers.” (1:5-7).8 God was sending forth the covenant curses of famine, pestilence, and the sword as the discipline of a father.
We could also think about these covenant curses as the birth-pangs of judgment. When a pregnant woman is in labor, the pain doesn't come all at once. It starts slowly, and at the beginning, the pain is less intense. But it intensifies and grows more and more with each contraction. Well, the covenant curses were like contractions of judgment: God would send a famine, and then He would give relief. But when His people continued on in their sin and refused to turn back to Him, He would raise up a foreign army to come against them (IE, the sword). Then He would again provide relief. But each time the contractions would increase in intensity, just like God had said they would (cf. Leviticus 26). These birth-pangs of judgment continued and grew in their intensity until God's people were ripe for exile. It was then that God said in Micah 4:10: “Writhe and labor to give birth, daughter of Zion, like a woman in childbirth; for now you will go out of the city, dwell in the field, and go to Babylon.”9
B) The Reality of the Exile: Cardiac arrest happens when a person's heart stops pumping blood to the rest of their body. When someone goes into sudden cardiac arrest, it's incredibly serious. If it's not treated immediately, it can lead to death; and the only effective treatment is using a defibrillator to deliver a shock to the heart. This was the state of God's people. God had warned them over and again through the prophets. And He had sought to turn them back to Him by even the most severe forms of fatherly discipline. But there was no response. Nothing. It was like God's people had gone into a coma of sin; and there was nothing waking them up. There was only one thing left to do.
And so, we read in 2 Kings 17:6: “In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and carried Israel away into exile to Assyria. . .” The exile began with northern Israel. The Assyrians came up against them and besieged their capital, Samaria, for three years. Afterwards, they took the city, and “Israel was carried away into exile from their own land to Assyria” (2 Kings 17:23). Things lasted a little longer for the kingdom of southern Judah. Many of those living in Judah thought they were immune from the possibility of being exiled. They trusted in the fact that they had the Davidic king reigning over them and they had the temple in Jerusalem. But soon enough, they were also sent into exile; this time by the hand of the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem, overtook it, and captured the king: “Then they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem. . .Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons. . .” (2 Chronicles 36:19-20). Exile had become a reality.10
It's hard to put into words just how devastating the exile was for God's people. It was horrific. Both the Assyrians and Babylonians were known for their cruelty. Many husbands and fathers would have been brutally killed during the capturing of the city, but the brutality also extended to the women and children (see Hosea 13:16 and Psalm 137:8-9). Those who survived from northern Israel were led away with meat-hooks in their noses (Amos 4:2). The king of Judah was made to watch the death of his own sons before being blinded and led away to Babylon. But the pain went even deeper, because it seemed that everything God had done for His people was coming untrue. The God who had cut a covenant with Abraham and his descendants was now casting those descendants away. The God who had freed His people from their captivity in Egypt was now sending them back as captives to Assyria and Babylon. Their God, who had planted them in the land under David, was now uprooting them from it. The whole world was coming unraveled and spinning out of control. God had made them a people; but now He was cutting them off. He had given them a place; but now He was casting them away. He had crowned them with His presence; but now the temple was a burning heap of ruins.11
C) The Cause of the Exile: Some people have the notion that Israel was sent into exile because they broke God's commands: God had given them His Law, but they didn't keep that Law perfectly as He commanded, so He sent them away into exile. The notion is that God dealt with Israel according to the Law in the Old Testament, but now He deals with us in grace. But this understanding misses the whole point of what was happening in the exile. In Jeremiah 2:35, God tells His people: “Behold, I will enter into judgment with you because you say, 'I have not sinned.'” In other words, Israel wasn't being sent into exile because they had too much sin; they were being sent into exile because they had refused to acknowledge their sin. The problem wasn't the presence of their sin, it was rather a lack of turning back to God. Throughout the prophets it's the same message: Israel isn't being sent into exile because they've failed to keep some kind of law of works, but because they've refused to return to the Lord (Amos 4:6-12). What God was commanding wasn't better obedience; it was repentance (Hosea 14:1). The problem wasn't that Israel broke the Law; it was that they had broken faith with the Lord. Indeed, the covenant they had broken wasn't the Covenant of Works; it was the Covenant of Grace.12
And as we saw in the last lesson, the exile was about God's dealings with the entire body of the visible Church, corporately, as a whole. There were godly men, like Jeremiah and Daniel, who were swept away with the exile; why did they have to go through it along with everyone else? Because the exile wasn't about God's dealings with particular individuals; it was about God's dealings with the corporate body of the Church, as a whole. And the Church, in the days leading up to the exile, had become an apostate Church. It was no longer a Church that followed her Lord. In Leviticus 14, God gives the priests instructions about what to do when there was an infection of leprosy in a house. He was to go and look at the mark, and if it appeared deeper than the surface, he was to quarantine the house for seven days. But if the mark of leprosy had spread further after he came back to inspect it, the priest was to order them to tear out the stones, scrape out the plaster, and take it all out to an unclean place outside the city. Well, Scripture often speaks of “the house of Israel” and “the house of Judah”; and over time, the whole house had developed an infection of chronic unbelief. God was like the priest, and he had been patient and given them time, but instead of going away, the leprosy of unbelief had only spread all the more; there was only one thing left for God to do. If God's people as a whole had embraced covenant faith, manifesting itself in corporate allegiance, it would have, in turn, resulted in corporate blessing. But corporate apostasy led God's people into the corporate judgment of the exile.
D) The Result of the Exile: God had cast Israel out of the land, and it seemed like this was the end for them. God had finally had enough. The Davidic king had been dethroned and taken into exile; the temple had been burned to the ground; and they themselves had been uprooted from the land God had promised their forefathers. It seemed like this was the end of the road for Israel: God was done with them forever. But it wasn't true. This wasn't the last chapter for Israel. We're given a hint of this way back in Deuteronomy 30. Here, Moses predicts that Israel would be banished from the land—but in the same breath he affirms they would be brought back in again, after they had humbled themselves and returned to the Lord (vv1-5). And the Lord says in Leviticus 26:44-45: “Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking my covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God. But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the Lord.” Even before God had brought Israel into the land, He knew He would have to cast them out of it—but He also purposed to bring them back in.
And even before the exile, the prophets began repeating this message and also expanding on it: God would send judgment, yet He would “not execute a complete destruction” (Jeremiah 4:27) upon His people, but He would preserve “a remnant within them” (Isaiah 10:20-21). This remnant He would then bring back to the land, where He would again renew and restore them. As Amos says: “In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David. . .I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old. . .Also I will restore the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them; they will also plant vineyards and drink their wine, and make gardens and eat their fruit. I will also plant them on their land, and they will not again be rooted out from their land which I have given them. . .” (9:11-15). Israel's future restoration was just as certain a reality as their present exile. So much so that Isaiah named his two sons after these two truths. His second son he named, “Swift is the booty, speedy is the prey”, to signify the judgment of God's people (8:3-4). But his first son he named, “A remnant will return” (7:3). And so, the prophets “trumpeted disaster and doom, but they also announced that the Lord was not finished with His people. . .After the thunderstorm of judgment would come the bright rainbow of promise.” Israel had been uprooted from their land, but they would be planted back in once again. The temple had been leveled to the ground, but it would be rebuilt. God was disciplining and purging His people, but He wasn't breaking His covenant: The Lord would spare Israel a remnant; bring them back into the land; and restore them once again.13
E) The Significance of the Exile: The idea of exile isn't something entirely new. Israel's exile points us back, first of all, to the exile of Eden. Because of his sin, Adam and his wife were cast away from the “garden of delight”; thrust away from God's presence. And it wasn't just Adam and his wife who were sent away from the garden into a state of exile—it was all humanity along with him. Because of