Not long after the reign of Saul, David and Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel is divided into two kingdoms. Despite warnings from many prophets, both kingdoms repeatedly turn from God. Assyria and Babylon force the divided kingdoms into exile. Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed. The tribe of Judah endures seventy years of exile, then returns to rebuild with the guidance of Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah. God was with them through it all helping his people to triumph.
The Divided Kingdom
Solomon’s increasing infidelity sowed seeds of division throughout the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Solomon’s constant consumption of Israel’s resources allowed him to build a great kingdom but at a heavy price to God’s people. His son, like the sons of many tyrants, found it easy to imitate his father’s harshness but not so easy to grasp the political wisdom, or cunning, that would enable him to maintain power. As a result, Rehoboam reaps a bitter harvest of division as he leads the kingdom of Israel into the chaos and dissolution of civil war. David’s kingdom is rent asunder by the third generation, and from that point on it will be a kingdom divided. With no enemies left in the land, Israel turns upon itself, raising the question, “Will peace ever reign over the land where Abraham sojourned?”
The period of the Divided Kingdom is recounted in three acts: the division of the kingdom, the resulting northern kingdom, and the resulting southern kingdom.
In act one, Solomon’s son Rehoboam is made the new king of Israel. But rather than easing the people’s burdens, Rehoboam increases the yoke placed upon them, and the weight splits the kingdom asunder.
Act two follows the story of the northern ten tribes, who make up the Northern Kingdom and retain the name “Israel.” Tragically, the Northern Kingdom breaks away not simply from the political rule of the Davidic king but also from worship in Jerusalem’s Temple. The Northern Kingdom’s creation of its own cult, in direct opposition to God’s law in the Torah, points the kingdom in the direction of downfall right from its outset.
Act three follows the story of the remaining Southern Kingdom, which takes the name “Judah.” Unlike the Northern Kingdom, whose kings all prove unfaithful, the Southern Kingdom will have several heroic kings who prove faithful to God’s law. Eventually, however, the wickedness of the unfaithful kings will lead God’s people to exile and loss of the Promised Land. But even at this dark moment in Israel’s history, the prophets will kindle a light of hope.
The period of the Exile begins with the Assyrian defeat of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC (2 Kgs 17) and with the Babylonian defeat of the Southern Kingdom of Judah between 597 and 582 BC (2 Kgs 23-25). The books of Tobit, Daniel, and Ezekiel give insights into the life of God’s people during the Exile.
From the very beginnings of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, it was clear that the Promised Land was given to her only conditionally:
“If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day … the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away … you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess” (Dt 30:16-18).
The Lord desired to bless his people in this land of milk and honey, but such blessing was to be the full flowering of covenant faithfulness, the life-giving fruit of covenant love. When God’s people proved unfaithful, the consequences were just as Moses had warned: many perished in, or were taken from, the sacred soil of the Promised Land.
Exile slowly removed the blindness of God’s people to their sin, allowing them to recognize that their unfaithfulness to the covenant law was the cause of their tragic situation.
With God’s people exiled from the Promised Land, and the Temple burned to the ground, covenant sacrificial worship could no longer be offered. As a result, the law and, in particular, the dietary requirements, became the focus of fidelity for God’s people. In a sense, the kitchen table became the altar of sacrifice, and many who were striving anew to be faithful were willing to offer their lives rather than transgress God’s law and eat what was unclean.
While the captivity and exile of Israel and Judah marked the greatest chastisement for their covenant betrayal, this period is also the backdrop to some of the most hope-filled promises uttered to God’s people. Promises for a new covenant written on the hearts of God’s people—of dry bones brought back to life and of a restoration of God’s people and the land—kept a glimmer of hope alive in the hearts of the faithful remnant.
The Northern Kingdom’s Exile
The book of Tobit gives a glimpse into the lives of the Israelite exiles from the Northern Kingdom. It offers a picture of one family’s continued fidelity to the God of Israel despite their tragic disorientation and dislocation. The fidelity of Tobit and his family illustrates that a remnant in the Northern Kingdom struggled to respond faithfully to God’s call to be a “treasured possession among all peoples … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6).
The Southern Kingdom’s Exile
The Babylonian exile of the Southern Kingdom occurred over the course of three major deportations. Among the captives were Daniel and Ezekiel, and while they were exiled at slightly different times, both their ministries bear witness to the fact that God did not abandon his people in that darkest of times. Rather, God held out to the exiles the pledge that his salvation would come, slowly but surely. While Daniel and Ezekiel speak from Babylon, Jeremiah is among the remnant left in the now desolate Promised Land. These three prophets give us a window into the lives of those in the Kingdom of Judah who experienced the darkness of the Babylonian exile and waited in hope.
The people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the Jews, when exiled to Babylon were homeless in their foreign homes, constantly aware that they were strangers in a strange land. But after nearly seventy years, many of the Jewish exiles had been born and raised in Babylon and few had ever seen the Holy City. Many knew of Judah and Jerusalem only from the fragments of stories and memories told and retold by parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Yet these stories knit a long cord connecting them to the Holy City, keeping alive and increasing the desires of many of the exiles to return one day to the sacred land of their forefathers.
After so many years of exile, imagine the varied responses of the exiles when in 538 BC, Cyrus, the King of Persia, who had recently conquered the Babylonians, issues a decree allowing the Jews in captivity to return to their homeland.
Many exiles take up Cyrus’ offer and return and begin rebuilding, but not all. For some, life in the foreign land of Babylon seems easier than the long journey and hard work ahead for those who return.
Leaders of the Return
There were three waves of the Return, one led by Zerubbabel, one by Ezra and one by Nehemiah. Each wave can be identified by a corresponding rebuilding, and they divide this period into its three acts.
Act one focuses on the first wave of return led by Zerubbabel, a man of Davidic descent and the eventual governor of Jerusalem, who leads the exiles in the rebuilding of the Temple. Act two turns its attention to the second movement of return spearheaded by Ezra, a scribe and priest who by his influence and teaching “rebuilds” the people of Judah in the ways of God’s Torah. Finally, act three focuses on Nehemiah, under whose leadership the third wave of returnees rebuilds the walls of the Holy City.
The Return Prophesied
The prophets of Israel spoke of Cyrus’ proclamation of return. Jeremiah prophesied that his people would return to their land after seventy years of exile (Jer 25:11-12; 29:10). The first deportation of the Jews to Babylon was in 605 B.C., so by the time their descendants begin returning to Jerusalem in 538 B.C., almost seventy years have passed. According to Isaiah 44:28-45:1, a man by the name of the Cyrus would become the Lord’s “shepherd” and “anointed” (in Hebrew, messiah), and would conquer the other nations and reestablish both Jerusalem and its Temple.
The return to Judah does not occur all at once; instead, exiles return over the span of several decades. In the years to follow, the Jews grow in faithfulness to God but are eventually faced with a new threat when the Greeks come to power.
Let Us Pray
Dear heavenly Father,
Israel split into rival kingdoms and fell into idolatry: Help me to choose your kingship over other loves.
You punished first Israel, then Judah, with exile. Prophets brought a message of hope: In my exile due to sin, show me the way home.
You brought the exiles back to Canaan; they rebuilt the Temple and Jerusalem and were taught once more from your Law: Rebuild my broken heart and life as I return to you.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
For Further Reading
The Bible in a Week continues tomorrow with Maccabean Revolt and Messianic Fulfillment I. You can find previous posts in the series here.
This post was taken and adapted from Walking with God: A Journey through the Bible by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins.