The day that God’s nascent kingdom began falling apart dawned just like that fateful day back in Eden, a beautiful golden spring morning. The kingdom was secure, God’s people were prospering and victorious, and God’s king was reigning from the throne. All was well.
But in that idyllic scene, just like that day in Eden, the serpent stirred. Restless, discontented longings swirled through the heart of God’s king. Rather than lead his army out to battle, which was his responsibility as king, David stayed home, aimlessly puttering around his palace. The old saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings” is perhaps truer than we know. As days passed, the serpent’s coils tightened around David’s heart, and his restlessness increased. He ruled over God’s kingdom, all his enemies had been given into his hands, and the promise of everlasting dominion was his; what else could he possibly want? Yet he did want more. Just like Adam and Eve reached for even greater authority than what had been given them, David was not content with his kingdom.
Up on the parapet of his palace, surveying his domain, the glint of water caught his eye. He looked across his gardens and saw, on the flat roof of a neighboring house, a woman bathing. The serpent in his soul stirred. His first instinct was to look away, but then, listening to the voice of his heart’s restless whispering, he looked again. It was far enough away that he couldn’t make out all the details of her naked form, but that only served to heighten the sensuality of the moment, and he felt a rush of lust. A still small voice in his head suggested—a bit more strongly this time—that he look away. But once again, he overruled it, and his gaze lingered. The serpent in his soul struck, and the venom of covetousness coursed through his veins, silencing the voice of conscience. He moved quickly, without thought of repercussions, driven by an animal desire. He sent his servants to collect the woman. He was informed by his attendants—and upon her arrival, could plainly see—that this woman was Bathsheba, the wife of one of his closest, most trusted friends and lieutenants, Uriah. During the dark days when David was on the run from Saul, Uriah had been by his side (2 Samuel 23). At every pivotal moment in David’s life from that moment on—when he had spared Saul in the cave, when word reached him that Saul was dead, at his coronation, when he brought the ark of God to Jerusalem—Uriah had been there, a loyal and faithful friend. And now here was his friend’s wife standing before him. What would David do?
The tragic story that follows is well-known. Blinded by desire, David snuffs out the voice of reason. Ignoring Bathsheba’s protestations, he takes what he wants. After raping her—don’t sugar coat David’s actions as anything less than sexual assault—he discovers that he’s impregnated her. Desperately, David tries to cover up his crime by arranging for Uriah to take a leave of absence with his wife, so that everyone will assume the baby is Uriah’s. But faithful Uriah proves more noble than God’s chosen king and declines to leave his post. David, fully surrendered to the control of the serpent at this point, reaches a grim decision: Uriah must be “taken care of.” He secretly puts out a hit order on his old friend and arranges for the assassination to look like a battlefield accident.
Once Uriah’s murder was carried out and cleaned up, David breathed a sigh of relief. After a respectable period of mourning, David brought Bathsheba back to the palace and married her. No eyebrows were raised. No whispered rumors circulated. The king had covered up his crime and gotten away with rape and murder, and no one knew.
Except for One. David had hidden his actions, but he stood exposed before the eyes of the One to whom he had to give an account. God saw, God knew, and God’s anger burned against this king after his own heart. The prophet Nathan courageously confronted the king with devastating words of judgment: “Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight?… By this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:9,14).
David, to his credit, collapsed to the floor in repentance and tears, but the deed was done. Divine pardon was issued for the king—in itself an extravagant act of mercy for a rapist and murderer—but his crime would not be without consequences. God had promised that he would build David a house, an enduring dynasty. But now, just as in the wreckage of Eden, the judgment took aim at that promise of dominion: “The sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me.” The promise was not revoked, but it was irreversibly wrecked. David’s line, meant to rule as God’s restored regents, would now be wracked with infighting and evil. The rescue of the world had seemingly been irretrievably undermined.
The story continues, and the prophet’s destructive promise comes to pass. David’s once-peaceful household is consumed with rivalry and insurrection. Not just once, but twice, David is driven from his throne by rebellion. One of his sons—in a bitter parallel to David’s crime—rapes his own sister and is murdered by another brother. God proves faithful to his promise to preserve David and his house, but by the end of his life David is a broken man, full of regret and sadness, a shell of the mighty man of God he once was.
And thus David passes from the scene. The lion of the tribe of Judah, Abraham’s offspring, the seed of the woman, failed to crush the serpent’s head, and was instead destroyed by the devil’s poison. As the story of David’s line continued, every successive son of David failed to be the promised Snake Crusher. Even the great Solomon succumbed to idolatry and foolishness, and every one of his descendants was even worse. Mankind’s reptilian overlord remained on the throne of the universe, his dictatorship untroubled by Israel’s petty rulers.
And so God’s kingdom—begun with the glorious promise of a great reversal in the reign of David—begins a tragic slide towards oblivion. Civil war cleaves the kingdom in two, and David’s dynasty is left reigning over the scraps of a once-great empire. Each successive king pledges allegiance to Satan’s upside-down reign of terror, until Israel looks no different from the nations around it.
The ending of 2 Chronicles captures the grief of human rebellion and divine retribution, terminating in exile as God’s king is dragged off his throne, and God’s people are dragged away from their promised land:
The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy. Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. He gave them all into his hand.” (2 Chronicles 36:15-17)
The glorious temple that Solomon had constructed so that the presence of God would always dwell with the people of God was set on fire and torn down. The strong walls surrounding the city—symbolic of the divine protection that his people enjoyed—were dismantled. The invading Babylonians, agents of God’s wrath, slaughtered without pity. The blood of young and old, innocent and guilty alike, mingled in the streets. The book of Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah as a poetic eyewitness account of the carnage, vividly pictures the horror of exile and destruction of all kingdom hopes:
In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering them without pity… Women are raped in Zion, young women in the towns of Judah. Princes are hung up by their hands; no respect is shown to the elders. The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music. The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning. The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned! (Lamentations 2:21, 5:11-16)
“The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned!” With these words, the kingdom of David—a light of hope for all the world—is extinguished in darkness. Once again, judgment smashes the shattered kingdom of man into the dust, and Satan wins. Another victory racked up for the dragon.
THE RISING PROPHETIC TIDE
The sad story of David’s dynasty called into question all of God’s promises and dealings with his people. Where was the Lion who tramples evil at its source? Where was the offspring of Abraham who would extend the blessings of Eden across the globe? Where was the image-bearing King who would restore the lost dominion of Adam? As king after king fell into ruin, the remnant faithful of God’s people wondered anxiously where redemption would come from. And as the kingdom ultimately crumbled to dust, many wondered if God had at last abandoned his people utterly.
But even as God’s pilot project disintegrated into anarchy, God had not abandoned his mission to restore the universe through Abraham’s family. As the kingdom collapsed and God’s people were driven into exile, a rising prophetic tide began to point forward, towards a future redemption, a new and greater king who would finally accomplish what David and all his sons failed to do. He would crush the serpent’s head, return God’s presence to his people, and reestablish the kingdom.
As the story moved from kingdom to exile, the prophets increasingly spoke of a new King, God’s servant who would be anointed not just with the oil of kingship but with the Spirit of divine empowerment. They also spoke of a new Country, a renewed promised land where God’s presence would reside, where the people of God would once again dwell secure and the nations of the earth would come to submit to the God of Israel. The promised servant king would rebuild David’s dynasty, gather God’s scattered people, erect a new temple where God would dwell, and carry the blessing of Abraham to the ends of the earth. Eden would overtake the earth and everything would be made new again. God’s kingdom, where his presence resides and his king reigns, would be reestablished, never to fall again. This messianic expectation of king and country restored is the theme flowing through all the prophets.
A RESTORED KING
The prophet Isaiah, speaking a hundred years before the exile, saw the approaching destruction of God’s king and country. And yet, through the smoke of defeat, he glimpsed the emerging form of the new king, a vision that grew clearer and clearer as his prophecies progressed. He saw the coming judgment as an axe cutting into the tree of David’s dynasty, until it would finally come crashing down:
Though a tenth remain in the land, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:13)
David’s kingdom, like a felled oak tree, scorched with fire twice over: the double finality of judgment. And yet in the darkness there is a mysterious ray of light: “The holy seed is its stump.” David’s tree will be toppled and burned, but a stump will remain, a “holy seed.” In this strange word of hope, hear the echoes of a more ancient promise: the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head, the seed of Abraham who will bring God’s blessing to the whole world. Who or what is this seed that Isaiah sees?
His prophecy continues, and soon we meet the seed again, this time sprouting with new growth from the seemingly-lifeless stump of David’s family. And what’s more, this seed, flowering into a shoot and growing into a branch, is a person—a person empowered by God’s Spirit to reign with wisdom and justice and succeed where David failed:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isaiah 11:1-5)
Here at last is a picture of the king we have been looking for. Wisdom and justice and strength and power, not used to prop up his own authority, but spent on behalf of the poor and weak. From his throne will finally flow undiluted justice, a justice that penetrates beyond the surface and exposes every heart. Evil will be rolled back and crushed, and the great reversal first imagined in Hannah’s song and glimpsed in David’s life will come to full fruition: the self-reliant will perish and the meek will inherit the earth.
And out of this great reversal will flower a great restoration, reversing the curse of Genesis 3 and sweeping across the benighted globe, a remade paradise spreading the aroma of Eden everywhere. Everything sad will come untrue, everything broken will be fixed, everything out of joint will be healed. The great Davidic king, whose humble beginnings were pictured as a tender sprout out of a charred stump, will grow greater and greater until he is a mighty tree, under which all the nations of the earth find shelter, restitution, and wholeness. The prophecy continues:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:6-10)
Isaiah glimpses the end of the story, when the new Eden has expanded to fill the cosmos, the “knowledge of the LORD” has replaced the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil on the lips of God’s people, and the great King reigns from his throne over the remade world. All this Isaiah sees before the exile, and records as a vision of hope for God’s people. Though every promise seems chopped down, God is not done restoring the kingdom.
Other prophets during the long night of exile pick up on Isaiah’s imagery of a growing tree and look forward with anticipation to the rebuilding of David’s throne when every wrong will be made right. They point to a mysterious union between this king and his people. Simply by virtue of a righteous king sitting on the throne, the whole kingdom will be made participants in his righteousness. Just as David defeated the giant and all God’s people reaped the reward, so this king’s victory over sin will be his people’s victory over sin. The weeping prophet Jeremiah dries his eyes long enough to see the approaching fulfillment of all God’s promises:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ (Jeremiah 23:5-6)
The prophet Zechariah, living in the difficult days following the first return of the people to Jerusalem, also saw the coming of the Branch of David who would rebuild the throne and temple, thus reuniting the human dominion and divine presence that had characterized Eden:
Behold, the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD. It is he who shall build the temple of the LORD and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. (Zechariah 6:12-13)
Daniel, whose prophetic dreams were put into the service of the king of Babylon, saw a fiery vision of the apocalyptic arrival of this messianic king. In Daniel’s vision, this king is more than just the son of David, fulfilling God’s promises to the people of Israel. This king’s lineage reaches farther back to fulfill more ancient prophecies; he is the “Son of Man,” the ultimate human, Adam’s better son who wields the dominion and image-bearing that his father lost and inherits a restored kingdom that will never be overthrown:
Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
Adam’s son gathers together what was scattered at Babel. He will reunite every people group and nation and language under the banner of a global monarch. A new humanity, led by an everlasting human ruler, is the glorious portrait of the coming messianic king and kingdom.
A HUMBLE SERVANT
Who would this great, universal Davidic king be? Some of the prophets indicate that he would be a mighty warrior; “with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Yet a growing prophetic consensus pointed to a more nuanced portrait of the messianic king. Yes, he would rule with a rod of iron, crush the serpent’s head, and deliver his people from all their enemies. However, the prophets also spoke of a king who would reign as a servant, a conqueror who was defined by his humility, a healer who worked with gentleness and compassion.
The exilic prophet Ezekiel looked forward to the day when God would raise up a new shepherd king, like the first David, who would gather God’s scattered people as a shepherd gathers his flock:
I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be prey. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken. (Ezekiel 34:22-24)
The shattered house of David would reign once more, but this time the kingship would look different. Shepherding, while often used as an imagery of kingdom leadership by the prophets, was in actuality a dirty, smelly, “blue-collar” job, the ultimate picture of lowliness. The idea of a shepherd king, while harkening back to the early days of David, was itself a seeming contradiction, like a “janitorial president.” The two concepts simply did not go together: kingship was exalted while shepherding was debased. As we have seen, the values of God’s kingdom frequently sound strange to our upside-down ears. What sounds to us like a contradiction is simply the distant rumbling of wrongs being made right.
Other prophets saw the contradiction as well and heralded its coming. The prophet Micah saw a king rising from the distant horizon of the future whose origins were simultaneously humble and heroic:
You, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days… And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:2-5)
From David’s little town of Bethlehem, a tiny backwater village of no great importance, a great ruler would arise. And while his humble origins might lead many to dismiss him, the prophet Micah looked past the uninspiring exterior and saw a more epic backstory: a lineage traced “from ancient days,” running back through every promise to the original promise of Genesis 3:15 and beyond. Wrapped in humble appearance, this shepherd-king’s reign would expand to encompass the ends of the earth in a worldwide kingdom of peace.
The prophet Daniel foresaw the compelling contradictions of this great king in his intense visions. As he looked down the centuries and the rise and fall of empires, he saw a rolling stone crushing all rival reigns and growing to be a mountain that filled the earth (Daniel 2:34-35): a picture of both the small origins and worldwide extent of the coming kingdom. Daniel concluded:
And in those days the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever. (Daniel 2:44)
And yet that great kingdom started out small—a rolling stone gathering speed and weight until it destroyed all its enemies. The surprising (or, if we’ve been tracking with the values of this kingdom, perhaps not so surprising) twist comes from the mouth of the arrogant pagan ruler Nebuchadnezzar himself:
The Most High rules over the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men. (Daniel 4:17)
“He sets over it the lowliest of men;” here is as clear an articulation of the priorities of heaven as anything else we’ve seen, and ties together what we’ve seen so far. From the little town of Bethlehem, a humble ruler, a rolling stone, the lowliest of men, will arise and build a kingdom that topples every rival reign and fills the earth.
The prophet Zechariah also highlighted this seeming contradiction of humble royalty as he pictured a conquering king riding to the rescue of his people, using the humblest barnyard animal as his mode of transportation:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he; humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:9-10)
Once again, the tension between greatness and lowliness is palpable. A mighty ruler coming to his people in victory and righteousness, yet robed in and carried by humility. Meekness and majesty crush opposition with words of peace, until his kingdom of lowliness fills the whole world.
Later in his prophecies, Isaiah took the picture of the Davidic Branch who would reign as a universal king and turned it on its head, just like all the other prophets do. This coming restoration would arrive in a surprising form; the mighty king would in fact be a servant. Isaiah’s “Servant Songs” trace the outlines of an unexpected messiah:
Behold, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)
So far, so good. He appears to be referencing David’s Branch who will grow into a tree that brings Spirit-empowered justice and righteousness to the ends of the earth. But then Isaiah’s vision takes a surprising turn:
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah 42:2-4)
The great oak tree of David from Isaiah 11 is now a gentle servant, bringing about universal justice not through brute force but through the quiet stewardship of weakness. Another prophecy from Isaiah expands the role of this servant who gently lifts up the lowly:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit. (Isaiah 61:1-2)
The poor lifted up, broken hearts healed, prisoners freed, mourning turned to gladness, despair turned to dancing; it’s as if Hannah’s song from 1 Samuel 2 about God turning Satan’s counterfeit kingdom upside down was taking on flesh and blood and fulfilling all of God’s promises to his people:
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength… He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Samuel 2:4,8)
The dim outlines of that great reversal were first seen in the humble and heroic King David, but now that David’s kingdom had collapsed, the prophets insisted that God’s true great reversal was still future, and was more literal than God’s people had imagined. The greatest king the world had ever known wouldn’t just exhibit a modicum of modesty; he would be defined by humility. The universal ruler of the cosmos would be a humbler servant and lowlier shepherd than David ever had been. The desperate, pompous strength and pride of serpent-enslaved humanity would be shattered more completely than ever thought possible. The poor and meek and needy would be lifted up far higher than they had ever dreamed.
The climax of all the servant-shepherd-king-conqueror prophecies is Isaiah 53, which describes the messianic servant in graphic and surprising terms. The “Servant Song” starts off as one would expect, with the exalted status of the Davidic king:
Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. (Isaiah 52:13)
But this exaltation will look far different than we could have ever expected. It will be an inverse exaltation, ultimate greatness by way of ultimate lowliness, the reversal of Hannah’s song taken to its most extreme:
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not… But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3,5)
This messianic servant, the same servant who, Isaiah said, would reign over a remade world, would also be crushed under the weight of his people’s sin, pierced by the fangs of the serpent even as his foot came down on the old reptile’s head. A suffering, victorious, human Savior—the same outlines dimly seen in the ashes of Eden, now painted here in vivid, bloody color. And somehow, through methods yet unseen by Isaiah, this king’s wounds would be his people’s healing. By absorbing the serpent’s poison, his people would be freed from the reptile’s grasp; by bearing the just punishment that rebels deserve, those very same rebels would be brought into his kingdom.
The finality of the serpent’s bite would seem to be the end of this messianic servant, but the song continues. It soon becomes clear that all the exaltation that the other prophecies speak of belongs to this King not by virtue of his royalty, but because of the ransom he paid. Here at the end of Isaiah 53, the global dominion of the Son of David is the only sufficient reward for his humility and sacrifice:
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:11-12)
This servant king inherits the cosmos, ascends to the throne of the universe, and restores our upside-down world, all because of the exceeding value of his sacrificial death for his people. The New Testament will identify the ultimate fulfillment of the great reversal pictured in Hannah’s song. In the gospels, the greatest possible act of humility yields the greatest possible exaltation, as Jesus of Nazareth is dragged down to the grave by the serpent’s venom and then kicks down the gates of hell from the inside out and rises to assume his reign as the King of kings and Lord of lords.
All of this is woven throughout the prophetic narrative but, at this point in the story, is still future. For God’s people, cast out of God’s country along with their deposed king, are still homeless and in exile. So, in addition to a vision of the coming king, the prophets also speak of a restored country, a rebuilt temple, a new Jerusalem, where God would dwell with his people and never leave them again.
A RESTORED COUNTRY
God’s kingdom exists wherever God’s presence resides and God’s king reigns. The prophets looked forward to the reinstatement of God’s chosen human king, but what about God’s presence with his people? This defining characteristic of God’s kingdom seemed shattered at the exile. The temple lay in smoking ruins, Zion was reduced to rubble, and the people were slaves in a pagan land. Had God abandoned them?
The prophets’ decisive answer was, “No!” God had not abandoned his people, and his plans to recreate Eden and extend blessing to the ends of the earth had not been derailed by their rebellion. The prophet Jeremiah, writing from the wreckage of the fallen kingdom, assured them that the exile had an expiration date:
When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:10)
But the people would not be coming back to the same old, worn-out ruins that they had left behind. All the prophets spoke of the post-exilic kingdom as far greater than anything that had come before, the fulfillment of all God’s promises through history. Along with a renewed human ruler would come a renewed country, a promised land of fellowship with God which would expand until it filled the whole world. Isaiah spoke of people returning to deserts blossoming into abundance and joy-giving streams flowing in the wilderness:
For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song… And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51:3,11)
All creation, Isaiah said, would come alive before the returning exiles, bending once again to the image-bearing rightful rulers of the world:
For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)
Rising to match this restored world, God’s people would themselves be righteous. Throwing off the serpent’s coils, with renewed hearts and renewed minds, they would never again be driven from their homes by sin. The prophet Obadiah confidently spoke of a kingdom replanted on Mount Zion and populated by a holy people:
In Mount Zion there shall be those who escape, and it shall be holy, and the house of Jacob shall possess their own possessions… Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau, and the kingdom shall be the LORD’s. (Obadiah 17,21)
Zephaniah, near the very end of David’s kingdom, foresaw the day when this upside-down world will be shaken out and turned right-ways up again. Pride and self-reliant strength would be seen for the emptiness that they really are, and the humble and lowly would inherit a new kingdom that would endure in righteousness forever:
On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD, those who are left in Israel; they shall do no injustice and speak no lies, nor shall there be found in their mouth a deceitful tongue. For they shall graze and lie down, and none shall make them afraid. (Zephaniah 3:11-13)
This restored blessing and righteousness would, the prophets said, have the effect of a sort of inverted exile. Rather than God’s people being driven into the nations because their sin, the nations would instead come streaming to God’s people because of their righteousness and the presence of God among them. Zechariah, mere years before the end of the exile, saw a future for Jerusalem of such security and prosperity that the city would not need any walls. Instead of nations coming to destroy, they would be coming to join themselves to God’s people:
Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it… Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall become my people. And I will dwell in your midst. (Zechariah 2:10-11)
The pre-exilic prophet Micah predicted a day when the new temple mount in Jerusalem would be so exalted, it would be as if gravity were reversed, and nations would flow like a river uphill and into the presence of God:
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come. (Micah 4:1)
The prophet Haggai, who encouraged the returned exiles to rebuild the temple, said that foreign nations would be drawn to the glory of God’s restored country and would bring their treasures into God’s new house:
Thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the LORD of hosts. (Haggai 2:6-9)
The prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of this new temple, and his vision is full of symbolism, bringing all the prophecies of the coming messianic age together. An angel takes him into the future on a tour of the restored dwelling place of God, far greater than Solomon’s temple. At the end of the tour, in chapter 47 of his prophecy, Ezekiel sees a strange sight: a trickle of water flowing out of the door of the temple. He follows the trickle and is surprised to find the flow of water growing; soon the stream is ankle-deep, then knee-deep, then waist-deep. The river, mysteriously ever-deepening and widening, is soon a torrent than cannot be crossed. Following the course of the river, we find it flowing into the Dead Sea—an arid, salty wilderness devoid of life. But as the water flows into the Dead Sea, it restores the sea to life. Ezekiel sees trees sprouting up along its banks, transforming the desert into a lush garden. Life returns to the salty sea and it becomes full of fish, with fisherman filling its banks to harvest its bounty. The angel accompanying Ezekiel describes the scene:
When the water flows into the Dead Sea, the water will be healed. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the Dead Sea may be healed; so everything will live where the river goes… And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves will be for healing. (Ezekiel 47:8-9,12)
The New Testament book of Revelation picks up the same imagery, with the apostle John being given an angelic tour of the same God-inhabited city and same life-giving river:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
What Ezekiel sees is nothing less than the restoration of creation, the raising to life of everything dead and the healing of everything broken—all flowing from the new temple where God will dwell. This is the end of the story, the climax to which the whole biblical narrative has been moving: a return to an upgraded, expanded Eden, where divine blessing waters the whole world, flowing from the throne, where God’s presence resides and God’s people “reign forever and ever.”
The end of the story seems in sight, right around the corner. The post-exile future that the prophets promised was that of greater glory, more lasting peace, deeper righteousness, and a more enduring kingdom, filling the whole world and bringing all nations in to participate in the blessing. Coming soon, they said, was the fulfillment of all the promises. God’s king would once again reign, and God’s people would dwell secure in God’s country. God would dwell with his people, blessing would flow from David’s throne, and the offspring of Abraham would finally usher in the worldwide blessing that had been hoped for ever since Eden. Everything was about to come true. Jeremiah even seemed to put a time on it: seventy years from the first wave of exiles (Jeremiah 29:10), and the redemption of all things would begin.
THE ANTI-CLIMAX OF EXILE
But something strange happens. At the moment when all of God’s promises are expected to break through, everything seems to suddenly stall in a strange anti-climax. The rising tide of expectation, the prophetic anticipation, the eager longing of God’s people, all seem to linger in a partially-fulfilled twilight. The first hint that the rollout of renewed king and country might not arrive as we expect comes to Daniel. Daniel, doing the math, realizes that the 70 years forecast by Jeremiah is about to end, and on his knees he asks God to fulfill that promise and bring his people home:
In the first year of Darius, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet, must pass before the end of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. (Daniel 9:1-2)
Daniel prays a beautiful prayer of repentance, confessing the sins of the people and putting hope in God’s great mercy. In response to his prayer, an angel comes with a devastating answer: not seventy years, but seventy “sevens” of years:
“Seventy sevens are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.” (Daniel 9:24)
Seventy sevens? If the true end of exile is not seventy years, but four hundred and ninety years, then the fulfillment of all the glorious promises of king and country must still be in the distant future, even as Jeremiah’s promise does in fact come true with the proclamation by King Cyrus that the exiles are allowed to return to Jerusalem.
And so the story of God’s people enters a strange, drawn-out period of anticipation, chronicled in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (which were originally one book placed near the very end of the Hebrew Scriptures). People are returning to the promised land, but it does not appear as the prophets said it would. The structure of the book of Ezra-Nehemiah itself highlights this mystery of unfulfillment. The book is divided into three sections, with each section centering on three main characters: Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Each section follows the same pattern: prompted by God, the Persian king authorizing rebuilding in Jerusalem—an answer to prayer and the seeming-fulfillment of promises. But then, in each section, rather than this answered prayer flowering into fulfillment, the leader faces opposition. The leader is able to overcome that opposition, but as the writers of the Bible Project point out, they “overcome, but in a way that leads to a strange anti-climax.”
In the first section, Zerubbabel leads a wave of exiles back to Jerusalem and constructs the new temple. But at the celebration of dedication, when the fiery cloud of God’s glory is supposed to descend just like at the tabernacle and first temple, this time nothing happens. God’s presence, which Ezekiel had seen abandon the temple, does not return. Rather than “the latter glory of this house” being greater than the former, the elders who remember the first temple weep when the see the far inferior replacement (Ezra 3:12). The new temple is nothing like their glorious past or their hopes for the future.
The next section jumps forward sixty years and introduces us to Ezra, a teacher of the Law who has come to Jerusalem to bring about spiritual renewal. He finds the returned exiles marrying the people of the land, some of whom were of Jewish descent and some of whom weren’t. Enraged, he gathers the leaders of Israel and forces through a decree ordering them to divorce their “foreign” wives. What’s strange and anti-climactic about this scene is two-fold: one, while God did forbid the intermarriage of his people with Canaanites in Deuteronomy 23:1-4, the prophets had seemed to be heralding a new age in redemptive history, when the nations “would join themselves to the LORD” and be united to his people. And two, the contemporary prophet Malachi made it clear that God hated divorce. And yet the divorce decree is carried out—although only partially, and then the story of Ezra abruptly ends, a puzzling reversal of the promises of God.
The third section centers on Nehemiah. Years later, the city of Jerusalem is slowly rebuilt, but still lies mostly in ruins. Nehemiah is grieved over the shame of God’s people, and is sent by the king of Persia to rectify the situation. But here again we run into a tension between the promise of the prophets and the reality on the ground. The contemporary prophet Zechariah said that Jerusalem would be a city without walls, surrounded by God’s presence, into which the nations would stream. But rather than building a wall-less paradise of peace, Nehemiah seems to operate with the opposite vision. He immediately begins rebuilding the walls to defend against enemies on all sides (Nehemiah 3).
The book concludes with a spiritual revival—a great celebration, instruction from the Torah, and prayers of repentance. It appears that the people are embracing true holiness and fear of the Lord, as the prophets had foretold… but they’re not. The final chapter of Ezra-Nehemiah shows all the work of those three leaders falling apart: Zerubbabel’s temple being neglected, Ezra’s spiritual reforms being ignored, and Nehemiah’s construction project being misused.
And then, on that discouraging note, the book ends, as does the Old Testament history and all the prophets. Everything suddenly… stops. All of our hopes of a new Davidic king and new restored kingdom, which the prophets had raised so high, are seemingly dashed. None of it happens. Even though God’s people are back in the promised land, it doesn’t look like what God’s Country is supposed to look like. And rather than God’s King reigning with wisdom and justice, the people are still under the thumb of a foreign dictator, and David’s dynasty is still a chopped-down stump. Instead of divine blessing flowing out with life-giving power, drawing the nations to the God of Israel and overturning all of hell’s upside-down values, everything seems stuck just the way it’s always been.
THE COMING JUBILEE
What does it all mean, this anti-climactic collapse at the end of the Old Testament? It means that redemption was still future. God’s promises had not failed; they were simply still unfulfilled future. The prophets hadn’t gotten it wrong; the great King and restored kingdom were still coming, rising over the horizon of the future. They were just out of reach and yet so close you could almost see them coming. It was still night, but dawn was breaking; all the pages of the Old Testament whispered it.
But as the years and decades and centuries dragged by, the night seemed so long. The exile, while it had technically come to an end with Jeremiah’s 70 years, still stretched on. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright observes:
“To put it simply, most Jews of Jesus’s day did not believe that the exile was really, properly over. Yes, they’d come back from Babylon—well, some of them, anyway. Yes, they’d rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. But pagan foreigners were still ruling over them. They were still slaves in their own land, as Ezra and Nehemiah complain: ‘Here we are, slaves to this day.’ The great promises of Isaiah and Ezekiel hadn’t yet come true.”
But there’s a ray of hope. Go back to the depressing answer given to Daniel—not just seventy years, but seventy sevens—and ponder the meaning behind the numbers. N.T. Wright elaborates, in a long quote well-worth reproducing in its entirety:
“The idea of “seventy times seven” has a particular ring to it, more obvious to an ancient Jew than to us today. Every seven days, they had a Sabbath. Every seven years, they had a sabbatical year. And every seven-times-seven years, they had—or at least they were supposed to have had, according to Leviticus—a jubilee. This was when slaves were freed, when land sold off by the family was restored to its original owner, when things got put back as they should be.
But seventy times seven? That sounds like a jubilee of jubilees! So, though four hundred and ninety years—nearly half a millennium—is indeed a long time, the point is this: when the time finally arrives, it will be the greatest “redemption” of all. This will be the time of real, utter, and lasting freedom.”
This, at long last, was the approaching culmination of everything we’ve longed for since Eden. Ever since Genesis 3, royal humanity had been enslaved to our demonic tyrant; the world that rightly belongs to us has been confiscated by his treachery, and everything turned upside-down. But now a “Jubilee of Jubilees” was coming—a time when slaves would be freed, original ownership would be restored, and things would be put back as they should be. The great reversal was coming. The long night of interminable exile—not just exile from Canaan but from Eden—was coming to a close. Redemption was drawing near. The serpent-crushing seed of the woman, the world-blessing offspring of Abraham, the victorious Lion of Judah, the glorious Branch of David, was on his way.