Exploring Dependence – After the Exile
The Old Testament is the story of Israel’s relationship with God. As we have surveyed this story, the following highlights stand out:
- As God brought Israel out of Egypt, and began to form them into a nation, He used the manna to teach them that their continued, daily existence was absolutely dependent on His active decree. They were kept alive, not by the food they ate, but by the words that proceeded out of His mouth (Deuteronomy 8:3). He was preparing them for life in the Promised Land, where He would bless them abundantly. In the midst of that blessing, they must not become confused and forget that He, not their own effort, was the source of that wealth. Such confusion would lead to the worship other gods (Deuteronomy 8:5-19).
- While the manna only lasted for 40 years, the lesson was perpetuated in the system of the Sabbaths (Leviticus 23-25).
- The Sabbath system included a Sabbath year as well as a Sabbath Day. Every 7th year, they were to let the land lay fallow and trust that God would cause it to produce enough in the 6th year to last them through the 8th year. In this, they would be reminded of their dependence, and experience His provision.
- However, there is no biblical record of them ever celebrating a Sabbath Year. By the time we get to 2 Chronicles 36:20-21, they owed 70 Sabbath Years, and Yahweh sends them into captivity for those 70 years. For 490 years, the people of Israel refused to trust God as their Provider. Thus, they became proud, and chased after other gods, just as Yahweh said they would. But that was the effect, not the cause.
- The cause was that they lost the core of their relationship with God. The did not recognize Him as their Provider and Protector.
So, the Exile was God’s discipline to reinforce His message to them from the very beginning – He was their Provider and Protector, and was to be the sole object of their affection.
Which raises the question, “Did Israel learn their lesson from the Exile?”
The Exile began with multiple deportations (605 BC – 586 BC) that culminated with the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple. Likewise, the end of the Exile and the Return to the Promised Land was progressive -
- Babylon, who had carried Judah into captivity under Nebuchadnezzar was overthrown by Persia. In 538 BC, the Persian king, Cyrus allowed the Exiles to return to their land.
- In 537 BC, the first group of about 50,000 exiles returned to the Land. They laid the foundation of the Temple in 536 BC (Ezra 1-6).
- In March, 515 BC, the completed Second Temple was dedicated (Ezra 6:15).
- In 458 BC, a second group of about 5,000 exiles returned (Ezra 6-10).
- In 444 BC, a third group of about 42,000 exiles returned (Book of Nehemiah).
During this period, Yahweh spoke to Israel through the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. In their messages, it is clear that Israel still had significant problems.
Haggai prophesied in 520 BC, addressing the first group of returnees, during the period when the Temple was being rebuilt. Because of opposition, work on the Temple had stopped for 16 years. By the time of Haggai, the people were were unwilling to make the Temple, God’s house, a priority (Haggai 1:2) although they had built luxurious houses for themselves (1:3). As a result, God frustrated their efforts to provide for themselves (1:6, 9) and withheld His blessing (1:10-11). In spite of all of this, the people of Israel did not repent (2:14-17). Note how He characterized their problem in this passage – it was not just that they refused to build the Temple; it was what that refusal represented – a failure to return to Him (2:17). Conversely, making the completion of the Temple a priority (1:8; 2:18) would bring His renewed blessing (2:19).
Malachi writes sometime later, probably during the events of the book of Nehemiah, which covered 445-420 BC. Here again, the people of Israel do not respond to God as their Provider. Instead of bringing the best of their flock for sacrifices, they were bringing the leftovers – the blind, lame, sick, even stolen animals (Malachi 1:7-14). Instead of acknowledging their dependence on Him by giving Him the first 10 percent of their crops, they were withholding their tithe, robbing Him (3:8-9). As a result, the yield of their crops was insufficient. But, again, if they would make His house a priority, He promised to provide abundantly (3:10-12).
So, throughout the post-Exilic period, Israel continues to struggle in their relationship with God. Instead of making His agenda a priority, they cling to what little they have, unwilling to trust His promises. Israel persistently returns to this path throughout the Old Testament.
While these struggles are manifested in their failure to perform activities that we think of as religious, the problem is not ritualistic. The problem is that they do not see God as Provider and Protector.
Ergo, the solution is not more or better religious activity. The solution is to abandon any hope not rooted in God’s provision and protection, and simply trust Him. This is the essence of obedience, and the heart of the worship that God desires.