Exile and Restoration
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.” Isa 9:2 NRSV
The prophet Isaiah lived at an unusual point in the history of the Israelite people. His prophetic ministry overlapped the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 722 BCE and their subsequent siege of Jerusalem in the days of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 19). The beginning chapters of the book warn Judah of their impending doom if they follow in the unjust and idolatrous footsteps of their sister Israel. Yet, even in the midst of proclaiming the darkest woes upon the unfaithful people, Isaiah offers great words of hope in Isaiah 9:1-7 and 11:1-9. Herein lies one of the most important theological motifs of scripture. When God’s people disobey God, they are punished and sent into exile. However, even before their exile begins, God plans their ultimate restoration and return.
This pattern of disobedience, punishment, exile, and restoration is clearly illustrated in the Babylonian captivity. In spite of Isaiah’s grave warnings (Isa 1:18-20), the people refuse to heed the call to repentance. Instead they persist in their twin evils of injustice and idolatry. As God allows the Assyrians to conquer Israel in the days of Isaiah, so God allows the Babylonians to conquer Judah in 586 BCE, ransacking the Temple and forcing the Judahites into exile in Babylon. In the midst of this desolation, God proclaims a word of comfort and return (Isa 40:1-5). After a generation in exile, the prophecies become true. King Cyrus of Persia liberates the Jews and sends them home to rebuild their Temple and society (Isa 45).
On a larger level, this is the basic narrative of the entire Christian scriptures. The story begins with God’s work of creation followed by an act of disobedience (Gen 3:1-7), which results in exile from the Garden (Gen 3:22-24). However, God does not leave humanity without hope. As God’s covenant with Abraham indicates, God plans a way by which to bless all the families of the earth through the lineage of one man (Gen 12:1-3). Then in the time of the prophets, Isaiah foresees a day when God will break “the yoke of their burden” and “the bar across their shoulders (Isa 9:4).” Isaiah connects this moment of salvation with the coming of a son who is called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” When this mighty ruler comes, there will be “endless peace” and a time of eternal justice and righteousness (Isa 9:6-7). Isaiah’s prophecy is ultimately fulfilled when Jesus is born and begins his ministry in the region of the Galilee–an area of darkness upon which a great light shines (Mt 4:12-17). God’s plan to restore all things continues through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus until it culminates in the book of Revelation with the creation of a new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:1-7). The story comes full circle in the final chapter of the Bible when humanity eats again from the tree of life, ending the time of exile (Rev 22:1-2).
A Restorative God
Once one grasps this central theme of scripture, one comes to a profound realization regarding the fundamental reality of God. The nature of God is always oriented toward restoration. Even in the midst of punishment, God works to return God’s people to their original state of blessing and fruitfulness.
This truth of God is littered throughout the prophets but just two further examples will suffice to illustrate this point. In Isaiah 62, God speaks of the vindication of Jerusalem saying, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married (Isa 62:4).” This statement shows God’s desire to totally transform the people and their land into something new and beautiful. The prophet Hosea echoes this radical prediction for the future. In the book of Hosea, the people of Israel are compared to an unfaithful wife who is sent away because of her sins. Yet, as God sends the people away, God makes this promise, “Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her (Hos 2:14).” This prophecy makes clear the radical love and mercy of God. God’s immediate plans to punish are the means through which God will eventually bring redemption. The New Testament expresses this truth in a terse and straightforward manner, “This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:3-4).”
A Restorative People
If the nature of God is to always work toward restoration, this theological truth creates a pattern for God’s people to follow. In everyday life, God’s people should constantly pursue restoration. While this sounds abstract and idealistic, a few examples will be given of how one might emulate the character of God.
To pursue restoration means to heal and forgive broken relationships. In many human relationships, people hold onto grudges because of wrongs committed years ago. In some cases, the grudge may be justifiable given the nature of the wrong or the unrepentant attitude of the perpetrator. However, the nature of God is to offer grace and mercy to even the vilest offender. Can, then, God’s people offer grace to those who have wronged them?
To pursue restoration means to offer unmerited second chances. For a teacher, this may mean finding a way to work with a student guilty of cheating. For a job supervisor, this may mean giving an employee a second chance to meet the requirements of a job even when the employee probably deserves to be terminated. For a parent, this means having a long-term vision for one’s child. How can one work to grow a child into an adult that lives a life of faith in God and walks in God’s abundant way of living? Too often, it is easy for teachers, supervisors, and parents to narrowly focus on the present moment. The nature of God shows another way. Christians should interact with others on the basis of who they might become someday by the grace of God, a grace universally given to all people without discrimination.
When God’s people participate in God’s work of restoration, even in small moments at home or at work, they further fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that light will shine on people who dwell in darkness. In so doing, Christians become an instrument through which God shines goodness and mercy on people oppressed by a world that has become poisoned by sin and death. This daily offering of grace and forgiveness is ultimately a small part of God’s greater plan to bring God’s children home from exile to dwell with God for all eternity.
Featured image of the Tigris River from Tadaram Alasadro Maradas on Flickr. Used under creative commons license.