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Longing for the Kingdom of God: From Magnificence to Exile

5 March, 2008

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Matt Tuininga on the Kingdom of God, part 2:

Christians have always been quite conscious of the physicality of the Old Testament. In fact, it was offense at the Old Testament’s preoccupation with peoples, lands, and nations of this world, that helped create some of the great heresies of the early church, such as Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Manichaeism. Many of the proponents of these heresies simply could not accept that the God of the physically minded Old Testament could be the same as the the God of the spiritual New Testament.

On the other hand, orthodox Christian theology has always insisted that our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is deeply concerned with his creation. He has always maintained for himself a physical people, promising to make them into a great nation, one through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. In short, God promised to build a real, physical kingdom.

God promised that he would give his people a king long before the days of Samuel and Saul (Deu 17:14-15; Cf. Gen 49:10). Yet it was only in the days of King David that God committed himself to one house: the dynasty of David. When he established David’s throne God promised the shepherd-turned warrior that unlike the kingdom of Saul, his kingdom would last forever. “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:13-17).

Under David’s son Solomon, Israel rose to great glory, finally conquering all the enemies within the boundaries of its promised inheritance. For a time, Israel enjoyed peace, and the Scriptures tell us that the people were even happy.

Nevertheless, the kingdom didn’t last. Solomon himself turned away from the Lord, and shortly after his death, most of the tribes rejected his son Rehoboam. Two kingdoms, Israel and Judah resulted, but neither would ever rise to the glory of David and Solomon. The Israelite people began a long, depressing slide into decadence, powerlessness, and eventually, exile. Finally, at the hands of the Babylonians, Jerusalem was conquered, the Davidic monarchy destroyed, and the people taken into exile. The kingdom was destroyed.

I have often heard it said that during the exile in Babylon, Israel faced a two kingdoms scenario similar to the church today. Strictly speaking, however, this is not true. True, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles that they should not only build homes and families, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:4-7). Learning to dwell with the enemy in peace is not a kingdom, however.

Whatever common experiences Christians might share with exiled Israelites, therefore, no Israelite would have thought of his exile to Babylon as giving him membership in any kingdom other than evil Babylon. Godly Israelites knew that their Lord promised them a physical kingdom, with a physical king, in the physical promised land. They knew this kingdom had been destroyed, and they longed for its return. It was out of this time period that one of the most heart-wrenching songs of the psalter was written:

By the waters of Babylon,

There we sat down and wept,

When we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs,

And our tormentors, mirth, saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

Israel’s enemies taunted her people for the loss of their kingdom, urging them to sing songs of celebration. Faithful Israelites were too overwhelmed with sorrow, however, knowing they could find no comfort in Babylon. They were determined not to forget the kingdom of God.

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!

Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,

If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

After invoking curses upon themselves if they forget God’s kingdom, the Israelite mourners of the psalm call God to bring vengeance on Israel’s enemies. Yet hope in God’s final deliverance can be discerned in the bitter words of cursing:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,

Blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137)

Israel’s faithful struggled to obey Jeremiah’s call to persevere, even pray for their enemies, in the midst of discouragement and despondency. Yet God did not fail to encourage his people through prophets, prophets who promised that the kingdom would be re-established. In fact, the throne of David itself would be re-established. Ezekiel provided the word of the LORD,

My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. (Ezekiel 37:24-26)

The prophets were clear that Israel would return to the land. Yet when the kingdom was reestablished it would not just be for the people of Israel. As the prophet Isaiah had said years before, on the mountain of Jerusalem,

The LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine … And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)

Israel was at the lowest of lows in its time of exile in Babylon, but there was hope for the future. A messiah would come, and not only would he save Israel from all her enemies, he would bring her enemies to Jerusalem in peace, converting the nations. The faithful in Israel believed this, and they hoped for the return of the king.

~Matt T.

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4 Comments
  1. 5 March, 2008 12:39 pm

    I enjoyed this, thanks!

  2. Jamie Duguid permalink
    6 March, 2008 1:57 am

    All right, an Ezekiel reference!

  3. 6 March, 2008 12:28 pm

    “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:4-7)

    Wow, who would have thought that the concept of evangelism is found in the Old Testament! Great post, I thouroughly enjoyed it.

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