Solomon’s reign, climaxed by the opening of the temple in Jerusalem, was without a doubt Israel’s finest hour. But as we saw last week, there were cracks in the foundations. In the centuries that followed, the whole thing would be reduced to a mountain of sand and gravel and twisted steel.
There was ample evidence, even in the height of Israel’s glory, that Israel had forgotten its story. Israel had forgotten that they were a nation of slaves that had been delivered from Egypt by God for the express purpose of reflecting the image of God to all the world and bringing the deliverance they had experienced to all the peoples of the world. In many ways, they became the very thing that God had delivered them from.
What did God do about this? He sent the prophets. A goodly portion of the Old Testament is devoted to the writings of prophets who came to Israel in the years and centuries that followed, reminding Israel of their story and identity and calling them back to that. But they did not listen. And ultimately the exile of the Israelite soul became actual, physical exile.
It started right after Solomon’s death. His son Rehoboam was a rash young man who promised to be much more the brutal tyrant than Solomon ever was. The ten northern tribes of Israel couldn’t take any more of this, so they appointed their own king and broke away. Less than forty years after the opening of the temple, the kingdom of Israel was divided in two.
From there it only went downhill. The northern kingdom, which retained the name Israel, slid into idolatry and corruption and within two centuries the Assyrians came and wiped them completely and totally off the map. The ten tribes that made up that kingdom were never seen or heard from again.
The southern kingdom, also known as Judah, fared only slightly better. They had a few good leaders mixed in with the bad, and they hung on for a couple of centuries longer.
As noted earlier, the people of Israel and Judah did not listen to the prophets. Their leaders persecuted them. God was patient; He just kept on sending prophets. But the people refused to listen. They had forgotten their story. They could no longer hear the cry of the oppressed, which was once their own cry.
Finally, the Babylonians invaded. Virtually all of Judah was destroyed and its inhabitants were hauled off to Babylon. There they were servants–slaves–in a foreign land. Just like Egypt. All over again.
But this is not the end of the story. In Babylon, the Israelites had time to reflect. They came to realize that their condition of exile was a result of their failure to live up to their role as God’s people, and God was punishing them for this. But there was hope there, because if God was punishing them then at some point their punishment would end.
They also connected their exile in Babylon with the exile of their forefathers in Egypt. They realized that, just like their forefathers, they needed another exodus. But this could not be like the exodus from Egypt, or else the cycle of deliverance to failure to exile would continue all over again. This exodus would have to take place on a much deeper level. For the Egypt that they lived in was not a physical kingdom–it was an Egypt of the soul. And every person who has ever walked the face of the earth lives in that Egypt. We all need an exodus from that Egypt.
During this time in Babylon, the whole tenor of the prophets changed–so much so that the back half of Isaiah, which speaks to Jews after the exile in Babylon, is believed by many scholars to have been written by a “second Isaiah” who lived around that time. The message of the prophets became a message of hope–that Israel’s time of punishment was at an end and that God would restore them. The prophets spoke of God delivering His people on a deeper level: writing His law on people’s hearts instead of on stone tablets, making His temple in the hearts of men, and other such things. And their promises all converged upon one man, the man who would be God incarnate, whose birth we will celebrate in just a few days.