This is part five of our several part series on how to read the Bible.
Part Five: The Story – Fall, Promise, Exile, and Hope.
To fit each book in its proper place within the bigger story that the Bible tells, it is essential that we recognize the flow of the story. Understand, the Bible is a story of how God acted in history as the Great Healer who fixes a broken world. At risk of drastic over-simplification, it seems that the biblical narrative unfolds in four distinct stages. Stage one will consume all of our space in this post.
Stage One – God Acted
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And he liked it! It was good. Then he said “Let us create man in our image and likeness,” and not long after the world was broken. Creation as God intended it to be was decimated. This is the story of Genesis 1-11.
However, the Lord stood indignant toward the breach we created between ourselves and him. He didn’t like his good creation being broken. So he began implementing a cosmic plan to fix everything.
In Genesis 12, God calls Abram, the progenitor of the entire nation of Israel, to be the spark for the cure. He asks Abram to separate his family from their clan and take up a semi-nomadic existence in and around the land of Canaan. And then he promises him something special.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”
Now notice, Yahweh’s commission and promise to Abram is essentially threefold:
- (1) Yahweh commands Abram’s physical relocation with a subsequent promise that he’ll be made into his own great nation.
- (2) God’s promises that his judgment toward others will be measured by how they treat Abram and his people.
- (3) Most importantly, Abram and his descendants will somehow serve as an international blessing, sanctifying the rest of the world.
I emphasize (3) as most important b/c it is this one that seems most abrupt and illogical. What was God thinking? Man had not proven himself, at least not thus far, as capable of carrying out God’s wishes. There have been few bright spots in the story of mankind up until now. Yet God still chooses to play the role of reconciler, he still chooses to fix the tattered and trampled upon relationship that he once held with man, and he takes average Abram and commissions him to be a part of the redemption of all the world.
This promise to Abram defines God’s true purpose for the Israelite people. It was God’s hope that they would serve as an agent of blessing to all the world. It was God’s wish that this nation, through obedience and loyalty to Yahweh, could be a light unto the world (Dt 4:5-8). This promise is repeated time and time again throughout the Jewish scriptures, stressing its overarching importance: (Genesis 13:14-17; 15:18-21; 17:1-8; 18:17, 18; 22:17, 18; 26:4; 28:13, 14; 35:11, 12; Psalm 2:1-12; 22:27, 28; Isaiah 25:6-8; 42:1, 6; 49:6; 66:19, 20; Micah 4:2, 3).
God’s promise to Abram was held in high esteem by Israelites for centuries to come. It was a defining moment that Israel looked back to. Revered alongside this promise was another covenant which God made with the great Israelite King David. David ascended as monarch of Israel after Saul’s demise and began plans to push Israel toward their light-bearing vocation. One of the most ambitious things he aspired to do was to build a temple for God in the capital city of Jerusalem. However, God had different plans. He stalled David’s hopes to construct God’s house, and promised him the following:
12 For when you die and are buried with your ancestors, I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong. 13 He is the one who will build a house—a temple—for my name. And I will secure his royal throne forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. If he sins, I will correct and discipline him with the rod, like any father would do. 15 But my favor will not be taken from him as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from your sight. 16 Your house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever. (2Sm 7:12-16).
Here God promises David that one of his descendants will rise up and do the following:
- (1) Build God’s house.
- (2) Rule as king.
- (3) Establish God’s kingdom for all time!
Quite lofty hopes for a simple Israelite King.
Now in the flow of the Old Testament story, it would seem that the logical fulfillment of this promise would be David’s immediate son, Solomon. He emerged as a wise and powerful king. He built God a Temple. And his kingship, at least for a while, represented the height of Israelite prominence. But if you pull back the curtain on Solomon, he simply did not meet God’s standards of obedience and righteousness.
In 1 Kings 6:38-7:1, we see initial signs of Solomon’s opulence. Here, it is recorded that it took Solomon seven years to build the house of God. At first, it would seem as if Solomon directed quite the amazing building project for Yahweh! I mean seven years! That building must have been amazing! But as you keep reading, Solomon’s real priorities emerge as the text reveals to us that it took him 13 years to build his own house. Something seems dreadfully wrong here. That’s nearly double the difference!
As the story plays itself out, Solomon proves himself to be a syncretistic womanizer who obeys God at his own convenience. So no… he is not the Great Son of David (2Sm 7:12-16). He will not be the beacon of blessing for all the nations (Gen 12:1-3).
Nonetheless, God’s promise remains (1Kgs 11:11-13). No matter the incompetence and continued rebellion of man, God refuses infidelity on his behalf. He stands faithful to his promises to his people (Psalm 18:50; 89:3, 4, 35-37; 132:10-12, 17, 18; Isaiah 7:13, 14; 9:6, 7; 11:1-10; 16:5; 22:22; Jeremiah 23:5, 6; 33:15-18; Ezekiel 34:23, 24; 37:24; Hosea 3:5).
God has a track record of mercy and faithfulness, despite our sin. But understand this, Israel’s lack of submission did not go unpunished.
In the days of Moses, God led this small insignificant nation victoriously out of the clutches of one of the world’s superpowers, Egypt. And in response, he asked one thing of them; he asked for their obedience. Deuteronomy 28-30 does well to outline this covenant. In summary, God declared that if Israel obeyed, God would bless them and they would fulfill their light-bearing vocation. But if they did not obey, then they would be cursed and cast back into slavery and exile, as they once were slaves in Egypt.
The choice seems easy. I know what I would choose. But with prophetic insight in chapter 30, Moses predicts the path he knows his people will helplessly stumble down. He’s no dummy. He’s seen the way Israel has continually ignored the decrees of their God in the wilderness. He knows that even though God has laid before them a path that leads to ultimate blessing, they will not follow it. Moses writes:
In the future, when you experience all these blessings and curses I have listed for you, and when you are living among the nations to which the Lord your God has exiled you, take to heart all these instructions. 2 If at that time you and your children return to the Lord your God, and if you obey with all your heart and all your soul all the commands I have given you today, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes. He will have mercy on you and gather you back from all the nations where he has scattered you. 4 Even though you are banished to the ends of the earth, the Lord your God will gather you from there and bring you back again. 5 The Lord your God will return you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will possess that land again. Then he will make you even more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors! (Dt. 30:1-5).
It is as if Moses is saying, “I know you’ll disobey. I know you’ll end up back in slavery. So remember this when you find yourself in chains – God’s promise, God’s faithfulness never fails!!! There will be exodus once again! Second exodus! Place your hope in this!”
This warning and promise, like Genesis 12 and 2 Samuel 7, became the lens through which Israel continued to evaluate its history. When the prophets cried out the terrifying truth that Israel was headed for the pains of exile once again (Isaiah 13:3; Jeremiah 1:15; 20:4, 5; 25:8-11; 27:6; 32:36-38; 43:10), they also celebrated God’s subsequent faithfulness to restore Israel in second exodus (Isaiah 40:1-5; 49:7-26; Jeremiah 32:37-44; Ezekiel 37:1-28).
If you read the OT with these three great promises in mind, things start to make sense. You can begin to understand what the hopes of the kings and prophets were. And ultimately, you can begin to place each book in its proper place on the timeline of God’s redemptive plan.
Israel was God’s chosen people who would bring an international blessing on everyone (Gen 12:1-3). This blessing would come through the Great Son of David who would build God’s house and establish his kingdom forever (2Sm 7:12-16). But this would not take place until after a second exodus. Israel would first be punished for their continued disobedience and sent into exile, only to be led out by God in a glorious restoration (Dt. 30:1-5).
A brief skim of Israel’s history shows that these texts hold an immense amount of prophetic veracity. The northern kingdom, Israel, fell captive to the Assyrians around 720 B.C. (2Kgs 18:11). The southern kingdom, Judah, is taken into exile by the Babylonians around 587/586 B.C. (2Kgs 24:10-16). And even when Cyrus and his Persian cohort conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem (2Chr 26:22-23), the people of God were far from “restored”. This certainly was not the glorious second exodus they dreamed of. This couldn’t be God’s promised future. They had no king. The new temple being constructed was a cause for weeping (Ez 3:12). And there was seemingly no repentance within the hearts of the people.
But Israel would not forget! They would not forget the glorious restoration that God had promised. The prophets cried out for a better future! There would one day be a king (Zech 3:8; 6:12)! The temple would return to its original prominence (Hag 2:6-9)! God would remain faithful (Zech 8:23)!
But how? How would God accomplish this? How would he remain faithful to his promises? This was the question that the Jews of Jesus’ day continued to ask themselves as they suffered under the governance of their fourth foreign oppressor, the Romans.
Ultimately, if you read the Old Testament with this story in mind then things will begin to make better sense. And be sure to tune in next time as we see God’s promises come to fruition in the true blessing of the nations, the true Great Son of David, the second Moses who leads all of God’s people in a great Exodus.
DISCLAIMER: Oh yeah, and by the way, none of this Bible reading stuff matters if you don’t do it.
To be continued…