If we want to learn about worship from Israel’s experience in Exile and Restoration, tidy one-to-one parallels between their day and ours are in short supply, especially if we want slippery-slope compromises leading to Laodicean lukewarmness. What we do find are multiple examples of spectacular collapses mixed with God’s daring efforts to adapt to the needs of his fallen people. What happened during Exile and Restoration is a kind of capstone to both processes. But first a quick survey of the history that points the way.
Collapse and Adaptation: A Quick Old Testament Survey
From the Fall to Abraham. The events following Eden are a grim reminder of the impact of sin: Cain murders his brother; the flood destroys the earth; Babel scatters the rebels. The collapse was so complete that Joshua 24:2 makes the astonishing statement that Abraham’s own family served other gods.
From Abraham to Moses. Polygamy, attempted child sacrifice, deceit and self-serving lies. That’s the story of the early patriarchs. Yet God did not abandon them. Patiently nudging them toward his kingdom, he put up with all kinds of mayhem along the way. At Sinai, even his thundering voice from a smoking mountain did not keep the people from trotting out their golden calf.
From Joshua to King Saul.Israel’s invasion of Canaan was mostly a whimper and a squeak. When they turned to other deities, God sent judges to bring them back, but what a motley bunch: Jephthah, Gideon, and Samson. And the book of Judges concludes with two shocking narratives. The story of the dismembered concubine in Judges 19-21 has to be the most gruesome one anywhere in the Bible and the story just before it says Moses’ grandson was the officiating priest at a shrine with a graven image (Judges 18:30). No wonder Judges concludes with the line: “In those days there was no king in the land; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 19:25).
From Monarchy to Exile.So were the kings better? Hardly. The first three – Saul, David, and Solomon – were seriously flawed. And when Jeroboam snatched ten tribes away from Solomon’s son, Rehoboam – with prophetic blessing, mind you – this prophetically-anointed king immediately set up two golden calves to keep the people worshiping at home instead of at Jerusalem. Echoes of the Sinai rebellion! That set the tone for the northern kingdom (Israel). Scripture describes every one of their kings as wicked, even when prophets like Elijah and Elisha were in the land.
But the starkest clue to the dismal state of God’s people is found in the reign of two of Judah’s best kings, Hezekiah and Josiah. When Hezekiah took the throne, some one hundred years before Jerusalem fell, he found the temple full of filth and it doors shuttered (2 Chron. 29:3-5). He cleaned things up and led out in a wonderful Passover. But the reform didn’t last. Some eighty years later King Josiah had to muck out the temple again. Yet according to 2 Chronicles 34, even he didn’t begin to seek the Lord until eight years into his reign and didn’t revive the temple services until ten years after that. Indeed, when the workers cleaning out the temple came across a copy of the law of Moses, probably Deuteronomy, they hastened to show the king and shocked him by its contents. So much for stable religion during the monarchy!
And that brings us to the strong medicine of the Exile. God would destroy the city and its temple. He would ask the Babylonians to cart off the sacred vessels and drag the people into Exile in Babylon, back to Abraham’s old stomping grounds. And so we come to the question of worship in Exile and Restoration.
Singing the Songs of Zion in a Foreign Land?
Psalm 137 asks the question for us: How does one sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land? With tears, that’s how. Israel had to learn to worship all over again. No trips to Jerusalem. No temple. No sacrifices.
Typically, in ancient times, a nation’s defeat also meant the defeat of its gods. Not so with Israel. Their own God planned their defeat and their exile to Babylon. Furthermore, Israel’s God went with them to Babylon to teach Nebuchadnezzar a thing or two about the living God. Now that is radical religion!
Before looking at two snapshots of religion and worship, one from early Exile and one from late Restoration, we must note a crucial point about the religion of Israel, a point that finds continuity in the teaching of Jesus, namely, that the test of faithful worship is whether or not it results in treating people right. Good rituals are important, Jesus told the religious leaders of his day, but don’t neglect “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith” (Matt. 23:23). In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46), judgment focuses on the needs of people. The “one point” on which the judgment turns, as Ellen White put it, is what people “have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and suffering.” And she notes that the parable is universal, applying to the “nations” when they come before God in judgment (Desire of Ages, 637).
Jeremiah’s famous temple discourse, spoken with the Exile looming on the horizon, highlights the contrast between mere ritual and true religion: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jer. 7:9-11).
Ezekiel made a similar point from exile in Babylon. In prophetic vision, he saw an impressive array of “abominations” being practiced in the temple ruins, all of them linked with the worship of other gods. But God himself delivers the punch line at the end of the long catalog of ritual deviations: “Must they fill the land with violence and provoke my anger still further?” (Ezek. 8:17).
Clearly God wants the focus to be on people. The crucial issue is not the temple, or ritual, or instrumentation, or even decibel level. One can worship God with “trumpet,” “dance,” and “loud clashing cymbals” (Ps. 150:3, 4, 6). Or one can stand before the Lord in pure silence: “The Lord is in his holy temple,” exclaimed Habakkuk. “Let all the earth keep silence before him!” (Hab. 2:20). Sometimes the expectation of one is shattered by the other. Elijah, for example, headed for Horeb because he wanted some reassuring fireworks at the mountain of the Lord. He got the fireworks alright, but discovered that the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the “still, small voice” – “a sound of sheer silence,” as the NRSV puts it (1 Kings 19:12).
Given the wide range of biblical illustrations, is it not remarkable, even tragic, that in our day we hear frightened voices condemning both the noise and the silence? It’s as though we are leery of both hot cream and ice cream. Room temperature skim milk is safer, Laodicean milk, that is. But now for two quick snapshots, one from early Exile and one from late Restoration.
From Kings to Chronicles, From Rebuke to Hope
Children simply enjoy Bible stories. Only with maturity do we begin to sense the importance of an author’s intention. Matthew tailors his message for Jews, Luke for Gentiles. Ellen White appeals to the biblical model when making the case for diversity of Bible teachers today. The young need more than one teacher, she argues, even if the variety means that some of the teachers may not have “so full an understanding of the Scriptures.” Just as different Bible writers are needed “because the minds of people differ,” so today “it is possible for the most learned teacher to fall far short of teaching all that should be taught” (Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432-33).
For a narrative of the Exile, the typical list of biblical sources would include the last chapters of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles along with Ezekiel and Jeremiah. For Restoration, the list includes Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. But a more subtle and more powerful insight into Exile and Restoration comes from a comparison of the parallel narratives of Samuel-Kings with the books of Chronicles. Interestingly enough, in both the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate translations of the Old Testament, the name for Chronicles is simply, “The Things Left Out.” The ancient scribes who adopted that name did not realize that Chronicles, like Samuel-Kings, is preaching a sermon. The Jewish tradition recognizes that truth for Samuel-Kings, referring to our “historical” books – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings – as “Former Prophets,” the counterpart to the “Latter Prophets” – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the “Twelve” (our minor prophets).
So what does the “preaching” of Samuel-Kings and the “preaching” of Chronicles tell us about Exile and Restoration? A great deal. A quick summary would note that Samuel-Kings was apparently written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem to make it perfectly clear to Israel why God had sent them into Exile: they had broken his covenant and spurned his laws; even their greatest kings, David and Solomon, were great sinners, and their sins are laid out with painful clarity.
That point of Samuel-Kings, however, only comes clear when it is compared with the parallel narratives in Chronicles, a late Restoration book reflecting the needs of God’s people several generations after the destruction of Jerusalem. Now, instead of needing to hear about their sins, the people were discouraged, and needed a message of hope. So all the sins of David and Solomon simply disappear from Chronicles. Even David’s affair with Bathsheba is passed over in total silence.
Instead of focusing on the sins of the kings, Chronicles now celebrates what these great kings had done to build the temple and establish its services. The Chronicler lived after the Jerusalem temple had been rebuilt. But what a puny shadow of its former glory. When its foundation was laid, those who knew the past glory broke into loud wailing as they compared it with the new poverty. By contrast, those who had never seen any temple at all broke into jubilant celebration. The sound of the tumultuous joy blended with the loud wailing to make one enormous, undifferentiated racket that was heard “far away” (Ezra 3:13).
But the most powerful message of the Chronicler is found in his story of Hezekiah’s great Passover and revival, an event that isn’t even mentioned in Samuel-Kings. You know something is afoot when the author of Samuel-Kings takes multiple chapters to document David’s moral failures, but doesn’t even mention Hezekiah’s Passover, while the Chronicler skips all David’s failures, but takes three chapters to celebrate Hezekiah’s great religious revival and the restoration of the temple service (2 Chron. 29-31).
If one is alert, even the Restoration narratives yield painful glimpses of Israel’s erratic past. Both Kings and Chronicles describe Josiah’s great Passover renewal, and both include revealing comparisons. The author of Kings declares that no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges (2 Kings 23:22); the Chronicler says that nothing like it had happened since the days of Samuel (2 Chron. 35:18). A further glimpse of Israel’s dismal past lurks in Nehemiah 8:17 where the renewal of the feast of booths in Nehemiah’s day is reported to have filled in a great gap, “for from the days of Jeshua son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so.”
But it is the Chronicler’s story of Hezekiah’s Passover that gives such a marvelous glimpse of a God with monumental hopes and ideals for his people, but who graciously accepts their faltering steps when they seek to return to him. Chronicles tells how Hezekiah and his people got started too late in the year to hold the Passover at the required time. Even when they moved it a month later, many of the people still hadn’t properly prepared for the event, especially those who had come from the tribes in the former kingdom of Israel. Hezekiah had sent invitations to them, too. So the people came, but alas, they were not “clean” and “ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed.”
Then these moving lines: “But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, ‘The good LORD pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.”
The Chronicler simply reports God’s response. “The LORD heard Hezekiah, and healed the people.” (2 Chron. 30:20).
Now a personal note. Years ago, when I was asked to write a monthly column for The Signs of the Times, the story of Hezekiah’s Passover formed the basis for my first column and I gave it the title, “The God Who Bends the Rules.” It still stirs deep emotions in my soul. This is the same God who told Israel at Sinai: “You shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you” (Deut. 5:32-33). But it is also a God who recognizes that all flesh is as grass and that we often fall short of his ideal.
I will conclude here with the last lines of that 1985 article:
Nor was the Lord’s healing of the people the end of it. As the worshipers celebrated the Passover and the feast of unleavened bread which followed, the renewal of their faith awakened such joy and gratitude that they decided to bend the rules again – and extend the feast for another seven days.
Incredible. Unprecedented. “Since the time of Solomon son of King David of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem.” If that’s what happens when God bends the rules, may he bend them to his heart’s content!
But should we? Hezekiah did. Cautiously. Prayerfully. The result was a great blessing to God’s people. In actual fact, bending the rules was a first step towards taking God and his rules more seriously.
Is there a glimmer of hope in your heart, a longing to find God and walk with him? But the rules seem insurmountable?
Don’t wait to put your house in order. The king’s invitation is in your hand. Head for Jerusalem. Now. The great God of heaven will do everything he can to plant your feet on the road to his kingdom – even if it means bending the rules.
Biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).