In the sixth Century BC two generations of the people of Israel found themselves a long long way from home! In 587 BC the Babylonians overran Israel and completely destroyed the Holy City of Jerusalem and especially the Temple built under King Solomon which had been the focal point of the faith of Israel for hundreds of years. The vast majority of God’s chosen people were wiped out and just a few thousand remained to be taken away into captivity in Babylon. This was God’s hand of judgment on his chosen people for their complacency, for taking their salvation for granted, for worshipping idols, for neglecting the Law and for neglecting the poor and needy.
Of course God’s judgment on Israel had a purpose. God’s intention was never to abandon his chosen people, but rather to refine and purify Israel. He never destroyed them completely – he kept a faithful remnant alive. In the middle of their exile, through prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, God gave his chosen people hope – the hope that one day they would return and reclaim the promised land once again – the hope that they would go home.
The Israelites were allowed to return Jerusalem in groups from 537 BC and gradually in the years of Ezra and Nehemiah they rebuilt the city and the Temple. But life just wasn’t the same for those who returned. Israel was no longer a major political or military power. It felt as if the nation was still in Exile, cut off from God and under judgment. For almost five centuries their hopes were looking forward again, to the day when God would send a Saviour, the Messiah who would come to Jerusalem rebuild the Temple and restore Israel to glory.
The story of Israel in captivity has given strength and hope to God’s people throughout the ages. It has inspired Christians through this year when life has seemed so different from everything we have ever known. When life seems tough, perhaps when it seems that the world is against us. When we feel like WE are exiles in captivity in a foreign land the hope is always there – one day we will be home! The hopes and the promises which the faithful remnant clung on to in the years of Exile have been an inspiration to believers through the ages. It is a picture for us of our salvation as we experience it now as aliens and strangers in a world which has rejected God. And it is a picture too of the home which awaits us in glory forever.
It was the so-called Major Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel who encouraged God’s people in Exile and they have so much to say to us as well. So let’s hear how they held out the promise of hope to the captives in Exile, and the promise of the Messiah who was to come. Let’s listen to some of the scriptures which encouraged those exiles so much and let those promises encourage us too. Isaiah 35 gives us six beautiful pictures of the amazing salvation we have received through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Picture 1 – The desert bursting into bloom
Isaiah 35:1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendour of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendour of our God.
Life without God is like living in a desert. Everything is empty and dry and dead. In contrast, life in the presence of God’s splendour and God’s glory is like living in a garden full of the most beautiful trees and flowers, filled with all kinds of delicious fruit and vegetables. Like being back in the Garden of Eden. When God brings his salvation, even the desert will be glad and the wilderness will rejoice.
Picture 2 – God’s strength for the weak and fearful
3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’
We all need God’s help all the time. Especially through this past year we have realized our need of God’s amazing grace to sustain and support us. There are so many places in the Bible where God promises to help us in our times of need.
Isaiah 40 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
God’s salvation brings us all the strength we need to live for him and worship and serve him.
Picture 3 – God bringing healing
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
The fall of Adam and Eve brought sickness and pain and suffering and death into the world. The people of Israel were looking forward to the day when the Messiah will come and bring God’s healing and wholeness and peace to everybody, the blind, the deaf, the lame and the mute. Even death will be defeated. This is our hope as Christians as well. However difficult our lives here on earth may become, we have the certain hope of heaven where God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
Picture 4 – Streams in the desert
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
I have only ever seen pictures of deserts, although we have visited hot countries where the temperature is 110 or 120 degrees in the shade, but there wasn’t any shade. We once walked down a gorge on Crete in that kind of heat. We weren’t even half way down before we had drunk all the water we had brought with us. Perhaps you have had similar occasions when you have been desperately thirsty. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. Cooling and refreshing streams springing up in the desert, bringing life where there was only death. What a marvellous picture of salvation! God bringing life-giving water to his chosen people. Isaiah 43 picks up the same imagery.
Isaiah 43:18-21 18 ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honour me, the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen, 21 the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.
Wonderful pictures of salvation. Fulfilled for us in God’s gift of the Holy Spirit living inside us, bringing streams of living water.
Picture 5 – The highway for God’s people – the road home
8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there, 10and those the LORD has rescued will return. #
“There’s No place like HOME” Home is so important to us all. Home is our place of comfort, our place of safety. After a long hard day’s work it is so good to arrive home. Even more so after weeks and months of travelling, While we have to be away, home is where we long to be. “Home is where the heart Is”. The Israelites in Exile clung on to this wonderful promise. One day they would be going home – going back to Jerusalem. Scattered across the Babylonian empire, however far away they were, God would create a highway to take them home to Jerusalem. The road would be completely safe, with no evil men or dangerous beasts. Once they set foot on the highway their journey home would be guaranteed. Those the Lord has rescued WILL return on it. And arriving home will be even better.
Picture 6 – Returning home to everlasting joy!
They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
This was Israel’s hope. No more sorrow or sighing. Just gladness and singing and everlasting joy. Indeed the whole of creation will join in the celebration when God brings his chosen people home to himself.
Isaiah 55 12 You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
I can only imagine how soldiers must have felt at the end of the war, being demobbed and arriving home to be reunited with family and friends. Home at last! Isaiah gives us a picture of the joy of the people God has redeemed, when they return home to him. Everlasting joy will crown their heads!
So here were just some of the promises God made to his chosen people while they were far from home in Exile in Babylon. These were the hopes the Jews had of the salvation which the Messiah would bring to them. And they give us six pictures of the amazing salvation which we have received through Jesus Christ our Lord.
We aren’t experiencing the fullness of these blessings just yet – because we haven’t arrived home yet. But we are on the highway!