Exile — the loss of one’s homeland and forced deportation to a foreign country — was a horrific reality for the ancient Israelites, and it remains so for displaced peoples today. Unlike other exiles, however, Israel’s exile teaches a theological lesson when considered in relation to the exile from Eden. God made Adam, put him in a beautiful garden, and promised to bless him if he kept covenant (Gen. 2). But Adam was faithless, refusing to live in grateful obedience to our Creator, and he was cast out of the garden — exiled from the Lord’s blessed presence (chap. 3). God made Israel, gave the nation a good land, and promised to bless His people if they kept covenant (Deut. 11). But though there was a faithful remnant in Israel, the people as a whole were faithless, refusing to heed the prophets and honor their covenant Lord, Yahweh. Consequently, they were exiled from God’s blessed presence in the Promised Land (2 Chron. 36:1–21).
Neither Adam nor Israel was ignorant of the law of God, though, like everybody else born in Adam, they suppressed it (Rom. 5:12–21). Thus, they were unable to fulfill the Lord’s requirements. Israel’s fall shows us the law of God can only accuse sinners. We can please Him only through the simplicity of faith — the wholehearted entrusting of ourselves to the Father’s promise (Gal. 2:15–3:29). If the exiled Israelites repented and relied on this promise alone, they would be restored to their land. But not only would they be restored to their land, creation would be renewed, Adam’s sin would be undone, and they would see evil crushed. As God promised, there would be a restoration to an Eden-like state — the new heaven and earth (Gen. 3:15; Lev. 26:40–45; Isa. 66:22–23; Hab. 2:2–4).
The exiled descendants of Jacob did return to the Promised Land under Cyrus, the king of Persia, as today’s passage mentions. But things did not turn out quite as expected, for the people as a whole remained impenitent. God sent prophets like Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and He commissioned Ezra and Nehemiah to lead a reformation, but the hearts of the people did not soften. Centuries later, a holy remnant, particularly a righteous couple in Nazareth, was still waiting for the glories of God’s salvation to be revealed (Matt. 1:18–2:23; Luke 1:26–56).