First, God promises to end exile because of His steadfast covenant love (Hebrew hesed). This word refers to His covenant fidelity: the Lord still remembers the covenants He made with Abraham and David, and He guaranteed these promises with solemn oaths (Gen. 22:16; Ps. 132:11; Heb. 6:13–18). If God never restored Israel from exile, He could be accused of faithlessness to His promises, a lack of hesed. But because He is “great in hesed” (Ex. 34:6), He will one day act on these ancient promises and bring His people out of exile (Lam. 3:32). The end of God’s wrath depends on His fidelity to what He promised the fathers (Mic. 7:18–20).
Thus when Jesus is about to arrive, the NT refers to the Lord’s steadfast covenant love (hesed). Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, celebrated His birth with an extraordinary word of praise. He says in Luke 1:78 that the forerunner (i.e., John the Baptist) has been born, and the promised branch (or “sunrise”; i.e., the Messiah) is about to appear because of the Lord’s “tender mercy” (Greek eleos). But “tender mercy” is probably not the best translation here, for this Greek word often translates hesed in the OT. Zechariah is referring to the Lord’s covenant fidelity. As he had just said, the purpose of this deliverance is “to show the [covenant fidelity, i.e., eleos] promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” (Luke 1:72–73).
The second reason for God’s ending exile is closely tied to the first. We would be deeply wrong to think of God as acting to end exile in a grudging manner, simply because He was obligated to do so by His ancient promises. He also ends exile because of His deep compassion. He cares about the anguish of His people, He longs to reverse it, and the OT had said that this compassion would be the great turning point that begins the end of exile (Deut. 4:31; 30:3; 32:36; Hos. 2:23; 11:8; Mic. 7:18–19; Isa. 54:7–8; 60:10; Ps. 79:8; 102:13; etc.).
Thus when Jesus appears, we see many indications that God’s compassion precipitated His coming. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16; see Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:4). Jesus Himself incarnates the Father’s compassion in His many deeds of mercy (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13). God’s vast compassion for us in our exile led Him to act for our deliverance.
Jesus Completes Israel’s Punishment
Second, Jesus ends Israel’s exile by His own suffering. Jesus enters into Israel’s exile so that He can end it.
The gospel of Matthew particularly emphasizes Jesus’ identity as a new “Israel.” Jesus is called God’s “son,” as Israel was (Matt. 3:17 see Ex. 4:22). He emerges out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15) and is baptized in the Jordan (3:16), just as Israel was baptized in the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2). But this baptized Israel will fulfill all righteousness (Matt. 3:15). Even though Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days, just as Israel was for forty years (Matt. 4:1–2), Jesus does not give in to temptation. He does not grumble about food, put God to the test, or serve Satan—the very three things Israel did in the wilderness. Jesus then enters the land and proceeds to defeat God’s enemies: not the Canaanites (or Romans) but Satan and his hosts.
But even as Jesus recapitulates Israel’s story and shows Himself to be the true and sinless Israel, He also enters Israel’s story where it stands (i.e., in exile). His life is the new exodus that brings exile to an end. Isaiah had promised that one day God would lead Israel out of exile, through the wilderness, and into the land of promise (Isa. 43:16–19; 51:11). In Jesus, God fulfilled both the divine and the human sides of this new exodus. As God had done with the manna, Jesus provided bread in the wilderness (feeding five thousand and then four thousand). As God was the great Healer of the first exodus (Ex. 15:26), so Jesus healed many. As God led Israel out of bondage, so Jesus led us out of bondage and into newness of life (Rom. 6:4–6; Rev. 18:4). As God summoned the twelve tribes to Himself and promulgated His law, so Jesus gathered twelves disciples and promulgated a law on His own divine authority (Matt. 5–7).