When you walk into a movie that is almost finished, all your friends are on the edge of their seats, but you’re wondering what is going on. Much that they find thrilling you find perplexing. Likewise, when Christians open their New Testaments, they open to the climax of a story that has been going on for a long time. So much of its drama can be grasped only if we know the backstory.

In this three-part series of articles, I want to begin by arguing that as of the end of the Old Testament, Israel and all humanity find themselves in exile, awaiting God’s deliverance and the coming of His kingdom. Later articles will explore how this context opens up new avenues of insight into Christ’s work and the situation of God’s people today. Indeed, understanding the NT as an end-of-exile story is one of the most exciting and fertile insights of recent biblical scholarship.

Promises That Linger

The OT ends with a cliffhanger. Think about all the momentum that the biblical story has gained when the curtain falls: by the end of the story, we have seen Adam and Eve fling aside God’s glorious purposes for them, but nevertheless God has promised the eventual defeat of sin and Satan (Gen. 3:15). We have seen God begin to make good on this gracious promise by calling Abraham and promising him offspring, land, and, best of all, an unshakable relationship with Himself (12:1–3; 17:6–8). We have seen God add to those promises the hope that a son of David will reign and build the dwelling place of God (2 Sam. 7:12–16). And all these things God has sworn with irrevocable oaths (Gen. 22:16–18; Pss. 89:3, 35; 132:11; Heb. 6:17).

Yet, for all the expectation that these promises encouraged, and for all the initial excitement of seeing those promises fulfilled in Solomon’s kingdom (1 Kings 8:56), all seems lost by the end of the OT. Israel has repeated Adam and Eve’s sin of apostasy. They have hardened themselves against God’s ceaseless calls to repentance, and all that remained was God’s holy judgment. The curses of the covenant (Deut. 28:15–68) culminated in their exile, which was not merely their forcible removal from the land by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Exile also stood for the unraveling of all that God had promised to Abraham and David: the abundant offspring (“more than the stars and the sand”) was cut down to a tiny remnant. The son of David was dethroned and deported. The temple was burned to the ground. And worst of all, God had divorced His people with white-hot anger: “You are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hos. 1:9).

If we only read as far as 2 Kings 25, we might think it’s over. Israel had their chance, they enjoyed the promised land and fellowship with God for a time, but they have forfeited it forever by their sin. But King Jehoiachin’s mysterious rehabilitation (2 Kings 25:27–30) is a hint that the story is not over. Indeed, as we read on in the prophets, we realize it is far from over. For the prophets speak not only of judgment but of restoration out of judgment. Exile must come, and the prophets dedicate enormous space to demonstrating God’s justice and integrity in bringing judgment on His own people. But just as they seal the coffin on Israel, they speak of Israel’s resurrection as a people.

This restoration of Israel is founded on the profound reality that “[the Lord’s] steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 136). In other words, even after exile the Lord still remembers His ancient promises to Abraham and David, and those promises continue to animate Him. For example, after Micah details the coming judgment, he speaks of God’s restoration, saying, “You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old” (Mic. 7:20). The Lord promises to restore David’s line for the sake of His promise to David (Jer. 33:20–22). Even as a prodigal in exile, Israel is still God’s son: “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still” (Jer. 31:20). Israel still stirs the deep wells of the Lord’s compassion.

Thus, when the prophets speak of Israel’s restoration, the restoration takes the form of a new and better fulfillment of all the promises to Abraham and David. Isaiah promises a new and better exodus, where a new and better people return to Zion (Isa. 40–66). Ezekiel promises a new and better temple, where the Lord dwells and enjoys renewed fellowship with His people (Ezek. 40–48). And best of all, the problem of sin—the entangling, enslaving sin that ruined Adam’s garden and Israel’s land—will finally be eradicated. Jeremiah promises a new and better covenant, where the law is written not on stone but on the hearts of Israel (Jer. 31:31–34).

These are enormous expectations. The prophets speak of this coming restoration in such glowing language that it makes Solomon’s glory look like child’s play. Indeed, God says that His second rescue will far outstrip the first: after His new exodus, they will no longer remember the exodus from Egypt (Isa. 43:18–19; 65:16–17; Jer. 23:7–8); in the return from exile, the Lord “will make [Israel] more prosperous and numerous than [their] fathers” (Deut. 30:5).

Even after exile the Lord still remembers His ancient promises to Abraham and David, and those promises continue to animate Him.

This is the momentum that has mounted like a surging tidal wave by the time of Israel’s exile. Through the prophets, God has staked His reputation on doing something for Israel that is even more spectacular than the exodus from Egypt. This new exodus will not be just another shadowy affair that sin will eventually destroy. The Lord’s victory over sin will be so decisive that this coming kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, which will not perish, spoil, or fade (Dan. 2:44). For this reason, we say that the prophets have an “eschatological” hope—a hope that is ultimate and will never be eclipsed or surpassed by something greater.

Exile That Continues

With such strong wind at our backs, the story of Ezra and Nehemiah poses as a conundrum. (The two books are meant to be read as one, so we will speak of Ezra–Nehemiah.) On the one hand, Ezra–Nehemiah begins with an explicit reference to the prophets: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1, emphasis added). This causes us to sit up! Will God at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? Are we about to witness all that the prophets have spoken?

No. Ezra–Nehemiah tells a story of disappointment. It tantalizes us with echoes of Israel’s past glories, with a shadowy exodus story (Ezra 1–2), and with shadowy temple- and city-building stories (Ezra 3–6; Neh. 1–6). But nothing here is remotely on the scale of what the prophets promised. Indeed, the story emphasizes how much smaller things are than in bygone days: Sheshbezzar only brings back a small quantity of gold and silver (Ezra 1:6–10), compared with the riches of Egypt that Israel despoiled in the exodus. A nation which was over six hundred thousand strong in the first exodus (Num. 2:32) is now about forty-two thousand (Ezra 2:64). The old men who knew Solomon’s temple wept when they saw how small the second temple would be (Ezra 3:12; Hag. 2:3). And the son of David, Zerubbabel, is nothing but an official subject to the Persian emperor (Hag. 1:1).

The question therefore arises: As of the end of Ezra–Nehemiah, where are we in the story? Can we say that Israel’s restoration has at least begun, albeit on a small scale? I hope you see that this is the very question we posed at the beginning, for the last chapter of Nehemiah is effectively the end of the OT narrative (Esther is probably a contemporary of Nehemiah). If we can accurately describe Israel’s situation at the end of Ezra–Nehemiah, we have also described the state of Israel’s story at the end of the whole OT. And if (as we will argue in the next article) no important advancements are made in Israel’s story in the intervening centuries leading up to John the Baptist, we have also described the state of Israel’s story as of the beginning of the NT.

Our contention is that for all Ezra–Nehemiah’s hints of restoration, it remains a story of ongoing exile. We can find four lines of evidence for this. First, as of the end of Nehemiah 13, Israel is still in a twofold bondage to their sin and to the nations. Second, they still have not received any of the restoration promises spoken of by the prophets. Third, Israel has yet to satisfy the one great condition for bringing exile to an end: whole-hearted repentance. Fourth, Israel remains unreconciled to God. We will now demonstrate each of these points in turn.

First, we know Israel’s exile continues because they remain slaves. “We are slaves,” Ezra says (Ezra 9:9), and the Levites echo him in their prayer: “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves” (Neh. 9:36). Why are they slaves? Because the nations continue to dominate them: “[The land’s] rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress” (Neh. 9:37).

But the bondage is much deeper than political: the progress of Ezra–Nehemiah’s narrative is constantly interrupted, not just by powerful external forces (e.g., Ezra 4, Neh. 4; 6), but by an even more powerful internal force: Israel’s unrelenting sin. Ezra safely returns to Jerusalem, only to find it rife with intermarriage with foreigners, and with the consequent ritual impurity and syncretism (Ezra 9–10). Amid the wall-building, Nehemiah discovers usury among the Judeans (Neh. 5). And despite a solemn resolution to end godless intermarriage, sabbath-breaking, and stingy neglect of the temple (Neh. 10), Nehemiah returns from travel to find them back at all three of these vices (Neh. 13). Morally speaking, Israel has made no progress since Solomon’s day (Neh. 13:26).

The Lord’s victory over sin will be so decisive that this coming kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, which will not perish, spoil, or fade.

Second, we know Israel’s exile continues to the end of the book of Nehemiah because they never receive any of the restoration promises which mark the end of their exile. The following table sets the promises of the prophets against what the people actually enjoyed in Ezra–Nehemiah:

Prophetic Promise

Developments in Ezra–Nehemiah

Repentance of the people: the people will
return to God with their whole heart (Jer. 24:7); God will write His law on the people’s hearts (Jer. 31:33).

The people pray in repentance and resolve a covenant of repentance (Neh. 9–10), but in the end we see that it is not wholehearted (Neh. 13).

Forgiveness of sins: God will reconcile His people to Himself (Isa. 1:18, 25–26; 4:4; 33:24; 40:2; 43:25; 44:22; 53:5; Jer. 31:34).

God graciously blesses them throughout, but
in the end, Israel only adds to the wrath that is on them (Neh. 13:18).

Enemies defeated: The Lord will serve the nations the justice due for their sin, especially for destroying Jerusalem (Jer. 50–51).

Babylon has fallen, but the nations remain supreme.

Purity of the people: God will sanctify Israel (Ezek. 36:25; 37:23, 28).

The people repeatedly separate themselves from the nations, but they stubbornly continue marrying foreign women.

New exodus: there will be a spectacular return, culminating in the radiance of Zion (Isa. 40–55).

Cyrus allows Israel’s return with temple vessels, but relatively few return, and the Lord does not return to Zion (Ezra 1–6).

Land: the people will enjoy the abundant land once again and never lack for anything (Deut. 30:5; Jer. 31:12, 14).

They are physically back on the land, but conditions are poor (Neh. 5) and the nations take much (Neh. 9:36).

Jerusalem rebuilt: God will end their reproach and shame (Isa. 25:8; 29:22–23; 45:17; 54:4; Jer. 31:38–40).

The wall is rebuilt (Neh. 2–6), but immediately afterwards, it is penetrated by Tobiah’s correspondence (Neh. 6:17–19), and it cannot keep out Tobiah and the merchants who sell on the sabbath (Neh. 13).

King: a new David will reign forever (Isa. 11:1–10).

David’s descendant Zerubbabel comes back, but he is subservient to the foreign king.

Temple: there will be a glorious new temple
with the Lord Himself there (Ezek. 40–48).

A temple is built, but it is small and lacking in glory, with no theophany as had happened at the completion of the tabernacle and the first temple (Ezra 3–6; cf. Ex. 40; 1 Kings 8).

Rejoicing: great joy will accompany restoration (Isa. 30:29; 35:10; 51:3; Jer. 33:10–11).

Ezra–Nehemiah moves from mixed joy (Ezra 3:13) to great joy (Neh. 12:43), but it is undercut by anguish once again in Nehemiah 13.


The right column has a curious feature: on the one hand, the deficiencies demonstrate that Israel has not received any of the glowing promises of which the prophets spoke. But on the other hand, we see positive developments that we must not ignore. If these positive developments are not the fulfillment of prophecy, then how do we describe them?1 We will return to this question at the end.

Third, Israel remains in exile because they had failed to satisfy the one condition for ending their exile: their wholehearted repentance from sin. Long before Israel was deported (indeed, before they even entered the land), the Lord anticipated that they will fall away and the curse of exile will come on them (Deut. 30:1). But He also promised that when Israel returns to Him with all their heart and with all their soul (Deut. 30:2), He would then initiate the restoration (Deut. 30:3–10), complete with all the glories of what would later be known as the new covenant (Deut. 30:6).

The importance of this promise cannot be underemphasized. Indeed, Nehemiah cites Deuteronomy 30 in his opening prayer (Neh. 1:8–9) and thus confesses his sin (vv. 6–7) in the hopes that the Lord will initiate the restoration. The prominence of repentance in this period (see the prayers in Ezra 9; Neh. 9; and Dan. 9) reflect Israel’s awareness that repentance must precede restoration.

And yet, the structure of Ezra–Nehemiah underscores Israel’s inability to repent. However sincere were the prayers of Ezra 9, Nehemiah 1, and Daniel 9 and however sincere were the resolutions in Nehemiah 10 to turn from sin, Israel quickly returned to their vomit (Neh. 13). Their repentance was half-hearted at best; at worst, it was a turning “in falsehood” (Jer. 3:10). If restoration depends on repentance, then the curtain closes on Israel’s story with the Lord still searching for such a truly penitent Israel.

Fourth and most decisively, by the end of the OT we know Israel remains in exile because they remain unreconciled to God. We see this implicitly in God’s poignant absence from the temple dedication ceremony in Ezra 6. As mentioned in the table above, every other time a sanctuary is dedicated, the Lord crowns that ceremony with His magnificent presence (Ex. 40:34–38; 1 Kings 8:10–11). He then abandoned the first temple as a sign that He had rejected Israel (Ezek. 11:22–23). Yet now, when the people rebuild the Jerusalem sanctuary, God does not return.

The reason for His absence is made explicit later. When Israel goes back to their sin, Nehemiah asks: “Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath” (Neh. 13:18, NASB, emphasis added). The implication is obvious: Israel can only add to God’s wrath if they are already under it. Their sins have not been forgiven. Indeed, why should they be, when there has been no atonement in the manner of Isaiah 53? Therefore, even at the end of the OT story when a remnant occupies the promised land, Israel is fundamentally in exile.

Everything is riding on God’s steadfast commitment to His covenant promises.

One may ask: Is it meaningful to speak of a people in exile when they have returned to their land? In reply, exile is indeed a literal reality for Israel at first (they left the land because of their sin). But I am using the term exile metaphorically to refer to God’s covenantal wrath on His people (Deut. 28:64) and to refer to the absence of the blessings promised to Abraham and David. In this sense, the nation of Israel as a whole remains in exile from God, even while they physically occupy the land. True, some among the returned exiles trusted in the Lord and were looking for His redemption—figures such as Ezra and Nehemiah at the close of the Old Testament period and Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, and Mary at the beginning of the New Testament era. Nevertheless, most of the visible covenant community remained far from God.

This metaphorical definition of exile is important because it allows us to connect Israel’s story with the story of all humanity. All people are descended from the original exiles, Adam and Eve, who were cast out of God’s glorious presence and whose way of return was barred (Gen. 3:23–24). By nature, we are under God’s wrath and curse, unreconciled to Him, and thus all people are exiles and wanderers on the earth. As with Israel, humanity’s greatest problem is sin. And the just sentence of condemnation, the separation from God, and the death that results from sin—the great guilt and misery of our condition—this we term exile.

Setting the Stage for Jesus

So the OT ends in a cliffhanger. Remember how much God promised would happen: the magnificent complex of promises we call “the restoration” or “the kingdom of God.” And then consider the fizzling disappointment we discover in Ezra–Nehemiah. What is more, consider how Israel’s recalcitrant sin intensifies the problem: If the only way out of exile is through Israel’s repentance, but the very reason for exile is Israel’s inability to repent, how will the restoration ever come to pass? All this leaves us with an unresolved “To be continued . . .” flavor. But it also leaves us with some insights about why God gave us the OT.

First, the story of Israel’s ongoing exile deepens our appreciation for how deep sin’s tyranny goes. Even when Israel was in the depths of their misery and knew that they needed to truly repent to be restored, they could not do so. The allure of their sin was too powerful, the corruption of their hearts too great.

Second, Israel’s unending exile underscores their desperate need for God to make the first move. They desperately needed a deliverer, one from the outside who would take the initiative to rescue them from something too powerful for them.

Third, we see how everything is riding on God’s steadfast commitment to His covenant promises. God’s recollection of these promises prompted a new beginning long ago (Ex. 2:24). Now, after so much sin and apostasy, Israel’s only hope is that He will act on these promises once again, even in their exile. No wonder that in the depths of Israel’s groaning over the loss of Jerusalem, they found hope in the Lord’s steadfast commitment to His ancient covenants (Lam. 3:21–23). No wonder that God’s compassion repeatedly emerges in passages about the end of exile (Deut. 32:26; Ps. 79:8; 102:13; Isa. 54:7–8; Lam. 3:32). The transition from wrath to grace must begin with His compassion for Israel’s bondage to sin, apart from any worthiness in Israel.

Finally, we can now appreciate God’s purposes in the small positive trends in Ezra–Nehemiah. Their mitigated return to the land, the small temple, the dubious gift of the wall—these and all the other attenuated blessings cannot be called the promised restoration. But they are signs of God’s continued regard for His people. He will one day make good on His promises, and therefore these small gifts are pledges of greater things to come. Ezra says it best: God has granted “a little reviving in our bondage” (Ezra 9:8, NASB). Ezra–Nehemiah reflects gratitude for God’s blessings, but it makes no claim that these are the restoration realities hoped for: they are still in bondage. Instead, the “escaped remnant” has been given a “[tent] peg in [God’s] holy place” in keeping with God’s steadfast love (Ezra 9:8–9, NASB). Ezra–Nehemiah is therefore a period of “lightened exile,” where they are still in bondage, but God has shown them that He has not forgotten them, even in the valley of the shadow of death, by allowing them to come back to their land.

The curtain closes on the OT amid great anticipation. The promised kingdom must come. How will God finally bring exile to an end once and for all? As they say, to be continued . . .

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on exile and was previously published on June 21, 2021. Second post. Third post.

  1. Not all evangelical scholars share the position taken in this article that Ezra–Nehemiah is not even a partial fulfillment of restoration prophecy. Many consider Ezra–Nehemiah to be a fulfillment of restoration prophecy in some mitigated sense. For example, Nykolaishen writes, “As the reader moves through Ezra–Nehemiah, there are continual reminders that the events narrated are part of a process of restoration that remains incomplete at the end” (“The Restoration of Israel by God’s Word in Three Episodes from Ezra-Nehemiah,” in Unity and Disunity in Ezra–Nehemiah: Redaction, Rhetoric, and Reader, eds. Mark J. Boda and Paul L. Redditt, HBM 17 [Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix, 2008], 197). ↩︎

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