In 586 B.C.E. the neo-Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar raided and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, forcing its people to flee. The majority of the Judean leaders and aristocracy were relocated in Babylon, and lived in relative isolation from even their captors. The Exile robbed them of their wealth, their homes, their nation, and even their king; religion offered the only seed of identity for this uprooted people. So it was during this time of Exile that a flourishing of religious texts were written and compiled, in an attempt to explain the causes of their misfortune, and enable the people to comprehend their suffering (Meyers, Haggai xxxviii).
In general, the Psalter reflects the true emotions of the ancient Israelites, more so than do most Biblical texts, as it is a compilation of their “troubles and fears, their hopes, aspirations, and reasons for confidence.” (Metzger and Murphy 674 OT) In Psalm 137, an Exilic text, a wide range of emotions are shown: longing and mourning for their lost nation (Ps 137:1-3), the sadness and confusion they felt while in the foreign land (Ps 137:4-6), and even the desire for a violent revenge (Ps 137:7-9). The same range of emotions can be seen in Second Isaiah, though this work was written “immediately before the fall of Babylon (October 29, 539B.C.E.)” and displays more of the Judeans thoughts on their future. It is a compilation of passages of hope, promises of God to fulfill His covenant, and threats of violence for the unbelievers.
The majority of the Exilic and Post-Exilic texts call for a bloody and merciless revenge on their captors, and it would be easy to assign this outlook for all of the Jewish people of the time. Upon close inspection however, it becomes apparent that not all Jews cared about a bloody justice, and that some just wanted to go home and be done with it. Both of these views, (both bloody and not), are found in Isaiah 42 and the proximity of the conflicting persuasions highlight their differences. In Isaiah 42:3, a pacifistic, reserved justice is called for; “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench: he will faithfully bring forth justice.” Yet in just a few stanzas later, there is a call for blood. “The Lord goes forth like a soldier, like a warrior he stirs up his fury; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes.” (Isaiah 42:13) By comparing these two quotes, it becomes readily apparent that the idea that all Judeans wanted a violent revenge must be thrown out.
While in Exile, the Jewish people held many expectations of their future, not all of which agreed with one another, nor were fulfilled. Returning to the Promised Land was the main focus of Exile, and it evolved into a paradise of sorts, where everything would be perfect. There are visions of God blessing the people restored in their land, and their work being more than fruitful throughout the Exilic texts. “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.” (Isaiah 43:3) Haggai, a text written after Cyrus’ overthrow of the Babylonians, depicts a much different scene than the one envisioned in Isaiah. (Metzger and Murphy 1217 OT) “Therefore the heavens above you have withheld dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the soil produced, on human beings and animals, and on all their labors.” (Hag 1:10-11) This quote describes a state of affairs far different than what the Israelite people imagined their future to be.
The Jewish people, besides depicting a skewed view of their future, also disagreed on how that future should be run. While in Exile they were not allowed to have a king for obvious reasons, and due to this power vacuum, the priest was raised in status (Meyers and Meyers, Zechariah 169). Despite the fact that Haggai and Zechariah were contemporaries, and even cohorts, they did not agree on the place of the priest once a king had been restored (Metzger and Murphy 1217OT). Throughout the book of Haggai, the prophet shares all of his visions with both the governor and the high priest, except for his very last oracle. In this oracle, he prophesies the rise of the Jewish king, and the restoration of power to the people. He only addresses this to the governor, and not to the priest, thereby returning the priest to the lesser position that they held pre-Exile. On the other hand, the book of Zechariah alludes to the importance of the priest and the king. “There shall be a priest by his throne, with peaceful understanding between the two of them.” (Zech 6:13)
The people of Exile held many different ideas about their future and their return to the Promised Land, yet there were common themes in all of the writings. The hope of the people, and their faith that they would be restored to their land, was unwavering and outstanding. During this hardship they turned to faith to unite them as a people and to give them hope and it is evident that this at least was a universal truth for the ancient Israelites.
Metzger, Bruce M. and Roland E. Murphy. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1989.
Meyers, Carol E. and Eric M. Meyers. Haggai, Zechariah 1-8. Vol. 25B. The Anchor Bible Series.
New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Meyers, Carol E. and Eric M. Meyers. Zechariah 9-14. Vol. 25C. The Anchor Bible Series.
New York: Doubleday, 1987.