Israel's repeated unfaithfulness to their covenant with Yahweh led to its demise. The nation was utterly destroyed, it's major cities and institutions torn down, it's people deported.
Yahweh had promised David, however, that there would always be one of his descendants on the throne. And the prophets who announced the judgment to come frequently spoke of a “remnant” who would return and reconstitute a new nation, a new Israel upon whose hearts the Law of Yahweh would be written. “The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down. On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness.” (Isaiah 10:19-22) In these verses we see both the determination of Yahweh to destroy Israel regardless of whatever they might or might not do to prevent it, but also the inability of Yahweh to finally and ultimately give up on his people. This more than anything speaks to the compassion of Yahweh. Though they deserve it, he just can't finally bring himself to utterly destroy them. He'll eventually give them another chance.
So, Israel was destroyed and the people sent away in exile, yet there remains a hope: Yahweh would not always hold Israel’s sin against her, but would eventually forgive them and restore the kingdom. It would be a different kingdom, one in which Yahweh ruled through his Anointed One, the descendent of David who would be a righteous king and would not forsake the ways of Yahweh. The coming of the Anointed One—messiah in Hebrew, christus in Greek—would be a sign that Yahweh had forgiven Israel and was ready to end the Exile and restore his kingdom. When that happened, Israel would be free from foreign oppression, and the Kingdom of God would be established forever.
In the 1st century, no Jew would have claimed that this had happened yet. Though the remnant had indeed returned to Israel about 50 years after Jerusalem was destroyed in order to rebuild, this was done with the permission of and under the vassalage of the Persians, who replaced the Babylonians as the ruling empire of the area. After the Persians came the Greeks, who occupied Israel and forced their culture on the Jews. There was a brief period of independence when the Maccabee family led a successful rebellion against the Greeks, but this could not have signified the end of the Exile because there was no descendant of David to take over the throne, and because it didn’t last. In 63 B.C.E the Romans conquered and occupied the land of the Jews.
So here’s what every Jew in the 1st century who still looked forward to the end of the Exile and the establishment of Yahweh’s kingdom understood needed to happen for that to be true: Yahweh had to forgive Israel of the sins that had led to the Exile; he had to send the messiah to be their king; and the kingdom had to be restored, not the least of which involved full and final independence from Rome. These events would put an end to the age of the Exile and would usher in a new age—“the age to come” that Jesus and others referred to—in which all the world would recognize that the God of Israel was just and merciful and compassionate and forgiving.
This hadn't happened yet, but it was into this worldview and set of expectations that Jesus of Nazareth was born.
© 2009 by Larry L. Eubanks