Ezekiel and Daniel experienced exile. The words slip over the tongue with such ease. We are glad to know this “brute fact” about these two prophets. Next time we get involved in a Bible trivia quiz, we will be sure of at least one answer: Ezekiel and Daniel were prophets of the exile.
But having that kind of attitude toward the “fact” of Israel’s exile is like knowing a category-five hurricane will hit your hometown in Florida within the next few hours. How can you treat this fact in such a glib, nonchalant way? A hurricane means devastation, destruction, and death.
Exile means the same things. Exile means devastation, destruction, demolishment, and death.
So what was the all-controlling God doing? We have no trouble believing that he called Abraham out of his pagan life as an idol-worshiper. We believe that He sovereignly delivered Israel from the enslavements of Egypt and that He instituted the covenant bonds with Moses and David. But how does exile fit into the progress of redemption? Had God determined to follow a different course with His gracious promise?
The exile of God’s people, the apparent reversal of the whole redeeming process, meant different things to different people. For rebellious apostates, it meant the hell of separation from God. They no longer could claim salvation from the Lord as their own personal expectation. They had been disinherited from the promises of God, solemnly declared to be “Lo Ammi,” “Not My People.” For others, exile meant chastening of the severest sort. The hand of the Lord rested heavily on disobedient, compromising believers who had not walked
faithfully in the way of the Lord.
But what about Ezekiel and Daniel? They were among the faithful few. Why must they also undergo the agonizing pain of being torn from their land flowing with milk and honey, from family and friend, from temple, priesthood, and sacrifice?
By the exile, these prophets became the recipients of redemptive revelation in a way that had never before been experienced by God’s people. They came to understand the plans and purposes of their sovereign God that went well beyond all previous revelations of His gracious intentions.
Look at Ezekiel. We meet him first by the rivers of Babylon, among the earliest of Israel’s enslaved captives. But from that unlikely vantage-point, what does he see? He does not, like Moses, have before him the expanding vistas of the Promised Land viewed from Pisgah’s lofty heights. He is not, like Solomon, standing on Mount Zion offering a majestic prayer of consecration before the just-completed temple. He is far, far away, eking out an existence under the whip of oppressive Babylonian overlords.
So what does he see? What vision of the Lord of Glory enlightens his circumstance?
He sees the Shekinah, the glory of God with all its splendid surroundings. He sees whirling, whirring wheels upholding the chariot-throne of the Almighty, the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient One.
But how could this be? Has not the Lord designated Mount Zion in Jerusalem as the place of His permanent dwelling? Did not His glory fill Solomon’s temple, and has He not been there and nowhere else in all His splendor among the nations of men? So what is the Shekinah, the glory of God, doing in Babylon of all places?
Ah, these exilic prophets have something to teach us that we must never forget. God is not bound by the places and performances of men. He cannot be localized either in this particular building made with human hands, or in that specific organization of a political or religious sort, no matter how pure or upright that organization might be. He can (and will) display His glory just as easily in Babylon among a slave-people as He does in Jerusalem among a priestly people. As the Lord says through His prophet: “Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone” (Ezek. 11:16).
Not until the coming of the incarnate Lord could the full weight of this prophetic insight be comprehended. The Lord Christ Himself brought out the implications of this distinctly exilic perspective: “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 24).
So for Ezekiel, God’s glory departs from the temple in Jerusalem. Exile means the departure of God’s abiding, benedictory presence from the old ways and the old days. But when in the majestic ending of his book the prophet envisions a returning of God’s glory to an enlarged temple that stretches well beyond the peaks of Mount Zion, he prophetically anticipates the expanded glory of God’s dwelling-place among all the nations of the world.
Today we can understand the message of the prophet better than he could have comprehended it himself. Today we witness the glory of God abiding in the assemblies of Christ’s church and in the hearts of men throughout the whole of the world.
Simultaneously with the vision of the prophet Ezekiel come the inspired insights of Daniel the statesman. Ezekiel as a priest concentrates on the temple as worship-center for God’s people. Daniel as a political statesman focuses on the kingdom of God in its relation to the national powers of his day as well as the days to come.
Daniel first describes a colossus with four segments (Dan. 2). These four sections of the colossus represent four successive world empires and correspond closely to Daniel’s later vision of the four beasts (Dan. 7).
These four successive images anticipate so precisely the kingdoms of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome that unbelieving critics argue that the book of Daniel must have been written after at least three of these four kingdoms had already appeared on the scene of history.
But nothing can rob God of His prerogative to have a plan for this world, to work out His plan through human history, and to reveal this same plan to His servants the prophets. Climactic to both these visions is the appearance of an image that supplants all the political powers of the world in order to carry out God’s purposes of redemption. First, a stone “cut out by no human hand” smashes the colossal image and then expands to fill the whole earth (Dan. 2:34–35). Then, in the second vision, one “like a son of man” comes with clouds of heaven, indicating His divine nature. This glorious one who comes like a son of man receives authority, glory, and sovereign power over all the nations of the world. His dominion shall last forever (Dan. 7:13–14).
These visions of the universal spread of God’s messianic kingdom appear in the context of exiled Daniel’s life in the court of the mighty monarch of Babylon. In starkest contrast with the provincialism that might be associated with an exclusively Jewish gospel, the good news of these visions granted to Daniel in exile displays the kingdom of the Messiah as embracing and superseding all earthly empires. Later Daniel learns that the Almighty has decreed a specific time “to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place” (Dan. 9:24). Because of Daniel’s perception of the establishment of a world-wide domain for the messianic kingdom, this message brings hope to all the peoples of the world. By the scattering of God’s people through exile, the universal character of this message of salvation for sinners can now be fully grasped.
So Israel’s experience of exile must not be seen from a wholly negative perspective. Instead, exile underscores some of the most significant truths of the Christian faith. The messianic kingdom is not limited to one geo-political community. Instead, God’s redemptive purposes embrace all the nations and peoples of the world.