That a time might come, when, through unfaithfulness to their covenant, the Jews would cease to exist as a nation, and be scattered over the earth, was distinctly spoken of by Moses. There was a point in national transgression beyond which Divine forbearance would not go. After threatening many heavy chastisements, God says, "And if ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me; then I will walk contrary unto you in fury. . . . And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste." "And ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude." "The Lord God shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen." (Lev. xxvi.; Deut. xxviii.)
It was very hard for the elect people, who knew not the greatness of their sins, and whose pride in their election increased as the years passed by, to believe that God would thus give them up into the hands of their enemies, and scatter them among the nations. He would, therefore, have this His last judgment upon them repeatedly and distinctly announced by the prophets, that they might know whither their disobedience was leading them. Long before the time of actual captivity came, prophetic warnings began to be given. But in these, as in all announcements of coming judgments, there are increasing fullness and distinctness of utterance as the time draws near.
In Joel, the earliest of the prophets whose prophecies were committed to writing (870-850 B.C.), we find the national captivity foretold, but in indirect terms. Here we meet for the first time the phrase to "bring again the captivity of Judah aud Jerusalem." The fact of such captivity is implied, also, in the words that follow: "I will also gather all nations; . . . and will plead with them there for my people and for my heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land." (iii. 1, 2.) In this is foretold the national dispersion and the distribution of their land to heathen inhabitants, words which cannot be applied to a temporary invasion. We have thus in the very beginning of written prophecy, and probably more than two centuries before its fulfillment, a prediction of national overthrow.
In Amos and Hosea, the prophets next in chronological order (800-725 B.C.), and whose mission was chiefly to the Northern kingdom, there are many distinct and positive declarations of the coming overthrow and captivity. In Hosea: "I will cause to cease the kingdom of the house of Israel. ... I will no more have mercy upon the house of Israel; but I will utterly take them away." (i. 4, 6.) "The children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince." (iii. 4.) "My God will cast them away, . . . and they shall be wanderers among the nations." (ix. 17.) In Amos: "I will cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus." (v. 27.) "The high places of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste." (vii. 9.) "Israel shall surely go into captivity forth of his land." (vii. 17.) "The eyes of the Lord are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from off the face of the earth." (ix. 8.)
Both these prophets refer also to Judah as ultimately to be punished in like manner as Israel, but a J spared for the present. Hosea: "Israel and Ephraim shall fall in their iniquity; Judah also shall fall with them." (v. 5.) Amos: "I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem." (ii. 5.)
It is not necessary to cite from the later prophets. In most express terms by Micah and Isaiah and Jeremiah, and all the prophets before the exile, did God foretell that His last and heaviest chastisement was about to come upon His people in both their kingdoms. Both would be overthrown, and all the tribes go into captivity.
It is necessary that we carefully consider here the elements that enter into the conception of "the captivity " as God's last and highest act of judgment. Primarily it refers to the deportation of the people from their land, and their subjection to the heathen nations. But the term has a larger meaning. It has already been stated, that, in establishing the Theocracy Jehovah entered into two new relations: first, that of King to the people; second, that of Proprietor to the land; and as consequent upon them, and subordinate to them, was established the relation of the people to the land as His tenants. The first two of these relations were co-existent: so long as He was their King, He dwelt in the land as His own, and His Presence was their national preservation. Even if, for a time, He permitted their enemies to invade the land, and overcome them, it was for their punishment and reformation. But to permit His people to be carried away captive to another land, and His temple to be destroyed, and His worship to cease, this was not compatible with His honor as their King, dwelling among them. When the sins of His people had reached that degree that He must cast them out from their land, and put them under the yoke of the heathen, and give up His temple to be burned, He Himself must first depart: the land, so long as hallowed by His Presence, could not be denied by heathen possession.
The chief and essential element in the conception of the captivity, is, therefore, the cessation for a time of the theocratic relation, the sign of which was the withdrawal of Jehovah from the holy city and temple. Before the destruction by the Babylonians, when Jerusalem was taken, and the temple burned, and all the holy vessels taken away to Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel, an earlier exile, saw in vision the departure of "The Glory," the symbol of Jehovah's Presence, first from the temple to the midst of the city, and then from the midst of the city to the Mount of Olives. (Ezek. x. xi.) His habitation among them had been the crowning proof of His love: "I will walk among you, and I will be your God." "I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel." When the temple was dedicated, Solomon said: "I have surely built Thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for Thee to abide in for ever." It was His Presence that consecrated the land, and made it holy; and it could not be given up to the heathen to dwell in till He had departed from it.
This departure of Jehovah from His temple and land was the determining condition of the captivity, since it marked a change in His theocratic relation to His people, — a change that continues even to this day. They did not cease to be His covenant people. (Lev. xxvi. 44.) His purpose in them was still unfulfilled, His promises respecting the Messiah and His kingdom were not withdrawn, and He continued to accept their worship. But He Himself was no more reigning at Jerusalem; the Visible Glory no more dwelt between the Cherubim; the ark was not in the Most Holy Place; the holy fire no longer burned upon the brazen altar; there was no response by Urim and Thummim. The people might return, as they did from Babylon, the temple be rebuilt, the worship again set up; yet there was a change. They came back from their first exile and dispersion, but no more to be an independent nation. To their original standing as the theocratic people under His immediate rule, they were not restored. In the land their God had given them that they might freely serve Him without fear, the heathen ruled over them, the throne of David was not restored. For a brief period under the Maccabees there was an assertion of freedom, an hour of independence; but the eagles of Rome were already hovering over Jerusalem, and failing to discern their Messiah the Jews ceased to be a people among the peoples of the earth.
It is thus plain that the return of a part from the Babylonian exile, and their resettlement in their land, was not the end of the captivity, nor in any full sense a restoration. This cannot be till the Lord their God again dwells among them, and rules them through His King of the house of David, in truth and righteousness. The whole period from the overthrow by the Babylonians down to the present hour is, in the larger and truer sense, a period of captivity. When it shall end, they will come up from their bondage and dispersion as they came from Egypt: "the Lord their God will be with them, and the shout of a king be among them." (Num. xxiii. 21.)
The Jews must be cast out of their land because, like the Canaanites, they had defiled it. (Ezek. xxxvi. 17.) But their exile was not for destruction, it was for chastisement and purgation. After a time a remnant would return. It is therefore in the prophetic word respecting this remnant that the chief interest of written prophecy is centred.
It had been declared by God through Moses, that however great the sins of His people, and severe His punishments, He would not utterly destroy them, nor break His covenant with them. (Lev. xxvi. 44.) Although the nation, as a nation, should fail to respond to its calling, some repentant and faithful ones would be at last found whom He could reconstitute as a nation, and to whom His promises could be fulfilled. To this remnant, as the time of the captivity draws nigh, and its signs multiply, the eyes of the prophets searching the future are constantly turned: it is the hope that saves from national despair. So anxious was Isaiah that the people in his day, a century and a half before Jerusalem's overthrow, should know this gracious purpose of God, that he gives his son the name of Shearjashub, "the remnant shall return," a sign to them, that although the nation must be cast out of their land, it would not be utterly destroyed.
As regards this remnant, two questions present themselves: first, what was the purpose of God in its preservation? second, what were the moral conditions of its deliverance? As to the first, it was preserved, as appears from what has been already said, that He might by it reconstitute the nation, establish the Messianic Kingdom, and manifest Himself as God through His Son, the Messiah, to all the peoples of the earth. To this end were all His dealings with His people from the call of Abraham; to this end were all the words of the prophets.
But, besides this great and ultimate end, there was another to be effected through the remnant, — the bringing of His Son into the world by His birth of a virgin. In the Holy Land, of a Jewish mother, and under the ordinances of the law, must He be born and nurtured; and at Jerusalem must He present Himself to the priests and rulers as the promised Messiah. There must be, therefore, at least a partial restoration of the people and of their Mosaic polity, before His birth. If, at His coming, they received Him, and were cleansed by Him, and filled with His Spirit, then would He gather them under His wings, and fulfill in them the great end of God in their election. But rejecting Him, and thus proving themselves unworthy of God's grace, they must again be visited with chastisement, and the last worse than the first. If continuing unfaithful, the bonds that yet bound them to the land must be wholly broken, and they cease to have a possession in it, but be scattered among all nations, till there should be found at last that remnant which should cry, "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord." (Matt. xxiii. 39.)
In due time the purpose of God as to the birth of His Son was accomplished. But His people did not discern Him as the Messiah when He presented Himself to them, but crucified Him; and a second more fearful overthrow and dispersion followed. Some were gathered into the Christian Church, but the larger part still remains dispersed over the earth. It is from these that the remnant is to be gathered — the remnant of the last days — by whom He will fulfill His promise, and glorify Himself in the eyes of all nations.
The second question has respect to the moral conditions of the deliverance of this remnant. These were clearly marked out in the same prophecy that foretold the captivity. (Lev. xxvi. 40.) The captives will not
be delivered from their captivity till they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, and humble their uucircumcised hearts, and accept the punishment of their iniquity. Repentance, confession, humility, obedience, are the indispensable conditions of their restoration to God's favor, and of their return.
This purpose of God in regard to the remnant, it is very important to note. Having found the nation as such unfaithful, He will purge it with judgment; and the process of purgation must continue till He finds those-able to discern, and ready to do His will. It is not a question of time, but of moral preparation.
In none of the prophets are God's dealings with His people in reference to this remnant so clearly brought out as in Isaiah. He begins his prophecy by showing that all the blessings God had bestowed upon His elect people had not made them faithful: "I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me." Many sore judgments He had brought upon them, but in vain. "Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more." The time for the sorest chastisemeut was near at hand. His vineyard, notwithstanding all the care He had bestowed upon it, had brought forth wild-grapes; and now He will take away the hedge, and break down the wall, and lay it waste. But how long should this chastisement continue? Till its end was reached. It was not a transient punishment, like drought or pestilence or an invasion, but a permanent punitive condition, not to come to an end till through its discipline there should come forth an humble, purified, and obedient remnant. There might be from time to time alleviations of its severity, for during its whole period would God bless them as they showed themselves prepared to receive blessing; but there could be no restoration to the fullness of His grace, no entering into the Messianic Kingdom, till a radical moral transformation had been wrought.
It was given to Isaiah to pronounce upon the people a sentence of judicial blindness, an act which from its very nature must have formed a most important epoch in their history. God said to him, "Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes." And when he asked how long this blindness will continue, he was told, " Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate, and the Lord have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land." (vi. 9-13.) With the purely doctrinal aspect of this commission, we are not here concerned. The prophet is assured that his words will not be understood by the people, but that their effect will be to blind and harden them. They had, by their disobedience in the past, brought themselves into such spiritual condition that they had no ears to hear, or eyes to see, what God would speak and do. (xxix. 1014.) Therefore, He was about to bring His judgments upon them, —judgments far more severe than any yet inflicted. He would not cast them wholly away, but there should be stroke upon stroke till they should be brought unto an humble and penitent mind. "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped." (xxxv. 5.) "In that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness. The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel." (xxix. 18, 19.)
The first and immediate fulfillment of the prophet's words foretelling the captivity, was in the Babylonian conquest; but they reached beyond this conquest. There shall " be a great forsaking in the midst of the land. But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten." (In Rev. Ver., "And if there be yet a tenth in it, it shall again be eaten up.") "As a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof." (vi. 13.) The meaning of these words is thus given by Professor Alexander: "However frequently the people may seem to be destroyed, there will be a surviving remnant; and however frequently the remnant may appear to perish, there will still be a remnant of the remnant left. And this indestructible residue shall be the holy seed." From the exile in Babylon a remnant will return. But if "the holy seed" be not found, this remnant will be judged and purged; and this process of discipline and purgation will continue till at last God finds His tenth, His portion, His holy seed, which He will plant in the land to be no more rooted out.
Other prophets speak in like manner. Ezekiel, a prophet during the exile, thus speaks of the third part of the people: "A third part thou shalt scatter in the wind; and I will draw out a sword after them. Thou shalt also take thereof a few in number, and bind them in thy skirts. Then take of them again, and cast them into the midst of the fire, and burn them in the fire; for thereof shall a fire come forth into all the house of Israel." (v. 2-4.) Upon these words Hengstenberg thus remarks: "The third part given to the wind consists of the fugitives. . . . God's sword — His vengeance— follows them even in the dispersion. . . . The binding of the few remaining hairs in the skirt denotes the tender care that the Lord takes of the remnant, and that He will gather them from their dispersion, and restore them to their home. To take of them again and cast them into the fire, presupposes that even among the remnant that were come to a better mind, corruption will afterward break out, so that God's judgment will once more manifest itself in a fearful manner."
It is impossible to quote here the many passages in the prophets that refer to this remnant, and to God's dealings with its members to prepare them for their future place: to cite a few is sufficient. In Isaiah we read: "Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and they that return of her with righteousness." (i. 27.) "And it shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, even every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem: when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning." (iv. 3, 4.) In the prophet Amos: "I will sift the house of Israel among all nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword." (ix. 9, 10.) In Zephaniah: "I will also leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord. The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies." (iii. 12.) In Jeremiah: "I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds. . . . And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed." (xxiii. 3, 4.) "Turn, O backsliding children, . . . for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion." (iii. 14.) In Obadiah: "Upon Mount Zion shall be they that escape, and it shall be holy." (17.)
When God shall have completed His work of purgation, and established the purified ones in their own land, then will He again dwell among them in Jerusalem and Mount Zion, manifesting His Presence by symbols as of old: "So shall ye know that I am the Lord your God dwelling in Zion, my holy mountain: then shall Jerusalem be holy." (Joel iii. 17.) "I will make her that halteth a remnant, and her that was cast far off a strong nation: and the Lord shall reign over them in Mount Zion from henceforth, even for ever." (Mic. iv. 7.) "Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of Hosts shall reign in Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem, and before His ancients gloriously." (Isa. xxiv. 23.) "And the Lord will create upon every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence." (Isa. iv. 5.) "The King of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more." (Zeph. iii. 15.) "And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob." (Isa. lix. 20.) "I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion. ... At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord. ... In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance unto your fathers." (Jer. iii. 14-18.)
Two points are left undecided by the prophets, because depending on the moral effect of God's dealing with the people, — the length of the captivity, and the number that should constitute the remnant. In general, the prophets speak of the return of the remnant as "after many days;" or, in "the latter days;" or, "last days." This uncertainty as to time of fulfillment marks all prophecy, for the moral element ever overrules the chronological. God scrupulously respects the free will of men; and though His purpose is sure to be accomplished, and that at exact times known to Him, it is through His people's voluntary co-operation. It was not revealed to the prophets how long this disciplinary period of the captivity would continue, but they knew it must continue till there was wrought a true repentance, and an humble submission to the will of Jehovah. Nor was it revealed to them in how many this repentance and submission would at last be found: this only the issue could make known. Probably the prophets hoped and believed that God's judgments would bring the greater number to repentance, and prepare them to return.
It is probable, also, that some of the prophets before the captivity looked for the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom immediately after the return from the Babylonian exile, which return Jeremiah defines as at the end of seventy years. But prophetic language under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is general, and the conditional element in fulfillment is always recognized. The captivity must continue till its purifying end is reached. The remnant that should be gathered under the Messiah, and constitute the foundation of the Messianic Kingdom, must be "a holy seed," for the kingdom is holy. "The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies." Whether to those returning from the captivity in Babylon the Divine promises in the Messiah could be fulfilled, it was not given to the prophets before that captivity to foresee. Even Isaiah did not, we may believe, know when his words respecting their judicial blindness would have had their fulfillment. It might be, that proving unfaithful they would be again scattered, and only a remnant of that remnant be finally gathered under their Messiah. The prophets knew that God's purging process must continue till the dross is consumed, and only the pure silver and gold remain.
With the deliverance and restoration of this remnant, the salvation of the heathen nations is closely connected. The original purpose of the Theocracy can now be carried out, and Jehovah, dwelling among a holy and obedient people, can manifest Himself through them as the Lord of the whole earth. Thus this remnant, when itself delivered, becomes a means of deliverance also to others. "And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered: for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, and in the remnant whom the Lord shall call." (Joel ii. 32.) "The remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples as a dew from the Lord, as the showers upon the grass." (Mic. v. 7.) "Many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." (Mic. iv. 2.) "I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the Lord." (Zeph. iii. 20.) "The sons of the stranger, . . . even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: . . . for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people." (Isa. lvi. 6, 7.) "At that time they shall call Jerusalem the throne of the Lord; and all the nations shall be gathered unto it." (Jer. iii. 17.) "The heathen shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes." (Ezek. xxxvi. 23.)
Thus in the prophetic future three points were clearly outlined: the gathering of the purified remnant, — the holy seed; the appearing of the Messiah and the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom; and the conversion of the nations.