The threefold structure of Jesus’ generations is built on four pillars: Abraham, David, the exile to Babylon, and the birth of the Messiah. We’ve already mentioned the significance of Abraham and David, but let’s take a moment to think about the exile to Babylon. As we noted above at Table 1.1 (see page 349 for list), Matthew highlights this broken aspect of Israel’s history with his broken chiasm. Other than the exodus from Egypt, no other event in Old Testament history is as significant. The Assyrian menace in the eighth century BC had been bad enough; it sent chills throughout the nation, but Jerusalem and the temple had escaped the carnage. David’s dynasty was still intact.
A century and half later, the Babylonians repeatedly attacked and threatened David’s kingdom in the south until they marched on Jerusalem, razed Solomon’s temple, and carted off the chief citizens to Babylon. There were many interim steps to Israel’s decline and sorrow. One of the few good kings of the era, Josiah, is injured and killed in battle with Pharaoh Necho (2 Ch 35:20–24). Thereafter, the Egyptians are overlords of the land and impose their own king, Jehoiakim (2 Ki 23:28–37), and severe taxes. However, as had many of his predecessors, Jehoiakim does what is evil in the sight of the Lord. But then Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, marches south, subdues Egypt, and swallows up the territories that belonged to Israel and Judah in their glory days. At first Jehoiakim played nice with Babylon, but eventually he rebelled, and hordes of Babylonians, Moabites, and Ammonites marched against Jerusalem as Judah crumbled. Jehoiachin succeeded his father and walked in his wicked steps, until it became obvious Jerusalem was lost. He surrendered to the king of Babylon in 597 BC and saw the treasures of his own house and Solomon’s temple be plundered and destroyed for the gold in them. A huge wave of talent and skill—warriors, artisans, and leaders—was taken in tow into captivity in Babylon, leaving mainly the poor and displaced to remain in the land (2 Ki 24:8–17).
The Babylonian-approved king, Zedekiah, remained loyal to Babylon for a while, but eventually he too rebelled and brought upon Jerusalem and God’s temple the mother of all battles, and he was captured. Less than a month later, Nebuchadnezzar’s army came to Jerusalem and burned and destroyed all the great houses of the city, including the house of YHWH. The walls that once protected the city were dismantled. Once again, the wealth of the temple and its city was pillaged and carted off to enrich the empire of Babylon (2 Ki 25:1–21). The historian puts it simply: “So Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Ki 25:21 NRSV).
On a human level this was a tragedy of immense proportions. It would be hard for us to imagine what an event like this does to the psyche of a people. If you multiplied the horror of America’s 9/11 times one thousand, you still would not have it. The death, destruction, and loss seemed total, for that was the Babylonian way when dealing with obstinate peoples.
The chronicler, however, reminds his readers that prior to this total destruction God repeatedly sent his servants, the prophets, to challenge them for their corruption. And, repeatedly, the people rejected them, mocked them, and ignored their corrections. So it was YHWH who sent Babylon to “correct” the idolatry and injustices of his covenant people (2 Ch 36:14–21).
Prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah had warned such a day would come because Israel and Judah had cozied up to foreign gods, neglected the poor, and generally disobeyed the covenant. Bit by bit, the glory days of David and Solomon were forgotten, the temple and palace were destroyed, and the wealth of Israel was carried off to a foreign land (2 Ki 20:16–19). But all this happened under the watchful eye of the Lord (2 Ki 24:3–7).
Afterward, the malaise of the exile began to lift because seers prophesied a new day when God would reverse their fortunes, forgive their sins, and begin the steady march back to Zion (Isa 40). Habakkuk foresaw the defeat of the Babylonian menace and a complete restoration to the land (Hab 3:17–19). As a prophetic sign, Jeremiah purchased a plot of land in Anathoth even as Jerusalem was surrounded by the Babylonian armies: one day houses and lands would again be sold in the land (Jer 32). Ezekiel envisioned the new temple of God and gave witness that one day God’s glory would return (Eze 40–43).
The Babylonian exile would last officially until 538 BC when Cyrus, king of Persia, became the overlord to the Babylonian lands. He allowed the exiles to go home, start over, and rebuild the temple (Ezr 1). But the return did not go as seamlessly as the people had imagined it would. A majority of exiles had made a place for themselves in Babylon, and not everyone was anxious to make the treacherous and uncertain journey back. Those with the courage to return found inhospitable neighbors and hardship at every turn. Mistakes had been made and reparations still had to be paid. At first, God’s temple remained in ruins—Haggai shamed the people into rebuilding it, but only after they saw to their own houses first (Hag 1). Ultimately, the temple of YHWH was rebuilt under Zerubbabel (completed about 515 BC), but most people suspected its glory would never eclipse that of Solomon’s temple.
The next few centuries saw one kingdom after another arise and make claims on Abraham’s people and its land. God’s promise to King David seemed remote and was all but forgotten. Daniel’s four beasts (Da 7) symbolized four kingdoms, greedy for gain, often violent and rapacious. At first it was the Medes, then the Persians, then the Syrian Greeks. When Jesus was born, it was the Romans who had a firm grip on the Galilee and Judea. It was a Roman cross that would witness his last, earthly breath.
So if there had been an end to the exile, many people never noticed. Matthew does not mention it. He does mention the exile but not the restoration. The unsatisfying return of the exiles and yearning for liberation greeted the infant Jesus at his birth. By breaking his chiasm with the exile (see Table 1.1), Matthew emphasizes that it would be up to the Messiah to do something about it.
This post is adapted from Matthew Through Old Testament Eyes by David B. Capes. This title is set to be released on March 26, 2024. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
Through Old Testament Eyes is a new kind of commentary series that illuminates the Old Testament backgrounds, allusions, patterns, and references saturating the New Testament. The structure and content of the Old Testament were second nature to the New Testament authors and their audiences, but today’s readers have no reference point for understanding their intricate role in the New Testament. Bible teachers, preachers, and students committed to understanding Scripture will gain insight through these rich Old Testament connections, which clarify puzzling passages and explain others in fresh ways.
The Gospel of Matthew contains both overt and subtle connections to the Old Testament, capitalizing on the scriptural literacy of the work’s original, first-century Jewish audience. These complex and multifaceted connections are not always recognized by today’s readers, meaning significant ideas can be easily missed or misappropriated. David B. Capes elucidates these extensive backgrounds, echoes, quotations, ways of thinking, and patterns of living, showing how God’s plan–introduced in the Hebrew Scriptures–is revealed through the very person, work, life, and ministry of Jesus.