by Ed Gallagher

You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out.

Leviticus 20:22
James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners, ca. 1900, Wikimedia Commons

This lesson surveys the causes and consequences of the Babylonian exile of the Judean nation. The beginning of the exile is told in 2 Kings 25, and its end is announced in Ezra 1:1–4. The books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Lamentations are set during the Babylonian exile. 

Main teaching point: the lesson of the exile is twofold: (1) though God is patient and merciful, he will punish his people for sin; (2) even in exile God does not completely abandon his people. 

Refugees are in the news a lot. Put yourself in their shoes. How would your life be different if you were driven from your homeland? How would your family life change? How would your spiritual life change? (Examples: Syrian Refugees; Lost Boys of Sudan.) 

Read Deuteronomy 28. As part of the covenant that God established with Israel, he specified certain blessings that would accompany obedience (vv. 1–14) and certain curses that would accompany disobedience (vv. 15–68). This chapter demonstrates two important principles: (1) God has always been concerned with our behavior; and (2) God is patient with our failures. Regarding the latter point, note that a series of substantial but relatively minor punishments precede the major punishment of exile (vv. 63–68). 

What were the promises made to Abraham? (Gen 12:1–3, 7) God promised Abraham that he would become a great nation, that his seed would bless all families, and that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan. Abraham’s descendants would inhabit this land not because of their own righteousness but because of the wickedness of the Canaanites (Deut 9:5). God would leave those Canaanites in place until “their iniquity is complete” (Gen 15:16). But Israel would need to take care not to imitate the evil behavior of the Canaanites or the same fate would await them (Lev 18:24–30; 20:22–24). 

How did it come about that the people of God went into exile? (Here the teacher is looking for students to help him tell the story of the fall of Israel. Basic facts: the kingdom split into two following the death of Solomon [1 Kings 12], about 930 BC. For two centuries, the northern nation of Israel [comprising 10 tribes] continued alongside the southern nation of Judah [comprising Judah and Benjamin], but in 722 BC the Assyrian Empire destroyed Israel [2 Kings 17], leaving Judah alone. The tiny nation of Judah survived for another 130 years, until Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians took them captive. On the dates, see below.) 

The end of the nation of Judah came quickly after the death of the last righteous king Josiah (2 Kings 23:28–30). The last kings of Judah were Josiah’s three sons and a grandson. First, Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz, reigned only three months before the Pharoah replaced him with his brother Eliakim, whom Pharaoh renamed Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:31–34). Jehoiakim reigned 11 years (23:36), and he first was subordinate to Egypt, then Babylon, then he switched back to Egypt (this switching of loyalties is alluded to in 2 Kings 24:1). Jehoiakim is the king who, upon reading Jeremiah’s scroll, burned it because it angered him (Jer 36:20–24). Jehoiakim died in about 598 BC, and his son Jehoiachin reigned only 3 months before Nebuchadnezzar imprisoned him in Babylon (24:6–12), replacing him with his uncle (another son of Josiah), Mattaniah, whom he renamed Zedekiah (24:17). This last king, who reigned 11 years (24:18), was subordinate to Babylon for a time, but eventually sought help from Egypt to throw off the yoke of Babylon (24:20; Ezek 17:15). In response, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and terminated the Judean monarchy (2 Kings 25). 

Read Jeremiah 52:28–30. This passage describes three waves of exile, dated according to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who took the Babylonian throne in 605 BC (or so). 

  • 598/597 (7th year of Nebuchadnezzar); see 2 Kings 24:10–16. Taken captive: King Jehoiachin, all skilled craftsmen, all but the poorest of the land (2 Kings 24:14), all vessels from the Temple. Ezekiel was taken (Ezek 1:2). 
  • 587/586 (18th year of Nebuchadnezzar); see 2 Kings 25; Ezekiel 24. The kingdom comes to an end, temple destroyed, governor put in charge.
  • 582 (23rd year of Nebuchadnezzar): others taken captive (not mentioned in Kings)

We have so far discussed the political cause of the exile, but what is the theological cause? God had warned the people that disobedience would result in exile. It’s the same point he makes to Habakkuk, who cried out to God because of the violence in Judah (1:2–4) and receives the answer that God is bringing the Chaldeans (Babylonians) against Judah (1:5–11).

Ezekiel, taken captive to Babylon in 597, experiences a spiritual journey to Jerusalem (ch. 8), where he sees the people engaged in various acts of idolatry, even in the temple. Thereafter God leaves the temple (11:22–23), abandoning it to its fate. Whereas some people in Jeremiah’s day believed that Jerusalem could not be destroyed because it was the home to the temple of the Lord (Jer 7:4), Jeremiah warned them that since the house had become a den of robbers (v. 11) it would be destroyed like the former sanctuary in Shiloh (vv. 12–15). 

Read Deuteronomy 30:1–5. Exile is not the end of God’s love for his people. (See also 1 Kings 8:46–53.) How long did the exile last? The people who were exiled in 597 thought that their time in Babylon would be very brief, so Jeremiah told them to build houses and plant gardens and think of Babylon as their new home (29:5–9), because it would be their home for 70 years (v. 10)! Daniel and Ezekiel spent their entire prophetic ministries in Babylonian exile. Finally, Cyrus, king of Persia, in 539, after he had conquered Babylon, allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple (Ezra 1:1–4), in accordance with his general policy


The exile is a major turning point in the story of Israel. Ever since their redemption from Egyptian slavery, the people had struggled with the temptations of idolatry (Exod 32!) and the desire to be like other nations (1 Sam 8:20). The post-exilic books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi show a people who still struggle with sin, but typically they do not struggle with the particular sin of idolatry, and they seem more comfortable with being a peculiar people. 

Additional Questions for Discussion

Read Deuteronomy 28. At the beginning of Israel’s history, God articulated consequences for disobedience to the covenant. Since exile is the final consequence, what does that mean for the importance of the land to Israel? 

Read Daniel 1:1–7. The entire nation endures the tragedy of exile, even righteous individuals such as Daniel and his friends. Why did God punish the community and not merely the wicked? 

Ezekiel reports that the people in exile recite a particular proverb (see Ezek 18:2; cf. Jer 31:29). What do you think this proverb means and why do the people think it applies to their situation? 

Read Habakkuk 1–2. The prophet Habakkuk identifies a problem in Judah. What is God’s solution to the problem? How does Habakkuk feel about God’s solution? 

Read 1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11. How does—or should—the term “exile” shape our identity? 

Additional Resources

Here is a dramatization (12 min.) of the Captivity, including a nice scene with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

This video (History Channel again) traces the rise of the Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned at the 4:00 mark, and the Jewish exile shortly thereafter. 

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