Big Story – Act 3 Scene 3: The decline of Israel
with Roger Kirby
The story begins with the Lord having no resting place. His presence was symbolized by cloud and fire in Exodus 13: 21, 22. “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” This was associated with a “tent of meeting” where the Lord would go to speak to Moses outside the camp, Exodus 33:9 “As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses.” This arrangement was superseded by the tabernacle, a much more ornate structure for which precise instructions are given in the later part of the book of Exodus. In the last chapter of Exodus we read “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”
All that detail is clearly intended to emphasize the way in which the Lord was present with and in the middle of his people.
The deeply spiritual quality of the people of God as they set out from Egypt soon begins to deteriorate. There are many references to the tabernacle in the early part of the book of Numbers as it records the movement of the people through the wilderness towards the promised land but the number of references fades away as they progress. There is casual incidental reference to it being in the land, at Shiloh, towards the end of the book of Joshua, but no reference at all in the book of Judges when they are in the land. That serves as a clear indication of the decline in the concern for the Lord as they settled in the land and their attention became absorbed with the planting of land and the general workload of the farmers that they now were. The sons of Eli tried to use the Ark of the Covenant taking it from within the tabernacle as a talisman. That idea was very unsuccessful; it was lost in battle because it was not a talisman. The Philistines had to return the ark because all sorts of problems accompanied its presence in their land.
It was a sign of the deeper spiritual life of David that he organized the return of the ark to Jerusalem and endeavored to give it a right place in the worship of the Lord by the people. He wanted to build a proper temple for it to be housed in but was told that he had spilt too much blood and it would be his son, Solomon, the next king, who would build the temple. Again we can see that the presence of the Lord was in doubt. David had a good and proper desire that the presence of the Lord should be understood and honored amongst the people but there had been too much strife and blood shedding for that to be permitted. These were the people who were supposed to carry the name and the worship of the Lord to all nations. They were not doing very well!
There is a brief interlude when things seem to be improving. Solomon builds a magnificent temple and, we are told, when he has the Ark of the Covenant brought to it and installed there is visible evidence that the Lord was there and approved of what was happening. 2 Chronicles 7: 1 -3 reads, “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord.”
But it didn’t last and in fact goes from bad to worse. The books of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles both record a sorry tale of bad king, bad king, bad king, good king, bad king etc. we don’t get a lot of detail, as we did in the book of Judges, but things must have been even worse. Not all the kings were in the line of David. Brother killed brother or uncle to retain the throne. It was all just the same as it is in any part of the history of those days. Idols were set up and worshipped. Prophets made their prophecies up as they went along to satisfy the king and retain their positions or were ignored or killed.
And then we come to one of the saddest and most surprising pictures of all in the story of the people of God in Ezekiel 10 and 11. Ezekiel has a vision. “Then the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the Lord. Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. These were the living creatures I had seen beneath the God of Israel by the Kebar River, and I realized that they were cherubim. Each one went straight ahead. Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God. Then the vision I had seen went up from me, and I told the exiles everything the Lord had shown me.”
The glory of the Lord, the Presence of the Lord, had left the temple. That was Solomon’s temple, which was destroyed by the Babylonians shortly after. Building of a replacement temple started more than 80 years later when the exiles returned from Babylon but there is no record that the visible presence of the Lord was ever there. The same is true of Herod’s temple, which replaced that one some 500 years later. They had lost the visible presence of the Lord symbolizing their spiritual weakness and failure.
Israel had failed in their God given task. Failed badly. They had lived and acted no better than any of the other nations around them and the Lord had punished them for their failure with the exile and the general weakness of their position. It is not difficult to sympathize with them, placed as they were, between the greater nations of Assyria/Babylon and Egypt. Perhaps if the had acted in the way they should have done, honoring the Lord and working towards the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, they would have been able to maintain their national position against the greater nations. But they didn’t so they couldn’t.
Would the Lord ever return to his temple? Yes, but not as they expected.
The Lord did return as a baby! It was an old man, Simeon, who realized what was happening. He took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God with a wonderful prophetic statement, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
He saw the true significance of what was happening. We will return to thinking about the temple, and temples, in a later scene. For the moment try to think out how full of glee Simeon must have been. He must have been bursting with happiness and joy. So should we be – the Lord is with us.