England has had 42 kings & queens since 1066 – some good, some bad, some ugly, but who’s to say? History is the judge. Not so for Israel. God was the judge – and Israel’s kings fared badly in God’s eyes. After the glory days of David and Solomon, the kingdom split in two. ALL 20 kings of the North (Israel) ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord’, and the nation followed their lead. Of one it was said, ‘he passed away, to no one’s regret’ (2Chr 22:20). In the South (Judah), 12 were evil, 4 good, and 4 got a mixed report. The moral and spiritual decline led to the withdrawal of God’s protection, and ultimately, disaster. Assyria, the most militant nation on earth, swept in, utterly destroyed the North and dispersed its people as captives to other nations. In the South, only Jerusalem was left standing, but Judah slowly recovered over 100 years, until they too did evil and were crushed and taken captive by Babylon in 586BC. God’s people would live out its days under foreign dominion.
Many of the historical books of the OT were written in Babylon – in hindsight, and in exile. This should have been the end of the story. With no temple, no king, no nation, no land, had God finally abandoned them as they deserved? This was the question posed by the Exilic prophets, Ezekiel, Daniel and second Isaiah. The astonishing answer was ‘no’! Incredible examples of God’s hand guiding and protecting his people through the obedience of young teenagers of the next generation – Daniel in Babylon, and Esther in Persia – brought hope for a future. Then providentially (and very gradually) God enabled their return to the land, and a modest rebuilding under Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah – though always under dominion.
As a people, Israel (the name stuck) lived out the next 400 years in different lands under foreign powers: Assyria, then Babylon, Media and Persia – with kings Cyrus and Artaxerxes allowing their return. But we often forget the great majority of God’s people never returned, but continued to live in these foreign lands, adapting their religious life to their changed circumstances.
Those who did return lived under the dominion of the Ptolemies (Egypt) and the Seleucids (Greek Syria), legacies of Alexander the Great – until all were conquered by Rome, setting the stage for the next phase in Israel’s story – the Messiah.