Book Review: Matthew S. Harmon, Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration

Harmon, Matthew S. Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration. Essential Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2020. 207 pp. Pb; $22.  Link to IVP Academic

The Essential Studies in Biblical Theology attempt to span the whole canon of Scripture and seeks to connect the theme to the person of Christ. In this third volume of the series, Matthew Harmon traces the related themes of sin and exile from the original rebellion in the Garden of Eden to the end of the exile in the New Creation. Harmon (PhD, Wheaton College) serves as professor of New Testament studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. Harmon’s The Servant of the Lord and His Servant People: Tracing a Biblical Theme Through the Canon (NSBT) will be published in January 2021. He has also written commentaries on Galatians, Philippians, 2 Peter, and Jude.

Harmon, Rebels and ExilesHarmon acknowledges the catalyst for significant attention on the theme of exile and restoration is the work of N. T. Wright. Wright argues the “return from exile” motif is central for understanding the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Wright himself has published several books and essays on this topic, and these works have generated responses from various scholars. However, this book is not slavishly devoted to Wright, even if his influence is not far from the surface. Harmon’s goal in the book is clearly present how Scripture describes the believer’s experience of exile as “a longing for a place we have never been.” The German word Fernweh expresses this idea (3). He relates this to well-known books (The Hobbit) and films (Terminal), although I am surprised Harmon does not refer to the U2 song “All that you Can’t Leave Behind.”

This longing results from the fall. Harmon therefore begins with a summary of the Fall, “Humanity’s Original Rebellion and Exile” (ch. 1). When humans rebelled and were exiled from the Garden, they lost their status as God’s people, their place in Eden and their experience of God’s presence in the earthly sanctuary of Eden. The promise to Abram in Genesis 12 begins the restoration of these three things; God promised Abram that his descendants will be the people of God, that people will have a place (a land), and a new Edenic home where God’s presence will dwell with them (23).

Chapters 2-3 deal with the reality of the exile foreshadowed as early as Mount Sinai and the golden calf incident. Abraham’s descendants are as rebellious as Adam and will suffer the same kind of exile from the land. Harmon rightly shows the curses for failure to keep the Law result in exile from the land where God’s presence dwells. He traces this theme (briefly) from Joshua to 2 Kings. He describes life in exile as a time when some of God’s people remained faithful to Yahweh (Daniel, for example) while others continued their rebellion against God (Ezekiel 14).

The fourth chapter of the book deals with the prophetic anticipation of the return from exile when Israel repents. The prophets balance nearly every threat of exile with a promise of restoration. Harmon points out four aspects of these promises. First, God promises a restoration of Temple worship. Second, God’s people will (finally) keep his law (Torah). Third, God will restore his people to a particular land (turf, to keep the alliteration going). Fourth, a Davidic king will rule over this restored people (a throne). Harmon argues these four restoration promises embody the foundational components of people, place, and presence lost in the original fall, but promised in the Abrahamic covenant (67).

Since this restoration will require a New Covenant, Harmon examines new covenant language in Isaiah 40-55, Jeremiah 31, and Ezekiel 34-37. The exiles who returned to Judea in 539 B.C. expected these promises to be fulfilled, but reality did not live up to expectation. They rebuilt the Temple, but God did not fill the second temple with his glory. The returned exiles kept the Torah, but there was still rebellion as demonstrated by the problems addressed by Nehemiah and Malachi. The restored exiles only possessed a fraction of the land and a Davidic king never appeared to rule a restored kingdom. As Harmon describes it, the four aspects of restoration (Temple, Torah, Turf, and Throne) were inaugurated, but not consummated.

Chapters 5-6 pick up the restoration from exile theme from the prophets and apply it to the life and ministry of Jesus, but especially in his death, resurrection and ascension. Harmon follows N. T. Wright closely here and argues Jesus inaugurates the restoration from exile through his ministry. This restoration is demonstrated by his healing the sick (expected in Isaiah 35:5-7, for example), his authority over the demonic realm, and in his teaching ministry. But it is in his death that Jesus brings an end to humanity’s exile. First, Jesus dies as the suffering servant promise by Isaiah. Second, Jesus ends humanity’s exile by drinking the cup of God’s wrath. Third, Jesus ends the exile by dying at Passover as the Passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world. The resurrection in the ascension represents God vindicating Jesus as the one who ends the exile. Harmon considers this an inauguration of the New Covenant and the end of the exile, but the end will not be consummated until the (future) return of Christ (108).

Harmon then turns to the epistles to develop exile themes (ch. 7, “Life as Exiles in a Fallen World”). Given the title for the chapter, it is not surprising that he gives serious attention to the letter of 1 Peter. He excepts the dominant view that 1 Peter was written to Gentile believers, although this once dominant view has a few recent dissenters. This does not distract from Harmon’s point that the letter portrays believers as sojourners and exiles in a fallen world. Through the death of Jesus, sinners are formed into a renewed and redeemed people, yet they are still living in a foreign land and looking forward to the end of the exile. Second, he turns to Hebrews and James as examples of how the church continues to live in exile. Like with 1 Peter, Hebrews and James seem clearly addressed to Jewish Christians who would resonate with the metaphor of exile.  Harmon includes four pages on two Pauline letters, although this is not as convincing as his sections on 1 Peter, Hebrews and James. Regarding Galatians, the examples Harmon offers have little to do with exile. For Philippians, focuses on citizenship in heaven. In either case the exile is not prominent, or even mentioned.

The penultimate chapter examines the book of Revelation and the ultimate end of Exile in the New Creation. There is nothing in this chapter on Revelation as a whole in this chapter, although the book has a great deal to say about living as an exile and second exodus themes run through the main section of the book. Harmon’s focus is in a “final exile” (Rev 20:11-15) and the new heaven and new earth. As expected, Harmon sees the description of the new creation in Revelation 21:1-5 as a new Eden. The river of life flowing recalls the rivers of the original Eden, and the tree of life returns. There is no hint of anything cursed in the new creation, so God’s glorious presence fills the new creation and humans are at least able to live out their purpose of the image bearers of God: “his servants will serve him” (136).

Harmon concludes this book with a chapter on practical implications of sin, exile, and restoration. Please seven brief points are pastoral, focusing on what God has done to fix the brokenness of this world, reminding us that this fallen world is not our home and that are true hope lies in the restoration planned by God from the beginning.

Conclusion. Since one goal of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series is accessibility to beginning students and laypeople, Harmon’s book does not interact in detail with scholarly work on the exile and restoration. He has a section of recommendations for further reading divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced studies. He includes the very popular text by Lee Beach, The Church in Exile (IVP 2015) and Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty (IVP 2003). Several of the advanced studies interact with N. T. Wright, including two important essay collections: Carey Newman’s Jesus and the Restoration of Israel and James Scott’s Exile: A Conversation with N. T. Wright.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

One thought on “Book Review: Matthew S. Harmon, Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.