The Return of YHWH

Perhaps the most significant insight into the New Testament (NT) I have gained from N.T. Wright, one of the foremost biblical scholars and a church man I look up to, is the theme of YHWH’s return to Zion. Privately studying the Bible, I had seen the hints but I failed to connect the dots which Prof Wright has powerfully done throughout his work. Wright is probably the foremost proponent of this idea as a central narrative thrust in biblical theology. He is however not the only scholar to notice this and as far as I can tell it is virtually a consensus position among NT scholars that it is a thematic presence. The New Testament is littered with the motif. [1]Even scholars like Larry Hurtado who disagree with Wright that the belief in the return of YHWH in Jesus was the initial reason for Jesus being worshiped as God will happily grant the theme’s presence. Once someone points it out to you or you notice it yourself it is something that is so thematically obvious you do not need to be a professional academic to recognise it.

YHWH’s return is not only central to Wright’s hermeneutic and narrative theology. It is central to his Christology. He sees Jesus as the embodiment of YHWH’s return to his people which I fully agree with. However, I also agree with Prof Hurtado that it was not the primary catalyst for seeing Jesus as God. [2]It was rather his resurrection and resultant phenomena like visions of him being exalted for example, which were the reason. I think they resulted in them reappraising his earthly activity in the light of a fresh reading of scripture from which they conclusively identified him as Israel’s god come back to his people. Jesus being God incarnate for Wright is not shaped by later creedal formulae but by Israel’s story. This is another strong merit of Wright’s reading of scripture. Since it is an Israel shaped Christology there is an emphatic refocus on Israel and its scriptures. The Apostles Creed for instance, the most well-known creedal formula in the world today, completely ignores Israel even though her story makes up the vast bulk of the Bible. Now when Jesus appeared on the scene it was critical period in Israel’s story.

Israel’s story was that God had promised their forefather Abraham that he will make him and his offspring a blessing to the world. He was to be their God, they were to be his people and he will give them the world as an inheritance. [3]The family of Abraham was called to restore the human family. They were enslaved in Egypt and God rescued them through Moses, establishing them in the land of promise. The relationship between God and his people was often tumultuous and it eventually culminated in the greatest national disaster Israel had seen prior to Jesus’ birth.

The forces of Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple and exiled the people. It was also the fall of Jewish monarchy which was only briefly restored afterwards. Prophets like Jeremiah not only anticipated this cataclysm but interpreted in a very unique way in the ancient Near East. When opposing forces defeated a people it meant the people’s gods been overthrown by the foreign deities. Jeremiah rather saw it as God using pagan armies to punish his people. YHWH had not been vanquished but rather through a hostile instrument of his choosing, he had defeated his own people. This was a radical idea which showed how dire circumstances were.

Another seminal prophetic voice was Ezekiel. Like the cry of ‘Ichabod’ when the armies of disobedient Israel were defeated by the Philistines when Eli was judge, Ezekiel saw the glory of God in a vision depart from the temple (Ezekiel 10.) The temple was God’s home, his chosen dwelling place among his own people, sacred in all the earth. Seeing the Shekinah glory leave, the symbol of his presence in the world, meant God had left his people. He had departed from among them because they had abandoned him through unfaithfulness. YHWH had left them and had become their adversary.

The Lord remained faithful even though his people were faithless and he began to restore his people who had now become penitent. God was fulfilling his promises just as he had declared through the prophets. They were allowed to return to their own land and they rebuilt the temple. Things however, did not pan out as they expected. Though they had returned there were more diaspora Jews than homeland ones. Their homeland was still a vassal territory to pagan powers. To be truly free they had to be ruled by their own king, God’s Messiah. Zerubabbel did not live up to the billing because he failed to overthrow their foreign overlords. The Maccabean revolt set up a short-lived dynasty which became riddled with compromise and corruption and was eventually overthrown. It is here that Wright makes a very profound point in his case for YHWH’s return being central to the gospels. When you look throughout second Temple Jewish literature, no one ever said the Lord Had returned to his temple.

When Solomon built the first temple and dedicated it, the shekinah glory filled it just like Moses’ wilderness tabernacle. It indicated God had taken up rest in his home, the temple. A temple is never complete without the deity coming to reside in it. [4]Ever since King David, the prototypical Messiah, decided to build a temple for God, messianic activity was always linked with temple activity. So Solomon, Cyrus, Zerubabbel, [5]Alexander the Great, Judas Maccabee, and even Herod the Great as rulers did some significant temple related activity whether they were aware of the messianic overtones or not. The theme of the Messiah and temple restoration is evident in the gospels, particularly John’s. Kings as representatives of the gods were very concerned with ritual worship and sought to re-affirm their rule through signs that indicate divine approval. Jesus preached the kingdom of God had returned. His messianic mission was connected with the true restoration of the temple because if God had returned it meant he had been chosen by him to lead his people. Pagan forces could not legitimately impose their dominion on them and give them a ruler like Herod who was not even Jewish. (Herod tried to plug into the messianic narrative by rebuilding the temple but his ethnicity, his alliance with the occupying power and his [6]various cultural and religious insensitivities did not endear him to most people.) God was the true king of Israel therefore he selected her leaders just like he chose Saul and David. If he reigned it would be among his people in the land he had given them as an inheritance. The divine king’s palatial precinct would be the temple because that is where gods lived. In the case of YHWH that is the Jerusalem Temple on Mt. Zion. The Psalmist writes,

Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God! His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King – Psalm 48:1-2 ESV.

As far as the Jews were concerned Jerusalem was the centre of the world because that was where God’s presence could be found. If God was returning he would be found there. As such Mark begins his gospel with,

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'” – Mark 1:2-3 ESV.

Mark’s quote is actually a mashup of two passages, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Isaiah 40 is about a New Exodus, another important prominent theme which is obviously related to YHWH’s return if not its basic plot. In the well-known Isaiah 40, the prophet speaks comfort to the people of God because they have fully payed for the penalty of their sins. These sins fought against them and they were sent into exile as punishment. Since they had received their just recompense for their faithlessness the Lord had favour on them and he was coming to rescue them like a mighty warrior. God delivering his people from Egypt was often depicted as a battle against powers which God won. More importantly for the theme of return when God appeared to Moses he said to him he had come to deliver his people. YHWH’s return was him coming to save his people, this time from their sins which had put them in captivity. As I have said, when the Old Testament is quoted in the New, they are hooking into more than a line but into the passage and the larger narrative. It is a literary device known as metalepsis. So when Mark is quoting Malachi he also means this as well:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years – Malachi 3:1-4 ESV.

Here YHWH’s return is specifically to the temple. Mark was foreshadowing Jesus’ messianic mission proclaiming and embodying YHWH’s return which would reach its climax in the Jerusalem Temple. All messianic activity was Jerusalem and Temple oriented. In Malachi when YHWH returns he cleanses the temple with fiery judgement. It follows that he left the temple because it had been defiled. That is what it says right at the beginning of the book. Since God’s holy name of which the temple was a memorial had been profaned he departed and his people were also exiled from the land. YHWH’s absence therefore meant the people were still impure and a holy God cannot dwell among an unholy people. This is not to say there were no devout people but God wanted a holy people and not just holy individuals. The people were therefore very anxious to be wholly committed to God so that the rest of the promises may be fulfilled.

By the late second Temple period, the era in which Jesus emerged as a young Galilean prophet, people were full of religious and political fervour after their long history of disappointments and partially fulfilled promises. In that era there were about a dozen messianic movements known to history a century either side of Jesus and untold levels of activity in anticipation of their redemption and vindication as God’s people. Meanwhile Rome had consolidated its power and she seemed to be an indomitable adversary. The scriptures they lived, breathed and celebrated in their festivals testified of a God who rescued his people when the odds seemed insurmountable. The worse things got, the more reason they had to hope against hope. God could not have taken them that far to leave them in the lurch. YHWH’s return was not just a nationalistic expectation. It was an eschatological hope. It meant the old world order was passing away and God was establishing his rule over creation which means a new world order. As his chosen people Israel therefore played a key role in this project of renewal. The promise to Abraham was that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. For them the return of YHWH to rule over his people and reign over the earth was the turning point of history.


Header image source: Jim LePage


[2] Larry W. Hurtado, How On Earth Did Jesus Become God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, p. 179-204, Eerdmans, 2005.


[4] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp. 203-205, SPCK e-books, 1996.




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