Book Review: Rebels and Exiles, by Matthew Harmon
Matthew S. Harmon, Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration. IVP Academic, 2020. 164 pages.
A friend of mine and his family experienced a fire in his house last year. Thankfully no one was injured, but the house was uninhabitable for months afterward. Friends provided for the needs of the family but they still felt unsettled and homeless—exiled from their former way of life. They were profoundly grateful for the provisions others lent to them, but, as the saying goes, there’s no place like home.
What my friend experienced physically we all experience spiritually. Because of sin we are distanced from the presence of God, wandering as sojourners and exiles. Exile is an enormous theme in Scripture, but one not spoken about in many sermons or lessons we hear in our churches. Matthew Harmon, Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace Seminary, aims to address that with his new book, Rebels and Exiles.
Harmon’s book is part of the Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series (ESBT), edited by Ben Gladd. The goal of the ESBT series is to explore central biblical-theological themes and do so in a way so that each volume relates to the others (ix). Take note pastors. This series is going to be useful for helping you access some of the best insights of biblical theology.
Harmon explore the theme of exile “from Genesis to Revelation, paying attention to how the Bible itself presents and develops this theme.” (xi) He describes exile as “every kind of estrangement or displacement, from the physical to the geographical to the spiritual.” (2) Brokenness and pain and disease and death permeate society and we long for a home where these realities are left behind, where peace and restoration and life abound. The author asks, “How did we as human beings get into this predicament? Where did this sense of exile come from? What happened to cause this state of exile? What is the solution to this fundamental problem of sin and the exile that results from it? Will there ever be a time when we live in our true home? (4) Those are the questions this book sets out to answer.
Harmon begins by exploring how exile is introduced in the garden of Eden narrative (chapter 1). The considers Israel’s relationship to God under the Mosaic covenant and the promised blessing for obedience, but cursing for disobedience—curses which culminate in exile from the land (chapter 2–3). Harmon then moves on to Israel’s return from exile, where they are brought back to the land, but are still spiritually distant from God and the promises of the prophets have not come to fruition (chapter 4).
Enter Jesus! Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension Jesus brings about restoration for those who would believe in him (chapter 5). And yet the biblical storyline still has some tension in it. While Christ’s cross work and resurrection has inaugurated our return from exile, it is not yet fully consummated. We live as sojourners on the earth, gifted with the Spirit and new identities in Christ, awaiting the day of our homecoming (chapter 7). The end of exile will come when the new creation arrives and God dwells with his people (chapter 8). Finally, Harmons spells out the practical implications of a biblical theology of exile for the Christian life (chapter 9).
Harmon is right when he says, “The theme of exile has received a good bit of attention in scholarly circles, though less so in more popular level-writings.” (147) This book will help fill that gap. Pastors will find in this treatment helpful exegetical and biblical theological observations as well as practical insights that will help them communicate a theology of exile to their people.
A HELPFUL TOOL FOR PASTORS
Specifically, this book will be helpful to pastors in three ways. First, Harmon provides helpful pneumonic devices (often alliteration) to make his points memorable—a useful teaching tool pastors could employ with their own congregation. Second, he routinely demonstrates how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament and models careful biblical-theological interpretation. Finally, Harmon consistently shows how to keep the immediate context and the canonical context in mind while studying a passage of Scripture. If pastors want to teach folks in their congregation how to do biblical theology well, a discipling group reading through Harmon’s book might be a good place to start.
While Harmon’s interpretive observations are helpful, I also greatly appreciated that the end of each chapter includes a section on application—again a feature of the book pastors will find particularly useful. Harmon is not satisfied with simply explaining the concepts of sin, exile, restoration, he wants to show how those concepts impact Christians today.
These applications come into even sharper focus in the final chapter where Harmon traces out several ways a knowledge of exile can help us live as God intended in this fallen world. We are enabled to know who God is and his plan for the world, understand who we are as humans, understand what’s wrong with the world, know how God will fix what is broken through Christ, understand that this world is not our true home, comprehend how to live as God’s people, and know where our true hope lies. These are paradigm-shifting realities that would be excellent to work through biblically in any discipling relationship.
A QUICK CAUTIONARY WORD
One thing to note as you work through the book: Harmon cites N. T. Wright fairly often—something we should expect given how frequently Wright has addressed these topics in his writings. Pastors, however, should take note that if you’re reading this book with a church member, you may need to clarify that Wright isn’t a trustworthy source on all theological matters. Thankfully Harmon is also clear to say several times that he does not follow Wright on all points and he often nuances his own views away from Wright’s errors.
Pastors, Harmon’s book explores a central biblical theme your people need to hear. Israel was exiled from the land for their sin. We are exiled from God’s presence because of our sin. We need to repent and believe in Jesus who has done the work to inaugurate restoration and will one day return to bring God’s people into God’s place and presence. We sojourn presently, but someday we will be home with God and his people in a place that infinitely transcends even the very best this world has to offer.