In ancient times, invaders and conquerors typically carried off the inhabitants of the conquered nations and relocated them to the country of the invaders. They then repopulated the conquered nation with their own citizens. This was an effective strategy for destroying the culture of the conquered nation and making sure it cooperated with the new rulers.
Throughout all the prophetic books, prophecies of exile are a major theme. In fact, exile is God’s ultimate punishment for disobedience of a nation who had only had a relatively short period of independence and peace after a history of being caught between the major powers in the region.
Therefore thus says the LORD: Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land. (NRSV Amos 7:16-17)
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, the notables of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel resorts! …Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (NRSV Amos 6:1, 7)
But the actual act of exile wasn’t the only punishment; it also symbolized disconnection from God. On a practical basis, God’s “dwelling place” was in the temple in Jerusalem, so exile meant no more temple sacrifices, which was the people’s worship ritual at the time. But prophecies of physical exile were often accompanied by statements of God’s spiritual withdrawal from the people.
They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it. (NRSV Amos 8:12)
The ultimate promise, then, is return from exile, which also represents a patched-up relationship with God.