Proof of the Principle

Many years after being taken into Babylonian exile, God moved his hand to miraculously allow some of the Jews to return and rebuild the temple (cf. Ezra and Nehemiah). Once again, an adjustment of mindset was required among those who re-entered the land.

Before being taken off into captivity they were to think of themselves as a theocratic army, commanded to be separate from the world. During their time in exile, they once again thought of themselves as tolerated sojourners. Toward the end of this exilic period they had become well versed in all that it meant to interact with the culture of the world.

It is for this reason that we are not surprised to hear what was told to Ezra as they started to resettle in the land.

“The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations…. (Ezra 9:1–12)

Ezra, of course, is horrified. But, we might ask, were they not simply being obedient to Jeremiah’s instructions? Were these peoples and abominations really any worse than those of Babylon? Ezra’s prayer provides the answer to these questions.

“And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. (Ezra 9:10-11)

Note that Ezra has in mind the commandments concerning taking possession of the land and not those of being in exile (away from the land). Were the abominations any worse or different from those of Babylon? No! What then was the difference? In Babylon they were exiles. In Canaan they are commanded to take possession. Or, in keeping with the theme of this series, another way to say that is this: In Babylon they are under a pilgrim principle, in Canaan they are under a land/theocratic principle.

As Ezra continues then, note the contrast between these instructions, and those given earlier through Jeremiah:

Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ (Ezra 9:12)

That is exactly the opposite of what Jeremiah told them to do! But is there a contradiction in God’s Word? No, it merely highlights the very issue we have been talking about all along. Ezra is vexed because he knows that as soon as they had re-entered the land, they had once again moved from life under the pilgrim-principle, to that of life under the land-principle.

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Learning to Open One Hand

In the last post, we took note of Jeremiah’s role in helping the covenant community to transition from their state of theocracy to that of the Babylonian exile. Like the patriarchs of old, once again they would need to learn to engage with the world around them. Once again, they would become a pilgrim people. 

In this regard, Daniel could not have served as a better example to those in Babylonian exile. He stood as a role model, both as one who remained uncompromised in religious distinctiveness, and yet also as one who (in obedience to Jeremiah’s word) acted out a profound level of engagement with Babylonian culture (he essentially became the prime minister!).

This is significant, because as one who cared deeply for the the instructions that God had given through Jeremiah, Daniel knew and understood what needed to be done. He knew that he needed to live as the people of God had lived before their entrance into the land.  Or to put it another way, Daniel understood that they needed to learn to open one of their hands. Rather than have a “closed hand-closed hand” approach to cultural engagement, they now needed to be a people with a closed hand on theology, and an open hand on culture. 

A Suprising Word

In the last post, we spoke about the punishment of the exile. Also, we mentioned that it was at this time that God sent the prophet Jeremiah to prepare the people for their upcoming transition to Bayblonian life. In chapter 29:4-7, Jeremiah proclaims;

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

So as to fully appreciate the shocking nature of that which follows, we must remember that God’s people have been under a covenantal arrangement for a very long time. Indeed the trauma of the exile itself is largely due to the fact that they are now being kept from living out this covenantal arrangement in the land of their fathers.

This is important to grasp because, for a very long time, the faithful have been called to go to war and conquer those who threaten their habitation of Canaan. In this regard, one can easily imagine the warriors of Judah, sharpening their swords, waiting in anticipation for the word of the prophet, to do as they had done for so many years before.

But imagine their surprise when they hear what Jeremiah says:

Thus says the LORD of hosts….’Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Consider for a moment how shocking that must have been for them to hear. In fact, the last time that anyone would have heard anything like this, would have been during the time before they were delivered from Egypt!

And while, one the one hand, this instruction would have seemed perfectly familiar to Abraham and those living under a pilgrim principle; on the other hand, for those who had only ever lived in the land under a theocratic principle, this was utterly shocking. However, jolting as it may have been, the instruction that flowed from Jeremiah’s lips was vital: God was showing them that they were going back to the pilgrim principle of their fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This then, leads us to the point in the story where we start to see an important pattern emerge; a pattern that will be of great help in leading us to form a biblical strategy for mission and cultural engagment in the church today. We will think more about this pattern in the next post.

 

The Curse of Exile

Moving on to the next major juncture in our story, we come to the time of exile, a time into which the major prophet Jeremiah was commissioned to speak. Through this exile, God intended that his people (under the Mosaic administration) learn that they–like Adam–had broken the covenant, and were now subject to the weight of its curse. However, unlike the ultimate reality of hell (the curse-sanction of the Adamic covenant), this national and typological curse meant the removal of God’s people from the temple and land, as they were taken into Babylonian captivity.

The trauma of this exile lay primarily in that while according to the Mosaic covenant, they were under a period of theocracy; at the same time they were now being kept from living according to its covenantal arrangement. They had no access to the temple; they were no longer a distinct geo-political people. While it is hard for us to appreciate, this in and of itself made for a time of deep-seated and ongoing trauma for the people of Israel. Indeed this very trauma it is well reflected in Psalm 137:1-6(ESV);

1 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 On the willows there we hung up our lyres. 3 For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! 6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

It is in preparation for this difficult time then, that the prophet Jeremiah is called to minister. And the way that he prepares them is very surprising indeed.

In the next post, we will look at what Jeremiah says, and why it is significant.