Last week, we covered the time of the divided kingdom, the history of Israel and Judah, after the death of King Solomon. The northern kingdom of Israel lasted about 200 years before it fell to the Assyrians in 721. The people disappeared into the larger history of the Middle East and became the “ten lost tribes.”
Judah, the southern kingdom, lasted longer. It survived until 586 B.C., when it was overrun by the Babylonians, and the people were exiled to Babylon. Our first lesson today from the end of 2nd Chronicles sums up this time, from the fall of Jerusalem to the end of the exile in 538.
War between Iran and Iraq is nothing new. When Persia –modern-day Iran–defeated the Babylonians — the people of southern Iraq —Cyrus, the Persian king, issued a decree that the exiles of Judah were free to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. It’s at the end of the first lesson. Cyrus said: “The God of heaven has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you—may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.’ ”
What did that exile mean for the Jews? Verse 21 in our first lesson says, “The land enjoyed its Sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.” Judah’s actual time in Babylon was only 48 years. But the situation was unstable, and the temple had been left in ruins. It wasn’t ready to be rededicated until 516—and that was indeed seventy years after Jerusalem had fallen.
That’s the history part. But history isn’t just names and dates. What’s the meaning behind it? What did it mean to those who lived through it? And what does it mean for us?
First, it was during the exile that most of the Old Testament as we know it was collected together. Bits and pieces of older writings were put together. The memories of the elders—the stories told ‘round the campfires—were put down in writing.
It makes sense. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder: Sometimes, we don’t appreciate what we had at home until we’re far away. Forty-eight years of exile seems like a drop in the bucket when it comes to history, but in real life, that’s a long time. The grandparents who had worshipped in the Temple were dying off. The parents who had seen it in childhood would have fading and distorted memories.
And now their kids and grand kids were growing up as Babylonians. The old folks spoke Hebrew at home, but the kids were learning Babylonian from their neighbors. They had to. You can imagine the looks of the Babylonians in the shops and stores when a customer started babbling along in Hebrew! (ugh! Another bunch of immigrants! If you’re going to live in Babylon, speak Babylonian!)
And so there was a real danger that the past would disappear, and with it, the people themselves. Their daughters would marry Babylonians boys and take on Babylonian names. Their sons would marry Babylonians girls and convert to their religion to keep the in-laws happy. And one way to keep people in touch with their roots was to get it down in writing.
One of our jobs as Christians today is to keep people in touch with their roots. Some people think that if the church doesn’t keep pace with the times, people will pass it by. And so new churches today look more like shopping malls than cathedrals. But the church should also provide a chance for us to get in touch with the past.
Look around you. We read sacred scriptures, some of which are 3000 years old. Some of our prayers are 1500 years old. Some of our hymns are just as old; many more date back to the Reformation, back to the days of Luther and Calvin. Sometimes the English we speak in worship—such as in the Lord’s Prayer –is English that was spoken in Shakespeare’s day. In our worship, we bring the past to life. We merge past and present for an hour on Sunday so that we’ve got some kind of road map in hand as we plunge ahead into the future.
In each of us, there’s a teenager that never dies—a voice that says we’re right about everything and whatever the old fogies think is just plain stupid. But even for the crowds who shoot past here on Sunday morning, the church is a visible reminder that the judgment of the past won’t go away. Maybe we don’t know everything.
But we’re not just a historical marker. We’re also a beacon of hope. History is written by the winners. The ways of God may seem stupid and boring—but here’s the church. Here’s the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We still read their stories. Here’s David and Solomon. We still sing their songs. Here’s Isaiah and Jeremiah. We still preach their sermons and share their hopes.
Where’s the Assyrian church? The Babylonian church? The Persian church? In just a few more weeks, we’ll celebrate the birth of Jesus. Who had ever celebrated the birth of Nebuchadnezzar, the guy who burned the temple? At any given moment, the Nebuchadnezzars of this world may look like the winners, while Jesus, hanging there from a cross may look like the loser—but the verdict of history is on our side.
Our faith is the one that survived and prospered. That could happen only if we’re the ones who are tapped into the eternal truths that lead to happiness. For those willing to question themselves and consider that maybe they’re not right about everything, we are the beacon of hope. Notice the last words of the first lesson: “May the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up.” The Bible is a beacon, a message of hope for those who think life is hopeless. Our job is to get that message to those who need it.
For Israel, the Exile provided that chance for reflection. Some of that reflection was put in writing. One of the most dramatic Psalms is Psalm 137, written by one of the exiles. It starts out on a sad, wistful note: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion….. How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”
But then, the sadness turns to violent anger: “Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. ‘Tear it down,’ they cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations!’ O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks”.
It’s gross and offensive, but the feeling was real. Nearly seven hundred years later, in New Testament times, people were still going on about it. In Revelation 18, verse 6, the realm of Satan is called Babylon, and as the city falls to the angels of God, a voice from heaven cries out “Give back to her as she has given; pay her back double for what she has done…Give her as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself.”
We label a group of people as our enemies, the sorce of all our problems, and pretty soon we’re ready to lock up their kids and shoot their mothers.
Our natural instinct is to hate, and plan our revenge on those who have harmed us. But it’s hard to live that way. When Jesus tells us to “turn the other cheek,” it seems stupid at first—but the only way to get on with your own life on your own terms is to give up your anger and hurt.
Once we get past hating others, our next instinct is to hate ourselves. In our 2nd lesson, from Isaiah 44, God tells the people: “You are my servant, O Israel. I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.”
As the people sat in exile, some realized that they had brought their misery on themselves. Judah fell to Babylon because they had fallen away from God. Verse 18 of our 1st lesson says, “ But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.”
But just as hate and anger wounds us far more than our enemies, guilt can also backfire on us. We can learn from the past, but then we dwell on it. We have to move on. Many Christians go through a period of exile. Some become exiled in youth. Like those ten tribes of Israel, many simply disappear. But about ten or fifteen years later, some of the exiles return—usually when they start having kids of their own.
Some exiles choose to wallow in guilt. Some seem to relish going over it again and again. But hear the message of Cyrus: “Let him go up!” God is not holding us back: He tells us to rebuild the temple, rebuild the place where he is present in our lives. God has not deserted us; he has not forgotten us, even when we’ve forgotten him. God isn’t holding our sins over our head. That’s something we’re doing to ourselves. God’s message is the message for forgiveness and reconciliation: We are free to move on in life, free to reclaim what he gave us and what he wants us to have.
Have you noticed that the things we’ve talked about—the church as a beacon of hope for the hopeless, and the message of forgiveness and reconciliation—are things we normally associate with the New Testament? Next time, we’ll explore how we got from the Old Testament to the New. We’ll look more closely at the prophets, and how their message led Jeremiah to speak of a new covenant that would transform the people of God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.