Sometimes a single word or simple phrase calls up memories of stories that shape who we are and who want to be. For instance,
In the 1970’s, a consulting firm executive for Booz Allen Hamilton in Chicago got an urgent phone call from the chairman of a Swiss bank he’d been doing some work for. The executive was asked to fly to Switzerland to make a presentation the following morning to the bank’s board. So he jumped on a plane, flew to Europe overnight and arrived at his hotel feeling a little groggy. As he walked into the foyer, he realized his suit was badly crumpled, and that wouldn’t do for this important meeting. But he hadn’t brought another one. Then, he remembered a trick someone had told him for taking the creases out of a suit: turn on the hot water in the shower and hang your suit in the bathroom to be steam- pressed. After doing this, the executive decided to rest on his bed and promptly fell asleep. When he woke, his suit was soaked. There were still a few hours until the meeting and it was a sunny day, so he hung the suit outside hoping it would dry. Unfortunately, the temperature outside was below zero, and after nodding off again, the executive woke to a gut wrenching discovery, his suit had frozen! Somehow he managed to put on the crunching, crackling suit and went to the bank to begin his presentation. Imagine what must have been running through his head as he stiffly walked into the board room! Part way through his talk, the chairman of the bank stopped the executive because he could no longer contain his curiosity, you see, the warmth of the boardroom was slowly melting the executive into a puddle of water before the board’s eyes! The executive told the story of what had happened and everyone laughed. His presentation a success: a Booz Allen Hamilton consultant delivers regardless of the obstacles. (1)
To this day, the story of the frozen suit is used in the training and engrafting of all new consultants. Even finding immortalization in a statue at the Booz Allen Hamilton main offices. All a consult must do to remember her heritage, and find the courage for what he is facing in the board room ahead; is simply say “frozen suit”.
The universally shared fatigue of work and range of emotions, the character of perseverance, past described, future foreshadowed; and all captured in as story remembered in two words.
In a similar way, the physical and emotional connection, character forming history and anticipative future are captured in a story and remembered in two words for our faith: the exile. A story in which the conditions— physical and psychological—prepared the people of God for the way of Jesus, and continues to prepare you and I for the way of Jesus today.'
Over 700 years have passed since God’s people were enslaved in a foreign land, dramatically rescued, and set on a course as a treasured people, created to be set apart as a royal priesthood and holy nation. A nation state that would bless the world in the way the lived in and with their land by the word of God. A religious collective that would mediate the majesty and mercy of God to the surrounding tribes and powers. A sanctified people, who were known by the Presence of the One and only God who created all things, enacting his salvation history upon a world in rebellion.
Over 100 years have passed since the cymbals began crashing amongst this royal priesthood, holy nation; who in fact had abandoned their course in the lure of prosperity, acceptance, prestige, power, wealth and security. The shouts heralded from throne rooms to pastures, battle fields to city centers: Wake up! Repent! Listen!; falling on deaf ears. Ricocheting off of hearts of stone. Drowned out in the waters of apathy.
The Day finally and with finality arrived. The instrument of judgment, grotesque Babylon, destroying all that was glorious—the magnificent temple full of treasures incalculable and transcendence indescribable; the line of great kings massacred and marched off blinded in shame to die kings of no place and no people; the brilliant city from which life flowed and to whom life flocked, barren. Disaster.
So devastating was the fall, so spectacularly awful the experience that the Day would never be allowed to escape the heart-memory of those that survived. The great lament begins,
How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was princess among the provinces
has become a slave.
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks,
among all her lovers
she has none to comfort her,
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies. (1:1-2)
The LORD has done what he purposed;
he has carried out his word,
which he commanded long ago; (2:17)
The LORD has swallowed up without mercy
all the habitations of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down
the strongholds of the daughter of Judah;
he has brought down to the ground in dishonor
the kingdom and its rulers. (2:2)
my soul is [deprived] of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is [what good is];
so I say, ‘My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the LORD.’ (3:17-18)
The Lamentations of Jeremiah recount the “catastrophe, this holocaust...over and over, five distinct times, line by line, in excruciating detail: rape, humiliation, mockery, sacrilege, starvation, and worst of all, cannibalism (mothers boiling their babies for supper!)...The worst that could happen to body and spirit, to person and nation, happened here...The lament continues to be chanted still in the prayers of the Jewish community in August each year (Ninth of Ab in the Hebrew calendar) on the anniversary of the terrible event.” (2)
A royal priesthood, a holy nation, now no more. All their treasures and the choicest of their persons now on their way to serve the prosperity of another kingdom, other gods. All their glory removed, like themselves, from the land, the city, the temple meant to be holy, holy, holy; a blessing to all the nations of the world. All gone. All left in silence. A people and place marked by The Presence now eerily recognized only by absence.
Emotions exposed, pain penetrating deep into the psyche, hate heated. Can you feel it?
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, merriment, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How shall we sing the LORD’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
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!
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, ‘Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!’
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (Ps. 137)
The disaster of the Day only increased in severity as the exiled throngs made their way from the wreckage that was once their cherished home into the thriving metropolises of Babylonia.
“When they arrived in Babylon, the contrast between their failed religion and the successful religion of their captors was stark. They had left behind a city in rubble, a temple in ruins, the taste of their cannibalized babies still in their mouths. They were now living in cities that made Jerusalem look like the country town it was. Wealth and temples now marked the skyline, far surpassing anything of Solomon’s that the Queen of Sheba had marveled at. Splendid warriors strolled the streets, a powerful military fast on its way to establishing Babylon as the world’s superpower. ‘It was a vast world in which horizons widened. Just what place was there in it for Yahweh, the [former, once-upon-a-time] protector of a ravaged petty state whose ruined temple gaped to the sky [smashed open] on a mountain in Judah?’
If the war between Judah and Babylon was understood as a competition between rival gods and rival ways of life (as many, probably most, would see it), the results were decisive: Babylon’s Marduk had beaten Israel’s Yahweh, hands down. The end of Israel. The life of faith, as it turned out, was a delicate, lovely, but fragile violet crushed by Babylonian boots, ill-equipped to survive in the ‘real’ world. Nothing. Nada...the overwhelming sense of [unimportance]...emptiness, absence, nakedness, silence, night—that takes place between the time we ‘put off the old nature’ and ‘put on the new nature.’...In that ‘between the times,’ between the time when most people assumed, even if mindlessly, that ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world’ [think Saul & David to Josiah] and the time that the Nietzschen verdict, YAHWEH IS DEAD, grabbed headlines in the Babylonian Post in the sixth century B.C., a great many of God’s so called ‘elect’ decided that the election had been a fraud and signed on with Marduk, the god associated with consumer prosperity and unbridled militarism.” (3)'
But not all. It would be in the death, the stripping away, of all that Israel knew as good that they would discover something both old and at the same time new. Once marked by the stories of Exodus—stories that would certainly continue to shape, but in a new way—now marked by the experience of the Exile. The Exile became the “governing metaphor for all subsequent Judaism...the defining abyss of the life and faith of Judah.” (4)
An experience that was still reverberating, continuing to work out its salvation some 400 plus years later in the still conquered, yet re-inhabited land and re-populated people so mourned in the lament. A people formed in and by exile is who Jesus is born among. Matthew begins his story of Jesus this way,
The family tree of Jesus Christ, David’s son, Abraham’s son. Abraham was the father of Isaac...and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers and then the people were taken into Babylonian exile...When the Babylonian exile ended, Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and...Jacob had Joseph, Mary’s husband, the Mary who gave birth to Jesus, the Jesus who is called the Christ...There were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, another fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and yet another fourteen from the Babylonian exile to Christ. (1:1-17)
In the exile, something changed. Something redefined and reformed the people of God’s identity, their self- understanding and their understanding of God. It was to these exiles whose faith had remained in Yahweh but whose land and language had become something other than Israel and Hebrew, “Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) who Peter and the other disciples spoke to, each in their own tongue as the Spirit fell upon them. A metaphor not exchanged at Pentecost, but used to encourage identification with our faith history in life today. A people whose faith was formed...
...having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth (Heb. 11:13)...who are elect exiles of the dispersion (1 Pet. 1:1)...[therefore] conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile (1 Pet. 1:17)...as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of your flesh which wage war against your soul (1 Pet. 2:11)
Two words: the exile. Two words meant to provoke memory of this story. To recall the physical realities of everyday life under the rule of other. To recall the emotional rollercoaster of loss, survival, uncertainty, and anger. To recall the character forming conditions of the past and the anticipatory character of the future.
Preparing the Way
So what happened during the exile, a time “which began as a harbinger of the death of God” yet “became a time of resurrection”, of dry bones given new flesh and fresh breathe (Ez. 37)?
One historian notes the impact of the exile on the people of Israel and her relationship to Yahweh,
“While in captivity the Jews could no longer observe the sacrifices that had been made at the central sanctuary in Jerusalem. As a result, there was a renewed emphasis on reading and observing the Law, an emphasis that led to the development of the synagogue as a place of worship...
The exile was the watershed between Israel as a political unit and the religion known as Judaism. National life came to an end; the Jews were gradually scattered throughout the ancient world and became identified with a religion and a tradition rather than a nation. The remnant that lingered in Palestine was governed by Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome successively, and never achieved independence except for a short time under the Maccabees during the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. Thus the exile proved the people; their religious and racial consciousness was intensified to prevent assimilation into their heathen environment. Hence a more spiritual remnant emerged, detached from local limitations and physical structures. During the exile an “Israelite” came to be called a “Jew,” and the idealization of Zion began among the people.
[religious life became less formal and more ordinary, each family and community responsible for seeking out Yahweh]
The prophets spoke of the Babylonian exile as divine retribution and judgment for Judah’s rejection of their message and for persistence in sin and idolatry. If this judgment were accepted, it would eventually lead to restoration and a revelation of divine love for Israel (Is 54:9, 10; Jer 31:3–6). Out of the experience would come a new covenant (Jer 31:31–34). The exile brought a more profound comprehension of the Law and the prophets. There came also a deeper understanding of the God’s universality and sovereignty. The exile is one of the primary historical incidents upon which the hope for the Messiah’s coming was established.” (5)
The conditions of the exile prepared the soil, the land and the people, in two particular ways for this Messiah, for Jesus. The experience of exile, the story, continue to prepare you and I for life in and with Jesus today.
The two words which best describe the conditions of the exile, both the loss and the length, are: subversion and perseverance.
To subvert is the idea of overthrowing, bringing down, to undermine, make weak some sort of controlling entity—political, social, institutional. We have known from Genesis 3 that there has been a rebellion against the Creator. A rebellion of divines in collaboration with humanity; the created desiring to run things their own way, to determine what is good and what is evil. A rebellion that led to the formation of entities opposed to God’s good rule (think Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and the retelling of rebellion in Deuteronomy 32).
The entire story up to this point has been God’s merciful and patient work to overturn this rebellion without utterly destroying the rebels. To take down the powers and authorities that wrestle for the rule of the world. Job’s friend Elihu reminded Job that everything in world history and our personal stories takes place in attempts to save us from our rebellious way,
Behold, God does all these things, twice, three times, with a man,
to bring back his soul from the pit,
that he may be lighted with the light
of life. (33:29-30)
Whether for correction or for his land or for love,
he causes it to happen. (37:13)
Everything that God does is to squash out rebellion, is salvation history. And here is the things, the rebellious are not just ‘out there’, they are ‘in here’. Israel is referred to as the rebellious house, no less than 16 times in Ezekiel. The exile is both a consequence of their rebellion but also the means by which God will subvert their rebellion and the rebellion of the entire world—as the prophesies against the nations which Israel aligned with, which Israel fought against in her history, and which conquered Israel demonstrate. Each one toppled in the exile.
However, the means of overcoming would not be through the violence of Israel’s military, nor coercion via her riches, nor collusion with her alliances, nor the institutions of her religion. No, the exile prepared a way of overcoming that was subversive; an underground (starting there, like a seed in forgotten soil) movement that would change the world from the foundations up as God worked among and through a scattered people.
Some scholars have said that the period of the exile was a period of silence. Certainly there are fewer stories of Israel compared to the previous 700 years, but God is never silent; rather, working in subtle ways, in ordinary servants, without flash,
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice. (Is. 42:1-3)
Subversion, the way of overcoming rebellion that doesn’t look much like overcoming. Perseverance, the way of living hope in what feels hopeless.
Constant throughout the exile is the rebuke of rebellion alongside the reassurance of reconciliation.
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him
and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’
For the LORD has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. (Jer. 31:10-12)
I will turn their mourning to joy;
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance,
and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the LORD. (Jer. 31:13-14)
Therefore thus says the LORD GOD; Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the whole house of Israel, and I will be jealous for my holy name. They shall forget their shame and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they dwell securely in their land with none to make them afraid, when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies’ lands, and through them have vindicated my holiness in the sight of many nations. Then they shall know that I am the LORD their God, because I sent them into exile among the nations and then assembled them into their own land. I will leave none of the remaining among the nations anymore. And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the LORD GOD. (Ez. 39:25-29)
Perseverance, holding fast to God at work in the midst of suffering, apparent absence, perceived silence. Trusting that God is at work even when we don’t see his work. Patiently present, as the work of the exile is no quick task. Despite what the feel-good charlatan prophets and selfish pastor/shepherds say. Perseverance that produces hope,
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)
These are the conditions of the exile. The people of God scattered, the visual accompaniments of their power, authority, and false hope—both human and divine—demolished. And, God quietly at work, and his people quietly living by faith, assured of what is hoped for, living with conviction of the things not yet seen (Heb. 11:1).
Such conditions, over hundreds of years—an important fact to keep in mind—made holy the people of God (Jer. 31:23, Ez. 36-37). “Holiness is transformative, although rarely sudden.” (6) Through these conditions, the people of God were prepared for the way of Jesus by...
First, the emotions of the exile—loss, abandonment, anger, confusion, sorrow—produced in the people who persevered a devastation of sin. The people needed to feel the weight of sin, their sin and the sin of the world they inhabited. Only when sin—rebellion, idolatry, arrogance, apathy, self- determined religion, violence—sank deep within their psyche could the appropriate emotion of grief produce repentance that was fruitful not simply recycled. Sickened by their hard hearts and deaf ears; the conditions of the exile taught the people of God to listen (referenced some 50 times in Jeremiah). Listening in the way of the Shema we are praying together; a listening demonstrated by loving obedience.
Second, the circumstances of the exile uprooted their ‘worldly’ identity, allowing them to rediscover their primary identity as those who are related to God; not people of fine land, nor strong politics, nor religious piety, nor cultural prosperity, or even disastrous ruin. These were God’s people, a people whose kingdom was something more than they could envision.
Their identity stripped away, their emotions laid bare before the hot near-eastern sun as they traversed the trail to Babylon, as they settled in cities throughout a vast and ever-shifting empire, found roles to play in societies much different than they had known, married, had children, started careers and kept their faith.
The conditions of the exile left the land and the people fallow. A term used by cultivators when a field is tilled, turned-over, but left unseeded so that the soil might be replenished, prepared for a healthy new crop.
It was in this fallow field that the seed of the new covenant would take root (Jer. 31), and the foundation of a new temple (Ez. 40-48) built. Over the coming centuries, the highways to Zion would be cleared for a way of salvation. A way of salvation prepared by the conditions of the exile. A way of Jesus that was subversive like a mustard seed and required perseverance even unto death.
As our early church family immersed themselves in the way of Jesus, a life, death and resurrection that brought together those who were exiled from Israel and those exiled from the ways of God (gentiles), the exile identity bore its fruit.
Through Christ we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father. That’s plain enough, isn’t it? You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home. (Eph. 2:19-22, The Message)
The exile story—with all the emotion and memory attached—is meant to prepare you and I for the one who is the way and shows the way. Prepared is the soil of our souls, the fields of our character to persevere as God works in ways subversively quiet, yet powerfully holy, transformative. Our lives a part of salvation history still today as we feel the weight of our sin shown in the great devastation of Jesus’ body slain and blood shed for us, and as our primary identity becomes more and more ones who are known by our baptized relationship with God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit as the church in lives of worship.
As we receive communion together as saints, may ‘the exile’ continue to do its work in us.
(1) Adapted from Steve Callahan, Putting Stories to Work, 118.
(2) Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: a conversation on the way that Jesus is the way, 150-151.
(3) Ibid. 152-153.
(4) Walter Brueggeman, Isaiah 40-66, 8-9.
(5) W. A. Elwell & B.J. Beitzel, B. J., Exile. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1), 734, 736.
(6) Peterson, 138.