During this pandemic, quarantine, and sheltering at-home orders, I’ve found myself drawn to Bible stories of liberation and freedom from captivity.
We were created to be free—not isolated, alienated, held in captivity, or exiled indefinitely. Even so, such things happen, and it happened to the people of God during a period of 70 years we call the Babylonian captivity.
They’d been warned.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump and a team of doctors gave daily briefings. Day after day they presented numbers and charts that I found informative . . . and incredibly frightening, yet I made myself watch because I’ve lived long enough to know warnings are important (whether I like them or not).
For many years, God had tried to warn the descendants of Judah that trouble was coming. God had chosen Judah and his descendants from among the tribes of Israel for a special place in his plan (Genesis 49:1, 8-10). And that plan, according to Jeremiah, included trouble with people from the north.
Jeremiah announced God’s warning: “Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north . . . and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations” (Jeremiah 25:8-9; all Scriptures are from the English Standard Version).
God also spoke warnings through the prophet Habakkuk: “I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylon], that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own” (Habakkuk 1:6).
Most scholars agree that the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC was an inciting incident in the story of the Babylonian captivity. This battle began after the Babylonian and Median army, led by Nebuchadnezzar, pursued the Egyptians and the Assyrians south to Carchemish and handily defeated them. Nebuchadnezzar emerged from this battle as one of the most powerful leaders in the world.
In an attempt to expand the Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem (Jeremiah 22:18-30), capturing King Jehoiakim (good King Josiah’s son), putting him in chains, and deporting him to exile in Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:6) along with 10,000 other people of Judah (2 Kings 24:14). The members of the royal family who were exiled to Babylon included Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. (A great resource that summarizes the events that led up to the Babylonian captivity is Dr. James Smith’s self-published book, Bible History Made Simple.)
God revealed that his plan was for Babylon to rule over the world for 70 years (Jeremiah 25:11-12). For the people of Judah, exile became their normal.
Exile isn’t easy—whether it’s being confined inside your home for several months or away from your home for 70 years! The waiting can be painful; it definitely was for Judah. Some of the pain of the Babylonian captivity was expressed by Jeremiah: “Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress” (Lamentations 1:3).
The people were distressed during this time of waiting, but they would learn what we often forget: God never wastes pain. He sometimes allows our hearts to be broken in the hope we will grow to love him more wholeheartedly, he sometimes uses times of captivity to (ultimately) liberate us, and he sometimes uses exile to bring us closer to him.
But it can be hard to see this in the midst of waiting.
It likely was especially hard for Judah, whose home and center for worship was destroyed.
In 587 BC, approximately 10 years after the first deportation of people to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem when Zedekiah (whom Nebuchadnezzar had installed as vassal king of Judah) revolted against him and united with the king of Egypt. After seeing his sons killed, Zedekiah was blinded and then taken to Babylon.
With Zedekiah removed, Nebuchadnezzar sent in his general, Nebuzaradan, to finish the job—which he did effectively. Jerusalem was plundered, Solomon’s temple was destroyed, and more people were taken into captivity. The conquerors allowed only a few poor people to stay in Jerusalem to work the land (Jeremiah 52:16).
As the years of exile in Babylon stretched on and on, God encouraged his people, through Jeremiah, to “work the waiting.”
We’ve had choices to make every day during the coronavirus quarantine. We’ve had to choose to be overcome with worry or to overcome worry. We’ve had to choose to shrink back in fear or move forward in faith . . . to shrink into less or grow into more. We’ve had the choice of whether to allow the waiting to work us over or, instead, to work the waiting by seeking to grow into the people God wants us to be.
God wanted his people in Babylon to grow during their time of exile. Through his prophet, God said, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. . . . When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jeremiah 29:5, 10).
So, the people faithfully worked and waited for God to fulfill his promise, while they also grew into more devoted followers of the Lord. In Divided We Fall, Dr. James Smith notes, “The captivity in Babylon served a useful purpose in the plan of God. Though surrounded by the influence of pagan religion, the people of God were drawn closer to the Lord. Following the exile to Babylon, idolatry was never again a problem to the Jews.”
God is always working in our waiting to bring his plan and promises into fruition. God kept his promises to Judah through a Persian king.
In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon with virtually no resistance. He repatriated the people Babylon had taken captive. Cyrus granted permission for the Jews to return home and rebuild the temple.
Most great stories have a happy ending. And a great ending to any exile is when those who’ve been exiled are allowed to return home.
In Judah’s exile and repatriation, we see a phenomenon that often occurs when people have been imprisoned for a long period of time. At first, prisoners hate the shackles and bars of their cell, but then they grow used to them. Upon their release, if they’ve been imprisoned for a long time, they might even miss their shackles and bars.
If we’re not careful, exile can strip away our identity and keep us from fulfilling our destiny.
Many of the Jews and their descendants who’d been born in Babylon became comfortable there and refused to leave. Exile had alienated them from their homes in practical, significant, and lasting ways. Only 42,360 Jews returned to Jerusalem, but they returned with a clear passion and purpose: rebuild the temple and restore worship. With guidance from Zerubbabel, the grandson of King Jehoiakim, they laid a foundation for the temple—which had been in ruins for almost 50 years—but passion for finishing the temple and restoring worship started to wane. They had to deal with a very real challenge all people who have been exiled must face when they return home or the restrictions are lifted—“What now?”
“The restoration effort got off to a fine start,” Smith noted in Divided We Fall. “But problems arose. The people had other things to do—building homes, planting and harvesting, making a living. Hostility of neighboring Samaritans endangered public safety. Preoccupied with these difficulties, the people became indifferent to the work of rebuilding God’s house. For some years no further progress was made on this vital project.”
“For some years” was actually more than two decades! It took 23 years for the people of God to stop wondering and resume worshipping! Worship in Jerusalem finally resumed in 516 BC when the second temple was completed.
As pandemic restrictions have been easing, one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a preacher is wondering what to do to reestablish in-person worship and reopen the church. Everyone has an opinion about when churches should open, how they should open, and even who should be allowed to return for in-person worship. As with the exiles who returned to Jerusalem after 70 years away, it’s hard to keep focus on what needs to happen next with so many voices, pressures, and opinions.
That being said, I’ll try to do what the good people of God did post-exile so many years ago: return home, rebuild, and work to restore in-person worship in a new, fresh, and significant way.