Tag Archives: Exile

God’s People, part 98: Exiled

Read Lamentations 4

“On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine became so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land.” (2 Kings 25:3 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Circle_of_Juan_de_la_Corte_-_The_Burning_of_Jerusalem_by_Nebuchadnezzar_s_ArmyPart 98: Exiled. I always love when people say that they can’t read the Bible because it is “boring” and it “puts them to sleep.” It makes me laugh because it couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bible is comprised of 66 books, within which we find genres such as history, poetry, philosophy, action, adventure, mystery, drama, romance, suspense, and certainly horror. Don’t believe me on the last one? Then let us look at the events that led to exile.

As you know, from when we discussed King Zedekiah, Nebuchadnezzar II besieged Jerusalem because Zedekiah had double crossed him and allied himself with Egypt. It is easy, if we are not absorbing what we are reading, to gloss over this event as if it happened in a flash and was no big deal. If we are not intentional we can read it like we read a paragraph in an American History textbook summarizing the Battle of Gettysburg.

So, if you didn’t already, I want you to read 2 Kings 25:1-21 and Lamentations 4. Read them slowly and carefully and you will, no doubt, find your skin growing cold and your blood curdle in your veins. What happened during the siege of Jerusalem is nothing short of gory horror. The terror of the people of Judah can still be felt, their screams still echoing in the collective memory we find in etched in the Bible.

Flavius Josephus (b. 37 AD – d. 100 AD), a Jewish historian who was working for the Romans, recorded that the siege lasted 18 long months. On the other hand, the author of 2 Kings tells us that Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, allowing nothing to enter nor to leave, on January 15th of the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign. That siege didn’t end until July 18th of the eleventh year of Zedekiah’s reign according to the New Living Translation of the Bible. If you do the math, that means that the siege lasted somewhere between 18 and 30 months.

As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for people to starve. Lamentations paint the grisly scene in elaborate detail. If you are squeemish, you might want to skip past the next part:

The wailing of hungry children endlessly filled the air. People were begging and crawling through the garbage dumps to find anything they could to eat. The wealthy were as ragged as the poor, their faces blackened with dirt and soot. Once fattened by their wealth, they were now nothing more than walking skeletons.

The luckiest among the citizens of Jerusalem were killed by the sword or in some other violent fashion; yet, many were not so lucky. The living wasted away to nothing, slowly starving to death. Things got so desperate that the starving mothers began to cook their babies, eating the meat off of their little bones in order to survive. The Lamenter does not let us know whether the babies were alive or dead when they were cooked, but the horror of it is not something you can not easily shake off.

Boring, right? The kind of history lesson that just puts you right to sleep. Sarcasm aside, this was a horror that Jewish people still have in their collective psyche to this very day. From that point on, the Jews lost and never really gained their sovereignty back as a kingdom, minus a short century or so under the Hasmonean Dynasty. While Israel did become a nation again in 1948, the nation of Israel now bears little resemblance to the Kingdom it once was.

The city fell, Zedekiah tried to escape but he and his sons were captured. He was forced to watch his sons be slaughtered in front of his eyes, which were then gouged out of his head. He, and many of the Jewish aristocracy were exiled from their city, taken in captivity back to Babylon. The golden age of this great kingdom, the kingdom that David forged centuries earlier, was no more. The Lamenter gives us a clue as to why: “Our king—the LORD’s anointed, the very life of our nation—was caught in their snares. We had thought that His shadow would protect us against any nation on earth” (Lamentations 4:20 NLT)!

From Saul onward the Israelites placed their hopes in a human king to protect them, rather than relying on, trusting in, and obeying God. The question I would like us to reflect on is this, are we any different? Do we place our trust in God? Do we? Do we trust God enough to obey what God teaches us, or do we save the Bible for church, but place our trust in our nations’ leaders to protect and save us? In my observation, the latter seems to be the case by and large. If you are someone who places your trust in human leaders, presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, or dictators, I would like to challenge you to reflect on the Siege of Jerusalem and the exile of God’s people.

There is only one Lord and Savior: Jesus Christ. All others will fall extremely short every time.

Lord, steer me away from putting my trust in human leaders and help me to place my trust solely in you. Amen.

Vehement Prayer

Read Psalm 137

“Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever. For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones. The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.” (Psalms 37:27-28 NRSV)

BesideTheRiversOfBabylon_VehementPrayer2This is an incredibly hard text to deal with. I mean, what can be possible said to justify the words that we’ve just read. What can possible be said to defend the horrifying imagery that the psalmist has forever etched into our heads? What can possibly justify the killing of innocent babies and/or children? Why would that even be in the Bible? What constructive good could possibly come for such atrocious and violent rhetoric? What’s more, what can I possibly say about this text that will transform it into something relevant for our lives in today’s time?

First, I always think it is important to understand the historical context of the text before trying to understand the text itself. We are blessed with this Psalm because it actually dates itself, which gives us a really good place to start in understanding what was going on there. The psalmist opens the Psalm in the following way: “By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalms 137:1 NRSV). So we know where this Psalm takes place, “beside the rivers of Babylon”, which means that the Psalm was written by a Jew within Babylon.

What this ultimately means is that this is a Psalm that comes out of the Exilic Period in Jewish history. This period happened in three waves between 605 BCE and 538 BCE. The Exile of the Jews lasted until the Persian king, Cyrus II, decreed that the Jews could return to their homeland following the Persian takeover of Babylon a year earlier in October of 539 BCE. (NOTE: Before Common Era (BCE) years count backwards.) This means that the Psalm had to be written sometime between 605 and 539 BCE.

The dating of this Psalm is further evidenced by the fact that the psalmist is “remembering Zion, implying that it was laid to waste. What that means is that this psalmist was among those taken captive back to Babylon during the third exilic wave (July or August of 587 BCE), following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple built by Solomon. Let’s put this into perspective. When Babylon came in and seiged Jerusalem for the third time (due to Judah rebelling against King Nebuchadnezzar), they were made a bloody example of for anyone else who would dare challenge and conspire against the Babylonian Empire who they were previously conquered by and subject to.

So, to be precise, at the time of the Babylonian attack on Judah, there was an estimated population of 75,000 people living in Judah, and Jerusalem was probably much of that population being that it was the main city. Of that population, 20,000 people were deported and brought back to Babylon in exile. That’s over 25% of the population. Now, we all remember what happened on 9/11, just imagine if, on top of the attacks, 25% of all Americans were taken to another country to live.

Just put that into perspective of how horrifying, how awful, and how humiliating that must have been. Twenty-five percent! The remaining 75% were either dead, or were left in Judah to watch their countryside, villages, and the city of Jerusalem smolder, literally. Jerusalem itself, destroyed and depopulated, lay largely in ruins for the next 150 years. Many of their men, women and children were dead, the rest exiled to a foreign land or left to rot in a smoldering land, and they were the utter and absolute laughing stock of an empire.

This psalmist is letting out his or her violent reaction, and getting it out in the open, and that is perfectly okay. Does God condone violence, or dashing infants’ heads on stone? No, I do not believe that God does. Nor does this psalmist even claim that God states that. The violence in this psalm is really a vehement prayer of anguish to God and God does understand the wounded heart of the anguished psalmist and of all people who suffer injustice and pain. God not only understands the oppressed, but stands in solidarity with them, working to bring about justice to those who are suffering under the weight of evil.

It is important for us to know that it is okay if we cry out vehemently to God when we are desperate for justice, for God knows our pain and is working to bring about justice in our situations and in the world. What’s more, we are also challenged to check to see where our own allegiances lie. Are we standing in solidarity with the oppressed, just as God is, or are we among the oppressors who are adding insult to injury? In the end, justice ALWAYS prevails. It did eventually in Babylon, and it will in our world too. Evaluate yourself. Which side are you on?

“Prayer is the tearing open of your rib cage so that your heart can breathe.” – Rob Bell
Lord, hear my own vehement prayers anguish and also lead me to become an answered prayer for those who suffer. Amen.