The poet proposes a two-stage philosophy of history which is crucial for the full acknowledgment of exile and the full practice of hope in the face of exile. The negative has happened; the positive is only promised. The poem places us between the destruction already accomplished in 587 B.C.E. and the homecoming only promised but keenly anticipated. The oracle places us between a death already wrought and a resurrection only anticipated. — Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming
The last couple of Sundays, we’ve been visiting the time of the Exile, which was around five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Do you remember?—the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem were taken as exiles to Babylon, and there they stayed until Babylon itself was defeated. Then they were allowed to go ‘home’, though of course most people who had known Jerusalem as home were dead by now.
It’s impossible to overemphasise the importance of the Exile—for Israel, for us as Christians, for the whole world.
It was in the Exile that they began to write much of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. They started to collect and put together the ancient stories of Israel were while they were in Exile.
Scribes gathered together the old traditions to write the stories of the past, stories like the Flood, or the life of Moses. At the same time, prophets such as Jeremiah spoke new words into the current age.
In Babylon, the exiles had to work out a theology that responded to a place of defeat. The old idea had been that Yahweh was Israel’s God, and the other tribes and nations had their own gods. Yahweh was just the best of the bunch. Until he wasn’t, because the Babylonian gods had defeated him and shown they were more powerful.
What could the exiles have done with this? I guess they could have decided the Babylonian gods with names like Bel, Nebo and Ishtar were the winners, so they should ditch Yahweh and pledge allegiance to them.
Yet they didn’t ditch Yahweh. What the exiles did was truly astonishing. They doubled down on their belief in Yahweh. They began to realise that there were no other gods; Yahweh was the only God, who could not be captured in an image or idol. So Isaiah says,
What likeness, then, will you find for God
or what form to resemble his?
An image which a craftsman makes,
and a goldsmith overlays with gold
and fits with studs of silver? (Isaiah 40.18–19)
In fact, the Jewish people began avoiding even saying the name Yahweh, because there was no likeness or form or name that they could use to pin God down. They used the word Lord instead, which is what we still do and what I shall do today from here on.
Isaiah even mocked the Babylonian idols:
Bel bows down, Nebo stoops,
their idols are on beasts and cattle;
these things you carry are loaded
as burdens on weary animals.
They stoop, they bow down together;
they cannot save the burden,
but themselves go into captivity. (Isaiah 46.1–2)
Isaiah is painting a picture here: idols are being transported on the backs of animals, and one stumbles; the idol wobbles and totters and lurches down. The idol is helpless. But the Lord is not carried on the back of a donkey; instead, it is the Lord who carries his people from the womb to the grave.
The exiles found that the Lord was not the best god, the only god worth worshipping; they held him up as the only God. Isaiah says this:
I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
(Isaiah 44.6b, cf. 45.5–6)
The Babylonian gods, Bel, Nebo and the rest did not even exist. And further, the Lord says
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
But there’s a problem here. If there is only one God, why did the Babylonians win? Surely if God is on Israel’s side, Israel would never lose!
But they did lose. They lost big time. The great Temple of Jerusalem, the house of the only God in heaven and earth, was destroyed.
They had to figure that one out.
They asked themselves, Why did the Lord turn against us?
They decided that it was because God had judged them for their faithless ways and the ingrained injustice in their communities. God had judged them and sent them to Babylon, but not for ever. One day, the Lord would bring them home.
They found that though the Lord judged them as falling short, God’s last word would not be ‘judgement’ but ‘hope’. That last word could also be ‘grace’. Or, ‘welcome home, child’.
Much more than that: this hope would keep springing up from deep within their hearts. The Lord would make a new covenant with them:
Look, days are coming, said the Lord, when I will seal with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new covenant.… I have put My teaching in their midst, and on their heart I have inscribed it, and I will be their God and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31.30, 32b, Robert Alter)
What a wonderful promise, but did you listen carefully? ‘I have put My teaching in their midst, and on their heart I have inscribed it…’ On their heart? Why isn’t God’s law put in their heart? Surely, that’s where we need it!
You know, Jewish rabbis mulled over this and argued it around. Why is God’s law put on, not in, our hearts? Surely we need the knowledge of God within our hearts. So why isn’t it injected straight in?
That’s the kind of thing such scholars worry about. Prepositions. On, in… But prepositions can be crucial. Can’t they?
They began to wonder whether the law stays on a heart until that heart is broken. Then it seeps in through the cracks of a broken heart, as it were.
And the exiles were heartbroken. Remember Psalm 137? We looked at it a fortnight ago.
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!‘
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
The exiles were given false promises, they heard fake news that told them they’d be home in a couple of years. But they were in it for the long haul. Seventy years.
Out of their grief and lament there finally came a glimmer of hope, a chink of light. The wisdom of God was finding its way into their broken hearts.
So they made sense of their predicament the only way they could—by recalling the justice and mercy of God, and remembering that God’s last word to us is always ‘mercy’.
We’re in our own exile today. We’ve also been talking about this exile for the last couple of weeks. It’s the exile the whole Earth is facing: climate change. We are exiled from the normal rhythmic patterns of life on Earth.
The Christian response to all this involves hope. But what do we mean by hope?
Hope is not thinking God will come down from heaven and magically zap everything right. We were put here to care for the earth.
Hope is not optimism, weighing the evidence up and deciding that things aren’t all that bad; there’s a lot not to be optimistic about nowadays.
Hope is trusting in God, the God who judges and who saves.
What do we mean, God judges? Is God causing the seas to rise, threatening some Pacific nations with their very existence? Is God causing the Siberian permafrost to thaw, releasing greenhouse gases into the air? Or the massive drought that affects much of Australia? Or the numbers of birds, mammals and insects to decrease significantly over the last few decades?
The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures would have said Yes, these things are happening because God is judging us. It’s because of human sin.
We say—if we listen to climate scientists—these things are happening because they are the consequence of human activity causing climate change.
Hebrew thinking saw consequences as judgement. They saw consequences as the direct action of God.
We (being so much more sophisticated‽) see that there are processes that operate to cause ice sheets to melt and seas to rise and ‘once in a century’ storms to happen every couple of years.
But do we see God? How do we see God?
Friends, climate scientists tell us that climate change is the consequence of human action. Or, what the scriptures—and we—could simply call ‘sin’.
Human sin, human foolishness, human greed may bring dire consequences, which our ancestors in faith named judgement. But God is still God; and God’s last word is still hope, grace, mercy, peace.
Perhaps the consequences of climate change may break hearts. I hope they do. (Really, I do!) Because then we may see the Spirit of God who is the Spirit of Jesus seeping through the cracks in those hearts and changing hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.
Pray that we may see it happen before it’s too late for our children and grandchildren.
It’s what we’re waiting for! Hearts that become aware that they really are in exile today. Exiled hearts that break under the consequences of global sin, and who learn how to follow the ways of justice and compassion.
May God grant this to the peoples of the Earth.