It didn’t happen overnight. It rarely does.
A slow and gradual shift of focus away from God began to shape the hearts and expectations of the people.
Allegiance to their Creator faded as they became increasingly enamored with the allurements of culture around them.
God did not abandon them at once. He mercifully sent messengers to warn them. But they refused to listen and mocked God’s messengers.
History clearly records their choices:
“… all the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful, following all the detestable practices of the nations and defiling the temple of the Lord, which he had consecrated in Jerusalem. The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 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. He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power” (II Chronicles 36:14-20).
Divine punishment gave the people a front row seat to the culture they craved. They became exiles in a foreign land.
This was a dark time in the history of God’s people. The nation was divided with Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Both Israel and Judah fell to foreign powers. Though there was a brief return from captivity (recorded in the OT books of Ezra and Nehemiah), God’s people continued to be exiled.
How should God’s people see themselves today?
Are we exiled in a foreign land? If so, what does this tell us about our identity and mission?
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (I Peter 2:11-12).
“For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:18-21).
So heavenly minded, no earthly good?
God continued to speak to his people when they were exiled in Babylon. God instructed his servant Jeremiah to write a letter to the exiles. He gave them a word of comforting assurance about their future:
“This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:10-11).
There was a possible danger in this word of hope for the future. The people could have allowed in to motivate a “sit out and wait till it’s over” mentality.
But God put his people on mission when he commanded them to be active parts of ordinary life in their city of exile. Even more, they were told to pursue the welfare of the city.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, ‘Build houses and live in them;and plant gardens and eat their produce. ‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare’” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).
- Thought: We must not look back or look ahead in ways that lead to attitudes and lifestyles of distance and disengagement.
“…. there is a world that God created that is shared in common by believers and nonbelievers alike. In the classical Christian view, the goodness of creation is fundamentally and ubiquitously marred by sin but it is not negated by sin. It may be fractured, incomplete, and corrupted, but his goodness remains in it. The gifts of God’s grace are spread abundantly among the just and unjust in ways that support and enhance the lives of all. As it is in the world that God has given, so it is in the world that his creatures fashion. This work is also typically pursued in common with those outside the community of faith. The task of world-making has a validity of its own because it is work that God ordained to humankind at creation.”
“… any good that is generated by Christians is only the net effect of caring for something more than the good created. If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”
“…until God brings forth the new heaven and the new earth, he calls believers, individuals and as a community, to conform to Christ and embody within every part of their lives, the shalom of God. Time and again, St. Paul calls Christians to “shalom” (1 Cor. 7:15), to “follow after the things which make for shalom” (Rom. 14:19), to “live in shalom and the God of love and shalom will be with you” (2 Cor. 13:11) for He is “the Lord of shalom” (2 Thess. 3:16). In this Christians are to live toward the well-being of others, not just to those within the community of faith, but to all.”
“… believers themselves are often found indifferent to and even derisive of expressions of truth, demonstrations of justice, acts of nobility, and manifestations of beauty outside of the church. Thus, even where wisdom and morality, justice and beauty exist in fragments or in corrupted form, the believer should recognize these as qualities that, in Christ, find their complete and perfect expression. The qualities nonbelievers possess as well as the accomplishments they achieve may not be righteous in an eschatological sense, but they should be celebrated all the same because they are gifts of God’s grace.” (see: Acts 14:14-17 and 17:24-29)
“As a backdrop to all of this, there is a natural life originating in creation and a natural order in things that can be understood, developed, and enjoyed. The dazzling processes of growth in a tree or a bug or a newborn baby, the intricacies of molecular biology, the stunning ordered-complexity of mathematics, and the underlying logic of music all speak of an order that God has created and that has not been effaced by the fall, that people can discover and take pleasure in as well. These things too, Christians should neither dismiss nor disparage but rather be grateful for and be delighted by because they are gifts of God’s grace meant for their benefit and the benefit of all.”
“Indeed, insofar as Christians acknowledge the rule of God in all aspects of their lives, their engagement with the world proclaims the shalom to come. Such work may not bring about the kingdom, but it is an embodiment of the values of the coming kingdom and is, thus, a foretaste of the coming kingdom. Even while believers wait for their salvation, the net effect of such work will be a contribution not only to the good of the Christian community but to the flourishing of all.” (James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World)