Babylon becomes the place of Exile for the people of God and as with so many biblical themes / passages there are different approaches we can take as Scripture seems to swing one way and another on it… either indicating that a multiplicity of interpretation is the best way to go, or (my preference) there is continual intra-canonical debate (disagreement?) which we are invited into, with the question being ‘so Martin how do you respond?’. Ultimately I have to give my answer… an assessment of my life (then) will not be on what had discerned about the various texts but how my life had been lived out.
I prefer the latter (entering the dialogue / disagreement) as Scripture in all its inspiration is first of all described as ‘useful’ (2 Tim. 3:16) and when we read further about the usefulness it is not so that we come to some level of correct beliefs at a head level but ‘correct’ responses and actions so that we can be involved in ‘every good work’. Behaviour over belief.
Babylon and the Exile. The place where they felt they could not ‘sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land’ so they ‘hung up their harps on the willow trees’. Away from the ‘promised’ land. Jeremiah is an interesting character. Not one who followed the pattern that was common, but suffered at the hands of his compatriots because he could not bring them a positive word about God’s deliverance, and refused to say that the Jerusalem temple would be the guarantee that all would go well (a clear forerunner of Jesus, who takes a similar line some 600+ years later).
Babylon the place where the synagogue develops. Ever so practical for how can a people remain distinct in such a place? Meet weekly, focus more on the scrolls than the story. Safety first. Safety – we so desire that, but it can prove to be something false that hinders us… after all the people of God are like the wind – a level of unpredictability to them.
The level of dislocation that Jeremiah’s compatriots experienced means we cannot be very critical of how they journeyed in the land of Exile, but we have a great advantage over them. After all they understood that their destiny was tied up with a specific land – ours is not. They understood that there was something distinct about their Jewishness, we understand that God is pulling a people from every tribe and nation together. Any criticism must be a critique of us in the light of their situation, and as with so much of Scripture if we allow the critique to come our way we can develop along a good path.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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 find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to your dreams that you dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord (Jer. 29:5-9).
Seek the shalom of the city (translated welfare but the word is shalom… that rich Hebrew word that does not mean the absence of unrest / war, but the positive presence of well-being because everything is ordered in a godly way, where everyone can find a path to their destiny); pray on behalf of Babylon; fulfil there the creational command to ‘multiply’.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls
and security within your towers.” (Ps. 122:6,7).
Pray, peace (shalom) and security (verb is ‘to prosper‘)… for Jerusalem. Same sentiments as for the place of Exile. Jerusalem held a special place in their hearts, and this Psalm is one of the pilgrims travelling to the city… But Babylon likewise has to hold a special place!
We might be able to suggest that the place of exile is temporary with the hope of returning to Jerusalem. Temporary for them, but for us? Jerusalem to the ends of the earth… Matthew (the Jewish gospel of fulfilment) indicates with his genealogy of Jesus (somewhat ‘manipulated’ to fit a nice pattern of 14’s, and even after the rather creative choice of who he lists it is still a little challenging to get it to be strict pattern of 14’s – ah well, Scripture is to be ‘useful’ for life!) that the exile is coming to an end with the amazing phrase that ‘Jesus will save his people from their sins’ for he will be ‘Emmanuel’ (God with us – at last after the Exile is finally over). Exile was because of their sins, but in Jesus it was ending. So maybe here they are back in the land of promise, and the temporary exile is over? But the end of Mathew’s Gospel is wonderfully provocative with the well-known ‘Great Commission’ sending the disciples to all nations (Gentiles) being a contrasting parallel to Cyrus commission to restore Jerusalem and the temple. Maybe the exile was temporary for the Jews of Jeremiah’s day; it seems permanent for us, but not simply permanent, it is transformed. There is no place that we are exiled from in the sense of one day we will return to a land… we are permanently placed in Babylon with the knowledge that we carry a passport from another place – ‘our citizenship is in heaven’. This ‘citizenship’ is not even close to meaning that ‘heaven is our true home’ but in the fulfilling sense that wherever we are we are to ‘seek the prosperity of the city’ so that ‘shalom‘ (an environment where people can enter successfully on their path to their destiny).
Seems that is in line with what I have posted on Revelation 21.
Babylon, our Babylon is indeed a strange land. But our goal is not to escape, to ‘go’ somewhere else… but to see some measure of ‘heaven on earth’ in that place. No Temple there… and even any synagogue pattern has to be a stepping stone to recovering the story beyond the text.