Babylon

Ancient Israel, Babylon and Us: Strangers in a Strange Land

25 August 2023

5.8 MINS

What spiritual and political lessons can we learn from Israel in exile?

I want to speak about how we should live with and pray for those we may not really want to live with and pray for! But let me first preface things. As is so often rightly stated, Christians studying God’s word should seek to ascertain the primary interpretation of a passage while looking for any possible secondary applications. If we keep that basic rule of biblical interpretation in mind, we will save ourselves from a lot of mischief and confusion.

For example, the prophecies found in the Old Testament were written specifically to ancient Israel and/or to the surrounding pagan nations. So those folks were the primary recipients of these prophecies, and at best, believers today might be able to glean some general application from them. Context is king, in other words.

One chapter from the OT that I read again today is a good case in point. I have already penned a piece looking at one verse from Jeremiah 29, and how it is so often ripped out of context and misused by Christians today. See this piece on Jer. 29:11.

Indeed, because so many believers do not look at that verse in situ, I even penned a second piece on it.

But here I want to discuss Jeremiah 29:7. It says this: “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.” Both of these passages have a context: Jeremiah had been warning God’s people for many years that because of their sin and disobedience, judgment was coming.

The false prophets were claiming that everything would be fine and the people should just ignore the bothersome Jeremiah. Not so, and in chapters like Jer. 25 and Jer. 29, Jeremiah specifically tells the people that they will be in Babylonian captivity for 70 years. He even tells them that they should build houses, plant gardens, and marry and form families during this time of exile (29:5-6).

That is where verse 7 comes in. While in this pagan land as captives, they are told to pray for this wicked nation and even seek its welfare! Amazing stuff indeed. Your average Jew of the day would want to have prayed God’s curses down upon this bloodthirsty pagan nation. But God tells them to do otherwise.

And equally amazing is the fact that earlier on, Yahweh had told Jeremiah NOT to pray for Judah – three times in fact (Jer. 7:16; 11:14, and 14:11)! Yet here He is commanding the unthinkable: the people should pray for pagan Babylon – and its welfare. God’s kingdom certainly can seem like an upside-down kingdom at times.

Yet even here, the bigger picture is still needed, and we must recall that in places like Jer. 50-51, we read about God’s severe judgement on Babylon. God could use this pagan nation for a time as an instrument of judgment on Judah, yet it too would be judged. So there is a time and a place for everything in the divine rule.

Application for today

So what does all this have to do with Christians today? Well, in broad terms, one could argue that certainly in the West, much of the church is really now in Babylonian captivity. Most of the West is now full-tilt secular and anti-Christian, and believers today find themselves living as strangers in a strange land.

Back in 2001, Terry Crist penned a book titled Learning the Language of Babylon (Chosen Books). His point, of course, was that we are in many ways like Israel of old, and we need to relearn how to live and deal with the surrounding pagan culture that we are engulfed in. And to better reach it for Christ, we may even need to learn how to speak its language and understand its culture. Early on, he says this:Learning the Language of Babylon

The battle between Judah and Babylon is a physical picture of the spiritual battle that has raged since the beginning of time. In both the Old and New Testaments, Babylon and Jerusalem are identified as the earthly representations of the epic struggle between the forces of righteousness and unrighteousness. These two cities symbolize opposing ways of relating to God and all of life.

Babylon represents man in his lowest state separated from God and alienated from his original purpose. The very word Babylon means “to confuse, disintegrate, fragment and disunite.”. … Our condition is not unlike the one Israel found herself in during the summer of 605 B.C. – the year she lost her independence and was made a vassal state by Babylon.

The similarities to today should not simply bother us, overwhelm us, nor discourage us. They should also offer us hope. God WAS with Israel, even when it was in exile, and He will be with His people today, in the same way, even when things look quite grim and bleak. Crist goes on to helpfully say this:

Have you ever noticed that most of the Bible was written while God’s people were behind enemy lines? Significant portions of the Old Testament were played out while the Israelites were in bondage to Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or Medeo-Persia. The entire New Testament was lived out while Israel chafed under Roman occupation. The patriarchs and prophets clearly understood what it was like to be held captive by a hostile society.

And this is now getting to be our own reality. We had a pretty good run in the West, with Christianity being predominant and mainstream and accepted – at least nominally – by the great majority for so long. But that is no longer the case. ‘How then should we now live?’ is the question that we must answer today.

The theme of God’s people being in exile, of course, is also found in the New Testament. Books like 1 Peter, for example, make much of this. Yet, that still does not answer all our questions as to how we should then live. Obviously, we are to be salt and light and seek to have a godly influence wherever we are.

As I mentioned, we need great care in how we apply some of these OT passages. If God had temporarily allowed Judah to be captive in Babylon, He could tell them to settle down and even pray for the welfare of the pagan nation in which they were.

But God had given them a specific word on this, including the promise that this exile would not last forever. But how this translates into present-day situations is not so clear, especially since a direct, inspired prophetic word on current events is not to be found today. Thus it might be unlikely that Jews and others would have been commanded to pray for the welfare of Nazi Germany as it sought world domination.

We can and should resist evil, in other words, and while we should accept the reality that God is in control – even over pagan nations – that does not always mean we simply submit to everything, and just take whatever is coming. It was right, in other words, that the Allies sought to withstand Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan, and it can be right today for believers to resist evil – and even evil governments – in various ways.

Ancient Israel was clearly told to accept their situation and not rebel. But we are not in that exact same situation. Yet those many general passages about ‘righteousness exalting a nation’ and the like can still be applied today. And we are especially commanded to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2).

As I often say, one prayer that I usually pray for some especially evil and ungodly rulers – even here in the West – is that God would either improve them or remove them: either help them to become Christians, or one way or another remove them from office. Such prayers are biblical. See, for example, Psalm 109:8 and Proverbs 11:10.

So the instructions given to Judah by Jeremiah may not be exactly our marching orders for today. Nonetheless, we must keep trying to discern what principles and general truths we can glean from things found in passages like Jeremiah 29:7.

Yes, plenty of questions remain as to how we are to tease this text out in light of living in Melbourne or London or Paris or New York in 2023. But let me close with some terrific words by Philip Graham Ryken as he comments on this very passage:

No doubt when the captives discussed their sojourn in Babylon they used words like “abandoned” or “banished” or “condemned” to describe what God had done to them. But that is not how God saw things. He viewed the Exile as a mission. Literally, what he said was, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have sent you.”  Nebuchadnezzar did not take them to Babylon. God sent them there. The exiles were not captives – they were missionaries.

Amen to that.

___

Originally published at CultureWatch. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

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One Comment

  1. Kim Beazley 25 August 2023 at 8:46 am - Reply

    I agree with virtually everything you say here, Bill. But when you say that “a direct, inspired prophetic word on current events is not to be found today”, that is simply not true, as there is, and has been for many years, a growing, maturing, and increasingly robust prophetic movement, and not restricted to the Charismatic/Pentecostal/Third Wave denominations.

    Prophecy, along with the other Gifts of the Spirit identified in the NT Letters of Paul, are becoming mainstream. And not before time. In fact, it’s my belief that they will be a significant factor when God answers our prayers for revival for our Jeremiah 29:7 cities.

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