Babble On: The Impossible Lessons of Exile

Fourth in a series.

Israel’s exile in Babel (a.k.a. Babylon) is the next step in the big biblical epic of Babel that we can draw on to rethink our daily work. It’s become fashionable in the evangelical quarters of the faith and work movement to talk about exile these days. In fact, it’s been so fashionable for so long that I wonder if it’s becoming a bit passé. We may feel like we’ve now had that insight, we got the point of it, and now it’s time to move on.

I’m glad that people have found the exile motif helpful in rethinking our lives and our work as God’s people within cultures that are not in covenant with God. But there is a lot more to it than that. Exile is only one stop in a larger story, and the larger story gives exile its deepest meaning. And if we miss that bigger story, we’ll draw the wrong lessons for our daily work from the exile.

Once we see that the story of Babel arcs its way across the whole Bible, we realize that Israel’s journey to exile was not a journey outward, into the unknown. That was the journey God had already taken Abram on, the journey that led to Israel. The journey to exile is a journey back, in one sense a journey back home – back to the home we fled, to Babel, the original city shipwrecked by sin.

Last time I spoke of “the impossible work of God’s people” – to be the nation that would live faithfully among the nations, both for the nations and against the nations. This task obviously wasn’t impossible in the sense that God doesn’t ask us to do things that are beyond our natural powers, like drawing a square circle or lifting a house with one finger. But the work of living faithfully among the nations, both for and against them, was clearly impossible in the sense that after the fall, God’s rebellious and stiff-necked people couldn’t do it without a radical work of the Spirit.

That’s the lesson of exile – not that the nations are bad (we knew that already) or that we must serve them even though they are bad (ditto). The lesson is that we are bad, and that we do not serve them as we ought. And a painful lesson it is.

God used painful means to teach it. Life in exile was agony. Consider Psalm 137, which depicts Babylonians humiliating Israelites by forcing them to sing their hymns to God while in captivity. As the psalmist cries out: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

On a human level, who does not sympathize with the Israelites tempted by the false prophets to stay in Jerusalem? Exile is a place of torment.

Yes, the exile is teaching God’s people that their mission is to serve the nations rather than be like the nations – Jeremiah 29:7 and all that. But God is teaching his people that lesson all throughout the Old Testament. He teaches it when he calls Abram, he teaches it through the law, he teaches it through the prophets. It is not remarkable that God teaches this lesson in exile as well, since he is constantly teaching it at every point in the biblical story.

The particular lesson of exile – the lesson that the Old Testament would not teach us if the story of exile were not included – is that since the fall, we do not have (of ourselves) the spiritual power to carry out this mission.

Jeremiah 29:7 is not a new teaching that comes upon God’s people as they go into exile – as if God’s people had not been called to seek the peace of the nations when they lived in Jerusalem! On the contrary, Jeremiah 29:7 is a reminder of the teaching that they – that we – always had, and that we failed to follow, to our own ruin, even under God’s patient determination to teach us with less extreme measures.

The primary lesson of exile for our daily work is that we are totally dependent upon God for the spiritual power to carry out our callings properly. We cannot work a single day or a single hour as we ought to, unless he gives us the power.

The nature and operation of that divine grant of power is the focus of the next step in the epic of Babel. As we will see, that next step is one that points us away from exile as a central motif for understanding our place within pluralistic cultures. God does not leave his people in the tormenting schoolhouse of exile forever; he comes, in the flesh, to fling open the school doors and declare that summer vacation has arrived.

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