Where is God in Exile? (Far From Home #6)

Where is God in Exile? (Far From Home #6)

Through this series we’ve regularly seen the impact of God’s people on exile. In this post, we are going to delve a little deeper into this from the wealth of material in the Old Testament. Exile was anything but easy for them on a whole number of levels. Two questions loom for us as we get into this topic:

  1. What do you imagine the experience of exile to be like?
  2. What would have been the impact on the exiles physically, psychologically, and spiritually?

Exile, however, was anything but unexpected. Right from before they even entered the Promised Land God had been clear about the consequences of disobedience. The following words come at the end of a section about the covenant God was making with His people. He had spelt out what would happen if they obeyed and what would be the consequence of not doing so. God anticipated that they would abandon His covenant and chase after other gods. He also foresaw the reaction of shock and horror on the part of the nations to how God had dealt with His people.

22 Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the Lord has afflicted it. 23 The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulphur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it… 24 All the nations will ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?” 25 And the answer will be: “It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. 26 They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. 27 Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. 28 In furious anger and in great wrath the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.”

Deuteronomy 30:24-28

In Moses’ words God uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another. God’s people became displaced from their home, the land that God had promised to the Patriarchs and which had been their home for approx. 600-800 years. Being displaced from your home is a really big deal and bigger still if it is not your own choice. For 70 years they would be cut off from their home, knowing that it lay in ruins. God’s promises to them were bound up with the land which was home to the monarchy and even more so, the temple. But now they found themselves as captives in a foreign land surrounded by pagan religion. This pagan nation attempted to initiate and assimilate them into their customs and way of life. Their strategy was to break them and assimilate them into their culture. Generations later they hoped that these people could be returned to the land but this time as their own delegates.

“Exile was not simply displacement from the land, but it was the experience of the end of creation, the exhaustion of salvation history, the demise of king, temple, city, land and all those supports which gave structure and meaning to life.”

Walter Brueggemann, ‘Weariness, Exile, and Chaos’
Photo by Nathan Maduta on Unsplash

1. Lamenting over Exile:

Traditionally, the book of Lamentations was authored by Jeremiah and is primarily a lament over the state of the city of Jerusalem as a result of the exile. Listen to the first few verses of chapter 1 and the very sorry depiction for the desolate city of Jerusalem.

1 How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. After affliction and harsh labour, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.

Lamentations 1:1-3

The city of Jerusalem is described in these verses as deserted, widowed, bitter, weeping and betrayed. Her friends have betrayed her and her lovers have become her enemies. There is mourning, grieving and bitter anguish (v4). There is desolation and her splendour has departed from her (v5). Jerusalem remembers her former treasures and how there was no-one to help her (v7). Because of her great sin she has become unclean, despised and left naked (v8). Her fall was astounding (v9) and her enemy got its hands on her treasures and entered her sanctuary (v9-10). There is groaning from those who remain in the search for food (v11). There is much weeping and tears, but there is no-one to bring comfort (v16-17). There is widespread distress and torment in the city which is full of death. The chapter finishes with the words: “My groans are many and my heart is faint” (v22).

Jumping over to chapter 5 and we find Jerusalem described as disgraced, joyless, forgotten and forsaken. Their homes and inheritance have been turned over to strangers and foreigners (v2). They have become Fatherless and widows (v3). They must now pay for their water, wood and bread (v4,6) and sometimes they have to risk their lives to get it (v9). Perhaps even more disturbing is v15 where we read that: “Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.” In all of this there is no lack of clarity that all this has come upon them because of their sin. It was God who had afflicted them with suffering and the day of His fierce anger (1:12). The book ends with a prayer for restoration – even in exile there was still hope.

19 You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. 20 Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? 21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old 22 unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.

Lamentations 5:19-21

I cannot say that I often think about lamenting, but I am encouraged that we have plenty of examples of it here in the Bible (esp. Lamentations & Psalms). Lamentation is not the same as complaining. One is based on accusation and it tends to attack God’s character. The other is more of a prayerful appeal and is rooted in the promises of God. Lamenting is something we need to get better at as we live predominantly in a context here in the West which is increasingly turning its back on God.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

2. Questions over Exile

The experience of exile surely raised lots of challenging questions in the minds of God’s people. They must have been asking where is God in all of this and wondering how God could allow this to happen. Similar questions were of course asked some years previously by the prophet Habakkuk who wrestled at length with why God did not act in the face of all the violence around him.

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.

Habakkuk 1:2-4

God graciously responds to his complaint and explains His intention to send the Babylonians in judgement upon them. This was hardly the response that Habakkuk was hoping for. They were a “ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own” (1:6). They mocked, scoffed and laughed at all who came in their path and their own strength was their god (v11). Habakkuk simply cannot get his head around this and so he feels cause to raise a 2nd complaint about how God could tolerate the treacherous and allow them to swallow up those more righteous than they (v13). He waxes lyrical about this but waits patiently for how God would answer. When God does answer He says to Habakkuk:

“See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.”

Habakkuk 2:4

This verse is quoted several times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17, Hebrews 10:38) and God’s encouragement to Habakkuk here is to live by faith. God then explains that He knew how to deal with nations like Babylon and soon their time would come also. For now they must wait on Him and live by faith. God then contrasts their lifeless idols with Himself and concludes saying: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (v20).

I find it very encouraging that the Bible really is full of people asking tough questions of God. The time of exile was no different, but again it really should not have come as much of a surprise. God was clear all along about the consequences of what would happen if they failed to follow Him wholeheartedly. What I do find surprising is that the exile comes so soon after the heights reached during the reign of King Josiah when they rediscovered the book of the law and made a whole bunch of reforms as a result. Without doubt they read the passages which made very clear the circumstances in which God would take them into exile. In 2 Chronicles we read of them celebrating the Passover 18 years into Josiah’s 31year reign. After Josiah were only 4 further Kings: Jehoahaz (3 months), Jehoiakim (11 years), Jehoiachin (18 years) and Zedekiah (11 years). The first wave of exile happened under Jehoiakim meaning that they were taken into exile less than 25 years after that highpoint in Josiah’s reign!

Photo by David Straight on Unsplash

3. Faithfulness in Exile

I want to finish this post with the highpoints from the books of Lamentations and Habakkuk. I think that it is an encouraging place to leave this discussion about where is God in exile. Firstly, lets look at Habakkuk 3 which is a prayer responding to the interactions he’d had with God. In the prayer he praises God and asks him to repeat His mighty deeds of the past and in His wrath remember mercy (v2). Then in v3-15 he remembers some of God’s greatest and most awesome deeds God had done on their behalf. But then Habakkuk finishes with a simply fabulous declaration of faith:

16 I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. 17 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. 19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.

Habakkuk 3:16-19

Habakkuk declares that he will wait patiently for the coming day of calamity. He knows it’s not going to be easy, but his strength is not in the fig tree, the olive crop, the fields, the stalls or the sheep pen. When calamity comes he declares that he will rejoice in the Lord and be joyful in God His Savour. The Sovereign Lord is his strength and enables him to walk, run, dance and leap in the hills like the deer. The highpoint of Lamentations comes in 3:21-66 when Jeremiah remembers that because of God’s great love and compassion, they are not consumed.

21 Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: 22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. 23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” 25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; 26 it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. 27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.

Lamentations 3:21-27

The Bible is full of these moments when we find a huge turn-around following a word such as but or yet. After all his lamenting he now tells us what he calls to mind which gives him hope. They are well known verses, but it is incredible that they come within the book of Lamentations. He remembers that God’s compassions never fail and are new every morning. He remembers that God is his portion and therefore he will wait for Him. He remembers that God is good to those who hope in Him and seek after Him. So he waits quietly for God’s salvation. A few verses later he recalls that God does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone (v33) and somewhat rhetorically asks whether both calamities and good things come from God (v38). He then brings a challenging message to Israel to examine their ways and return to Him in repentance and faith.

Their hope lay in coming back to God and in trusting patiently that God was still on the throne. The question really wasn’t where is God in exile?, but more like, what was God doing in their exile? God had set apart a remnant for Himself and in time He would restore their fortunes as He had promised. After 70 years this would mean coming back to the Promised Land, but even then, it would never reach the heights seen in the early years of the monarchy. Ultimately, God’s promises would be fulfilled in the one who would come many years later – the one in whom all God’s promises reach their climax. The Messiah has now come and is coming back again. Only through Him will God bring a final conclusion to sin and our enduring exile in a world that is not our true home! As we also wait for Jesus’s coming, we also need to learn to trust God in exile. We need to trust God amidst all the difficult things going on around us and amidst all the difficult questions that arise from it. We too need to remember God’s faithfulness to us and how his compassions to us really are new every morning…

See other posts in this series: Far From Home

  1. Living in Exile
  2. Refusing to Compromise
  3. Making a Home for ourselves
  4. Comfort for the Exiles
  5. Restoring a Broken World
  6. Where is God in Exile?
  7. Sanctuary for the Exiles
  8. Prayer and the Purposes of God

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