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In the ancient Near East, when two peoples fought each other, it was understood that their gods were fighting as well. Whoevers’ gods were the stronger or most loyal would win. And in particularly bad defeats, when one nation broke through and took the capital of the other, the conquering nation would loot the temple and take all their gods out of it, and carry them away. This was deeply humiliating for the defeated nation. Because it implied that their gods couldn’t (or wouldn’t) save them, that their gods were powerless to stop the destruction.
I bring up all of this to say that the defeat of Judah at the hands of Babylon in 586 BCE and their subsequent exile was a massive trauma to the national and religious identity of the people of God. It is almost certainly the biggest historical event outside of the life of Jesus Christ in terms of its bearing on the Bible. It shaped everything that happened after that in the history of Judah and Israel, and most of the things that happened before. And it is almost certainly the reason that you believe in God today. Because the exile taught the people how to believe in God.
You can’t carry away a God who doesn’t exist in some readily carryable form. But over the years of Judahite monarchy, God had increasingly been identified with the nation of Judah and the city of Jerusalem. The kings of Judah had torn down all the high places, even Bethel, where Jacob had his famous dream, so that only in Jerusalem could you worship God. Over time the kings increasingly drifted from trying to align their kingdom with God to trying to align God with their kingdom. They centered faith in God on Jerusalem, the temple, and the monarchy. The Psalms that came out of the royal tradition reflect that. In Psalm 48, the author says:
Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers,
consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
that this is God,
our God for ever and ever. (Ps. 48:12-14)
In other words, Jerusalem’s walls were proof of God. And the size and strength of those walls were proof that God was with them and protecting them. Instead of trying to seek the will of God and pursue God’s covenant, the kings sought ways to justify their own will as God’s will. They built up this association with Zion, the mountain on which Jerusalem sat, and strongly connected God with the nation and its wealth and prosperity, regardless of how faithful that nation was.
The people had associated security and safety, wealth, pleasure, and pride in their nation with the love of God, and so that’s what they pursued, instead of the real true God, who sought mercy, justice, and care for everyone. And it got them into trouble. As it says earlier in Isaiah, God cares more about mercy than God cares about piety. You cannot build a nation that ignores its poor and weak and call it a Godly nation. And it was their failure to care for their poor, their preference for comfort over their neighbors, and their willingness to put their trust in any king or nation that would promise them safety and security that caused God to raise up the Babylonians to punish them.
When the people of Judah are carried away to Babylon, it is as if their gods have been carried away. Because they have been carried away from the things they associated with the presence God: the strength of God’s king, the impenetrability of God’s fortress, the holy dwelling place of God.
There’s a particular moment that calls this sort of faith into relief. It’s in Psalm 137. The Babylonians have brought the people of Jerusalem into exile, and there are on the banks of the Babylon river. And their captors say, “Sing us a song of Zion. Sing us one of your songs about how impenetrable Jerusalem is the fortress of the Almighty God.” Psalm 48, right? Look at our walls and know that this is God, who will endure forever. But of course all of that is gone. Jerusalem has been sacked, the temple is destroyed, the festivals and celebrations are over forever. And by the waters of Babylon the people lay down and weep. Because everything they had been taught to associate with God had been destroyed.
This causes a major crisis of faith in the exiles. Every indicator that they had of the presence of God was now gone. So was God gone? Had God abandoned them? Had God been destroyed by the Babylonian armies? Did God even exist at all? And that’s where we are when we get to our passage in Isaiah this week. For the first time in a long time, a prophet has good news for Judah. But to get people to believe it, Isaiah has to rebuild their faith. Isaiah has to teach them how to believe in God. They had put their trust in the walls of Jerusalem, in safety and security, in a strong economy that gave them plenty to eat and drink and celebrate. They had put their faith in the blessings of God, not God. And so when those blessings were taken away, so was their faith. Up until that point they had been following what I call the Gospel of the Full Belly. The idea that God is good because I am doing well. Their belief in God was dependent on all these other things, the fortress, the temple, the king. Isaiah wants them to have a faith that depends on God alone.
And to do that, Isaiah reframes the debate. He calls to mind all of creation:
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance? “ (Isaiah 40:12)
Isaiah’s basically saying, look, all of the things that you have put your trust in are made by human hands. The gods that your neighbors believe in were built in a factory. The walls of Jerusalem, the beauty of the temple, and everything else, were built by people. Look at what God built. Look up at the heavens, look down into the sea, and consider the vastness of the universe you live in. This is the playing field that God is working within. The power and strength of the princes you put your trust in are just a drop in the bucket compared to the power and strength of the everlasting God.
Isaiah is recentering the faith around what God has done, is doing, and will do. The people used to think that Jerusalem was the fortress of God, and the Temple was God’s dwelling place. But that was just a sliver of an idea of what is going on. Isaiah is saying that God operates on the level of the universe. Beyond nation, beyond place, beyond power. All of these things, even the Babylonians, even this exile, is within the scope of God’s work in the world, because all of it, everything in the universe, is under God’s control.
The reason the exile is so important, is because it is here that the people of God are forced to realize that God is not the blessings that they had received. God is not Jerusalem, God is not the Temple, God is not safety and security. God is not being healthy, or having a family, or not. God is who is left when all of those things are gone. And for the exiles, all those things are gone. But God is still here. And God still hears them, God still cares about them, and soon it will be time for God to redeem them.
I think all of us in some way can relate to this experience of exile. Maybe it was a literal exile, maybe you went far away. But maybe it was something else, some experience or time in your life where you found yourself far from the things that you loved, or far from the things you think of as the presence of God.
Do not confuse God with the blessings of God. And if you are in exile, if you are struggling to find your faith, struggling to figure out what life has to look like for you, wondering where God can possibly be in what you are doing, be patient.