The Babylonian exile was the traumatic event for ancient Israelites. The Promised Land — the land the Patriarchs’ offspring bled for, starved for — was scraped clean of its wealthy, educated, and priestly elite. Left behind were the impoverished in a de-Templed land of famine, not milk and honey. The tribes were struck and scattered; cries rang out across the known world for YHWH: the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Israel.
It seemed to be a nightmare of divine abandonment, a warped perception of promises paid to Patriarchs. From this profound pain came a maturing of God’s people — a time of both national and religious deconstruction, then reconstruction.
The gola (exiles) breathed their spiritual transformations through the words of prophets including Ezekiel and Jeremiah, as well as many psalmists and lamenters.
In despair, many repented for betraying the Author of Life by way of idolatry and corruption of Mosaic law. Some blamed kings, some blamed the kings’ people. The philosophically minded mused, inspiring literature like the Book of Job: bleak ponderings on the intertwining of human suffering and God’s mysterious will. It’s likely the bulk of the Torah was knitted together — oral tradition made ink — during and after the exile. (When you read the Torah in light of the exile, it all makes a lot more sense.)
All was desolate; a blank canvas, save for God.
Exile was horrific and resulted from the world’s brokenness, but it also paved the opportunity to paint a better society. God crafted something beautiful of what was thought to be a desolate situation. His people, severed from their land, found again the One who was with them before the land. They rededicated themselves to worship and humility, bannered under Him.
Like her namesake, Israel rose from her wrestling to be blessed with a new identity, a stronger identity. They carried also a vigor for the Ezekiel– and Isaiah-proclaimed coming of a Messiah who would shepherd His flock.
Thing Is, That Exile Wasn’t Isolated.
Over five centuries later, the Messiah did come. Rather than purge Jerusalem of the Romans, this Messiah ministered and healed. He also corrected interpretations of His character. This Messiah wept at destruction rather than created it. (To chew on: Did the Shepherd weep during exile because He caused it or because His flock fled His protection? It’s Jewish tradition to debate such things.)
To begin ministry, the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to fast, pray, and defy temptations. He did this for 40 days, reflecting 40 days of Noah’s rescue-exile atop the waters, or the 40-year wandering of unfaithful Israelites through the wilderness.
His followers would leave their homes, possessions, and families to find that His new (yet ancient) promise satisfied in ways beyond what the Promised Land could. Many were later exiled from their communities for following Him. Others left the Promised Land by will, to spread His Gospel to empires even mightier than Babylon’s had been.
Exiles and wilderness wanderings persist thematically and literally throughout the Bible. It’s in these objectively terrible times that the characters become more in tune with God, more matured. And the characters are not simply characters — they’re us.
My First Exile? Years Ago.
In college, I read that Job is widely regarded as one of the finest works of literature. I didn’t understand why. It seemed rather archaic and unrelatable. And I regarded the Psalms to be overly militaristic and Lamentations much too dreary.
But as readers of this blog know, I lost my hearing and my lungs, and was “exiled” from Hawaii. Lamentations became cathartic reading, and when life felt like war, Psalms rallied me. And Job, he became my identity.
My so-called exile was traumatizing, yet through it I also was made me. Deaf and immunocompromised, I was largely alone, yet felt the companionship of Someone far mightier than this world. The only One who had the right to define my identity for me: I Am.
I have theories on why I was broken and exiled. They don’t matter much, really. What matters is that in my exile I matured as a man after God’s heart. I got and get a lot wrong, but I am getting warmer on who He is and who I am. Like Israel, I’ve needed an identity revolution. No longer am I Brad the deceitful and bitter, but instead I am a son of God.
I’ve heard God’s beating heart in the silence of deafness, have felt His breath in my new lungs. I’ve learned to either move slowly or be still, to love swiftly and meditate daily. I’ve plunged into a graceful love that plucks me back up each time I’ve swayed into sin. In my “exile,” God gave me a heart for missions and youth. He has brought order to my disorders and helped me to live a life of gratitude. In His fold, I’ve found promises that satisfy me in ways Hawaii hadn’t, weakening that beautiful land’s grasp on my heart.
You know, Jeremiah told the gola to build homes in Babylon. And yes, California has become a home. I am grateful. I’ve seemingly completed Job’s journey into living a blessed life now that most suffering has ceased.
Things Can’t Stay Smooth, Can They?
God stirred in me something I thought improbable: a calling from an exile I no longer considered exile. Specifically, to ministry in Hawaii. (I’ll detail how that happened later.)
This January and February, in prayer with others and alone, I heard time and time again, “This is a season of preparation.” A time for “personal mentorship from God.” Then, COVID-19 hit. Now I’m in an empty guesthouse (provided by my lovely church family) with plenty of theological readings and my Bible. A wilderness, to prepare for ministry.
Wilderness or Exile, Make Something of It.
I do not know the reason for today’s “pandemic exile,” though I can spot the rhyme. Maybe, if Torah writers nailed God’s character, He now executes judgment against the gods of the modern world: materialism, oppressive policies, resource greed, our kings. I think Jesus shows the Father’s true character — the Healer — and He weeps over the pandemic caused by the world’s corruption, as He had for Jerusalem, and plots to redeem this horror for His and our good. I hope that, somewhere, God has spoken with a humble Moses to lead us from exile, or maybe someone from outside the Church, a Cyrus.
One can play Biblical conspiracy theorist all day, like Job’s squabbling friends, but never receive an answer besides “You wouldn’t understand.” I’m simple and prefer to think not “Why?” but instead, “What now?” The pandemic is already here. Let’s ask what we do now. Whether this is some judgment or not, we should seize the opportunity to cast away our idols and go all-in for God.
So no, I do not know the reason for my “exile” four years ago nor the pandemic of today. But I am determined to learn the rhymes of the Babylonian captives, the wandering Israelites, and the Son who fasted to prepare for ministry. I am determined to answer the beckoning to a “season of preparation” by making this isolation into a wilderness of prayer and Scripture. This is a time of Sabbath, a time to dig deeper into who God is and what He wants of me — of us.
In my calm, I intercede for this world. I know God works for our good.
I lament to feel this all, then quiet my soul of its chaos; laments formed 70% of Psalms. This is not a blog to dismiss the suffering taking place across the world. Instead, in the “wilderness” of pandemic isolation, I intercede today while preparing my spirit to minster in the fallout.
I pray for comfort, for hope:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;Psalm 131
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
If there is a time for faith revival, it is now.
Now, and Then.
When the Israelites returned from exile, it was strictly to build a nation of worship. They returned to a land that had “enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.”
All was desolate; a blank canvas, save for God.