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Euphrates, river of Babylon

The Bible contains a stark example of crushing defeat and of the attempt to come to terms with this; it is a fertile source of thinking for a perplexed modern Church.

The taste of defeat is a sobering experience. Every election night, at least one campaign headquarters sways with the nausea of losing a political race. Anyone who has been involved in this kind of campaign will tell you there is no middle ground on such days – you are either overjoyed or inconsolable. After an election race, the defeated party usually holds an inquest: to try and make sense of the result and to tell themselves it will be different next time if the lessons are learned.

It is not widely recognised among the churches, but the Bible contains a stark example of crushing defeat and of the attempt to come to terms with it. I refer to Judah’s defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and their subsequent displacement and life in captivity. Their identity and the character of the God they believed in had been shaped by the deliverance from slavery in Egypt and subsequent re-settlement in Canaan. This was the story the nation passed on orally to succeeding generations: the land had been given by God for them to enjoy in a covenantal relationship with him.

When this story was disrupted, about six hundred years before Christ, the people were left with some awkward questions to find answer to. Did we do wrong? Why did God allow it? Did he allow it or were the Babylonian gods simply stronger? And if they were stronger, should we be worshipping them? We were defined by the land we lived in, so who are we now we live somewhere else? Should we assimilate to Babylonian culture or hold on to what we are?

These were not abstract philosophical debates; being rooted in bitter and ignominious defeat. Psalm 137 describes these emotions without any civil restraint or moral editing: ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…there our tormentors demanded songs…O Babylon…happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks’. This scripture is often held up as an example of supposed Old Testament barbarity but it may be an honest reflection of the loss of restraint some people in this world feel when they and those they love have been cruelly violated and abused by others and they are powerless to hit back.

And so Israel was obliged to develop a theology of weakness. From this sickening experience came new thinking which adjusted to the harsh realities of exilic life. Here are just a few ways and how they speak to the Church today.


1. The exiles were not allowed to blame the mess entirely on their ancestors. It would have been easy to: scripture was replete with warnings that God’s protection could be withdrawn if the people turned their backs on him. It is commonly reasoned today that this line of thinking was only developed during the exile to make sense of their loss. Although this line was developed in Babylon, there is plenty of evidence that the people knew what was expected of them while they were living in Canaan. Prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel made the exiles take moral responsibility for their own lives and denied them the luxury of blaming the grandparents.

2. The prophets encouraged the people to stay faithful to their belief that God is all-powerful – despite their calamity – so when we reach the book of Ezra, God is seen as swaying the heart of Cyrus, the Persian monarch, to allow the Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. By ancient standards Cyrus was something of a trendy Islington liberal, but scripture still sees his permissiveness as God-inspired.


3. The conquest of Babylon by the Persian king Cyrus was an encouragement to the people to pray for pagan political leaders and to believe that God could be at work in them as much as he was in a king like David. There is resonance for our generation. The course of history has been shaped by individuals to one degree or another. Both Mikhail Gorbachev and F.W. de Klerk came from intransigent, ideology hardened elites which did not want to compromise, yet both helped to make possible freedoms undreamed of, unleashing reforms even they did not necessarily intend. It pays to pray for political leaders; perhaps especially for those we dislike or have no respect for.


4. Cyrus’ edict to rebuild Jerusalem could easily have fallen on deaf ears – in fact there is evidence it did. Some people grew comfortable in Babylon and did not fancy another move of house; some of them had known nothing else. Only a few made the journey back to Jerusalem. They would have faced hardship, disease, death and open hostility from the new elites in Jerusalem, but their undaunted faith in God changed the reality on the ground.


5. One of the reasons the people went into exile in the first place – according to Jeremiah – was because they placed their trust in the structure of the Temple itself rather than in the God the building existed for. To return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple sailed dangerously close to the rocks of foolish presumption. If the people had put too much faith in the Temple before the exile, wasn’t it better to shelve the long overdue quinquennial inspection and, in some kind of Lutheran instinct, put faith in an invisible God without any props? That the returning exiles set to the task is evidence they had learned from their losses, understood the limited place of the Temple in the worship of the nation, yet nevertheless saw it as a spiritually worthwhile project.
These currents in Jewish thinking are a fruitful source of ideas for every generation. Some argue that the slow secularisation of Britain and Western Europe represents some kind of exile for the Christian Church. Have we failed God in mission? Why is the Church an object of such suspicion today? Is there a particular social identity we should adopt or do we assimilate to some strong and rapid cultural trends?


There are no simplistic answers to be drawn carelessly from exilic thought, but there are strands of thinking for us to pursue. We should not blame our predecessors for the state the Church has got itself into but have the courage to take moral responsibility, for ourselves and the next generation. We should not retreat into the kind of ghetto from where we cannot interpret what an all-powerful God is doing in the nation. We should summon up the energy to rebuild what has fallen into repair: there is much work to be done to recreate forms of Christian outreach and worship which touch with grace those who do not trust in God. We should distinguish a love of buildings from our love for God: the latter should always determine the former. And we should envisage the opportunities our historic and living faith affords us to glorify God afresh in the nation.

Exile is often a state of mind as much as a physical reality and it is in the realm of hope that battles are won and lost.



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