We can learn much from the exile of ancient Israel:
The West has really gone full circle: many centuries ago paganism was replaced with Christianity. For a long time the West was really very much the Christian West. But in more recent times we have moved to being a post-Christian culture, and even more recently we have actually become an anti-Christian culture.
As such, Christians in the West are now strangers in a strange land. We are captives in a hostile culture. We are outsiders and exiles. The question is, how should we then live in such circumstances? We can get some helpful insights to this question by looking at the Old Testament, and how Israel coped with this, including its captivity.
We learn in Scripture that God is behind these moves. Because of its sin, disobedience, unfaithfulness, and idolatry, ancient Israel was taken into captivity by the hand of God. Both the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities were the direct judgment of God on a rebellious people.
I have often reflected on the fact that while perhaps the majority of Israelites were in fact wicked and evil, surely there was a remnant who were not – a remnant that was faithful to Yahweh. At the very least, the prophets sent by God to warn the people, and who also ended up being carried away into captivity were having to share in the punishment that the rest of the people deserved.
It may not seem fair. One might ask, ‘God, what about those who were faithful to you? Why must they suffer and go into captivity along with the evil Israelites? Should the more-or-less innocent suffer along with the guilty?’ And one can ask similar sorts of questions about today.
If COVID or things like it might be the judgment of God upon a sinful people, what about those who love and serve God? They too are having to deal with all this – both the virus itself, and all the draconian lockdown measures. Both are causing massive amounts of hardship and suffering. Both are resulting in death.
Well, a partial answer at least to this question can be found in a key passage of Scripture in the Old Testament: Jeremiah 24. This short chapter (just 10 verses) is about the good figs and the bad figs. Here it is in full:
After Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken into exile from Jerusalem Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, together with the officials of Judah, the craftsmen, and the metal workers, and had brought them to Babylon, the Lord showed me this vision: behold, two baskets of figs placed before the temple of the Lord. One basket had very good figs, like first-ripe figs, but the other basket had very bad figs, so bad that they could not be eaten. And the Lord said to me, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” I said, “Figs, the good figs very good, and the bad figs very bad, so bad that they cannot be eaten.”
Then the word of the Lord came to me: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
“But thus says the Lord: Like the bad figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.”
Contrary to what might have been expected, the good figs were the Israelites who went into exile while the bad figs were those who stayed behind or tried to escape to Egypt. So yes, the good figs have been taken into captivity, but Yahweh has NOT forgotten about them, and he has his eye on them. Verses 5-7 especially make that clear.
And bear in mind some context here. In the very next chapter Jeremiah tells the Israelites that their Babylon exile will last for seventy years. And in chapter 29 we read about a letter Jeremiah wrote from Jerusalem to those living in captivity. Verses 4-6 say this:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”
So they will be in it for the long haul. They will have to learn to live as exiles – as strangers in a strange land. So there are lessons for us here. Not only is the church in one sense always a group of strangers in a strange land, but even more so now that the West is no longer Christian, but mainly anti-Christian.
And if things like COVID and other calamities are in any way God’s judgment, then we all suffer together. But Jer. 24 can still give us hope. Yes there are good figs and bad figs, but God is certainly aware of the good, and he has not forsaken them. As Jer. 24:6a says, “I will set my eyes on them for good”.
Let me offer a few words from some commentators on this chapter. God does surprising things. His ways are often not our ways. God’s explanation to Jeremiah is not what many would have expected. As Hetty Lalleman says:
The explanation is a surprising one. God’s plans for the future do not lie with those who have been left behind in Judah, who seemingly had escaped judgment, but with those taken into exile in Babylon. They are the good ones, which does not mean they are morally better, but that God’s plans for them are hopeful and good. It is through judgment and exile in Babylon that God will make a fresh start, as described in verses 6–7.
When God watches over someone for their good, it means he demonstrates his grace and has positive plans for such a person, in this case the exiles. I will bring them back: here the word šûb, which often occurs in the context of repentance and return in Jeremiah (cf. Jer. 3), now has God as its subject. He is the initiator of restoration and he will cause his people to return to the Promised Land. His initiative also involves a spiritual return to their God. He will provide them with changed hearts so that they will serve him wholeheartedly (cf. also 31:31–34).
And J. A. Thompson says this: “It will be granted to the exiles to know Yahweh and to form the nucleus of the renewed Israel which will recognize Yahweh’s sovereignty. They will return (šûb) to him with their whole heart. Heart renewal could evidently come only after judgment, so that judgment was the very means by which the new beginning for God’s people was to be achieved – an encouraging doctrine for those in exile and for those who would follow in 586 B.C.”
I spoke before about those who are “more-or-less innocent”. Of course in one very real sense, none of us are innocent. We are all like sheep who go our own way. None are deserving of God’s grace. So just as all people tended to suffer together in this exile (whether taken away or left back in Judah), so too today in one sense we may all deserve whatever judgments God might be dishing out.
But two further things can be said about this. First, it really does all come down to God’s grace. As Christopher Wright says about this passage:
Verses 5-7 are astounding – not merely as a contradiction of popular assumptions, but as an affirmation of God’s sovereign grace…
God’s grace is clear in two ways. First, who is it that God chooses to ‘regard for good’? These are the people whom Jeremiah had condemned unremittingly for chapter after chapter, year after year. There is no hope inherent in the moral capacity of these people themselves. Even in exile we find that Ezekiel battles against almost unbelievable hostility from these people, along with their self-excusing refusal to repent…
And secondly, God’s grace will give what God’s covenant required – that God’s people should know him, with all that such knowledge of God implied. Verse 7 expresses the most profound theological antinomy that lies at the heart of the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereign redeeming grace and human repentance and obedient response…
Jeremiah 24:7 captures in a single verse the very similar antinomy that we find in Deuteronomy 30:1-10, which is worth reading alongside these verses. That chapter anticipates the judgment of exile, but holds out hope even after it. . . . In Deuteronomy 30:6, God’s grace promises what God’s law demanded. God would give them the ability to turn to God, to love and obey him. Law and gospel are intertwined in this remarkable passage (no wonder it has an evangelistic ending: Deut. 30:19-20). The same paradoxical combination of gift and requirement breathes through Jeremiah 24:7, and points towards the new covenant promises of 31:31-34. All that remained was for Ezekiel to expand the idea of heart-surgery to include the cleansing and filling of the Spirit of God (Ezek. 36:26-28).
And a second theme arises here: there will always be a remnant – again, by God’s grace. J. Andrew Dearman puts it this way:
Not only does this chapter reflect in brief the larger designs of the book of Jeremiah, but its claims of judgment and restoration are also part of a larger biblical pattern of remnant theology. Judgment upon iniquity and sociopolitical changes (e.g., statehood and monarchy, exile) brought divisions among the people of God. During the period of Elijah, for example, many in Israel fell to the seductions of the Phoenician culture and religion. God assured Elijah, however, that there were still seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:1–18).
He looks at other Old Testament examples, and then some in the New, and then says this:
Christians, therefore, are part of the remnant saved by grace. This is one of the bridges linking Jeremiah’s vision of the two baskets with the church. Another is typological and similar to the remnant link. In the return from exile God provides fulfillment of his concern for his people in Babylon. This does not exhaust the meaning of Jeremiah’s prophecy, but it illumines the concern of God wherever and whenever his people are scattered and turn to him in faith.
Although Christians today are also scattered and in a sort of exile, our situation today is different than that of Jeremiah’s day, and we do not have the same clear prophetic word as to what is happening. But some general principles can still be offered here. God still judges sin. He may judge an entire people or nation – or more – and that can include God’s people as well as those who do not know God.
His judgments tend to have as their main end the turning of people from sin and self to God. Christians as such may not be under his direct judgment any longer, but they still experience his hand of discipline. So the troubles we are all going through right now are not in vain – certainly for the believer. God is still carrying out his purposes here.
At best, we should see these difficult times as occasions to get our priorities right, seek God even further, and to believe that he does indeed have a good end in view for us. Just as he told the Israelites of old, “I will set my eyes on them for good,” so he will do so for us.