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Feb 04, 2018

Israel's Exile and Ours

Passage: Psalms 137:1-9

Preacher: John Huizinga

Series: The Grand Story of God

Category: The Grand Story of God

Keywords: babylon, belonging, exile, israel, judah, loneliness, misery, peter, separation, sin


Sometimes America isn’t the promised land; sometimes America behaves like Babylon. Many times faith isn’t about living free in the land of milk and honey, but about the repentant acts of return from exile.


Last Sunday after our worship service

we watched Dr Mary Hulst’s presentation

on Millennials as the hope of the church.

She accented the growing concern

that more and more people today,

especially those in their teens and twenties,

are lonely.

Studies show that the number of Americans

with no close friends

has tripled in the last 30 years.

The assumption today

is that people are not there for me.

When something goes bad

we think it is better

to hide and withdraw

rather than seek to share our pain or fear.

Look at how long it took

for those sexually abused by Dr Nassar

to find the courage to come forward,

his sin not only violated them,

it isolated them in their pain.

We have grown up in a Harry Potter world.

At one point in his story

Harry comes to this resolve about himself:

‘He must abandon forever the illusion . . . that the shelter of his parents’ arms meant that nothing could hurt him . . . There was no comforting whisper in the dark that he was safe really . . . he was more ALONE than he had ever been before.’


Loneliness is just one curse of being in exile,

and helps us connect with this key experience

in the history of God’s people.

Did you feel the pain of Psalm 137?

Were you shocked by some of the language?

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept . . .

[They’re in Babylon against their will

they have been deported;

they are prisoners, captives, exiles.]

. . . our tormentors demanded songs of joy;

    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

    while in a foreign land?

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,

    happy is the one who repays you

    according to what you have done to us.

Happy is the one who seizes your infants

    and dashes them against the rocks.


Psalm 137 is an imprecatory psalm

describing Israel’s exile to Babylon.

(An imprecatory psalm is a  prayer against evil

and for just judgment and retribution)

About a dozen psalms are imprecatory psalms,

none more bitter and angry than this one.


The psalm describes

the oppression Israel experienced

living in exile in Babylon.

They felt separated from God,

they lost their identity and assurance

when they lost their belonging to God.

They were without a true home.

All of this is what exile means

physically and spiritually.

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

while in a foreign land?

Israel is saying they don’t know how to live

separated from God.

There’s no peace, no joy, no hope,

nothing to sing about.


And then there’s verses 8-9:

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,

    happy is the one who repays you

    according to what you have done to us.

Happy is the one who seizes your infants

    and dashes them against the rocks.


I’m guessing none of us here

ever thought to memorize these verses.

I’m also guessing some of us wonder

how such a thing could be in the Bible.

And if so, what’s it all about?

Pastor, you said a few weeks ago

we should pray the psalms,

am I supposed to pray this?

About whom?


We begin to understand this verse

when we read it correctly:

Happy is the one who seizes YOUR infants

and dashes them against the rocks.

Israel is saying . . . Happy is the one who

seizes YOUR infants

and dashes them against the rocks

just as you did to our children!

They shake their trembling fists at Babylon.

They take their eyes off the Lord

for a moment and Babylon intrudes their prayers.

Their trust turns from God’s deliverance

to human revenge.

I’m not excusing their language,

just giving you the force of the context.

Israel is mourning the violence

they endured from Babylon.

This is a cry of anger for justice,

not unlike we have heard in our nation

in the last few years.

Such language makes us uncomfortable;

it can tempt us to choose sides,

to excuse and justify ourselves.

But can we hear it as a cry of pain?

And confess that when we sin against another

or are sinned against

one result is to turn away from the Lord

precisely at the time when we need

the Only One who has power over

sin and death

and can bring together those isolated in pain.


What do we do

with such language in the Bible?

What do we do with the angry,

hateful call for vengeance?

Miroslav Volf:

imprecatory psalms like this one

point the way out of slavery to revenge

and into the freedom of forgiveness.

Psalm 137 gives voice to violent emotions,

to help diffuse the impulse toward violent actions.

Volf: By placing unattended rage before God

we place both our unjust enemy

and our own vengeful self

face to face with the one God

who loves and does justice.


Psalm 137 is a cry to God.

It is also a submission before God.

These words recognize both the injustice and the anger,

and confess these to the Heavenly Father,

who knows what justice costs

as he watched his Son die on the cross;

who alone can heal us

since the Father raised Jesus from the dead.

God the Father vindicated

Christ’s suffering and sacrifice

while judging the evil of this world.


As troubling as Psalm 137 is, it is real.

The images help us understand

that exile brought real experiences of

alienation, loneliness, loss,

threat to safety, fear and estrangement

to Israel.


Here’s what happened:

in 722 BC Assyria destroyed Samaria

and the ten northern tribes were lost.

1 Kings 18 reports this reason:

12 This happened because they had not obeyed the Lord their God, but had violated his covenant—all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded. They neither listened to the commands nor carried them out.


God sent prophets like Jeremiah to warn Judah

of the same impending punishment.

But the people of Judah, the southern kingdom,

did not listen or repent,

so in 586 BC Jerusalem and the temple

were destroyed by the Babylonian empire

and the southern tribes were exiled to Babylon.

2 Chronicles 36 describes this sorrowful event:

15 The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy.

God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar . . . [who] set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.

20 He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power.

Daniel and his friends were exiled.

Ezekiel lived as a prophet in exile.

Much later

after a remnant returned to Israel

with Ezra and Nehemiah,

some stayed bin Persia like Mordecai and Esther.


So this helps us get a little historical context

for much of the later books of the Old Testament,

especially Ezekiel and the minor prophets.

But here’s the meaning:

Beyond the trouble, suffering and devastation,

what traumatized the people

was the loss of their land, their home.

The temple was their connection to God.

Their identity and belonging to God

was mediated through the temple,

but now the temple was destroyed.

God had promised the people the land.

Now it looked like God had broken that promise.

But it was Israel’s sin

that separated them from the Lord.


The people abused that promise.

Instead of lives of gratitude for home

and belonging to God,

they assumed God’s protection

no matter how they lived, what they did.


The Lord promised Israel the land

as long as they remained faithful

to the covenant promises.

But king after king broke those promises,

and the people followed along

in disobedience.

It isn’t hard to page through the Old Testament

and find warnings from the prophets

to the people about their turning away

from the justice and kindness of God

for material gain,

mistreating the poor,

not looking after the foreigners in the land,

and the idolatries of greed and lust and gluttony.


This is a forgotten message

when it comes to understanding

the situation in the land of Israel today.

And how many Christians

are misinformed about Israel,

because we have forgotten

the lessons of exile.


The issues in the Middle East are complex,

but too often Christians in America

forget our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters

and simplistically defend Israel

without remembering and applying the lessons

of Jerusalem and exile into the current struggle.


2 Chronicles 36 has this telling summary

after reporting the devastation

of Judah’s exile:

21 The land 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.


Exile was brought on by Israel’s sin:

the peoples’ disobedience

to the commands of God

to love God and love neighbor.

Exile happened

because the land itself

needed a rest from Israel’s evil.


The exile lesson

in our grand story of God

is in the chapter on redemption.

Jesus becomes the new Israel.

All the land promises of Israel

are fulfilled in him and in life in him.


Here is how exile connects with us

and our longing for God’s grace and righteousness.

The misery of sin

was linked with the experience of exile

in the churches of the reformation.

Many people at that time

experienced being pushed out of their homeland

because of their faith

and had to find a safe place in another land

that would allow them to practice their faith.

The German-Dutch word ‘elend’

was used by Martin Luther and John Calvin

to refer to the misery of sin

which resulted in our separation from God.

And that resonated with many people

who experienced e-lend:

another land, or being kicked out-of-the-land.

Believers during the Reformation

knew what it was like to lose a homeland,

to be refugees, to live in exile.


John Calvin dedicated his commentary on Jeremiah,

the prophet who warned of coming exile,

to Frederick III

who welcomed believers fleeing persecution.

Calvin wrote:

‘I should condemn myself for ingratitude

were I not to consider myself under obligation to you

for being so ready and disposed

to receive the Christian exiles who flee to you.’


Exile teaches us what sin is

and what it does to us

with the word misery.

Many of us learned

the Heidelberg catechism answer:

I come to know my sin and misery

from the law of God.

That word misery

comes from the word meaning ‘exile.’

The misery of sin refers

to both the guilt of our disobedience

and also the punishment that results.

When we sin we experience the misery of exile.

Separation from God

is the root of misery and exile.

Sin separates us,

and the punishment for sin

is separation from God.

We are made for belonging,

being at home with God,

sin divorces us from such belonging.

But sometimes we don’t even know

we are miserable.

Before Paul met Jesus

he thought he was blameless,

only after understanding the cross

did he see he was the worst of sinners.


How do we come to know

the reason for our alienation from God?

The law of God tells us.

When we compare our lives

to the love of Jesus

for the Father and Spirit, and for sinners,

we can’t help but admit our failings.

We take to heart Israel’s fall and exile

and ask whether we are also

separating ourselves from God

by desiring what is contrary to

the love of God

and love for our neighbor.


Martin Luther used the idea of exile

in teaching on true worship and faith

from Isaiah 58:7 –

share your bread with the hungry,

bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself

from your own flesh and blood.

Luther preached: bring those exiled into your house!

Belonging to God in Christ

is the comfort for sin’s misery and exile.


So with Psalm 137

can we confess where our fear and anger

have become obstacles

to loving God and neighbor?

This is one way to apply

Israel’s exile in a way that

brings us closer to Christ

and his redemption.


The reality of exile appears

in the New Testament in Peter’s first epistle.

Peter identifies Christians as exiles:

1 Peter 2 –

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles,

to abstain from sinful desires,

which wage war against your soul.


See it?

Foreigners and exiles . . .

Peter sent his letter

to Christians who had been scattered

throughout the Roman empire.

But the Holy Spirit speaks these words to us.

Foreigners and exiles . . . in America?

Our identity is in Jesus.

We are children of God.

Citizens of . . .

the kingdom of God.

Not America first.


When I take to heart Israel’s disobedience

that led to her exile,

I confess my temptation

to work too hard to make myself at home

in a secular age and nation like ours.


Don’t we invest much of ourselves

into making it, being at home here

in this culture living a lifestyle

that looks American?

Isn’t that one of the charges


against the Christian church today?

That far too often we look and act

just like everybody else.


That was Israel’s temptation,

starting with their first evil king Saul:

we want to be like every other nation,

they said to God.

When I leave here

can I confess that deep down in my heart

I am attracted to being like everybody else:

to have what she has,

to do what he does,

to like what they like,

to judge my life by my material lifestyle

instead of denying myself

and taking up my cross

and following Jesus?


Peter warns –

abstain from sinful desires,

which wage war against your soul.

Which led to the misery and exile of sin.

16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.


He’s answering the question

from Psalm 137 –

How can we sing the songs of the Lord

in a strange land?

Sometimes by being a stranger.

Because this is a strange land,

we should not always feel at home in it,

even as we serve to bring

the blessings of welcome and home and belonging

to those most alone and oppressed and forgotten.

Because sometimes America is not the promised land;

sometimes America behaves like Babylon.


God's concern is as far as creation is wide

and as far as the curse is found.

The lesson of exile

is meant to turn us back to Jesus

who alone brings us back to the Father,

and restores our belonging.


Kids, if you are keeping something from mom or dad

odds are that your choosing to separate yourself

is because you are doing or thinking about doing

something you know deep down you shouldn’t.

Sin separates; guilt and shame isolate.

And of course we could say the same thing

to spouses, to friends, to the church.


If you resonate with experiences

of being lonely and alone,

feeling far from God,

not assured of who you really are

and what you’re supposed to be about . . .

take heart,

this is the Spirit calling you back.


By empathizing and responding to the loneliness

in someone else, like

welcoming refugees who have lost their home,

or those who thru no fault of their own

have no residency or homeland today,

or immigrants like our grandparents or great-

grandparents who struggled

to learn a new language

and feel at home in a strange place,

or those homeless and alone -

these redeeming acts of grace

can be the Spirit’s way of opening our hearts

to the compassion and holy way of Jesus.


Return in prayer,

in thankful worship,

in heartfelt confession,

for God is faithful,

the Lord does not abandon us.

Peter wrote . . . you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.


I can just imagine the relief

of those who first heard Peter’s letter.

They had been kicked out

lost their homes and jobs.

They knew their history.

Are we now in exile

like our ancestors?

So Peter brings the grace of Christ to them:

you are God’s special possession . . .

you’re called out of this darkness

into Christ’s wonderful light . . .

even now you are to

declare the praise of the Lord . . .


When I live for the Lord

my belonging is assured.

For he is merciful.

I will feel all the fallout of exile:

sometimes by the sin of my own hand,

sometimes because I am a stranger

in this time and place,

but even then,

my true home is in Jesus.