June 29, 2022
The Old Testament history of the Jewish people records a major series of events that changes the religion, how people thought, and in some ways, the course of Western Civilization. This story takes place a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Israel was conquered by one of the first great empires in human history: the Babylonians. Their leader, King Nebuchadnezzar, marched his armies all over the known world and made most of it his own. Israel had resisted conquest by lesser empires through God’s protection. Now, God announced that their rebellion against Him had gone too far, and He would allow them to be destroyed. Before this happened, one of the most popular verses in the Old Testament was spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” We often see this verse on coffee cups or graduation cards because it sounds reassuring. But the message of the text is essentially: “Hey, you guys are about to get clobbered. But, don’t worry. Things are not out of control. They are gonna be bad for a bit, but I have a plan that will work out in your favor. Trust me.” The words were a powerful promise in the days when the Babylonian army sacked Jerusalem, burned the city, tore down Solomon’s temple, and dragged away most of the people as slaves to the empire. This last bit was a standard practice among many nations in the ancient world. People represented labor, which was a scarce and important commodity. In addition, people who were living in their homelands were more likely to rebel to gain freedom. Folks in a far off land were largely broken of their identity and spirit. But not the Israelites. You see, the Jewish people had two bulwarks against losing themselves. First, there were many reminders of who they were built into their culture. Second, they had a promise from God that this was happening for a reason that would result in their strengthening and betterment. They were promised that God knows His plan for them.
During the exile, something cool happened. The Jews had no temple to worship in, so much of their religious practice was now null. So they studied their scriptures and determined that God wanted them to be a nation of priests (it’s in one of Moses’ messages and quoted by Peter in the New Testament). In order to achieve this, the Jews raised up teachers, or rabbis. They also established synagogues, which were similar to schools. Every Jew learned to read and memorized the scriptures. They talked and debated and learned. Out of the terrible humiliation and suffering of the exile grew one of the greatest schools of thought produced by mankind. 70 years later when the Jews were freed by the Medo-Persian Empire’s conquest of Babylon, what emerged was a far more mature, deeper, and wise Jewish people. The great books of Jewish religious thought were underway (the Mishnah and others which would be assembled into the Talmud centuries later.) The teachings of Jesus and the core of the Christian belief system is rooted in the intellectual and spiritual tree that was planted in the exile.
The point of all of this is that suffering and hard times can be a blessing in ways we rarely anticipate. In the midst of the pain we are experiencing, great art, philosophy, and wisdom are birthed of hardship. There are treasure troves of wisdom in the historical examples of this principle. However, bad days don’t instantly produce wisdom. There are two important components that we find in the Jewish people’s exile experience: 1. Remember who you are and where you came from. 2. Know that God has a plan, this is part of the plan, and then seek it out through soul searching, reflection, and deep thought. A miserable job, hard relationships, times of hunger, depression, and anything else can fall into the category of something God is using to refine us.
Important note: This doesn’t mean that every tragedy is God’s will. As Paul puts it: “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The worst of times can be the best of time when God works through them.