Tag Archives: Babylon

The Prophet and The Politician

He is in your hands,” King Zedekiah answered. “The king can do nothing to oppose you.
Jeremiah 38:5 (NIV)

Not long ago I ran into an old school friend from my middle school and high school years. In casual conversation about where our respective journeys have taken us, she asked if I was ever going to run for political office as had been my plan and passion back in the day. I was taken aback that she remembered, and I laughed to myself as I realized how long ago I tossed that childhood dream by the wayside.

Along my journey I’ve known some individuals in politics. Being an Iowan, I have occasionally involved myself in the election process and rubbed shoulders with a few of the small army of candidates who come campaigning for President every four years. I believe that there are really good people in politics who do their best to do good for our country. Yet, here’s what I have observed:

Politics is a game. Power is the prize. A politician says what people want to hear just to get elected. They then say and vote as the power brokers of their party demand in order to get ahead. Both parties pull identical political stunts (depending on their power position in the moment) then point the finger at the opposing party and scream accusations as if they’ve not done the same thing a few years before.

While I’m sure it’s somewhat different at a local level, I learned long ago that I’m not wired to play that game. It would slowly drain all Life from my spirit.

To get a feel for what’s happening in today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s story, you’ve got to read the political situation that’s present between the lines. First of all, the ancient practice of siege warfare was a slow, brutal process. The Babylonian army had surrounded Jerusalem and cut off all supply lines into the city. As the supply of food and fresh water diminish, fear and anxiety grow to unprecedented levels among the population. Power structures break down and those in power desperately try to stave off anarchy.

King Zed finds himself between a rock and a hard place. His political rivals, sick of listening to Jeremiah’s incessant prophesies of defeat, ask the King for Jeremiah’s head. The King grants it (because that’s what you do when you’re a politician trying to hold onto power). Jeremiah is thrown down the bottom of a muddy well to die. The King’s eunuch then asks the King (in private) if he might rescue Jeremiah. The King tells him to do so in secret (because when you’re a politician you secretly work back channels to accomplish what you want).

Jeremiah is summoned by King Zed who asks the prophet to give him a Word from the Lord. “Give yourself up to the King of Babylon and you’ll live,” Jeremiah tells him. Zedekiah, however, is afraid that those citizens who have already surrendered themselves to the Babylonians will turn against him if he gives himself up (and a politician is always worried about maintaining his/her power, popularity, and position). Jeremiah assures the King this will not happen.

Upon conclusion of their private conversation, King Zed warns Jeremiah that he will be asked what they talked about. Being a politician, Zed tells Jeremiah how to “spin” his answer so as to avoid political trouble for both of them (because a politician is always looking for a good win-win).

This morning in the quiet I find myself thinking about the contrast between Jeremiah the prophet and Zedekiah the politician. The prophet suffers for speaking the truth and being true to the Message, but beneath the suffering the prophet seems to exemplify a certain spiritual peace that comes from being true, steadfast, and faithful. The politician, on the other hand, enjoys the position and creature comforts afforded by his power, but beneath the surface lie fear, anxiety, worry, and the mental chaos from constantly navigating political minefields in the endless desperation to survive.

I am thankful this morning for the good people I know doing their best to serve in the political arena (on both sides of the aisle). I’m also thankful that God led my journey down a different path than the one I’d desired when I was a wee lad. I’m wired to be more prophet than politician, I think.

Though, I confess that I’d prefer not to get thrown into a well.

Returning Home

While the angel who was speaking to me was leaving, another angel came to meet him and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it.
Zechariah 2:3-4 (NIV)

Just over twelve years ago hurricane Katrina ravaged the southern part of the United States and decimated the city of New Orleans. I remember the timing because Wendy and I had reservations to honeymoon in New Orleans and had to scuttle our plans. Residents made homeless by the storm were scattered to communities around the United States willing to take them in.

One of the “Katrina” families lived in an apartment complex across the street from us. We live in a great little community of incredibly generous people, but I remember wondering how long the refugees would stay. Midwest winters are a tough challenge for those who aren’t used to them.

The theme of exiles returning home is a particularly timely one here in the States. Our own country is grappling with what to do about programs that offered “temporary” resident status to people displaced by tragic circumstances in their own country but who have no desire to return to their home country.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

The prophet Zechariah began to record his visions during a very specific time in history. The city of Jerusalem had been reduced to rubble under the hand of the Babylonians. People like Daniel and Ezekiel and thousands of others had been taken captive to live in Babylon. Others had been scattered to live as refugees among neighboring nations.

About 50 years later Nehemiah led a group to people back to the rubble of Jerusalem to rebuild the wall and rebuild the Temple. It was difficult work fraught with obstacles and threats on all sides. Zechariah began his writing nearly 20 years into the restoration and renovation process. The question plaguing the campaign was, “Will anyone come back to Jerusalem?” The people had been living in Babylon and other countries for over a generation. They’d put down roots, started occupations, grew families and their home land had become a distant, painful memory. Would anyone actually come back?

In today’s chapter, Zechariah has a vision of two angels, one of whom assures Zac that there will one day be so many people and animals in Jerusalem that the city walls couldn’t contain them all.

Fast forward again to current headlines. Jerusalem is a boiling hot spot of people from different nationalities, religions, political bents, and cultures. It is the center of world debate and political conflict. The city walls that remain from the Middle Ages frame a small central section of the expansive city. I couldn’t help to remember this morning my own experiences of walking around the city. The featured photo of this post is one I took from the King David hotel looking at the walls of the old city at sunrise.

This morning I’m once again meditating on the theme of “returning.” The wise teacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for everything under the sun. There is a time for wandering, and there is a time for returning. It is a common human experience to be scattered, to wander, and even to run away. It is just as common an experience in this life journey to realize that, at some point, we need to return home.

Exile

He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left.
2 Kings 24:14 (NIV)

This past Saturday evening Wendy and I gathered with our local community theatre for an annual awards celebration. It was a gala affair and several people gave acceptance speeches for awards they received. I had several people comment to me that they picked up a theme in the speeches. Many members of our local theatre community moved into our small town from elsewhere. They spoke about their feelings of struggling to find a place where they belonged in the community and the theatre provided that for them. I  relate to that. It was 13 years ago that I moved to Pella and found myself auditioning for a show, hoping to meet people.

In today’s chapter we read about one of the most climactic events of the story of the nation of Israel. The Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem, eventually destroying the city, Solomon’s Temple, and carrying everything of value, people included, into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah’s poem of Lamentations speaks his grief over the event. The events of the book of Daniel and the prophecies of Ezekiel tell of life in exile. Psalm 137 is an angry blues song grieving life in the Babylonian exile and expressing the desire for violent retribution on their captors.

Exile is a theme in our stories, our histories, and our life journeys. At some point in life, perhaps multiple times, we find ourselves unexpectedly stranded in unknown territory feeling like a stranger and in a strange place.

But in our epic stories there is always purpose in the exile. Harry Potter’s awful upbringing at the hand of his aunt and uncle planted and cultivated the seeds of the courage, endurance, and perseverance that would be required of him later. Aragorn lived in exile as a ranger for a hundred years, traveling the known world and living with different peoples, but it became essential to him becoming the man who would reclaim his throne. Even in the Great Story we find Israel learning important lessons that resonate in their culture to this very day. Even baby Jesus was taken into exile in Egypt to escape a murderous Herod.

Exile is an important theme in our journeys.

This morning I’m thinking about my own move to Pella. Without going into the story I will tell you that it was unforeseen and unexpected. There was a part of me that never wanted to be here. But, now I look back on the road I’ve traversed, where the journey has brought me, and I am so grateful for where the exile brought me and how exile taught me all about new things (including rediscovering my love of the stage). Exile is never easy, but it does have purpose in making me the person I’m called to be if I will choose to lean in and learn the lessons.

Kindness without Discernment is Foolishness

Hezekiah received the envoys and showed them all that was in his storehouses—the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine olive oil—his armory and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them.
2 Kings 20:13 (NIV)

Whether it be books, plays, television or movies, Wendy and I are lovers of good stories. We often find ourselves sitting on the couch watching a scene of a television program or movie and we will suddenly realize where this is leading. It’s really funny when it hits us at the same time and we turn to one another to exclaim our prophetic realization.

I had a similar moment this morning as I read the story of King Hezekiah welcoming the Babylonian envoys. As it describes him welcoming the envoys with open arms and showing them all his treasures my heart was like “Dude! Can’t you see they’re casing the joint!?!

In the very next paragraph, the prophet Isaiah confirmed my premonition.

Along this journey we encounter many people. As a follower of Jesus I am called to love them. My life, my words, and my relationships are to marked by patience, kindness, and gentleness. This does not mean, however, that I am to be naive and foolish. Jesus told His followers “be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Most people don’t even know that quote. let alone have it memorized. It doesn’t get artistically posted on Pinterest. I’ve never heard a sermon preached on that one. But it’s important. Loving kindness without wisdom and discernment becomes foolishness.

My thoughts go to a person I know whose life has been marked by a long string of bad relationships. Out of a desire to be loving and kind to others in need, this person has attracted a string of crazy makers into their life. Like Hezekiah, I’ve watched them open up the treasures of their heart and life to others who are only too happy to take advantage. The crazy makers tragically raid this person’s being through manipulation and they don’t realize it until much injury of life and soul has occurred.

This morning I’m reminded of the importance of discernment. I am called to love, but also be shrewd. Everyone needs love, but there are those who (consciously or subconsciously) seek innocent “lovers” whom they can take advantage for their own self-centered motivations. In following Jesus’ command, I want to be innocent enough not to be suspicious of everyone, but shrewd enough to discern when someone is merely casing the joint.

Words That Reach to What Was, and Is, and Yet Will Be

How you have fallen from heaven,
    morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
    you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
    on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon.
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
    to the depths of the pit.
Isaiah 14:12-15 (NIV)

The language of God is metaphor, and metaphors (e.g. word pictures) are layered with meaning. That’s what makes them so powerful as a tools of communication. Their meaning resonates far deeper and reaches much further. Metaphors are layered with meaning. Like God, you keep mining the depths only to find there is more there than you ever realized before.

That is often what makes the words of the ancient prophets both confusing and powerful. Take the words from today’s chapter pasted above as an example.

Let’s start with the first layer of meaning: Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Babylon. Babylon was an aspiring superpower and becoming the largest city on Earth. Babylon was swallowing up peoples and territories. Babylon was swelling with pride at its greatness. One day its king, Nebuchadnezzar, would literally fulfill the sentiments cited by Isaiah (Read Daniel 4).

But let’s also go back in time and remember the root of Babyl-on. Think Babel. The story in Genesis 11. The people said, “Let’s make a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens and make a name for ourselves.” It’s the same root of pride. The same sentiment.

Let’s go back further to the Garden, where the serpent tempted Eve and Adam with the notion that they could eat the fruit and “be like God.”

Many commentators have said that Isaiah’s prophecy reaches further back and refers to Satan, or Lucifer, who tradition tell us was God’s most beautiful angel. Lucifer wanted to be like God and was cast from heaven to inhabit death. Again, the sentiment is the same. Wanting to ascend to the place of God. The same sentiment with which he tempted Adam and Eve.

Think forward to the prophecies of John in Revelation, in which he sees a woman, “Babylon the Great,” sitting on a beast covered in blasphemies.

Things that were. Things that are. Things that yet will be. The thread is the same: that which sets itself to ascend in its pride and become God, therefore diminishing God of all that God is (and was, and is to come).

And that’s where my heart settles in its meditation this morning. Where do the seeds and fruit of pride – those same seeds of Lucifer, of Adam, of Nebuchadnezzar, and of Babylon – show their roots in my heart and life? In what ways do I seek to be god of my life, my relationships, my spouse, my children, my business, my house, my possessions? Where does my pride ascend in thinking I create, conquer, possess, control, and/or dominate?

In what ways do I, in contrast to John the Baptist, seek to become more and make Jesus less?

Isaiah was writing about the nation of Babylon, but his word picture is layered with so much more meaning. His word picture stretches back before creation. It stretches forward to that which yet will be. It stretches forward in time to this morning, in this place, at this moment and ask this person to contemplate both the evidence of my pride, and my desperate need to seek humility.

Pondering the Prophetic

Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
    the pride and glory of the Babylonians,
will be overthrown by God
    like Sodom and Gomorrah.
She will never be inhabited
    or lived in through all generations;
there no nomads will pitch their tents,
    there no shepherds will rest their flocks.
Isaiah 13:19-20 (NIV)

Prophecy is a part of the human experience. It is a mysterious thing, yet even our great stories are filled with it:

  • The weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.
  • The otherwise prophetically inept Professor Trelawney utters the  prophetic words that speak of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort’s  connected fate.
  • Aragorn cites the words of Malbeth the Seer in making his fateful decision to traverse the Paths of the Dead.

I find it fascinating that our greatest stories quite regularly contain an element of the prophetic. Good stories are a reflection of the Great Story. The prophetic is a mysterious part of our human experience.

Reading and interpreting the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrews requires knowledge, context, and discernment. The writing of the ancient prophets like Isaiah point to things that were, things that are, and things that yet will be. They are often woven together in a stream of poetic imagery that can be, and often is, misunderstood as we try to separate the strands.

As I attempt to understand the weave of prophetic strands in today’s chapter, there are two themes on which I find myself meditating this morning.

First, God was not opposed to utilizing kingdoms like Babylon and Assyria, to accomplish His purposes. This is not an isolated to occurrence. In fact, it is a recurring theme in the Great Story. From Balaam’s donkey, to the mysterious Melchizedek, to Rahab the prostitute, to the evil King Herod whose tax-raising census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, God uses a diverse and motley cast of characters and nations to drive the story line of history. This raises a number of fascinating questions. This morning, however, I find myself reminded not to try to put God in a box that He has not defined.

Second, I’m thinking about the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, which are very visible today. While God used the Babylonian kingdom (despite their wickedness) and wove them into narrative in interesting ways, Isaiah’s prophecy is quite clear about the ultimate end (see the verses above). The ancient city of Babylon was, by all accounts, an amazing city. During two periods of history it was the largest city in the world. The hanging gardens there were among the “seven wonders of the ancient world.” But, within a few hundred years of Isaiah’s writing, the words of his prophecy would be fulfilled.

The ruins of Babylon are located just outside of Baghdad in Iraq, and can still be seen today. Despite Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to resurrect the glory old city, Babylon remains “a large tell of broken mud-brick buildings and debris.” (Wikipedia)

In a time of political upheaval and present uncertainty, I find myself this morning taking quiet solace in the larger narrative of the Great Story, in the realization that God weaves many diverse Peoples and political regimes into that narrative, in the mystery of the prophetic, and in the present evidence of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic words.

 

An Epic Production; A Bit Part

2012 12 USP Joseph Backstage Grovel LR

All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.
Ezekiel 17:24 (NIV)

Ezekiel’s prophetic parable in today’s chapter is specifically related to the political circumstances of his day. Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem and carried off her royals, nobles and promising young talent back to Babylon. A royal family member, named Zedekiah, was set on the throne as a political puppet of the Babylonian king. But Zed had his own ideas and conspired with the Egyptians to deliver Jerusalem from Babylonian control. Today’s chapter is Ezekiel’s prophetic prediction of Zed’s failure and downfall.

Two things struck me this morning as I read the chapter this morning and considered the regional intrigue of Ezekiel’s day.

First, I am mindful of the Israeli Prime Minister’s controversial address to the U.S. Congress earlier this week and the reality that the political intrigue of that region of the world continues 2500 years later. The Israel of today has its capital in Jerusalem, the same capital city destroyed by the Babylonians in Ezekiel’s day. The Egyptians to whom Zedekiah pled for help remain a nation to this day. The ancient Babylonians are today’s Iraq. The Assyrian empire of Ezekiel’s day is today’s Iran. The names are slightly changed, but the peoples and the players are the same as are the regional power struggles and conflict. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Second, I was struck by God’s word through Ezekiel that there is a divine plan being worked out in all of this. God can bring down the powerful from their lofty heights and raise the lowly to positions of prominence. All the world’s a stage and there is a Great Story being played out amidst the proscenium of time. We are part of the same production.

All of this makes me and my silly little troubles feel small and insignificant. And yet, Jesus reminded us that there are no small parts. I may be a bit player and an extra in the chorus of this epic production, but the costume department considers me important enough that  every hair on my head is numbered and the Producer/Director knows my name. I have a part to play, as small as it may be and as insignificant as it may seem. It starts with loving my neighbors as I love myself, and acting accordingly.