The prophet Ezekiel is carried to a death valley of burnt bones. “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones” (Ezek. 37:1). So it feels for the children of God to reside in the belly of Babylon, to live among pagans as resident aliens. The bones speak for the people: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ezek. 37:11). But God is not defeated; nor are his people.
The prophet Jeremiah sends a letter to the exiles, addressing elders, priest, prophets, and all the people: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they 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. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:5-7). Adjust, the prophet says, but remain steadfast.
On foreign soil and among pagan gods, exiled Jews learn to listen anew, to recite and hear their ancient stories, cultivate hope without a homeland and without a temple. They feel God’s judgment: “For you, O God, have tested us, you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water” (Ps. 66:10-12a). Incredibly, they confess: “Yet you have brought us out to a spacious place” (Ps. 66:12b).
As exiles, Jews find their protection in the welfare of the city, even pray for its prosperity, but their deeper identity is nurtured in story and recitation and the sacred bond of community. As perhaps few other people, their faith would be their study, their diligence, their meticulous persistence in reviewing the glory of their history again and again. “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them” (Ps. 111:2). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and those who practice it have a good understanding” (Ps. 111:10a). Study and practice preserve a people enveloped in a culture cut off from their faith and their faith stories.
In this context, the earliest outline of Christian worship was set down and established. Stories were told, prayers recited, psalms sung or said, a commentary offered. Christians, therefore, learn from Jews how to live a faith anywhere, among any people, and, if necessary, with little or no social support, even among hostile neighbors and persecuting powers. We are “the exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Pet. 1:1).
Yet God has brought us, wherever we are, to a spacious place as we feel and know our bodies as an expansive temple of divine mysteries, our souls as the seat of divine longing. So we go on: “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you had to suffer various trails, so that the genuineness of your faith … may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Pet. 1:6-7). In this trial, “you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:9).
God so loved the world, and loves it still. Pray for the world, but stand firm. Keep the deposit of faith and guard the gift.
Look It Up: A description of Babylon.
Think About It: Recitation and memory.