Something I’ve always struggled with while studying the bible is the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament. The New Testament holds a special place for most Christians because it contains the records of Christ’s life. As we strive to become more like Christ, it is easy to focus exclusively on this series of books while neglecting the wisdom and historical context provided by the Old Testament. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed people strip that same historical context from this part of the bible for personal and political gain. So I decided to try and develop a better understanding of what this collection of books is trying to say for myself.
One of the aspects of the Old Testament that often goes overlooked are the books of prophecy (Isaiah through Malachi). Compared to some of the more popular Old Testament books, these stories tend to be less self-contained and also require some outside knowledge of the context in which they were written to make much sense. One historical event in particular sticks out in these books, the Babylonian captivity.
The comparison between America and Babylon has been made to the point of meaninglessness, instead, I want to focus on Israel’s role in this story. First though, it would help to establish a definition for what the Babylonian captivity was and its relevance to biblical history. In 586 BC, King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish temple. After the city fell, he enslaved large swaths of the population and forced them to migrate to Babylon. This exile contains the stories of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego. However, leading up to this point, God sent many prophets to warn Israel of its fate. The biggest warning, perhaps, was the fall of Israel’s northern kingdom to the Babylonians nearly a decade earlier. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah tried to warn Jerusalem that they would meet the same fate as their northern counterpart if they didn’t attempt to make a change. Sure enough, this fate came to pass and it irrevocably changed Jewish culture and religion as a result.
But I want to focus on how things got to this point. How could a God that claims to love his adherents also allow them to be enslaved, conquered, and killed. The answer lies in the nature of covenants. One of the oldest and most important covenants in the Bible is between God and Abraham. It provides the cultural narrative of the Jewish faith, that God promised to protect and guide the descendants of Abraham so long as they remained loyal to him alone. Pretty simple, but the region where Jerusalem is located has always been a hotly contested area of land. All around Israel, powerful cities increased their strength beneath the banners of false gods and idols. Over the course of centuries, Israel declined in prominence from the golden age of King David as places like Babylon, Persia, and Egypt began to thrive. Instead of remaining faithful to the invisible promises of God, Israel forsook it’s covenant in order to gain a fraction of the wealth and influence seen sprouting up in the neighboring nations.
Ultimately, it is this betrayal that caused the downfall of Jerusalem. A promise takes two sides to uphold and God showed the people of Jerusalem grace by giving them an example of what awaited them in the future. Isaiah 2:6-9 follows the prophet Isaiah as he tries to convince the people of Jerusalem to return to God’s covenant. His diagnosis is very clear. Israelites abandoned God in favor of sorcery, sexual ritualism, and idolatry. Despite the warnings from the prophet and the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, Israel persisted until their eventual destruction and captivity. But why? What force could be so powerful that it would prevent an entire nation that had been blessed beyond desire in the past to forsake their faith?
At the heart of the problem is pride. Isaiah 2:6-9 illustrates the relationship that Israel had with these idols. They were works of art on some level, seemingly erected by patrons in order to display not just their piety but also their wealth. They literally erect works made from their own labor and worshiped them as if they are gods. In return, these idols made them prosperous. Eased political tensions within the region came about as a result of this cultural cross-pollination which facilitated trade which, in turn, made Jerusalem very wealthy. Gold and silver were seemingly endless in those days. In their quest to elevate their nation and by extension themselves, Israel broke their covenant with God thus removing his blessing and making them vulnerable to Babylonian invasion.
My first impulse when researching this topic was to point my finger at the world around me and externalize the accusations leveled against Israel onto American culture or the modern church, but that misses the point entirely. Culturally, we have an idea of Babylon as greedy, vain, sexually immoral, and paganistic. On closer inspection, however, Israel was just as guilty of all of these things if not more. What is the point of judging Babylon when they were ignorant of God’s power entirely. In much the same way that Israel bore witness to the full power of God in its history and chose to forsake that in favor of idols; there are certainly places in my life where my faith fails despite the overwhelming blessings God has given me in the past. There are certainly places in my life where I put myself on a pedestal so the admiration of others drowns out the guilt I feel. Instead of trying to deny that those parts of me exist, perhaps it’s better to recognize the areas in my life where I put myself before Christ and address them. This might not be everyone’s story, but if you think you’re too holy, well-respected, or ecclesiastic enough to never struggle with pride then I have a trophy to sell you to commemorate your spiritual enlightenment.