The Babylonian Captivity of the Human Race
One of the biggest difficulties in Christianity is understanding the events of the Bible in context. We– myself included– tend to apply our the Bible to our life situations willy nilly, without any real understanding of what was going on at the time.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8 ESV)
We love this verse. We use it to drum up support for the cause du jour and rarely ever stop to look at what God says in response to Isaiah’s willingness to take up his call:
And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10 ESV)
Isaiah’s call was to be ignored. I’m not trying to be a downer here, but it illustrates my point: Context changes things. (And really, what better way to prove a point during Advent than Isaiah?)
For those of you not in the know, the Christmas season, according to the way churches have traditionally reckoned the year, does not actually begin until December 25th. For four weeks prior to that, we are in a season called Advent.
Growing up, I came from a church that didn’t follow that calendar, and I had no idea what Advent was. I knew that Advent meant the coming of something, and I knew that it meant I got to open a little door on a glittery calendar every day (or every third day, since I had to share with my sisters -_-) and procure a tiny little chunk of Christmas-themed chocolate.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Advent is the Lent to Christmas’s Easter. You don’t get a lot of people giving up something or fasting during Advent, but it’s a somber time. A low key time. While the rest of the world is singing “Joy to the World” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” during December, churches that keep Advent won’t be singing those songs until Christmas day, typically. What you’ll find instead are songs that are more in keeping with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Listen to the song. It’s not really all that cheerful, despite the refrain of “Rejoice! Rejoice!”
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
We’re not rejoicing for a salvation accomplished in this song; we’re begging, pleading. We’re seeking our ransom.
The terrible, horrible thing about taking things out of context isn’t that we’re going to lose the fact that Isaiah was to spend the next few decades ignored, it’s that we lose the impact of the movement of God in history. All too frequently, we take the life of Jesus out of context, and understandably; it was 2,000 years ago, and “messiah” meant something very different to the people of God then.
Or did it?
Messianic expectations– the desire for liberation from oppressive foreign rule– really came to the Jewish people after Israel had been shattered into two separate kingdoms, Judah and Israel, and then stomped over by various foreign powers. Towards the beginning of the sixth century BC, Nebuchadnezzar dragged thousands of Jews out of their homeland to serve in Babylon. Eventually, The Persian Empire swallowed the Babylonians several decades later, and as it turned out, they weren’t terribly fond of slavery, so they let the Jews go home and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, though they were still beholden to Persian authority. In the fourth century, Alexander the Great came through and swept up everything in his path, including the Persian empire, and after his early death, his conquered lands were divided amongst his generals, the Diadochi, or “successors.” These generals became kings, and ruled their various lands, pretty much up until Rome became ascendant. The Maccabean freedom fighters managed to overthrow their Greek kings in the second century, but that freedom lasted for about a hundred years on the nose. Civil war broke out, and eventually got so terrible that the Jewish people actually invited Rome to come put an end to it. Rome did, although not quite in the way they wanted; they came through, conquered the place, violated the temple, and the independence of Israel was finished for the next 2,000 years.
O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.
Look at that context. Can you imagine– the Israelites were the chosen people of God, meant to be the center of a theocracy that would be a just and holy rule over the world. Can you imagine having that expectation of divine rule shattered? Can you imagine being conquered again? Your temple, the holiest spot in the universe, because the Creator has deigned to dwell there, being profaned and violated? And God didn’t even bother to strike the general that marched into the Holy of Holies dead, as he did for merely touching the Ark of the covenant in the past?
Can you imagine how broken you would feel?
The reason why all this went down is because Israel couldn’t keep up their end of the bargain. They were supposed to be a shining beacon of justice and mercy in a world that was far more cruel and violent than the world we know today, but time and time again, they turned their back on God and his commandments until God plowed them under.
Which, really, is the story of humanity. We were supposed to walk with God, to live in community with him and with each other. We failed. We screwed up, and we turned our backs on God. The exile that Israel faced in Babylon, and the subsequent centuries of foreign rule, is an illustration of the human condition. Stupid decisions were made, and now we, like they, are under foreign rule.
Our place in the history of God’s creation is a little bit better than theirs. Our savior has come and gone and in his wake, things changed. But that change isn’t finished, and God’s redemptive story is still ongoing. The world’s still broken, still waiting Emmanuel’s return and the final healing of the world.
The next time you hear “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” take a moment to really listen to it. To empathize. To look forward to the end of the Babylonian Captivity of Humanity.
O Come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.