Serve the King of Babylon and Live
Democracy is a wonderful thing; but it has a major Achilles’ Heel: the voters of which it is comprised. When the majority of the Demos wants something that is inherently wrong, nothing can stop them getting what it desires.
Plato, writing in the cradle of democracy knew this – warning that ordinary people are guided more by ordinary emotions than careful analysis. The framers of the American Constitution were aware of this too and assumed the need for at least a quasi-Christian morality to make it work.
Now in most Western democracies it appears that the juggernaut of democratic morality has achieved a momentum of its own with worrying implications, not just for Christians and the church, but for the future of nations themselves.
Key decisions in Great Britain and Ireland at the end of May signalled the scale of this seismic shift in morality. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland – the church linked historically to John Knox and the Reformation – voted to accept of Same Sex Marriage. So too, and perhaps even more shockingly, the Republic of Ireland – one of the last bastions of Roman Catholic influence in Europe – overwhelmingly voted in a national referendum to alter the definition of marriage in their constitution to accommodate the same. And, as this piece is going to press, Americans await the ruling of the US Supreme Court on this issue. And many believe their decision will simply follow suit with the many other Western democracies that have voted their acceptance of SSM.
The Church, the voice of historic Christianity and the influence of a centuries old Judaeo-Christian heritage seem on the brink of oblivion. How then should we as Christians live in the face of this new reality? The situation is not as new as we might think and the answer may be more surprising than we may imagine.
Israel faced a not dissimilar challenge some 2,700 years ago. Having witnessed the division of the Kingdom under Rehoboam and the banishment of the Northern Kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians, the Southern Kingdom, Judah faced the ultimate covenant sanction from God in the form of the Babylonian exile. It did not happen without warning, or without the opportunity to avoid it if the people would only repent. The prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to explicitly and persistently warn and plead with king and people alike, but to no avail. So the threatened exile became a terrible reality.
But what is interesting and indeed shocking is how God prepares his people for the new era in their collective history that was beginning in Babylon. He writes them a letter – penned by the prophet and delivered to the exiles in ‘a strange land’. It was the least likely communication they could have expected from their covenant God.
Although the text of the letter recorded in Jeremiah 29 is some 20 verses long, its essence is distilled in a single terse command given two chapters earlier: ‘Serve the king of Babylon, and you will live’ (Je 27.17). Whatever hermeneutical complexities bound up with the original statement may have been, the letter exegetes and clarifies them for the Jews to whom it was sent.
It did not in any sense mean they were to simply capitulate to Babylonian beliefs and behaviours. The examples of Daniel and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego make that clear. Rather, they were, insofar as they could, to assimilate into the Babylonian life and culture without abandoning their Jewish beliefs or morals.
They were an exiled people. They no longer had the privilege and blessing of self-determination at a national level. But they still had certain freedoms and they still had men of principle as their leaders who were able to act within the pagan system to preserve their interests.
More than that, through the agency of these leaders they were able to bring their own God-centred biblical integrity to bear on the larger structures of the Babylonian administration. In so doing they showed that even the best of pagan morality has an inbuilt self-destruct mechanism that is inimical to the long-term survival of regimes defined by it. There is a certain irony in the fact that those who are brought as captives into the empire rise, like Daniel and his companions, to being its controllers simply because of their insight, integrity and reliability in every aspect of their life.
Perhaps the most significant detail in God’s letter to the Israelites was that their exile would not be forever. It was a temporary measure and after 70 years the Lord promised he would bring them home (Je 29.10). This was fulfilled in part by what we have already noted as the self-destruct mechanism inherent to any and all pagan moralities. Daniel outlived a succession of three different empires that held sway in Babylon during his time there, a one-person symbol of how God’s kingdom outlives them all.
However tempting it may for the church to despair for the future – at least in its earthly form – the future is no less secure than when Nebuchadnezzar took the Old Testament church into captivity. We may well be entering a season during which the church will feel marginalised and oppressed; but the very regimes, with their moral majorities, that are treating the church in this way will have their day. They will experience the unanticipated consequences of their own choices and discover they are simply unworkable.
So, as Daniel and his faithful friends kept their nerve and quietly held their course and were vindicated, so too will all God’s people as they serve the ‘kings’ of the present-day Babylon – under the lordship of their eternal King, the Lord Jesus – and live.
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