There’s no place like home!

Homesickness can make life a misery. For students going off to university at the other end of the country, boring old home suddenly seems like a lost paradise. It’s even worse when you go to live in another country, especially if it’s one with a different culture and language. Living away isn’t a problem, of course, if you can nip home from time to time; it’s enforced absence that is so painful.

And enforced absence is what the Israelites experienced. 2 Kings records how they were forced out of their own land and made to settle in foreign parts—entirely because of their blatant and continuous disobedience to Jehovah.

Here’s the background. After Solomon’s death the nation split into two. His son, King Rehoboam, kept the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and their country was called Judah. The other ten tribes set up a new nation to the north, called Israel, under the renegade King Jeroboam. Both nations pursued a course of ungodliness under a series of kings until the Assyrians came and took the northern kingdom into exile in 721 BC. There the Israelites were assimilated into the local population and ceased to exist as a separate people. The smaller southern kingdom held out for another 135 years before being taken into exile by the Babylonians.[1]

What has this ancient history to do with you? We have seen already how the Old Testament story is a picture of spiritual realities, with the promised land representing a life of victory. Hopefully that’s where you live. But the exile of God’s people is a reminder that you can, if you act foolishly, lose what is currently yours. Since you don’t want that to happen, sit up straight and concentrate on 2 Kings, which offers guidance on how to avoid it.

The reasons for the exile of God’s people were the same for both Israel and Judah. Here, we will focus on the exile of the northern kingdom of Israel as described in 2 Kings chapter 17.[2]

The first reason was simple: they sinned. What’s worse, they were quite casual about it. They made comments like, ‘Nobody’s perfect’, and ‘Well, that’s the way people are these days’. But it’s folly to be casual when sin is, by definition, always against God himself: ‘All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God.’[3] Even when sin is against other people, it is ultimately against God. When David sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, his confession to God was, ‘Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’[4] The prodigal son saw it the same way, returning to the father he had hurt so much and confessing, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.’[5] Note the order. So if you fiddle your tax return or claim benefits you are not entitled to you sin against society, yes, but primarily against God.

And sin is still sin when done in secret: ‘The Israelites secretly did things against the LORD their God that were not right.’[6] Did they imagine that somehow he didn’t know? Nothing can be hidden from the all-seeing God to whom you will answer on judgment day. But Christians with an easygoing attitude to sin will not only suffer loss on that day; they also lose out here and now—it’s a miserable life in exile! So take the wisest advice that’s ever been offered about sin: stop it.

A second reason for Israel’s exile is that they worshipped other gods. That’s no surprise. When you sin against the true God you avoid him, and bring in substitute gods with weaker moral demands. Israel’s substitute-gods were, first, idolatry.[7] They set up golden calves at Bethel and Dan, in the south and north of the country respectively, so that people didn’t have to cross the border to go to Jerusalem to worship.[8] And in the capital, Samaria, they set up the Asherah pole that symbolised the Canaanite fertility goddess of the same name. Got any idols yourself?

At the same time they were into astrology: ‘They bowed down to all the starry hosts,’ rejecting the guidance of God and seeking it instead in the signs of the zodiac. It is astonishing that, even today, people naively believe that lumps of rock circulating in space can affect their lives. But they do believe it. Every newspaper and magazine has its horoscope page, and the internet is loaded with astrology sites. I looked up three of them for my star-sign on the same day: contradictory gobbledegook.

Even people we expect to be responsible members of society can be hooked on this nonsense. Time magazine reported: ‘The president of the New York City board of education suggested a novel teacher’s aid: astrology. At an educational forum, Isaiah E. Robinson said that “if astrology is correct,” some classroom problems of misbehavior may be caused by pupils whose birth signs conflict with those of other children, or possibly their teachers.’ The article continued, tongue in cheek: ‘Presumably, a Taurian heaving erasers at an Aquarian may have his cosmic reasons.’

The fact that, sometimes, astrological predictions prove to be uncannily accurate is irrelevant. There are evil powers at work who delight to make that happen. But for us the bottom line is God’s clear word: ‘When you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them.’[9] Bowing down to them means acknowledging their power, letting them dictate your actions and decisions. Don’t do it.

From astrology it’s a short step to divination and sorcery, and the Israelites were into these, too.[10] Divination means reading the future in the entrails of animals, tarot cards, tea-leaves, palm lines or whatever. Sorcery means consulting evil spirits by means of mediums and spiritual channelers. These, too, God forbids, and it was for such activities that the Israelites found themselves in exile.

So they sinned, and they worshipped other gods. But a third reason for their exile was their wilful disobedience—with the emphasis on ‘wilful’. They showed enormous will-power when it came to going their own way. They brazenly broke their covenant with Jehovah.[11] To his covenant statement, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people,’ they replied, ‘No, we won’t!’ And they showed the same wilful disregard for his messengers the prophets, who did their best to bring them to their spiritual and moral senses.[12]

While they stubbornly refused to be led by the Lord, they proved, fourthly, to be easily led by every wrong influence. Prominent among such influences was their past way of life. A bit of background is needed here. Prior to the exile, King Hoshea of Israel had been ruling for some years only by permission of Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, to whom he had been paying tribute. ‘But the king of Assyria discovered that Hoshea was a traitor, for he had sent envoys to So king of Egypt, and he no longer paid tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore Shalmaneser seized him and put him in prison.’[13]

How crazy is that—running for help to the Egyptians, of all people! Israel seemed to have forgotten that it was from Egypt that God had delivered them 724 years earlier, and the writer of 2 Kings is quick to make the connection: ‘All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.’[14]

Their past way of life influenced them in other ways. The golden calves they worshipped at Dan and Bethel were modelled on the one made generations earlier by Aaron in the desert, which in turn was based on an Egyptian god. This ‘looking back’ mindset, in which Israel hankered after the worst aspects of their history, brought them into an experience of what they focused on: enforced living in a foreign land—again. Watch out for this in your own experience. Behaviour patterns from your pre-Christian days have a way of reasserting themselves. Remember, therefore, your baptism, which cut you off from ‘Egypt’ and stands for ever as a signpost in your life declaring, ‘No return’.

Israel were easily led, also, by the pagan practices around them. God always intended the reverse: the people of Israel were to influence the surrounding nations for good, turning them to God and his ways by their example. But they ‘followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them…They imitated the nations around them although the LORD had ordered them, “Do not do as they do.”’[15] How is this working in your case? Are you ‘salt and light’, influencing society for good and for God, or is the world and its ways shaping you? If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

They were easily led, in addition, by bad leaders. It started with their first king, Jeroboam, who ‘enticed Israel away from following the LORD and caused them to commit a great sin.’[16] There was always plenty of scope for individual godliness, but instead they played ‘follow your leader’, and the sad game continued with later kings.[17] In fact all the kings of Israel were a bad lot; seven of them were assassinated.

‘Like leader, like people’ is good only if the leaders are good. You don’t have to obey leaders—national, political, ecclesiastical or whatever—who issue ungodly commands and set a bad example. The apostles, when the Jewish authorities forbade them to preach Jesus, retorted, ‘We must obey God rather than human beings.’[18] Be ready to buck any ungodly trend, regardless of the status of its supporters.

So into exile Israel went. To be forcibly dragged away from everything you know as ‘home’ is truly painful. Later, when the people of Judah were being marched into exile in Babylon, even to sing ‘the songs of Zion’ was too painful: ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?’[19]

You can’t sing when you are at odds with God. It’s grim to have him against you: ‘The LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence…The LORD rejected all the people of Israel; he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence.’[20]

Notice the details here. He was angry with them. God is not a sentimental sugar-daddy. His love is tough love, the kind that loves enough to take a long-term view of your welfare and not let you get away with bad behaviour today. Don’t incur his anger the way Israel did. In his anger he pushed them away: he ‘removed them from his presence’ and ‘rejected’ them. If to be in God’s presence is the most blessed of situations, to be thrust away from him is the most grim, the destiny of the lost who will ultimately be ‘shut out from the presence of the Lord’.[21]

The responsibility for staying close to him is yours. ‘Keep yourselves in God’s love,’ urges Jude. And James seconds that with: ‘Come near to God and he will come near to you’[22]—notice who has to make the first move. But it is God himself who presents the challenge best, speaking through Jeremiah: ‘“Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?” declares the LORD.’[23] Rise daily to that challenge.

Let’s be straight about this, then: if you insist on flouting him and his will, he loves you enough to hurt you. God brought trouble on Israel for that very reason. His is no namby-pamby kind of love: ‘He afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers.’[24] He will afflict you, too, if you keep fighting him. Christians draw the strongest reaction from him. That’s natural. If my own children, plus some of their friends, trash our house while I’m out, when I get home I send the friends packing and punish my kids—because they are my kids, because I love them and because I want them to turn out as responsible adults one day. God takes the same parental line. ‘It is time,’ says Peter, ‘for judgment to begin with the family of God.’[25]

So if you flout God, be afraid. He will afflict you. He may do it through sickness, an upsetting turn of events, depression, or whatever. Not that these things are always expressions of God’s affliction, but when your waywardness calls for it he will use any of these and more. So watch out! Let the legitimate fear of the Lord keep you on track if his love isn’t enough to do it. Peter again: ‘Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.’[26]

God gave Israel ‘into the hands of plunderers’. The plundering Assyrians weren’t sensitive. They were the conquerors and they grabbed whatever they fancied from the defeated Israelites. And if you insist on opposing the Lord your peace of mind and sense of well-being will be invaded and plundered by hordes of ghastly intruders. Materialism will barge its way in. Worries will grab your mind and prevent you sleeping at night. Fears will snatch at your self-composure—fears of illness, of redundancy, of failure, of leaving the house, of death. Sensuality will steal your self-control. Would a loving God allow all this? Yes he would.

The saddest thing of all about 2 Kings and its account of the exile is that, at the end of it, Israel are ‘still there’.[27] In fact they never came back; unlike Judah in Babylon later on, they were absorbed into Assyrian society and ceased to exist as a distinct people.

I’m not saying that, in spiritual terms, obstinate refusal to come back to God will cause you to lose your salvation. But if I were you I wouldn’t risk it, just in case. Meanwhile, exile is an awful place to be. Do your utmost to stay in ‘the land’. And if you detect in your own heart some of the ominous trends that marked Israel in the years before the exile, act now to turn them round. Make William Cowper’s hymn your prayer:

Oh for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is that soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his Word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.

Return, O Holy Dove, return,
Sweet messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
What e’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne
And worship only thee.

So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

 

 

1. The exile to Assyria is recorded in 2 Kings 17 and the exile to Babylon in 2 Kings 25.

2 KINGS

The Sorrow Of Exile

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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2 Kings

8. Jerusalem was in the southern kingdom of Judah.

9. Deuteronomy 4:19

10. 2 Kings 17:17

11. 2 Kings 17:15

12. 2 Kings 17:13-14

13. 2 Kings 17:4

14. 2 Kings 17:7

15. 2 Kings 17:8, 15

16. See 2 Kings 17:21-22

17. See 2 Kings 17:7-8

2. It would be a good idea at this point to read 2 Kings 17:1-23.

3. 2 Kings 17:7, 15

4. Psalm 51:4

5. Luke 15:21

6. 2 Kings 17:9

7. 2 Kings 17:12, 16

18. Acts 5:29

19. Psalm 137:1-4

20. 2 Kings 17:18, 20

21. 2 Thessalonians 1:9

22. James 4:8

23. Jeremiah 30:21

24. 2 Kings 17:20

25. 1 Peter 4:17

26. 1 Peter 1:17

27. 2 Kings 17:23

The gist of this article

The Israelites were exiled to Assyria. It’s tough being forced away from home, but they had only themselves to blame. God’s ‘home’ for you is the life of victory and you don’t want to end up away from it. So learn from Israel’s foolish mistakes.