Of Pandemics and Exiles
Please read Isaiah 54 in your Bible.
Image by James Best, (C) 2020,
In the OT - almost from the very beginning - God warned His people Israel that if (when) they had disobeyed Him for generations, for their lack of repentance and idolatry, they would one day be exiled from the land He gave them. He even warned them it would last 70 years and then they would be allowed to return.
God’s warnings were ignored, the people were condemned by their own sin and the prophecy was fulfilled. In the year 586 BC, the Babylonians captured the city of Jerusalem and carried off the better part of the people to be slaves back in Babylon. Daniel, Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah are some of the Bible personalities who were part of the people sent into exile.
Let’s think about that. Put yourself in their place. I believe the Communists in China are the personification of evil in these days. Imagine the United States taken over by the ChiComs. Imagine being among a group of Americans deported to China to serve in labor camps. You have been ripped from your home, your possessions taken, and distanced from your family. Can you get a sense of how horrifying that would be?
Historically we know that the warning of exile was not enough to persuade these people to repent. Losing their place in the Promised Land - even temporarily - was surely the most difficult disciplinary action the Lord ever applied to His people.
The most recent leader of our denomination, Dr. Lee Spitzer, has compared our recent experience of the coronavirus pandemic to being in exile, like the Babylonian Captivity. Because of the quarantine and the contagious nature of this disease, relationships have been strained by everyone being kept at a distance from one another. Though we have all the modern means of communication, the pandemic has required a kind of exile from one another. Let me ask; how has that felt to you?
Our experience of the pandemic is somewhat like Israel’s experience of exile.
Disclaimer for persons legalistic about “political correctness:” the following descriptions are entirely appropriate in Isaiah’s culture. Rather than waste time to make them appropriate in “PC” culture - which runs the risk of being misleading - we will examine them at face value and understand them in their original context before applying the principles derived to our own culture.
1. Both a pandemic and an exile are miserable experiences. (1, 4, 6-8, 11, 16)
The first of these politically incorrect images is in verse one, revealing that both a pandemic and being in exile feel like the desolation of a barren woman. A frequently observed part of ancient culture was the way a woman felt - or was made to feel - who NEVER BORE A CHILD, WERE NEVER IN LABOR. Isaiah used the word DESOLATE for the feeling, BARREN for the childless condition that occasioned the feeling.
A second example is found in verse four, where persons in exile and/or in a pandemic might feel the shame of an unfaithful woman. A BARREN WOMAN was the object of shame, an adulterous wife more so. Note the emotionally laden words the prophet attached to the unfaithful wife: SHAME, DISGRACE, HUMILIATED. Also in verse four; widowhood felt like a REPROACH.
Being in a pandemic or in exile can feel like the distress of a deserted woman (vs. 6-8). The negative emotions of an adulterous wife are identified as fear, shame, disgrace, humiliation, rejection, and reproach. In His justified ANGER at their sin, the LORD ABANDONED His people, hiding HIS FACE from them.
The fourth example leaves distraught women behind. In verse eleven, people in exile or in a pandemic can feel AFFLICTED without comfort. The phrase LASHED BY STORMS conveys a helpless and chaotic experience of distress, like being caught in a tornado. Worse, they are NOT to be COMFORTED. The Lord withheld His comfort and surely no one else comforted them either.
Verse sixteen explains these kinds of experiences are the LORD’s discipline. In the Bible, “discipline” is the word for God’s aggressive actions toward His people that are designed to teach them and promote repentance toward maturity in faith. On the other hand, “punishment” is a word for God’s aggressive actions toward unbelievers, designed to motivate them to repentance toward salvation. The word “wrath” is God’s final solution for the unrepentant. Depending on who the individual is in relation to God, a pandemic or exile may be “discipline” or “punishment,” but is never “wrath” and is always intended to move us closer to God.
2. God promises deliverance from both exiles and pandemics. (1-6, 9-17)
The first promise is found in verses one through three, a promise of a season of increase. Back to the ladies again; this is a figurative promise of a fruitful womb. Those delivered from exile will want to BURST INTO SONG and SHOUT FOR JOY because like a DESOLATE WOMAN, they will become fruitful, even more fruitful than a woman WHO HAS A HUSBAND. In fact, you’d better plan ahead and enlarge your tent because you’re going to need the extra room, that’s how fruitful you will be! The restored people of God will prosper and fill the cities left vacant by their dispossessed enemies.
The second promise, found in verses four through six, is a promise of restoration: a happy ending! God’s people will know the joy of truly holy matrimony as YOUR MAKER IS YOUR HUSBAND. He also promises to be our REDEEMER. The GOD OF ALL THE EARTH will call us BACK to him in the way a husband will take back an unfaithful wife. Because of this restored relationship, we will no longer feel DESERTED, DISTRESSED, or REJECTED. We will experience the DEEP COMPASSION (7) of God, which will relieve us of those depressing feelings.
The third promise is in verses seven and eight. It is a promise of eternal compassion. Verse seven says God is capable of feeling A SURGE OF ANGER, so anger itself is not a sin; what you do with it can become sinful. His anger lasted only A MOMENT, His favor is eternal: EVERLASTING KINDNESS and COMPASSION. This is an extreme contrast and good news for us.
The fourth promise is in verses nine and ten: a promise of unfailing love. In this passage, the similarity between the great flood of Noah’s time and the Babylonian Captivity is that both experiences will not be repeated. A dissimilarity is that the Flood was an act of WRATH against sinful humanity while the Babylonian Captivity was an act of DISCIPLINE (REBUKE) of God’s rebellious people. Though creation itself will one day be SHAKEN, God’s LOVE for His people and His COVENANT OF PEACE with them will never again permit that kind of REBUKE.
The fifth promise is one of rebuilding; it is found in verses eleven and twelve. We know these verses are not to be taken literally as PRECIOUS STONES are valuable as jewelry but worthless as building materials. These verses are figurative; they put the highest possible on the CITY God will restore and emphasizes the beauty of His gracious provision of a new home for His people. This image of a city made of PRECIOUS STONES would be used in Revelation 21 to describe the New Jerusalem, the “forever home” of God’s people.
Promise number six is a promise of peace (vs. 13-15). We are directed to think of the next generation: YOUR SONS WILL BE TAUGHT BY THE LORD AND GREAT WILL BE YOUR CHILDREN’S PEACE. This peace originates in God: IN RIGHTEOUSNESS (which comes from Him) YOU WILL BE ESTABLISHED. Isaiah listed three benefits to this God-given peace:
Freedom from TYRANNY. In our case, we can stop wringing our hands about elections and trust that regardless of who governs, tyrants will not have the last word.
God’s people have NOTHING TO FEAR (which I would say is a reference to anxiety) and we’re promised TERROR WILL BE FAR REMOVED (TERROR being a reference to actual reasons for worry). In the latter case, we can be assured of two things:
One, if evil comes against us, it is not God’s doing; there is some other agency at work. It is not God’s discipline; it is someone else’s opposition.
Two, regardless of how intimidating evil appears, you will not be defeated; WHOEVER ATTACKS YOU WILL SURRENDER TO YOU.
On that line, the seventh promise (vs. 16-17), is a promise of victory. This promise is trustworthy because our victory is based on God, who is in charge of every outcome. For example, God has created both our allies and our enemies. As Creator, He rules over all creation.
He created THE BLACKSMITH to forge our weapons of war. Sometimes they will be used against us. He created THE DESTROYER to cause HAVOC that motivates us to rely on God, not ourselves.
No matter what kind of conflict in which we find ourselves (including exile and pandemic), God promises to deliver us. Be it war or persecution, we are assured NO WEAPON FORGED AGASINST [us] WILL PREVAIL. Or it may take the form of politics - a war of words, verbal persecution, but God still promises YOU WILL REFUTE EVERY TONGUE THAT ACCUSES YOU.
Our victory is based on the certainty of God keeping His promises, not on the uncertainty of us keeping our promises to God or anyone else. God’s aim is to create a HERITAGE OF THE SERVANTS OF THE LORD. I believe HERITAGE refers to eternal life in heaven. God also aims to vindicate our faith in Him. He proves Himself reliable and our faith to be grounded in the truth.
Our experience of the pandemic is somewhat like Israel’s experience of exile.
If we accept Dr. Spitzer’s comparison of the pandemic as a form of exile, what are we to do about it? Rather than just an interesting intellectual exercise, what difference does it make? How do the biblical examples of exile inform our response to the pandemic?
First, accept the fact that like the Exile, the pandemic has exposed our idolatry. It is a disciplinary action God has allowed to turn us to Him.
For the unsaved, this means God is giving them a chance to repent of their devotion to worldly things, including their blind faith in science. For followers of Jesus, this means we must forsake our idolatrous devotion to the worldly aspects of church life. We acted as if maintaining a building, paying our bills, and keeping our traditions going was the same thing as discipleship. To our shame, when the economic and relational costs of the pandemic threatened these things, we cared more about keeping them than hearing the voice of God and repenting of these hypocritical affections. What may be startling to hear is that finances and property are means to an end, not an end in themselves. Further, we don’t do these things for ourselves, we do them for the people who are not attending, especially those who have never attended any church. We are not the “customers” of this of this organization; we are its “custodians.” Our “customers” or “clients” - the objects of our ministry - are not one another, but those on the outside, our neighbors who need Jesus.
Second, we must repent and return to God. It is clear whether we’re talking about believers or unbelievers, the thing we are all most concerned about is getting back to “normal;” to the way things were before COVID-19. For shame: the way things were before COVID is part of the reason we HAVE COVID! We must take a hard look at the hard truths about ourselves that the pandemic has exposed and deal with them. We have wasted this experience if it does not turn us back to God. If the pandemic ends and we have not become better people, then we have compounded our sin and failed to gain wisdom from the experience. The pandemic is hard. If we are paying attention, the recovery will be harder.
Finally, let me spell out some of the things we need to learn from this deadly and difficult time. Borrowing from Dr. Spitzer’s remarks, let me suggest three items, all of them a call back to basics.
1. We need to get back to our priorities: Love God, love neighbor, love self.
2. We need to recover our identity as Bible-based challengers of culture, not sentimental chaplains of culture.
3. We need to live sacrificially to be disciples, nurture discipleship, and call the unsaved to become disciples.
In hard times especially, this culture does not need another cliquish club, service organization, or small business. People need Jesus to lead them back from exile, new and improved. For better or worse, God has picked us to be Jesus in this situation. Let’s give Him reason to rejoice over choosing us.