Singing in Exile

Updated: Aug 19, 2021


The scene is ancient Babylon – more than 500 years before Christ. The great Nebuchadnezzar sits on the throne, his sovereignty holding sway over a huge swath of the ancient world. He has made war; he has conquered, and now nations lie in the grave. His armies have marched at will across the landscape, levelling strongholds, decimating his foes. Like a plague of locusts sweeping across a field, they have left utter desolation in their wake. Cities lie in ruins; once glorious they now exist as piles of rubble. Mighty nations have fought in vain; their valiant soldiers now lie silent on the battlefield, their corpses food for the birds of the air. Nations from all across the ancient world are led like cattle from their homelands. Stripped naked, tied with ropes, long processions marching into exile – humiliated, mocked, and taunted by their enemies. Babylon has plundered the world and now returns home with captives in tow.


Among the nations who have fallen before the mighty Babylonian Empire is Israel. For her sins Israel’s holy city and her temple are now but a smoldering heap of ruins. As her soldiers lie rotting on the battlefields, those who have been spared from Babylon’s sword have been marched into exile alongside the other nations who have suffered a similar fate. And now far from home, with hope utterly decimated, Israel weeps. She looks back to her homeland and remembers the desolation; she looks off to the future and sees nothing but an endless wasteland on the horizon. Like a barren womb Israel sits in exile without hope for the future. Years go by; exile persists; hope lies buried.


But wait… we hear the sound of singing…


I imagine a scenario where, one evening, a Babylonian overlord rides past a little Israelite community of exiles huddled by a river and overhears from her tents the sound of celebration. He moves on, shaking his head, unable to fathom what these curious folk have found to sing about. If he could have understand them he would have heard them giving voice to hope, singing about ruins restored, of streams flowing in the desert, life springing into existence in a wasteland.


If we were able somehow to step into the world of this desolate people we would discover that what gave rise to this most unusual spectacle were the words of a prophet, words that spoke of YHWH’s assurance of comfort to his exiled people.


Isaiah 40:1–11 (NIV84)

40 Comfort, comfort my people,

says your God.

2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and proclaim to her

that her hard service has been completed,

that her sin has been paid for,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

double for all her sins.

3 A voice of one calling:

“In the desert prepare

the way for the Lord;

make straight in the wilderness

a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.

5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the

Lord has spoken.”

6 A voice says, “Cry out.”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All men are like grass,

and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.

7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,

because the breath of the Lord blows on them.

Surely the people are grass.

8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of our God stands forever.”

9 You who bring good tidings to Zion,

go up on a high mountain.

You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,

lift up your voice with a shout,

lift it up, do not be afraid;

say to the towns of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,

and his arm rules for him.

See, his reward is with him,

and his recompense accompanies him.

11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:

He gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

he gently leads those that have young.


And we hear singing in the camp…


The words of the prophet are recited and the people compose a song in response. Hope, against all odds, takes root in desolate hearts, in a wasteland of exile. Light returns to tired eyes, and the prophet persists in his preaching.


Isaiah 41:8–21 (NIV84)

8 “But you, O Israel, my servant,

Jacob, whom I have chosen,

you descendants of Abraham my friend,

9 I took you from the ends of the earth,

from its farthest corners I called you.

I said, ‘You are my servant’;

I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

10 So do not fear, for I am with you;

do not be dismayed, for I am your God.

I will strengthen you and help you;

I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

11 “All who rage against you

will surely be ashamed and disgraced;

those who oppose you

will be as nothing and perish.

12 Though you search for your enemies,

you will not find them.

Those who wage war against you

will be as nothing at all.

13 For I am the Lord, your God,

who takes hold of your right hand

and says to you, Do not fear;

I will help you.

14 Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob,

O little Israel,

for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord,

your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.

15 “See, I will make you into a threshing sledge,

new and sharp, with many teeth.

You will thresh the mountains and crush them,

and reduce the hills to chaff.

16 You will winnow them, the wind will pick them up,

and a gale will blow them away.

But you will rejoice in the Lord

and glory in the Holy One of Israel.

17 “The poor and needy search for water,

but there is none;

their tongues are parched with thirst.

But I the Lord will answer them;

I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.

18 I will make rivers flow on barren heights,

and springs within the valleys.

I will turn the desert into pools of water,

and the parched ground into springs.

19 I will put in the desert

the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive.

I will set pines in the wasteland,

the fir and the cypress together,

20 so that people may see and know,

may consider and understand,

that the hand of the Lord has done this,

that the Holy One of Israel has created it.

21 “Present your case,” says the Lord.

“Set forth your arguments,” says Jacob’s King.


Rivers flowing on barren heights… springs within the valleys… “Wait,” says Israel in her exile. “We know this story! This is our story!” And the nation recalls her ancient trek across a barren wasteland on the way to the Promised Land. “Water from the rock! We know all about the wilderness! A little wasteland is no obstacle for our God! We are the people who take hold of hope in the bleakest of circumstances!”


And the nation sings…. sings about water in the wastelands and life bursting on the scene!

It’s an odd story isn’t it? A beaten and exiled people clinging to faith, singing in hope. And the Babylon overlord shakes his head, mutters something about insanity and heads for home. But the real Sovereign of the world is not shaking his head on this occasion. As these pathetic people dare to sing about hope the God of heaven can hardly contain himself, he beams with pride as he pours out hope in Israel’s wasteland; he’s delighted that the nation drinks from this well.


And the prophet preaches on…


Isaiah 49:13–23 (NIV84)

13 Shout for joy, O heavens;

rejoice, O earth;

burst into song, O mountains!

For the Lord comforts his people

and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,

the Lord has forgotten me.”

15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast

and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget,

I will not forget you!

16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;

your walls are ever before me.

17 Your sons hasten back,

and those who laid you waste depart from you.

18 Lift up your eyes and look around;

all your sons gather and come to you.

As surely as I live,” declares the Lord,

“you will wear them all as ornaments;

you will put them on, like a bride.

19 “Though you were ruined and made desolate

and your land laid waste,

now you will be too small for your people,

and those who devoured you will be far away.

20 The children born during your bereavement

will yet say in your hearing,

‘This place is too small for us;

give us more space to live in.’

21 Then you will say in your heart,

‘Who bore me these?

I was bereaved and barren;

I was exiled and rejected.

Who brought these up?

I was left all alone,

but these—where have they come from?’ ”

22 This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“See, I will beckon to the Gentiles,

I will lift up my banner to the peoples;

they will bring your sons in their arms

and carry your daughters on their shoulders.

23 Kings will be your foster fathers,

and their queens your nursing mothers.

They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground;

they will lick the dust at your feet.

Then you will know that I am the Lord;

those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”


And the captives hear… someone sets it to song… and the sound of celebration fills the tents of the exiles. Against all reason, despite the bleakness of their presence circumstance, this people embraces hope. The prophet speaks, the nation sings, and heaven is stirred at the sight.


The oracle of hope continues…


Isaiah 51:1–8 (NIV84)

51 “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness

and who seek the Lord:

Look to the rock from which you were cut

and to the quarry from which you were hewn;

2 look to Abraham, your father,

and to Sarah, who gave you birth.

When I called him he was but one,

and I blessed him and made him many.

3 The Lord will surely comfort Zion

and will look with compassion on all her ruins;

he will make her deserts like Eden,

her wastelands like the garden of the Lord.

Joy and gladness will be found in her,

thanksgiving and the sound of singing.

4 “Listen to me, my people;

hear me, my nation:

The law will go out from me;

my justice will become a light to the nations.

5 My righteousness draws near speedily,

my salvation is on the way,

and my arm will bring justice to the nations.

The islands will look to me

and wait in hope for my arm.

6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens,

look at the earth beneath;

the heavens will vanish like smoke,

the earth will wear out like a garment

and its inhabitants die like flies.

But my salvation will last forever,

my righteousness will never fail.

7 “Hear me, you who know what is right,

you people who have my law in your hearts:

Do not fear the reproach of men

or be terrified by their insults.

8 For the moth will eat them up like a garment;

the worm will devour them like wool.

But my righteousness will last forever,

my salvation through all generations.”


Ancient memories stir in the hearts of this forsaken people. Abraham their father and Sarah their mother… an old man and an empty womb. “This is where we came from!” “Don’t forget who you are,” they whisper to one another. Their hearts are stirred, hope begins to well up within them, and the prophet urges them to sing!


Isaiah 54:1–17 (NIV84)

54 “Sing, O barren woman,

you who never bore a child;

burst into song, shout for joy,

you who were never in labor;

because more are the children of the desolate woman

than of her who has a husband,”

says the Lord.

2 “Enlarge the place of your tent,

stretch your tent curtains wide,

do not hold back;

lengthen your cords,

strengthen your stakes.

3 For you will spread out to the right and to the left;

your descendants will dispossess nations

and settle in their desolate cities.

4 “Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame.

Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.

You will forget the shame of your youth

and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.

5 For your Maker is your husband—

the Lord Almighty is his name—

the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer;

he is called the God of all the earth.

6 The Lord will call you back

as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit—

a wife who married young,

only to be rejected,” says your God.

7 “For a brief moment I abandoned you,

but with deep compassion I will bring you back.

8 In a surge of anger

I hid my face from you for a moment,

but with everlasting kindness

I will have compassion on you,”

says the Lord your Redeemer.

9 “To me this is like the days of Noah,

when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.

So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,

never to rebuke you again.

10 Though the mountains be shaken

and the hills be removed,

yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken

nor my covenant of peace be removed,”

says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

11 “O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted,

I will build you with stones of turquoise,

your foundations with sapphires.

12 I will make your battlements of rubies,

your gates of sparkling jewels,

and all your walls of precious stones.

13 All your sons will be taught by the Lord,

and great will be your children’s peace.

14 In righteousness you will be established:

Tyranny will be far from you;

you will have nothing to fear.

Terror will be far removed;

it will not come near you.

15 If anyone does attack you, it will not be my doing;

whoever attacks you will surrender to you.

16 “See, it is I who created the blacksmith

who fans the coals into flame

and forges a weapon fit for its work.

And it is I who have created the destroyer to work havoc;

17 no weapon forged against you will prevail,

and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.

This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,

and this is their vindication from me,”

declares the Lord.



Isn’t this a strange story? Who urges a barren woman to sing? Who speaks of life in a wasteland? Is this insanity we are witnessing or is it an example of profound faith? Ancient Israel sang these songs while they were in exile! These are not songs they sang after YHWH raised up Cyrus the Great and commissioned him to send his people home to rebuild the holy city and her temple. They sang these songs in exile! And history proves they were not insane to sing them. Israel did return to their land! The temple was rebuilt! Their hope was real! The prophet proclaimed the truth!

And we 2500 years removed from Israel in her exile are urged to sing the same song. Will we sing it? Or will we walk away and shake our heads. Will we sing it and stir the host of heaven to their feet? Or will we despair in our wilderness? Will we remember who we are or will we forget and concede our future to the desert sands Will we sing in anticipation of the future that is ours or will we refuse to see beyond the present crisis that threatens to swallow us whole?


Sing, O barren woman!



 

This is a relief depicting Judean people being deported into exile after the capture of Lachish by the Assyrians. I was not able to find a similar scene depicting the Babylonian exiles.

Judean Exiles Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


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