Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How do I interpret the captivity?

We studied Psalms 106 in my men's Bible study this morning.  This psalm sings out the metaphor of the nation of Israel as the man of God.

God is faithful.  The nation and the man are unfaithful.  God pursues.  The nation and the man flee.  God promises.  In their time of need, the nation and the man call out to God for help.  God saves.  The nation and the man quickly forget.  God punishes.  The nation and the man repent and praise God again.  God blesses.  The nation and the man focus on the blessing and forget the source of the blessing.  God calls.  The nation and the man turn again to their sin.  And the cycle repeats.

This metaphor was true during the Old Testament times, when the psalmists were writing.  And the metaphor holds true today, in the era of Christ and the adoption of Gentiles.  Psalms 106 lays out the story of the nation in chronological order.  I was following the metaphor just fine until I hit verse 47.
"Deliver us, O Lord, our God! Gather us from among the nations! Then we will give thanks 1  to your holy name, and boast about your praiseworthy deeds." (Psalms 106:47, NET translation)
This verse seems to indicate that this was written after the fall of the northern kingdom.  It could be from the period during the exile of Jerusalem in Babylon.  Either way, it got me thinking about the captivity experience in light of the metaphor of the nation of Israel as the man of God.

We don't talk about the metaphor explicitly very much.  But the metaphor is clearly the primary interpretative guide that we use to apply the lessons of the Old Testament to our modern world:
* God's promise to Abraham is like the covenant that He made through Christ.
* I spurned that covenant and got myself enslaved in Egypt.
* I called out to God from my captivity, and He miraculously saved me from Egypt--my personal experience of receiving the salvation that He provided for long ago with His promise.
* I went through a period of learning to obey Him in the wilderness.
* Mostly I rebelled and He was forced to discipline me, before I finally reached a point where I could enter into the promised land of His blessings in this current life.
* As a card-carrying believer I continue to sin, allowing the bad kings to make bad decisions, as it were.  And He continues to discipline and forgive me when I repent.
* And then He sent the nation into captivity.

My own current situation (unemployed for 10 months) leads me to want to interpret the captivity as simply a period of extreme testing.  That interpretation would be comforting to me.  But it doesn't sit well.  I am afraid that is a self-serving (and thus incorrect) interpretation.

In it's context, the captivity is a punishment for continued sin.  Many of the punishments were localized in the nation.  Like the rebellion of Korah, when Korah, his conspirators, and their families were swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 16.)  The whole nation was punished, but the individuals that led the rebellion bore the brunt of the punishment.  The individuals whose primary sin was failure to stop the rebellion were punished less severely.  And it should be noted that not every individual in the nation was sent into captivity.  A small remnant remained, and barely survived as a nation.  And only a small remnant chose to return from captivity.

The Babylonian captivity was different from the Egyptian captivity in an important way.  Egypt is abject slavery.  The slaves had no freedom, but they were ignored in terms of their religious practices.  The Egyptians simply did not care who or what the Hebrew slaves worshiped.  If the slaves bowed to the Pharaoh, or a statue of the Pharaoh, it was treated as merely the obedience of slaves and not held against them as religious rebellion.   Babylon is relative freedom.  The individuals are carried there as slaves, but they have a tremendous amount of freedom in their slavery.  And individuals can earn their freedom and Babylonian citizenship.  In Babylon, bowing to the statue of the king is a sin.

The story of the nation is the story of a child growing up.  Over time the child is given more and more freedom and responsibility.  By the time of the Babylonian captivity the nation has been walking with God for centuries and should be very spiritually mature.  They have been through the rebellion-punishment-repentance cycle many times.  The prophets are calling out their sin and predicting the punishment even while the Babylonian army is making camp outside of the city.  The nation should have been mature enough at that point to repent and avoid the punishment of captivity.

Could it be that God treats us adopted children this way?  If we continue in our sin for too long, does He actually send us away?

I'm not thinking about a believer losing their salvation, but I can certainly see how others would get there.  I'm thinking about a spiritual loss of connection where God is just no longer reachable.  If a believer continues to sin, could God disconnect them from His power and just leave them going through the motions of their Christianity on their own?

We're interpreting a metaphor, so we have to be careful not to treat the metaphor too literally.  Not every believer experiences the rebellion of Korah in the same way; or the pride of Saul; or the unfaithfulness of Ahad; etc.  We are each individuals.  But the general path of the story is true, even if the details differ for each of us.

It might be going too far to say that most, but not all, believers will sin sufficiently to experience their own captivity punishment.  And it might be too much to say that many of those who are sent into captivity will choose to stay there instead of returning to close fellowship with our Father.  Maybe that is beyond the interpretative scope of the metaphor.  But it feels right.  Sad, but right.

I have never been taught that the majority of Christians will continue in their sin for too long, and God will send them away into disconnected spiritual captivity.  They might choose to continue to go through the motions of the Christian life, without experiencing the power.  Or they might get their Babylonian citizenship and just go back to living like a pagan.  But a small remnant will realize what they lost and return to vibrant fellowship.  I have never been taught that.  But it sounds accurate.

Am I wrong?

Please tell me I'm wrong.

How am I supposed to interpret the captivity?

Or, if I'm right, what should we do with this knowledge?

Can we bring them back from captivity?  Can we do something differently in order to keep so many from being sent into captivity?

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