The early Christian writers embraced the understanding of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. Yes, a new world has begun with the resurrection of Jesus, but the “principalities and powers” still rage against the new order that has been inaugurated. No flights of other-worldly piety, no “raised consciousness” of the Gnostics, provide escape from the burdens and duties of the present. According to Jeremiah, it is the God of Israel who has sent his people into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Writing in the sixth century b.c., Jeremiah counsels the exiles:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find our welfare.
Exile remains exile, and Babylon remains Babylon, but both are penetrated, both are charged, by the promise of deliverance. For Old Testament Israel, deliverance is understood as return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. For New Testament Israel, deliverance is arrival at the destination of the long pilgrimage toward the New Jerusalem.
The Christian language of exile and return is drawn from the Old Testament. But so also is the language of a final destination, a language that is not limited to return and restoration. A hundred years before Jeremiah, the prophet Isaiah wrote of what “will come to pass in the latter days.” There will appear one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest, and he will establish a kingdom such as has never been before:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down
with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like
The suckling child shall play over
the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his
hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the
knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Obviously, this envisions more than a return to Jerusalem and the restoration of the city that was. And yet, the city that was and the city that now is is the prolepsis of what is to be. The promise of what is to bethe other-worldly, if you willintensifies the devotion to the earthly city. Psalm 137 is among the most moving expressions of this sense of exile and return, of loss and hope, of sorrow and devotion:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors mirth, saying
“Sing us the songs of Zion.”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of
If I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
The psalmist cannot sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, and yet he cannot not sing the songs of Zion, even though in a foreign land. This is evident in his singing the song of Zion that is Psalm 137. His singing of this song of Zion intensifies the awareness of being in a foreign land, even as it is hope’s participation, however partial and preliminary, in a world elsewhere.
Meanwhile, we seek the peace of the city of our exile. The story told in the Old Testament Book of Daniel is instructive. When in 605 b.c. Nebuchadnezzar moved against Judah he demanded tokens of submission, including young men from the royal and noble families. Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Their captors gave them Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The young men went along with that, although I expect that in private they called one another by the old names.
Those old names meant something. For instance, Daniel means “God is my judge,” while Belteshazzar refers to a goddess who protects the king. They went along with a lot of things. We are told that they were educated for three years in the lore of Babylon. This would involve learning the very difficult Akkadian language, studying the Babylonian creation and flood stories, along with how to tell the future by observing the stars, discerning the patterns of oil in water, reading the spots on sheep livers, and much else. After all, they were to serve as Babylonian wise men. They succeeded so well in the ways of Babylon that the king made them governors of the empire’s several provinces.
But there was a limit to their going along. We read in chapter three the announcement by the herald of the king:
You are commanded, O people, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up; and whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace.
When the king heard that the young Judeans had refused to fall down and worship the golden image, he had them brought before him and declared, “If you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace; and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king:
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up.
The king was “full of fury,” and ordered that the fiery furnace be heated seven times hotter. It was so hot that the guards who threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the flames died of the heat. From a safe distance, the king saw not three but four men walking in the flames and exclaimed, “The appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” He called Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to come out of the furnace and they emerged unharmed. Upon seeing this, the king cried:
Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him, and set at nought the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God.
Then the king issued a decree that terrible things would be done to anyone who speaks against their God, and he promoted the three to new positions of authority in Babylon. A dramatic tale with a happy ending, we might well say, and it is that.
Beyond that, however, the story illustrates what it means to seek the peace of the city of our exile. The young Judeans went along with a great deal but drew the line at worshiping a false god. Much better to die than to violate the first commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” In the first centuries of the Christian movement, martyrs went singing to their deaths rather than do something so seemingly innocuous as burning a pinch of incense before the statues of emperors who had been officially deified. Also today, Christians worry about the ways in which accommodation to this foreign city can become betrayal. At least they should. The temptation to worship false gods usually presents itself in subtle forms. It does not usually announce itself with the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music.
Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things.
"Living Between the Now and the Not Yet" by Richard John Neuhaus
"Babylon: Then and Now" by Richard John Neuhaus