The Exiles Return, and for What?

The end of Isaiah’s prophecy addresses a people in the thrall of futility and depression. They had been to Babylon in its heyday. They knew what a major empire looked like. Now they were home again from their exile, and their capital city looked more like an abandoned rock quarry than a seat of empire.

Yet like a losing coach on the sideline, who alone among the downcast figures on the field knows that there will be a better day in the future, Isaiah’s prophecy declared that it is precisely in the midst of spiritual depression and futility that people of faith must remain faithful. Judah had been characterized as a people who followed “their own devices,” serving as a law unto themselves. This sounds familiar to anyone in our own time who tries to establish community norms for behavior while the popular ethic of the day declares that individualism is the highest philosophical good and that no one can tell us what to do.

In 587 B.C., the people had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians and removed from Judah into Babylon, what is now Iraq. There they remained for 49 years, an entire generation, the best and brightest of the chosen people walking the narrow byways of a Jewish ghetto in Babylon until, in 538 B.C., the Persians became the dominant empire in the Fertile Crescent and by edict of the Emperor Cyrus,2) exiled peoples were all returned to their original homelands. For those 49 years in captivity, it must have seemed as if they had checked into the “Hotel California,” where you could “check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

And though they had been eager to get back to the homeland their parents and grandparents had told them so much about, things didn’t change all that much from their Spartan living conditions in Babylon. They arrived back in the homeland their forebears had left 40 years before – having heard all those stories around the hearth of a beautiful land, a fertile land, a glorious Temple – only to find the land a shambles, the Temple reduced to little more than a pile of stones, fertile fields sown with salt, ruin everywhere they looked. A new Temple was slapped together, but it was apparently a shabby structure when compared with the Temple of Solomon. Where were the cedar timbers? Where were the gold fittings? Gone. All gone. Then, after almost 50 years of struggle to make a new life in the old ruined homeland, it must have seemed as if they had come again to a place where you could “check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.”

So, you have people trapped in an existence which is grueling at best, a future that looked like nothing but more of the same, a past which, as long as anyone alive could remember, was pretty much like the present they now knew. All that remained of the glory of God’s chosen people now were stories from their great grandparents, stories of other times when Israel was great. Their remembered stories of the beauties of Mount Zion, now seen with their own eyes, seemed little more than a fairy tale.

Then came Isaiah, with his lofty and extravagant vision of a whole creation made new, an end to tears, a new beginning. Did they think he was crazy? Apparently they did not, at least not ultimately, as they preserved and handed down his words so that we can share them today. It is seers like Isaiah who provide humanity with a view of what can be when humanity’s vision has become limited and earth-bound. When we are overwhelmed with the feeling that things are not the way they are supposed to be, Isaiah tells us of the way things will be in the kingdom of a God who never forgets his love for his people.

- Robert J. Elder, from a sermon, "Welcome to the Hotel California," on his blog, Parson to Person