The People of God in Exile

Dallas Willard

A contribution to the book The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible


Table of contents


Previously we saw the nation of Israel rebel against God. In the Scriptures listed above we will see the ways God continues the process of forming an all-inclusive community as God sends his people from the Promised Land into exile.

God's Action

In the exile we see God’s faithfulness to his people in judgment upon them. Judgment, however, does not mean that they are forsaken: “The Lord disciplines those whom he loves” (Heb 12:6). Through the tragic but necessary means of judgment the law is upheld and the supremacy of Yahweh as the only God is driven home. The Jewish people are stripped of all the externals that they had come to believe were the substance of their lives: their king, their Temple, their city, and their land.

The people, unable to look to these externals, are left with what they can carry on their backs and hold within their hearts: mainly, their sacred writings and their memories and customs. Retaining and refining these, they learn–much against their will–of the greatness and goodness of God far beyond anything they had known before. They learn what they had long been told: that God is available to, and totally sufficient for, the individual heart that is devoted to him, no matter what the circumstances. Further, they learn that God is acting and working far beyond their own Jewish culture, that “The eyes of the LORD range throughout the entire earth, to strengthen those whose heart is true to him” (2 Chron 16:9). And they learn in deeper ways than ever before that experiencing “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” is not limited by circumstances (Ps 23:1).

Thus, in judgment there is blessing. So the way forward is to accept the judgment, side with God, and “kiss the rod” of affliction. As a result, during the exile when Jews were dispersed “from India to Ethiopia” (Esther 8:9) the Jewish religion and culture survives in its essential features through God alone and without any political or geographical base.

God blesses the exiled people in their personal walk with him. The immediacy of the God/human relationship re-emerges, but now it is all the more stable on the human side, incorporating within it a holy history extending all the way back to creation. Esther and Daniel know who they are in relation to God in a way that Adam or Moses never could. The riches of the previous “with-God” life now come to rest in the individual, and this human finitude is supplemented by the continuing influences of the law, the family, the developing synagogue system, and numerous communal customs.

The individual prophet is now an established central fixture in how God is “with” his people. “Believe in the Lord your God and you will be established; believe his prophets” (2 Chron 20:20). The radical independence of the prophet from any “establishment”–even from a Jewish establishment–is more strongly imprinted upon the People of God than ever during this period, even though the prophet as “outsider” had always been a major thread woven into the fabric of Israel. From Jeremiah and Ezekiel to John the Baptist, the right of the prophet to “come out of nowhere” and speak for God is confirmed. The people welcome the prophet, expected to fulfill this role. But the leaders, whose own authority and right to lead is constantly challenged by the prophets, withhold their support.

Finally, Yahweh is identified as “the God of heaven” which, like the air surrounding us–the “first heaven” in biblical terms–is over all and directly and sufficiently available to all (2 Chron 36:23; Ezra 1:2; Neh 1:4; Dan 2:17-19, 28).

Hammered out in the cauldron of exile, this new understanding of where God is in relation to us develops into the language of “the kingdom of the heavens.” Later, Jesus uses and expands this new understanding of “the kingdom of the heavens” to proclaim salvation to all, beyond any “official” religious or political arrangement. The experience of the exile and of how God was with his people in judgment proves essential to the new and more adequate understanding of how “[our] God reigns” (Isa 52:7).

Human Reaction

The first response from God’s people to exile is denial, anguish, lamentation, confusion, bitterness, and the rejection of exile and judgment as God’s will. This negative reaction fed the problem of false prophets, which begins late in the period of the Divided Kingdom. Of them Jeremiah famously said, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (6:14). The true prophets see and accept God’s hand in judgment, seeing through and beyond it to God’s ultimate blessing. The false prophets deny the reality of God’s judgment and insist that Israel’s blessing comes from her continuation as a separate nation.

A major part of the true blessing in and beyond judgment is the emergence of “the law and the prophets” as the heart of the covenant relationship with God. This made it possible for the development of institutions and rituals of family and community that could stand free of all human arrangements and ultimately survive the collapse and destruction of those human arrangements. These developments were central to the spiritual formation of the People of God during the exile. They would also prove essential to later Jewish dispersions, as well as to how Christian fellowships would think of themselves as nonethnic, spiritual bodies, independent of human arrangements.

In the exile and afterward the Jewish people finally get monotheism and the keeping of the law down pat as an absolute demand. They firmly accept this demand, though misinterpretation of its exact meaning clouds reception of the later moves of God upon his people, up to today.

Blessings and Benefits for Our Formation

The great advantage of this form of mediation is the emphasis it places on individual responsibility–on personal holiness and faithfulness to the Law and to God. This stands out in stark relief with figures like Daniel and Esther, and in similar stories such as Bel and the Dragon, Susanna, and Judith. Here the primary emphasis is on the faithfulness of the individual to God and God’s faithfulness to the individual.

Also, the Israelites are now forced to become citizens of the world, not a people hidden in an ethnic enclave. God, who transcends national identity, appoints his people to be a blessing to all peoples among whom they dwell. They seek the welfare of “Babylon” under God, and do this without themselves losing contact with God–indeed, they are able to do this precisely because of God’s presence with them (Jer 29:4-7). All the peoples of the earth must come to know that Yahweh is God, and Israel has the role of bringing this to pass. The Israelites were from the outset assigned to be witnesses to all the nations; and in the exile and dispersion this significantly does come to pass even though, as the story of Jonah clearly reveals, the nation as a whole fails in this task. Now, in ways unexpected and unanticipated, the Abrahamic covenant moves forward: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).

Limits and Liabilities for Our Formation

However, in themselves exile and dispersion are not enough to open up the People of God to the world and to free its individuals from cultural self-righteousness. Much good is accomplished, but the overall outcome of the exile and subsequent return to the land is an increasingly repressive form of external rules that dictate personal behavior and public ritual. It is this stifling externalization that Jesus so thoroughly exposes and condemns.

Also, such brutal events as befell the Jewish people in the years of exile are surely not the best way to learn the ways of God, nor something he would have chosen unless it was absolutely necessary. “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the LORD God. Turn, then, and live” (Ezek 18:31-32). The Israelites as a whole could not be a light to the Gentiles when crushed and oppressed, though occasionally individuals succeeded in burning brightly on the world stage. Suffering can be redemptive when received in faith, but it is not intrinsically good. There is a better way to get to where it brings us, if only we will take it so that we can avoid the pain and tears of Lamentations. This is important for us to remember when we are in the rigorous process of being spiritually formed. There is a better way than “no pain, no gain”: “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom 2:4).

Insights and Instructions for Our Formation

What can we learn from this stage of God-with-us? Well, first, we learn we can sing the Lord’s song in a strange land (Ps 137:4). And we must, for God is the God of all peoples, not just of one nation or of one culture. Indeed, God is most likely in places and events and people that we have already written off. And we should look for and expect to find God there.

Second, if we are to succeed in fulfilling the law, we must not aim just to refine our external actions, but to become the kind of person inwardly from whom the deeds of the law flow naturally. We cannot keep the law by trying to keep the law. Here again indirection is the key. What things can we do so that keeping the law will be a grace-filled side effect of who we have become? Appropriate disciplines of the spiritual life show us the way. By living in such Spiritual Disciplines as part of an overall plan for our life “in Christ,” we can prevent the keeping of the law from becoming a senseless, grinding fetish that brings death, as it did in postexilic Israel.

Finally, we learn that God is with us in our failures and beyond our failures. Indeed, he uses even our failures for our good. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5). There is always a morning with God . . . a morning different and far better than we can ever imagine. Even the darkness and death endured by the Israelites throughout the centuries will one day be broken and dispersed. “The dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79).

Dallas Willard. “The People of God in Exile.” In The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, edited by Richard J. Foster, Gayle Beebe, Lynda L. Graybeal, Thomas C. Oden and Dallas Willard, 1172-. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.