The Lord is slow to anger, but His patience with religious hypocrites does not last forever. Today, Barry Cooper considers what Israel’s exile into Babylon teaches us about the danger of becoming complacent with our sin.
How patient is God?
When I was in my mid-teens, I presumed God would always be patient with me. I wasn’t living a life that honored Him, and I hadn’t been for years at that point. And I was doing that quite deliberately, assuming that, when all was said and done, He would forgive me, because everyone knows that forgiving is what God is supposed to do.
And of course, I was going to church regularly, so there was that too. In my mind, going to church was a sort of weekly disinfectant, a kind of spiritual car wash I passed through on a regular basis, which would hose off the muck of the past week. And even if it missed a spot here and there, God would surely see me going to worship him every week, be suitably impressed with that given the ever-decreasing number of churchgoers in the U.K., especially the young ones, and then overlook whatever sin I had chosen to get into during the previous six days.
However—and this is why I’d like to talk about the Babylonian Captivity—God’s patience with religious hypocrisy does not last forever.
The Babylonian Captivity, or Babylonian Exile, is a historical event that occurred around 586 B.C.
Centuries earlier, God had made a covenant with His people, Israel, and He had made the terms of that covenant very clear. God said:
I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you. . . . But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.
So just imagine. You are one of God’s people. You are conscious every day that you have been set apart by Him, that you are chosen, privileged, special. The Lord God Almighty has made this covenant with you, and with no other group of people.
And maybe your awareness of that privileged status is partly why, as time passes, you become complacent. Careless with sin. Presumptuous about forgiveness. Surely, God wouldn’t punish me. Surely He’ll always be patient with me. There I am, in the tabernacle, in the temple, week after week. Unlike some people.
But the very thing God had warned you about has already begun to happen: your heart has been drawn away to worship other gods. And when you hear preachers warning about the danger of judgment, you think to yourself, well, this message obviously isn’t intended for me.
Of course, you still identify yourself as one of “God’s people.” Maybe subconsciously you think that the act of publicly saying so will actually impress Him in some way.
But God hates religious playacting. He knows your heart, and what you really love. And so, sure enough, after years of patience, and years of warning, God pours out His judgment on you. Just as the preachers said he would.
First, in 722 B.C., the whole of the northern kingdom of Israel was exiled to Assyria. And then, about 120 years later, the southern kingdom of Judah was exiled to Babylon.
In 597 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon besieged Jerusalem. The siege caused appalling deprivation and suffering. Nebuchadnezzer took Judah’s King Jehoiachin and the nation’s leading citizens off to Babylon. Then, ten years later, he uprooted everybody else and destroyed the temple. The so-called Babylonian Captivity had begun. And tens of thousands were massacred in the process.
In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul tells professing believers that the way God judged His people in the Old Testament ought to be a warning to his people in the present day:
Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
If we are persisting in ongoing sin, presuming that God will in the end “let us off” because “that’s His job” or simply because we publicly identify as one of His people, we ought to find those words—and the history of the Babylonian Captivity—chilling.
As Jesus Himself warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Oddly, there’s biblical evidence that many of those who were exiled still did not repent. They had not only become captives of Babylon but—even worse—captives of their own sin.
Sometimes, the worst judgment that can befall us if we’re complacent about our sin is that we no longer realize the seriousness of it. And if we don’t realize the seriousness of it, then how will we ever repent of it? That is the most desperate captivity of all—that kind of ongoing, unrepentant sin locks us up and then throws away the key.
So let’s never become complacent with it or treat it as something to be toyed with. Let’s always be repenting of our sin while we still can, and let’s look to Christ, the One who said He came to set the captives free.