On February 26 at Harambee, Caleb’s message was from Daniel 1:17-21. The sermon was entitled, “Unusual Ability.” The basic outline, according to my notes, was: 1.) It’s not the ability, it’s the gift; 2.) It’s not the gift, it’s the use; 3.) It’s not the use, it’s the purpose.
Aside from being simply an outstanding contemporary application of this Old Testament passage, Caleb’s words spurred a thought which filled in a major theological hole in my understanding of the OT.
Full disclosure: as a child reared in the church (and that pun is pretty darned intentional), I ended up as an adult with a pretty messed up theology that was more informed by the bromides of The Sound of Music than the Gospel. In short, I subscribed to the destructive notion that bad things happen because you deserve them. And more specifically, that good things really couldn’t (and wouldn’t) happen to me because of the bad things I had done. I ended up going into therapy at age 36 to help unlearn some very poor theological lessons.
Fuller disclosure: I am apparently still not as free from that bad theology as I had thought I was.
In Daniel, we’re dealing with Judeans who had been sent into captivity in Babylon. This was part of the “Second Captivity” that theologians like to talk about. In two phases, the “Promised Land” was emptied of its inhabitants. As John Prince mentioned in his intro to Daniel, the Hebrew nation had long been a nation divided, with two separate kingdoms. The northern kingdom, Israel, comprised ten hereditary tribal lands while the southern kingdom, Judah, governed the lands of Judah and Benjamin.
The Kingdom of Israel was defeated by Assyria 100 years or so before Judah submitted to Babylon. These are the First and Second Captivities.
A major difference between these two political/spiritual disasters was the treatment of captives by the conquerers. Babylon tended to relocate peoples as a whole, removing ethnic groups en masse to some distant land while repopulating the emptied regions with another vassal ethnic group. (This is where a good deal of the people who became the Samaritans came from, hence some of the racial animosity that existed between the Jews and Samaritans at the time of Christ.)
Later, after Babylon was defeated by the Persians, Cyrus the Great allowed a large body of Hebrews to repopulate Jerusalem and the surrounding lands. We know from the scriptural accounts that this decree of repatriation was about as popular then as the Balfour Declaration was in 1948.
But back to the Assyrians. They didn’t work like the Babylonians, Persians, and Medes. Instead, they executed traditional campaigns of genocide and dispersion. Those of the Kingdom of Israel who survived slaughter went into exile throughout the lands conquered by Assyria–and beyond, as Jews were traded as slaves.
As I was studying Old Testament History in Bible college in the mid 1990s, I also happened to read the Histories of Herodotus, written a few hundred years prior to Christ. This Greek historian recorded what was known of the various empires that made up the “known world” at the time, stretching from the Atlantic as far as India–essentially, the lands conquered by Alexander the Great.
As I was completing these studies, I marveled how God essentially protected Israel by twice sending them into captivity: first into Egypt via Joseph and his brothers (due to conditions of famine throughout the region), and then into Babylon. If Israel had remained in Canaan/Palestine throughout these periods, they would have been annihilated by the Hittites and Egyptians (and others) in the same way that the Phoenicians, Philistines, and even the Hittites, in their own turn, were. Israel’s hereditary lands have always been an extremely precarious place to live.
But there was God’s providential hand, moving Israel into places of safety when needed so that, when “the time was right,” Jesus could be born into the lands of promise to fulfill prophecy… and have the Roman Empire at hand to facilitate the spread of the Gospel through the known world during the lifetime of the Apostles.
But the fate of the Ten Tribes at the hands of Assyria has always troubled me. If God protected Judah and Benjamin, it seemed pretty much evident that he punished the other ten tribes pretty decisively. Over and out.
“And that’s as it should be,” my theologically-challenged heart has always told me. God will show mercy on whom he wills mercy–and there are some who simply don’t get mercy. Because they (apparently) don’t deserve it. During the decades that I was enslaved by pornography, I certainly saw the sense in that. And to a degree, my heart still clings to that mis-notion.
But as I listened to Caleb preach about Daniel and his countrymen, and to Caleb’s message about purpose, I started wondering about the purpose behind Israel’s “First Captivity.” Was it really just about punishment? Or was it maybe more? After all, the “Second Captivity” was clearly about something more than just punishment.
And then it struck me.
Sure, the Gospel spread quickly in the First Century, in part, because first the Greeks and then Romans brought a common tongue and infrastructural stability to the known world. And because it “happened” that the Apostle Paul was a Roman citizen, he had the necessary “papers” to pretty much go where he pleased in his travels (and imprisonment).
But there was another factor contributing to the rapid spread of the Gospel in Gentile lands.
Everywhere that Paul (and Silas, and Barnabas, and Timothy, etc.) went in their travels, they first visited synagogues to preach the Gospel–and then subsequently preached to the Gentiles.
And where did these synagogues come from throughout the Greco-Roman lands of the Empire?
To a great extent, the Assyrian disapora of Israel.
Hundreds of years before the first missionary journeys, God had spread Jews across the known world to establish communities and places of gathering. And as Paul and others took the Good News “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek,” these places of gathering were ready and waiting, even if, as was most often the case, they rejected the Christian message.
The purposes of God are vast and virtually incomprehensible. But when we get small glimpses into how he can use even the most undeserving (me included), we can be assured that many of the trials he sends are also gifts–gifts that he intends to use for his purpose.
Is God’s justice a part of that story? Absolutely. It always is. But God is about a lot more than just justice. For nations, and for each of us. He has a purpose for every one of us that goes far, far beyond what we could ask or imagine. Trials and suffering are not merely about punishment.
We are being prepared for great things. We simply may never know, in this life, what those things are!