Never again will I dwell in the land that was promised to Abraham. My children, or perhaps my children’s children will return, for the prophets have declared that mercy is greater than judgement, but for me, and for my own, my family, my friends, the companions of my life, it is the end. We trudge forth as slaves under the hard cruel eyes of Babylon, and know that, wherever they take us, we will live out the rest of our days as strangers in a strange land. The songs of Zion will no longer be a joy and anticipation, but a memory of terrible yearning, that cuts through the soul until our tears are salt as blood.
It is hard to leave the hills of my childhood, and harder still to leave the graves of my parents, never to return; but harder, far harder still, to see Jerusalem destroyed. She was the jewel of Judah, the city of our God, and as long as she stood we knew that we were the people of His particular care, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We were the ones who came up Mount Zion with shouts of joy, singing the Psalms of David to join in the great festivals. And there, in our beloved city, stood the temple, Solomon’s glorious temple, the house of God on earth. It was said that when the temple was built, God Himself sent down His glory to live there, making this truly the Holiest place on earth. But the Glory has long since departed, for our people could not stay true to their God, even when He dwelt among them, and now the temple itself lies in ruins, and the terrible gods of Babylon exult.
We dare not put our torment into words, lest the speaking of it destroy us, but I glance at my companions of the dusty road and read the same hollow grief in their eyes as I know must be burning in my own. Has our God deserted us? Oh, we have the words of the prophets, words of punishment and restoration, words I am sure we will study deeply in the long dry years that lie ahead – but they are only words on scrolls. They fall away into silence before the things our eyes have seen, the city of our God, plundered, violated and left desolate! But beyond the screaming of my soul, I know there is a deeper truth: it was not God who deserted us, but we who deserted Him. What other people have treated their gods of wood and stone the way that we, in our infinite folly, have treated the Maker of Heaven and Earth?
It is strange that it is only now, in the time of our great loss, that we understand how precious it was and how much it meant. We weep, when our weary eyes can find the tears, because we were careless children who had been given the most wonderful thing on earth, and we didn’t even care. We put it down in the dust while some fleeting fancy caught our eye, we turned our backs on it, taking it for granted. Only now that it is gone do we mourn, not just the loss, but the stupidity of our losing.
It is strange, but somehow, in this act of leaving the Promised Land behind, we realise for the first time that we do not actually want to be like the other nations. Now that we are cast forth among them, we know that we want to be different. We will teach our children, and our children’s children, to value the very thing we threw away. Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how can I forget you? It would be a better thing for me if my right hand should lose its skill, than that I should forget the city of my God! We shall not forget where we belong, and one day our children’s children will return, will rebuild the temple, and the gates of the city will sing with praise.
And yet, it will not be like the days of Israel’s glory. We shall have our temple again, but the glory of God will not dwell in her midst. And if God should ever return to Jerusalem, what then? Will we receive Him with joy this time, or will we still prefer to go our own way?