Somehow we never quite believed it would happen. Yes, the political situation was ominous, and Babylon had been making its presence felt for quite some time (probably far longer than we, in our little corner had noticed), but we knew our history (selectively, I realise now), and we knew what had happened before.
Last time it had been the Assyrians. They had conquered and swept away our northern sister Israel, but we had been spared, and we could all give reasons why. They had departed from the true religion of Adonai, even to the point of building their own centres for worship and sacrifice rather than coming to the temple in Jerusalem where God’s appointed Ark of the Covenant has found its permanent home. And they were idolaters, turning away from our God to worship heathen deities of clay and stone. Of course they fell under God’s judgement! But we were safe forever – we had the temple, where the sweet smoke of incense rose up ever before Him, and the altars ran scarlet with the blood of the sacrifices.
And we had been spared. In the days of Hezekiah, Sennacherib’s Assyrians, so our chroniclers have told us, were encamped around the very gates of Jerusalem, and there was great terror in the city. Yet the Lord was on our side. When the city arose after a night of fear and prayer, they found that the Angel of the Lord had been there before them, and one hundred and eighty five thousand Assyrians had perished in the night. Jerusalem was delivered by the power of her God.
That was the history we remembered and clung to as the Babylonians drew closer. Many of the prophets had been reassuring us that everything would be fine this time too. Only the lone voice of Jeremiah cried out a different story, and who was listening to him? There is a deep shame now in admitting he was right the whole time. We thought him a man deranged, bleating out his message of pain and woe in the very face of our prosperity and comfort – as if the Scapegoat itself had returned from the wilderness to throw its anguish back in our faces. And who takes heed of the bleating of goats? “You say ‘peace! peace!’ but there is no peace!” he shouted at us in despair, and I cringe to remember that I laughed.
I am not laughing now, and part of me wonders if I shall ever laugh again. This hideous scene now graven on my mind forever, is what Jeremiah had already seen by prophetic vision. Now I understand why he was so distraught: to be a genuine prophet of Almighty God is to carry a burden of intolerable truth that is almost more than flesh and blood can bear. It is one thing to know that I will carry this memory to the end of my days: black smoke and scarlet blood, grey dust of fallen stone and the terrible desecration of our holy temple; but memory is as human as we are, and time can soften its sharpness. But what must it be like to see, in shattering detail, the disaster which is to come, and be powerless to prevent it, because the deepest outcry of your heart brings only scorn from the complacent, who imagined that a comfortable form of religion and a magnificent building are all that God requires?
But there is one more question that haunts my heart as I trudge the weary road to my captivity. Now that I see that Jeremiah loved Jerusalem far more deeply than those of us who simply took her for granted, and that he did so as a true prophet of the Living God, then I have to ask whether God Himself so loves the very people He is sending away? Does God love us so much that it hurts?