Monday, April 25, 2016

Happier in Exile

Tucked into a chapter of the Levitical law that gives detailed instructions about the limitations of the master/slave relationship, the sale and redemption of property, and borrowing and lending is a short statement of ownership given without amplification or explanation.

That statement explains, well, pretty much everything else.

And though these are instructions to Israel that have no force today for any number of theological and practical reasons, it’s pretty hard not to see the application to Christians.

Strangers and Sojourners

God declares that while his people might enjoy possession of the land of Canaan, they were not to forget whose land it really was:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.”
Those who chose to enter into a covenant relationship with Jehovah abandoned any notion of property or possessions or any other blessings that did not originate in Jehovah himself. It was from their relationship to their Lord that every secondary benefit they enjoyed arose. In violating that relationship through persistent disobedience Israel would forfeit, at least temporarily, every blessing that flowed from it. The land of promise was not theirs; it was his, always and forever. They were strangers and sojourners.

But note that Israel are not simply said to be “strangers and sojourners”, which sounds rather a lonely destiny. Instead, they are said to be “strangers and sojourners WITH ME”.

How about that? Aliens in their own land. But being strangers and sojourners with Jehovah made for a pretty fantastic life if you embraced it.

The Better Deal

It was actually a better deal than traditional land ownership. The relationship with Jehovah made possession of the land irrevocable, because the legal title to it was always technically God’s. So even when an Israelite totally mismanaged his inheritance and became so indebted that he could no longer afford to farm his land and had to sell off “his” family property, he could never really lose it. The Jubilee rules meant the land would revert to him (or to his children, if he died) in less than fifty years no matter what.

In his relationship to Jehovah the Israelite was protected from his own mistakes, from unforeseen circumstances, and from anything that would permanently disinherit him or permanently cede his blessings to others. He could lend them out temporarily to improve his situation but he could never, ever forfeit them. And if men chose to violate the law of God by stealing the inheritance of others, the fact that the land was God’s made Jehovah the avenger of all such wrongs.

It was the best insurance policy you could imagine.

Those Israelites who accepted their roles as strangers and sojourners had a security in Jehovah that nobody could take away. In owning nothing but Jehovah, they had everything.

David the Stranger

David grasped this reality and internalized it, and if there was a greater king of Israel or any ruler more blessed by God, I can’t think who it might have been. In the presence of all the people he prayed this:
“But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.”
When he kept this truth squarely in view, nobody was happier than David. While his life was often hard and he more than once encountered the discipline of God for his sins, I’m pretty sure no Old Testament saint expresses joy more regularly or more profusely than David did, as his psalms frequently bear witness.

David found that the life of a sojourner suited him just fine.

Ahab the Owner

On the other hand, those who lost sight of this truth were utterly miserable. King Ahab did precisely this when he looked out from his palace over the land of Naboth the Jezreelite and began to covet it for himself. When he tried to buy it from Naboth and was rebuffed with “Jehovah forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers,” Ahab became, in the words of scripture, “vexed and sullen”.

Naboth seems to have understood the implication of God’s words in Leviticus. It gave him the confidence to stand up to the King of Israel. He knew who the land belonged to, and he knew what the law said about it. Ahab’s wife Jezebel apparently did not, or more likely she simply didn’t care. She told Ahab:
“Do you now govern Israel? Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
This is what happens when you marry foreign women, I guess. They just don’t get it. Jezebel assumed that Israel did business the same way her native Sidon did, personal property being the possession of the biggest dog in the yard. The king is by definition the biggest dog.

Not so in Israel. Not even the king was exempt from the law. Jezebel was not just cheating Naboth when she had him falsely accused of blasphemy and stoned to death so that her husband could take possession of his property. She was cheating Jehovah.

Most of us know the end of the story. The judgment that fell on the household of Ahab was truly spectacular. He lost his life, his family and his kingdom, and his wicked wife was thrown from a tower and eaten by dogs in the streets of Jezreel.

I suspect Ahab would have been happier as a stranger and sojourner.

Happier in Exile

Pretty hard to miss the application, isn’t it?

All that we inherit as believers is ours only in and through Christ, not because of anything we have done or anything we are in ourselves. Outside of him we have no claim at all on the promises and blessings of God. Peter says we are “sojourners and exiles”, just like Israel, and as such he warns against the sorts of emotional attachments to this world that derailed Ahab. “Abstain from the passions of the flesh,” he says, “which wage war against your soul”.

There is no “abiding” in this world. Attachment to its desires, treasures and governing principles will eat us up, body and soul. And for what? These things are not really ours anyway. We are happier in exile.

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