“Put not your trust in Princes, nor in the son of man, for there is no help in him.
His breath departeth, and he returneth to his earth; then his thoughts perish.” Psalm 146:3-4 (Geneva)
In Jeremiah 29, God speaks to the exiles from Judah through the prophet. He has a hard message for them. Their identity had been bound up in their land. It had been their inheritance, given them by God, and the Temple was where God Himself dwelt in their midst. Now the Temple was destroyed, it’s surviving treasures carted off by the King of Babylon to fill his treasury, and the people themselves forcibly remove and scattered over the breadth of the Babylonian Empire.
What were they to do? Hitherto, the message was clear, faithfulness to God was readily translated into political success and power. The message ran from the sad story of Judges through the ebb and flow of Kings and Chronicles. Indeed, the message of Jeremiah himself to the people until now had been that God was rewarding the faithlessness of His people by driving them from their land and removing all traces of their political independence. Little wonder, then, that God’s people veritably drip with bitterness in Psalm 137 as the reflect upon their new life in a strange land.
So consider well, then, what God is asking His people to do in Jeremiah 29. Seek the welfare of the city to which you have been exiled. Pray for it. Pray for its leaders. Build your lives where you are now. Plant gardens. Put down roots. Sing the songs of Zion. For the Lord God shall be with you, and not with those who remain in the land of your ancestors and in the holy city itself.
This upended the entire thrust of the story as they knew and understood it. Their identity as God’s people was not tied to geography, nor was God Himself. Faithfulness was not linked with political power and independence. His message was clear, if they had the whit to read it: Church and State are not one and the same.
But we long for power. The Jews of Jesus’ day yearned for a political as well as a religious Messiah. This was Pilate’s understanding, too, and he pressed Jesus on this, and he walked away confused. Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:28-40) But this world is all we understand, and want.
On this Independence Day, we would do well to remember those exiles by the waters of Babylon. Perhaps our hearts are filled with bitterness and rage. How can we celebrate a country that perpetrates injustice? Perhaps we long for the day when power shall be ours again, when the Kingdom of God and America are one and same, and celebrate this day as the promise of triumph.
God has given us the state to order our public lives, to enact justice between peoples, that we might live our lives in peace and tranquility. And well we need it. But in government rests not our ultimate hope. There are limits to what it can and cannot do. For we are exiles in this world, and we yearn to yet arrive at that City whose light is the Lamb and whose streams give water to the tree of life.
Let us then seek the welfare of this, the city of our exile. Let us hold our rulers to account, that they would govern more diligently, more wisely, and more justly. But let us not become enamored with the power that rests in government. Let us give thanks for the freedoms that we do enjoy, for the abundance in our midst. And let us work such that all men may yet experience these.
Praise thou the Lord, O my soul.
I will praise the Lord during my life; as long as I have any being, I will sing unto my God.
Put not your trust in Princes, nor in the son of man, for there is no help in him.
His breath departeth, and he returneth to his earth; then his thoughts perish.
Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God,
Which made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is; which keepeth his fidelity forever,
Which executeth justice for the oppressed, which giveth bread to the hungry; the Lord looseth the prisoners.
The Lord giveth sight to the blind: the Lord raiseth up the crooked: the Lord loveth the righteous.
The Lord keepeth the strangers: he relieveth the fatherless and widow: but he overthroweth the way of the wicked.
The Lord shall reign forever: O Zion, thy God endureth from generation to generation. Praise ye the Lord. Psalm 146