Songs from Exile
by R.C. Sproul
In exile the people of Israel faced the question: “How do you sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land?” The question is similar to that faced by contemporary American Christians. Ours is a spiritual exile as we confront a culture and government increasingly hostile to Christianity.
We look to Nehemiah for clues to guide our own pilgrimage in difficult times. Nehemiah was grief-stricken by the news of the condition of Jerusalem. The walls were broken down and its gates burned with fire. His first emotion over the sad loss of his heritage was grief. It was not bitterness or anger. Nehemiah wept and mourned as Jesus would later weep over the same city.
In his grief, Nehemiah moved to the next step, prayer and fasting. His prayer was first of all a prayer of adoration for the majestic awe of God and for His faithfulness to His people: “O great and awesome God, You who keep Your covenant and mercy with those who love You and observe Your commandments.”
Even in exile, Nehemiah praised God for His covenant faithfulness. Then the focus of his prayer turned to repentance, pleading with God to forgive the sins of his own people, acknowledging that they had brought exile upon themselves.
Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to the king. He served in a pagan government as a believer in God. His vocation was that of a servant. He was humble and respectful to the king, but proper fear of his king did not stop him from acting to save his people. He prayed to God and made a request of the king, asking for permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild it. He also asked for letters that he might present to lesser governors for safe conduct and even a grant for building materials.
Not all the pagan governors were sanguine toward Nehemiah and his plans. Indeed, some were fiercely resistant to them. When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of it, they were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel (2:10). But there is nothing unusual about this as it is a common pagan reaction to the mission of the church in any age.
When Nehemiah set about the task of rebuilding his enemies laughed at him and despised him. Nehemiah, though, did not let his critics determine his agenda. He was polite but firm in his response to them.
When Nehemiah’s pagan enemies received word that he had rebuilt the walls (but the doors were not yet hung on the gates), they invited him to meet with them in a special “audience.” Nehemiah had no time for this sort of thing, knowing the plans of the enemy were evil. He replied to Sanballat and his cronies, “Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” Sanballat then sent an open letter accusing Nehemiah of a seditious attempt to become a king and other false charges. Nehemiah sent back a message denying the allegations, noting that the charges were but a thinly veiled form of intimidation.
Nehemiah’s temptation would have been to allow Sanballat and his pagan cohorts to alter the plans and engage in a joint-venture of compromise in the mission. That would have eased the burden on his own people, won him both the applause of the Jews and of the pagans. But Nehemiah cared nothing for the applause of men and was totally unwilling to compromise the mission he had undertaken for God.
Instead of worrying about accommodating the pagans, Nehemiah focused on the reforms needed among his own people. It was one thing to rebuild the city; it was quite another to rebuild the people. The paganism Nehemiah feared was not the paganism of the pagans; it was the paganism of his own people. It was not paganism outside the camp that threatened Israel so much as the paganism within the camp.
The key strategy of Nehemiah may be seen in the closing verses of his book: “And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite; therefore I drove him from me … Thus I cleansed them of everything pagan” (13:28–30).
Nehemiah is not unique in redemptive history. The people of God in every era are called upon to relate to pagans around them. As the New Testament commands, Nehemiah honored the king and prayed for him. He was diligent to give civil obedience where possible without compromising the commands of God. He sought, as the Apostle Paul did, to live at peace with all men.
But neither Nehemiah nor Paul was able to live at peace with all men. There are always pagans like Sanballat or Demetrius of Ephesus who seek the destruction of the work of God. Neither Paul nor Nehemiah responded to such pagans with hatred. But neither did they enter into unholy alliances with them.
Nor did Nehemiah lead a monastic retreat into the wilderness. Jerusalem was not a monastery, but a city designed to be set on a hill. The task of rebuilding the Holy City was not one of world-withdrawal. Nehemiah understood that the home base of our mission is still the church. The staging zone for the divine operation must be sound if the mission to the world is to be effective.
Our readiness to perform our task becomes critical when we realize the world also has a mission to capture and assimilate the church. And if the church becomes an echo of the world, the mission of the world is accomplished.
When the church is paganized there is no need for walls or gates in the city of God. Then the church doesn’t need to worry about singing the Lord’s song—it can sing the songs of the pagan culture because there is no longer a strange and foreign land.
But the people of God are always pilgrims. We are always living in exile if we are living in the kingdom of God. We may respectfully serve the magistrates of this world. We may seek their sanction for the building of our cities and churches—but we cannot expect them to build them for us. It is our task to build the city of God. It is supremely costly and extraordinarily dangerous. He who will work to build the kingdom of God must be on guard against arrows that are directed at his face—but perhaps even more on guard for the arrows directed at his back.
Nehemiah’s work provoked hostile reactions from some of the pagans. But the real threat was grounded in the fears of God’s people. When a leader like Nehemiah, Paul, or Jesus Himself provokes a hostile reaction from enemies, the people are prone to turn on them as they bear the fallout from such attacks. Remember, it was the people who feared the wrath of Rome who turned their wrath on Jesus.
True leaders of the Christian faith, however, love believers and pagans alike and risk the hostility of both to build the kingdom of God.