They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father.
We say “our Father” often—so often, for many it becomes like an obsolete tire. It loses traction. That’s why it’s good every now and then to put new treads on the phrase. God is our Father. Our natural fathers, terrific as many of them are or were, serve as His emissaries to bring us into the world. Their DNA and guidance play enormous roles in our development, but only God is responsible for our making. He wills our conception, molds us in the womb, and breathes His life into us as we join His other children—nearly 7 billion of them—on the planet. We’re here at His pleasure, for His purpose. Because He invests such attention in our formation and arrival, it’s sensible (to the say the least) to believe He doesn’t drop us off and forget about us. He’s our Father, not the Stork.
Still, there’s a fairy-tale aura to this, a kind of incomprehensible magic accounting for our cognitive dissonance when our making clashes with our circumstances. Let’s face it: many times, an all-loving, knowing, and powerful Father doesn’t jibe with living in a hateful, ignorant, and overpowering world. Israel’s Babylonian captivity is a classic case of being forced into a terrible situation that invites suspicion maybe God is an absentee Father. The Jews grow up with stories of how He brought them in the world, freed them from Egypt, and deeded them a kingdom. Then, it all goes away. The Babylonians swoop in, pulverize the nation, and rustle thousands of Jews back to Babylon like cattle on the Chisholm Trail. While their captors treat them more humanely than Pharaoh—they’re hostages, not slaves—living in a foreign land among strangers grieves the exiles deeply. Psalm 137.1 says they sit beside the Tigris, weeping about the land and people they involuntarily left. They keep looking for their Father to show up and say, “Let’s go, kids.” Decades pass—seven in all—with no sign of Him.
Although God leaves the captives in Babylonian custody, He keeps checking in with the families they left behind. They too suffer from separation anxiety. Not having their homes and clans intact makes their task of rebuilding their nation particularly laborious. Particularly during the first phase of reconstruction, He checks in often, mainly via Jeremiah, to maintain high morale. History indicates remnant Jews correspond regularly with the exiles, suggesting what God tells them gets passed to relatives in Babylon. (“We heard from Father the other day…”) Even so, 70 years is a long time—more than three generations. Near the end, parties who’ve never met write one another out of familial obligation. All they have in common is their Father. All the news centers on His promises. By this time, Jeremiah’s left the scene. So they’re recycling news, sending archived snippets, which only underscore how long the captivity’s dragged on.
Why even write to someone you don’t know about a Father you’ve never heard from, transcribing promises to your grandparents He hasn’t kept? Today, we’d say, “Heck with it. If He comes through, we’ll figure it out then.” But for all their primitive superstitions and knowledge, the ancients do a much better job than we of instilling heritage in successive generations. This is happening on both sides during the captivity. Confidence that God always honors His vows is drilled into their marrow, as is awareness He takes His time. Thus, if He said it 500 years ago or five minutes ago, it’s newsworthy.
Letters from Home
Let’s imagine we’re twentysomethings, born in Babylon, raised by parents constantly reminding us it’s not our home. Their stories plant heartache for somewhere only in our minds. We hang out by the river, reading letters from home. Recently, we got one with a clipping from Jeremiah 31. As we read what our Father says, our hearts race and our eyes pool with yearning for His words to become reality. One day, He says in verse 9, we’ll start for home, crying and praying as we travel a level path beside rivers. Not once will we stumble. Our Father loves us too much to lead us where we’ll fall.
We look at the only place we’ve ever known. It’s not home. We have no idea what that looks like. Though what we read gives a vague sense of who’s there and what life’s like, it’s probably not what we imagine. Our eyes follow the riverbank’s rise and fall. Much of it looks steep. We spot places that appear impenetrable. Then the river curves, leaving the rest between here and home a mystery. If we weren’t sure Who our Father is or confident we’re His children, we’d write off the letter as a pipe dream. But we know Who He is. We know who we are. Trusting Him is in our marrow. Though the letter admits we’ll cry and pray along the way, it’s a small price. We’ll gladly trade sorrow for safe travel to arrive at last where we belong. If our Father says He’ll lead us safely on a river walk along a level path, that’s how we’ll make it home.
The Tigris. Although what can we see from here looks uneven and hard, our Father promises our river walk will be level and stumble-free.
(Tomorrow: In His Hand)