Why was Israels Catch & Release Like Habakkuk’s Fish?/Spiritual Meditations

Most of the time when I read the Old Testament, I am understanding only what is in front of me at the moment.  My friend Dr. Frank Leeds III has a much broader perspective and lays out for us how it all fits together historically.  In this post he tells us the fascinating hows and whys of the Babylonian catch and release of the Israelites, as well as some amusing results and long-term repercussions. He writes:

Bibles are so plentiful in these days of digital printing that it is easy to forget that they are a very ancient collection of manuscripts. In the very earliest of them Moses required and instructed the people to “keep the commands”. To the casual reader the word ‘keep’ is generally assumed to be ‘obey’. It is much more than that. The admonishment is “to guard them with your life”, to always have them, because your life and your children’s life depends on them. Paraphrasing Moses, “If you do not teach your children the Torah, they will think you’re crazy, because no one has ever experienced what you have and you must teach your children what you have seen and heard and experienced as the Lord leads us out of Egypt.”

Coming out of Egypt was not the only “EXIT” that was provided to the children of Israel. The following is another story of an exodus. We are told, “I have set before you two paths. One leads to life and the other to destruction”. Choose wisely. You too dear reader will have times in your life where you will need an EXIT because you are on the wrong road. May the Holy One of Israel provide it to you as you call upon his authority over life.

Habakkuk’s Lament

The prophet Habakkuk asked the following from the Holy One of Israel.

Are we only fish, to be caught and killed? Are we only sea creatures that have no leader? Must we be strung up on their hooks and caught in their nets while they rejoice and celebrate? Then they will worship their nets and burn incense from them. “These nets are the gods who have made us rich!” they will claim. Will you let them get away with this forever? Will they succeed forever in their heartless conquers?

The context of this prophet’s questioning comes after being informed that Israel and her terrible Kings [although they did have some good ones] were going to be overrun and conquered by a nation that was far less righteous than they were. He spoke of Jewish kings who taxed the people heavily so they could build big palaces for themselves. They dishonestly gained wealth and ignored the poor. They trusted in their ill-gotten wealth as their security blanket. So, the nation must learn afresh what life is all about and what is important. Thus, I wish to tell you another story about life.

King Solomon’s Folly

Life is a process, but all stories must begin somewhere. For this one, I have chosen to begin with King Solomon. In the minds of many, he is known as the wisest of kings. At the start his kingship his prayer and heart’s desire was to be wise and his early reputation was that of a wise king. His wisdom was displayed in his decision about which mother was the real mother of a child when he threatened to have the baby cut in half to resolve the conflict. (1 Kings 3:16-28)

I suppose we all have our wise moments whereby we shine in the sun. In looking over his entire life, however, he was not just a fool, but a fool of gigantic proportions. His self-centeredness not only corrupted his person but laid the foundation for the destruction of the nation of Israel. Why do I say that?

It was Moses who laid out the criteria for the people to know when they had a good king. Here is what he said:

When you have a king, the king must not acquire a great number of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you. “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law…he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not to consider himself better than his brothers … (Deuteronomy 17:14-17)

Compare the above standard with Solomon’s reign. To his credit he did build an extremely gorgeous temple in Jerusalem. When built, it stood as the pride of the nation and a beacon for the surrounding nations, or did it?

Contrast for a moment the building of the tabernacle under Moses’ leadership and that of the temple under Solomon.

For the tabernacle, everyone contributed a tiny portion. They all put their two cents in, so to speak, so the tabernacle had everyone’s participation. Following, people contributed to the cost as they felt led to do so. Some gave a little more. Many gave significant amounts. When it was completed, it was all paid for and they had excess money. Every penny was accounted for and the people were told, “no more is needed.”

With Solomon, he built the temple in a similar fashion to Pharaoh’s methods. He used slaves and he even made slaves of his own people to get the project completed. He got it built and that would be considered a great success, if that were the only reason to have it built in the first place. But he enriched himself with the collection of huge amounts of gold. He then added collections of silver. How about wives? He collected those as plentiful as gold coins. And then there is the prized collection of horses, which he got from Egypt.  He built magnificent stables that were better than the homes of the poor.  Solomon’s leadership was all about Solomon and the use of his kingship to line his own pockets. It is a very familiar story throughout history. By the end of his reign, the temple no longer stood for the righteousness of their loving God, but it became a symbol of corruption. By contrast, his father – King David – never rode a horse. He rode the peoples’ transportation – a donkey.

Now, I happen to live on the water and have been able to have a small boat most of my life. The rule of the water way is: “A person is responsible for the wake that he leaves behind.” Solomon left a mess. So much so, that when he died, the people revolted because of his poor leadership and the nation split into two parts: A Northern and Southern Kingdom and no longer a united Israel.

A variety of kings follow for each kingdom but when history came to King Josiah, it found him very different from Solomon. By the time we reach the Prophet Jeremiah, the son of Josiah, is the target of the prophet’s wrath [cir 640 BC] as he describes the greed and warnings to another bad king.

Woe to him who built his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing not paying them for their labor. He says, “I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms”. So, he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red. Does it make you a good king to have more and more cedar?  Now, take a look at your father, did he not have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 22).

The prophet then makes it clear, this self-centered kingship that centers on lining one’s own pockets is a disgrace that leads to destruction. He then tells the nations they will be destroyed. They have made alliances with Babylon to fight against Assyria and they did likewise with Assyria to fight against Babylon. Now, the whole world knows their word is no good and the temple is a symbol of shame.

A side note about the promise of ‘destruction’. This is not, ‘you did bad therefore I will punish you’. Rather it is, ‘you did bad and your bad behavior will take you down the path of destruction’. That is true for all of us. When we make poor decisions, we are left with poor options…unless we change our ways.

Anyhow, the prophet declares, the temple is now a symbol of evil and must be destroyed.

Now to the Catch part of “Catch and Release”

The Babylonians head east and conquer Israel just as the prophet proclaimed. They begin by destroying the temple. They remove its precious jewels, gold, and silver. They then take it apart piece by piece. Anything of value is removed. Items that are too large to carry back to Babylon are cut in half for ease of transport.  In time, the temple is no more and much of Jerusalem is destroyed.

As the temple is being destroyed, all the leaders, the politicians, the ‘movers and shakers’ are taken to Babylon. After that, they remove all the artists and musicians. When these people get to Babylon, they lament as in the 137th Psalm.

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, and tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy. Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “Tear it down to its foundation!” O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us - he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

So, the leaders are gone and so are the artists and musicians. Next to be deported are all the people with skills [the butchers the bakers and the candlestick makers – stone masons, etc.] Eventually, young men of ‘army age’. What remains in Judah are women and children and grandparents.

After this, the Babylonians look at the Northern Kingdom, particularly Samaria, and here they do things differently. They remove all the men of marrying age and replace them with Babylonian men. This way, they have support in the north, and these men marry the Samaritan women.

What follows in Israel is a management plan. Very large areas simply had to be broken into small areas for management purposes.

When the Hebrews arrive in Babylon, they are not made slaves. Rather, they are given ‘good land’, just as they had been in the Egyptian exile. The purpose of King Nebuchadnezzar was not to enslave them but rather to keep an eye on them relative to the balance of power in the area. As a result, they prospered. They had good land and they were exposed to new trade routes.

In their old land of Israel, people often joke that the Lord led them to the only area without ‘oil’, which is correct. However, the main trade routes between the region north and south of the Mediterranean Sea went through their turf. In fact, the mountain pass that everyone had to go through was Megiddo, from which we get our term Armageddon. Whoever controlled that pass controlled that part of the world, so they were very knowledgeable of trade in this area  Now, in Babylon, they were on a different trade route and, with their earlier experience, their knowledge was doubled and allowed them to  prosper.

Seventy years go by. A new force in the area is a man called Cyrus. For me, he is the Sam Walton of the area. Walton is the gentleman from Arkansas that developed WALMART CORPORATION. I mention him because no one saw him coming. The big stores in the USA were J.C. Penney, Kmart, and Sears. Before these big box stores knew that Sam Walton existed, he was gobbling up their market shares. In brief, he was eating them for lunch, and he passed them before they even knew he was approaching. Likewise for Cyrus. He learned early that it was easier to manage people that were happy than people who were your enemies. He conquered many of the smaller areas and before anyone knew what happened, he conquered Babylon.

Now we switch to the ‘Release’ part of our story.

The man, Nehemiah, goes to the King and requests permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. From what I can understand, Nehemiah was an extremely wealthy and generous man. The King gives him permission to do so which seems consistent with Cyrus’ style.

Nehemiah goes and as you can guess, the logistics are overwhelming. The area has been destroyed and there wasn’t even any place for builders to live. So, houses needed to be constructed as well as much else..

During this process, Cyrus declares “The Lord God of the Most High has come to me and told me to let these people go.” He then declares to the Hebrews in captivity, that they are free to go. “Go where?” they ask. “Anywhere within my realm” the King declares. That is half of the known world. “Do we have to?” they ask. “No” they are told. “You may go or stay. Whatever you prefer”.  Remember, this is 70 years later so these people have never been to Jerusalem. Babylon has always been their home.

Let me ask you the reader. Did you ever make a significant locations change? If so, It was probably because of your job. People move to a location where they can support their family. It was a job that brought me from New Jersey to Florida. The Israelites in Babylonia did not suddenly pick up and move one day; they gave it some thought. For all of those involved in ‘trade’, they chose to go where they had business contacts. Some of these followed their grandparents contacts when they were in Jerusalem. Others added contacts from trade during their time in Babylon. As a result, they eventually moved all around the Mediterranean Sea. Some chose to stay in Babylon. Some went toward India.

Some went to Jerusalem. This is where it gets really interesting, at least to me. A group of people moved from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. While there, the Samaritans came and offered to assist. It sounds like a good move to me, but it immediately presented a problem.  Nehemiah and Ezra, who organized the reconstruction, had an underlying motive. They understood that the temple was destroyed because Israel’s corrupt kings failed to live up to the standard of the Lord God and the failure of the people to abide. As a result, they made a commitment to rebuild the temple and to stick as close as they could to the Torah. [Nehemiah 8 & 9]

This included, but was not limited to:

  • To separate themselves from all foreigners.
  • To stand and confess their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.
  • To set their seal to a confirmatory document to which they bound themselves under oath to keep the divine law.
  • To refuse intermarriage with Gentiles.
  • To abstain from trade on the sabbath.
  • To leave the lands untilled.
  • To release all their Jewish debtors every seventh year.
  • To pay a third of a shekel of silver each year for the maintenance of the temple service and to contribute tithes, first fruits, and various freewill offerings for the same purpose.

Additionally, they had other manuscripts that gave the history of their past kings and the prophets. In their intent to be as pure as possible as a people, they added these ancient manuscripts to the Torah. These combined manuscripts then became the basic ‘constitution’ of their rebuilding of Jerusalem. This is the Hebrew Scriptures, as I refer to them, or what is commonly referred to today as The Old Testament.

Now, back to the Samaritans. These people no longer spoke Hebrew. In fact, the intermarriage was so significant [remember that the men had been moved to Babylon and the Babylonian men were moved to Samaria] that there were questions as to whether they were really Hebrews anymore. For the sake of ‘purity’ the Samaritans were told “Thanks but no thanks on your offer to help us rebuild the temple.”

Did the Samaritans find this offensive? They were outraged!!! As expected, outraged people often try to get even. They went to their Satrap [manager of the area] and he wrote a letter to the new King of Babylon. (King Cyrus had died by this time and the new King was Darius.) In essence, they said to Darius, “if you go back and check your records, you will discover that there was a reason that King Nebuchadnezzar took this people from Jerusalem to Babylon. It was because they could not be trusted and their ‘word’ was no good. If you let them come back to Jerusalem, you will live to regret it. You will have a new enemy on your hands.”

As a result, Darius had all the records checked to see ‘why’ and ‘what’ King Cyrus had proclaimed. When the records were found, they revealed the following orders from King Cyrus.

1. The Hebrew people were free to remain in Babylon, or go to Jerusalem, or go anywhere they so choose.

2. All the gold, the silver, the precious jewels that were in the temple were in storage, and everything in the warehouses that came from Jerusalem was too be returned.

3. In addition to returning everything that was taken from Jerusalem, the treasury of Babylon was to make a very handsome donation to help rebuild the temple.

As you can guess, the people of Samaria were furious that their plan had backfired. The people of Jerusalem were ecstatic. Given this very strange turn of events, one can understand why there were hard feelings and resentment still flowing many years later at the time of Jesus and the reason that the Samarians rejected the idea that God could only be worshipped at the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. One can also understand why today in Israel, there is a main boulevard named after King Cyrus.

The Hebrew people moving not only to Jerusalem, but all around the Mediterranean Sea, and westward toward India.  Although the temple was  rebuilt, it was no longer the center of their physical life. For their spiritual life, study of the Torah and community, they formed synagogues. With their common Torah studies, their continued observance of the Passover meal established by Moses and taught their history to their children. The Jews continued to be Jews and to be bound to each other via the synagogue.

Conclusion

The Israelites were caught as prophesied but released in a fashion that defied human understanding. No one saw it coming. In all our lives, there are times when we get caught, trapped, left without options that we can see. Just like the EXIT provided by God in the EXODUS, these ‘caught’ people were released and set free when they least expected it. When you, the reader, find yourself trapped, trust the Lord that the ‘Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow’.

Dr. Leeds posted another fascinating article that tells us what transpired between the Old Testament and the New Testament that set the stage for Christ’s arrival. You will be amazed and delighted by God’s timing.

If you found this article interesting, useful, inspiring or informative, please share it.

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