From around 610BC, Nebuchadnezzar began the invasion and destruction of the ancient kingdom of Judah. What had begun as a theocracy moved through various stages of its sometimes glorious history until finally, after over eight centuries of living in their promised land Zedekiah, the last monarch, was removed from Jerusalem and taken to Babylon in chains. It was a physical journey of 1500 km and took around four months—given the mixture of young and old being relocated—but emotionally, it almost destroyed many of those forced to travel it; which was exactly what Nebuchadnezzar had in mind.

It has been said that it took just one night to take Israel out of Egypt, but 40 years to take the Egypt out of Israel. What began as 40 years of captivity in the desert wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, ended 800 years later with 70 years of captivity in the spiritual desert of the fabulous city/state of Babylon. If Israel had been taken out of Egypt to escape the obsessive pagan idol worship of that ancient land, then over the following centuries they re-discovered it with great gusto. Whenever the nation lacked a godly strong-willed leader, they turned to the pagan gods and practices of surrounding tribes and nations to fulfil their own religious desires, and many other desires besides. Of such was the brand of ‘religion’ used by many ancient rulers to maintain power over their often willing subjects. Still is, sometimes.

Forty years had been long enough to replace the generation that left Egypt with a new one that had the faith and courage to cross over into Canaan and win the fierce battles they faced. Seventy years in Babylon also saw one generation pass into history and another take its place, but unlike the Israelites who wandered through the Sinai alone, the Babylonian captives had opportunity to assimilate into Babylonian life as they saw fit. Many did so and they and their families quickly passed into history; a genocide of sorts marketed by the Babylonians as a chance for a new life in a better land. Many jumped at it. By the time the 70 years were over, a significant proportion of the families of those who had been relocated decided they liked their new country just fine and stayed put. Even when Cyrus, their new ruler in Babylon, declared it safe to return, only a relative few—tens, not hundreds of thousands—felt strongly enough about the land of their forefathers and about Yahweh, the God of their now dormant nation, to want to do so.

But even tens of thousands was a miracle of sorts.

Idol worship had been a problem from the beginning of Israel’s history. Only months out of Egypt they had partied hard with their own golden calf. Even worse, just before they crossed the Jordan into Canaan, the idols of Moab with their pretty priestesses proved too tempting for a people fresh from 40 years in the desert. And throughout their history thereafter, the partying never stopped for very long. Forty years might have slowed it down, but it didn’t kill it. So, how could a problem like that be solved? Maybe 70 years in the desert this time, not 40? As it turned out—something completely surprising, something far more divinely brilliant—70 years of forced captivity in one of the most idol-soaked cities there ever was; Babylon the Great, where even the mayor was probably a god. So much idol worship that finally, a people who had originally been raised on “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is One LORD”, had had enough. To be sure, idolatry in one form or another remains a problem for every individual ever born, but nationally Israel were over it so completely after Babylon that they have never returned to it since in any significant way.

That is a miracle of sorts.

But it didn’t just happen out of thin air. Yahweh, whom they so often forgot about, never forgot them, and made sure that the right people were in the right places at the right time to help bring this dormant people back to life. It began in earnest with Jeremiah. How that great prophet agonised over the fate of his people! How he lamented over their godlessness! He pleaded, cajoled, warned and threatened them all; even their king. But all to no avail. For the most part they had become bad people and they weren’t up for changing. If they were a basket of fruit, no-one would eat them because they were mostly rotten to the core!

But not totally.

Jesus knew something about bad figs too, or at least bad fig trees. On one of the last days of his mortal life, he happened upon a leafy g tree. Flourishing, but fruitless. Useless. Like Jeremiah before him, he used it as a metaphor for the religious life of the nation and cursed it, showing that the gorgeously dressed but fruitless religious leaders of his day would die away.
Just like rotten figs. Taken captive, their city destroyed (again). But a faithful remnant of believers remained to become the ecclesia of God in the New Testament—and it’s still here.

They were still there in Jeremiah’s day too. He called them the ‘good figs’.

They were a few—just a remnant, maybe only a handful—who had kept the faith. They went into captivity with the nation, but they remembered Yahweh their God, whom Jeremiah had taught them about. Others were born there. They taught others who were in Babylon, some of whom lived and died never setting foot in Jerusalem but never far from it in spirit. Gradually, awesomely, Yahweh’s ecclesia in exile—doomed to live and die in Babylon—saw a purpose in it all, and began to understand that their lives were not a meaningless waste after all. Finally, they appreciated that the ecclesia would survive; the better for their terrible experience, and that even though they would be buried beneath foreign sands, their children would one day return and restore the Zion they longed for by the rivers of Babylon—that it had all been ‘for their good’.

What a diverse bunch was this handful who helped prepare them. Ordinary people became extraordinary, simply by their faith in God, by allowing Him to work in their lives. Jeremiah, their pioneer, was born into the priesthood. But he, reluctantly, started his work as a prophet at such a very young age and continued, unbending, until he died. There followed an extraordinarily assorted group of people, ranging from teenagers to octogenarians and older. A few more were priests like Jeremiah, including a High one. Several princes and governors, and a revered old man of letters, called a ‘ready scribe’. Some whose genealogy is recorded back for centuries, others who are known simply by their names and no other details. Nothing. One who, at one stage, had almost total authority over the most powerful nation on earth. And a young woman so beautiful in looks and character that she captivated the heart of the most powerful king on earth, and then married him. Their combined service to their God helped save a people who should have been doomed to the dusty scrolls of ancient history. It truly was a miracle—God’s miracle for the nation He loved, performed by the people He chose.

It was the worst of times, but they were the best of people.