The End of Their World

“And when I shall extinguish thee, I will cover the heavens, and make the stars thereof dark; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon shall not give its light. All the bright lights of heaven will I make dark over thee, and set darkness upon thy land,” saith the Lord YHWH (Ezekiel 32:7-8).

You either flock to “apocalyptic” passages of Scripture or prove at least a little apprehensive about them. They look weird. Hollywood could take notes on what is portrayed.

Many are convinced no such passage has been yet fulfilled since we have not seen such cosmic signs in the sky. Yet maintaining such an expectation unnecessarily literalizes prophetic imagery, creates impossible expectations, and misses out on the prophet’s main lesson. People read apocalyptic passages and expect the end of the world; the prophet is warning the people regarding the end of their world.

Ezekiel’s message regarding Egypt in Ezekiel 32:7-8 can help us better understand the nature of such “apocalyptic” prophecies. From 587 until 585 Ezekiel received a series of messages against Pharaoh and the Egyptians; one such message came in 570 and represents the final prophecy given by Ezekiel (Ezekiel 29:1-32:32). Ezekiel’s prophecy against Egypt remained consistent throughout: YHWH would send the king of Babylon and his army against Pharaoh and his host, Pharaoh would be humiliated, the people would suffer exile, and Egypt would no longer rise as a kingdom among the nations. Ezekiel 32:7-8 is given in this context; in Ezekiel 32:11, he explicitly associated this “apocalyptic” message with the promise of the arrival of the king of Babylon against Egypt.

This “apocalypse,” therefore, was expected quite soon. Nebuchadnezzar did send a Chaldean Babylonian army against Egypt in 567 to help deposed Pharaoh Wahibre (Apries) regain his throne against the upstart Ahmose II (Amasis). The invasion proved unsuccessful. The Egyptians would not experience an exile in the way Ezekiel originally promised, but the “apocalypse” would come upon their land: Ahmose’s son Psamtik III would be defeated by Cambyses king of Persia in 525, deposed, and exiled to Susa. Egypt would be incorporated into the Persian Empire, and beyond a brief stint of home rule in the 4th century BCE, would continue to serve as a pawn for successive empires until 1953 of our own era.

For us today such a conclusion might seem underwhelming, and not much of a fulfillment. It does not seem sufficiently dramatic to us. Yet consider the situation from Ezekiel’s own perspective. When he was born around 622 BCE the world around him remained as it had been for the better part of 500 years: sure, the kingdoms of Israel and Aram had fallen to the Assyrians, but the Assyrians still ruled, Babylon laid in wait, Jerusalem stood, and Egypt remained as it had been for millennia. A visitor from a few centuries earlier would have recognized that world. By the time Ezekiel received these messages from YHWH, Assyria had fallen, no longer a going concern; Chaldean Babylon was now ascendant; Jerusalem had been destroyed. Within another century Persia, in Ezekiel’s day one among many peoples subject to the Medes, would conquer the known world, eliminating both Babylon and Egypt as independent nations. This was a completely new world; nothing like it had ever been seen. Surely the collapse of the Late Bronze Age kingdoms proved more catastrophic, and yet even then Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt remained. Babylon had been founded in 2300 BCE; Assyria, 2500; Egypt, 3100. Within one century all would fall, never to rise again. All of them had in their own way oppressed Israel the people of God; all of them were denounced by the prophets; all thus endured the Day of YHWH.

Therefore, even though by our standards we might find it hard to accept these “apocalyptic” prophecies met their fulfillment, the historical evidence makes it difficult to argue otherwise. Assyria was at the apex of its power under Ashurbanipal who died in 631 BCE; who could imagine it would be destroyed 20 years later? Josiah of Judah oversaw a renaissance in Judah; within 25 years of his death Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed, and the Davidic Kingdom of Judah would never rise again. Nebuchadnezzar presided in Babylon as king of the world; within 25 years it would all become the possession of a king and a nation which was not even an independent force when he died. Ahmose II and his fellow pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth dynasty presumed to restore the glory of Egypt and imitated Old Kingdom art; yet Egypt in their day would become subject to distant foreigners, and would remain so for about as long as it had enjoyed independence. All of these collapses happened suddenly. The world had not ended; but their world was gone, never to return.

If we understand the gravity of the events which took place between 625 and 525 BCE, we would recognize how imagery like the sun, moon, and stars turning dark is more than appropriate. Everything the people of the nations had taken for granted for centuries, if not millennia, was suddenly overturned. For anyone who was invested in the status quo which had developed in the first half of the first millennium BCE the events proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

No one would come out the same. Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and the small surrounding nations would undergo Hellenization after the conquest of Alexander the Great, syncretizing their cultural and religious ideologies with those of the Greeks. Some Judahites would return from Babylonian exile, yet they would not return to the syncretized ways of their ancestors; Second Temple Judaism would prove as uniquely distinct from the practices of the days of the Solomonic Temple as it would from the Judaism which developed after the second Temple was destroyed.

Such is how it goes with “apocalypses.” The world does not end, but the world will never be the same again. A world has come to an end.

As Christians we confess Jesus as Lord of lords and King of kings; we recognize the nations of the world are empowered by God but enslave themselves to the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Romans 13:1, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-18, 19:16). We look forward to the day on which the Lord Jesus will return and fully defeat death, the final enemy, and receive unto Himself all of every nation who serves Him, and to share in eternity in the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 15:20-58, Revelation 20:11-22:6). In the meantime we have every confidence that the nations and their fates remain in the hands of God just as they did in the days of the prophets; the fact John can see judgments on Rome in terms of the judgments against the nations according to the prophets provides such testimony.

To this end we might well experience “apocalypses” as we await the ultimate Apocalypse, the final appearance of Jesus, the Son of Man and Risen Lord. These “apocalypses” are not the end of the world, but they will represent the end of a world. They might be personal in nature; they might afflict a particular group of people; they may afflict a nation or the entire world. In these times things people took for granted and assumed to be predictable become so no longer. What used to be “normal” becomes impossible. Life might well go on for many, but it will not look like it did before.

God has never promised to remove us from such forms of distress, but He has left us the same promise He has always left His people in difficult times. He will strengthen and sustain us through whatever we must endure, but only if we turn to Him and cling to Him as our refuge and strength. Ultimately we have no basis in confidence and reliance on any thing in this creation, and “apocalypses” remind us of this: they all fade and fall apart (1 Peter 1:23-25). At the same time, nothing in the creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31-39): no force can tear us away from God. In Christ we can endure anything as long as we maintain our faith and trust in Him come what may.

No one ever asked to live through an “apocalypse.” No one wants to experience a day and time in which metaphors of cosmic dislocation seem just about right or perhaps even a little understated. And yet according to God’s sovereign purposes such times come upon mankind. They end a world; but they have not yet ended the world. They have often allowed for transformation and new life to grow. Whether we live in times of comfort or distress, stability or “apocalypse,” we do well to maintain our confidence in God in Christ, and not in anything He has made, and obtain the resurrection of life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Kingdom Refugees

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter wrote to the Christians in many Roman provinces of what we today call Asia Minor, or Turkey. He speaks of them as “elect who are sojourners” (ASV) or “elect exiles” (ESV) of the “Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). It would be easy to assume that he wrote specifically to Jewish Christians who considered themselves part of the Diaspora, the Jewish community outside of the land of Israel based on this terminology; it is similar to James 1:1, and of all the nations only Israel would see itself in exile as dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. And yet Peter considered his audience as having been redeemed “from [their] vain manner of life handed down from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:17); they were a people who had once not been a people, but were made the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). While the latter prophecy was given specifically to Israel (Hosea 1:1-3:5), and Peter himself considered the Law a burden he nor his people Israel could bear (Acts 15:10), no Israelite would presume that his ancestors had lived in a vain matter, or speak of their people as not the people of God; instead, Peter has Christians converted out of the Gentile world in view (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18, etc.).

Peter appropriated Israelite imagery to describe Christians throughout 1 Peter. Christians are the temple and its priests (1 Peter 2:3-5); titles and concepts associated with Israel are now appropriated for Christians in 1 Peter 2:9-10. Peter used the term “Gentiles” with all of its negative connotations of hostile pagans (1 Peter 2:12, 4:3), even though according to ethnic heritage many of the Christians to whom he wrote would be reckoned as Gentiles. Thus Peter envisioned Christians as the people of God, speaking of them in terms of Israel, and spoke of their opponents among the nations in terms of the Gentiles.

And uniquely among all the letters of the New Testament Peter also appropriated the imagery of sojourn and exile experienced by Israel and applied it to the present circumstance of Christians in the world. Peter addressed the Christians as exiles/sojourners (1 Peter 1:1); exhorted them to reverence before God during their sojourn (1 Peter 1:17-21); encouraged them as sojourners and exiles to conduct themselves appropriately before the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:11-12); and spoke of his current location as “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13). In this way exile and sojourn proves to be a running theme in 1 Peter: as Israel was exiled by Babylon and had to learn to live as exiles and sojourners, so Christians are to see themselves as exiles/sojourners under “Babylon,” or Rome, and live accordingly.

“Sojourners” and “exiles” are terms often used interchangeably and yet maintain important distinctions and nuances. A sojourner is a person who voluntarily leaves his homeland to go and live somewhere else; Abraham is the model sojourner, following God’s call to leave Ur and Haran and live in Canaan, in which he never owned any property beyond a gravesite (cf. Hebrews 11:9-10). An exile is a person who less than voluntarily leaves his homeland to live somewhere else; Israel in the days of Babylon is the model of exile, a people forced to go somewhere else (Psalm 137:1-9). A sojourner often has good reasons for leaving the homeland and has little desire to return; they are tempted to assimilate into their new land and culture. The exile tends to want nothing more than to return to his homeland; they are tempted to have nothing at all to do with their new land and culture and idolize their country of origin.

Christians are to be as both sojourners and exiles in different ways. Christians are as sojourners inasmuch as they should have no desire to return from the “land” of sin and darkness from which they have been redeemed (Romans 6:21, Ephesians 2:1-18). Christians are exiles inasmuch as they should not feel too comfortable in the land, culture, and nation-state in which they reside, always maintaining primary loyalty to their “real home,” the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:20-21). Christians must resist the temptation to assimilate to the land in which they live (Romans 12:2); likewise, Christians must resist the temptation to be so focused on separation from the world so as to be no earthly good, not showing the love God would have us show to those around us (Matthew 22:34-40, Galatians 2:10, 6:10).

Peter did well to speak of the life of the Christian in terms of exile and sojourn. We today rarely speak in those terms; instead, our preferred concept is that of the refugee. A refugee feels compelled to flee their homeland because of strife, war, famine, plague, or other ravages; they seek asylum in another land. Some refugees want nothing more than to forget the past and assimilate into a new land; other refugees desperately cling to their identity from their former land. Christians are to have fled to God for refuge in order to lay hold of the hope of resurrection (Hebrews 6:18); their primary citizenship, and thus loyalty, is to the Kingdom of God, even though they are also to obey earthly authorities (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 2:11-18). There is no land in which they are to feel fully comfortable; it is not for Christians to plant their flag anywhere and declare it their own in the name of God in Christ. The refugee always remains in a precarious situation, the quality of their life dependent on the goodwill and hospitability of their land of refuge; Christians are always likewise in a precarious situation under any nation-state. Christians cannot get too settled; they cannot too closely align with or be identified with earthly power, lest they prove no longer refugees for God’s Kingdom. As refugees we can identify with those who are marginalized, neglected, oppressed, or in danger; we know that God has special concern for such people (Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27). As refugees we must be skeptical of the nation-states of man even as we prove obedient to rulers, understanding that the principalities and powers of this present darkness empower the nation-states (Matthew 4:8-9, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Christians must know their comfort must not come from their environment but from their God (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

We find it difficult to understand ourselves as refugees because we have not physically gone anywhere; we live in a strange tension, remaining the same demographically as before, and often even within the same nation-state, and yet so fully transformed spiritually so as to be a different person than before. Such was true as well for the Christians to whom Peter wrote. It helps us understand and cope with the fractured relationships and hostility we encounter from those whom we knew beforehand who see our new conduct in Christ and prove hostile to it (cf. 1 Peter 4:1-6). But it also helps us develop a mindset and posture that glorifies God in Christ as distinct from that of the nation-state and culture around us. We may maintain friendship and association with people in the world, and yet they remain as “Gentiles.” We may appreciate the privileges of living under a given nation-state, and yet we remain as refugees within it. If we lose our distinctiveness, we prove unprofitable (Matthew 5:13).

Christians are exiles and sojourners on the earth: refugees for the Kingdom of God in Christ. We must flee the world and its ways so as to find refuge for our souls in God and hope for the resurrection and a world of righteousness in Jesus. May we live in the world as refugees of the Kingdom and glorify God in Christ in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry