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June 19 lesson: God’s People Shall Prosper

June 12, 2022
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God’s People Shall Prosper

Summer Quarter: Partners in a New Creation
Unit 1: God Delivers and Restores


Sunday school lesson for the week of June 19, 2022
By Dr. Jay Harris


Lesson Scripture: Isaiah 49:18-23

Look at All the People Being Gathered

18Lift up your eyes all around and see;
  they all gather, they come to you.
As I live, says the Lord,
  you shall put all of them on like an ornament,
  and like a bride you shall bind them on.

You might wonder what the big deal is about people gathering. The more scattered people are the bigger the deal when they are gathered, especially when their condition is desperate. When gathering such scattered people seems impossible, it becomes an even bigger deal. What situation awaits the people once they are gathered? What work will need to be done? Who else will gather after the first group arrives? Each addition to the gathering adds more meaning and significance to the whole. How will the lives of the people who are gathered be transformed? How will all this glorify God?

Important Background

Consider that there were several significant scatterings in the history of God’s people. Each was caused by a different event. In the late 8th century B.C., the Northern Kingdom Israel was devastated by the Assyrian army. These were the 10 northern tribes who were descendants of Jacob. It was the policy of the Assyrian Empire to take the people from each of the nations they conquered and scatter them among other conquered nations so that they ended up mixing the different nationalities, cultures, and religions. This was a deliberate attempt to erase the religious and cultural memory of the various groups.

The next scattering happened in the 6th century B.C. to the Southern Kingdom Judah, which included the two southern tribes that also traced their lineage to Jacob. The Babylonian army took the leading citizens of Judah to Babylon in three separate deportations. They destroyed Jerusalem, the capital city, along with its palace which was built by David, and most importantly the temple that was built by Solomon. Before they destroyed it, they looted the temple. They did the same kind of thing to other nations that they conquered in an attempt to erase their religious and cultural memory. Instead of scattering the people of these nations, they brought them near Babylon to keep a close eye on their captives. As devastating as this was to God’s people, it ended up being a better situation for them compared to the scattering of the people of the old Northern Kingdom. With the leadership of the prophets, they were able to cope with their captivity and cope with the knowledge of the destruction back home. With the temple destroyed, spiritual leaders kept the memory alive of the law of Moses and the message of the prophets. With no temple during the exile, God’s Word took on a more central role as people gathered together to connect to God.

It was messages like we have read in the Book of Isaiah that gave hope and sustained the spiritual identity of the exiles in Babylonian captivity. The next large-scale movement of people foreseen in this message of hope had to do with the rise of the Persian Empire, led by Cyrus. This next scattering to happen would actually involve a bunch of migrations that were more like gatherings than scatterings.

Cyrus followed a very different policy than the Assyrians and Babylonians before him. We actually have a record outside the Bible of the policy that Cyrus followed. The name of this record is called the Cyrus Cylinder. It was discovered almost 140 years ago in the ancient ruins of Babylon in what is now Iraq. Its home is in the British Museum. It tells of the conquest of Babylon and the capture of the last Babylonian king in 539 B.C. by Cyrus. It tells how Cyrus was led to bring peace, to improve the lives of the Babylonians, and to send home all the people who had been displaced by the Babylonian army. It tells of his policy to let people worship the god of their choice and not the god of the conqueror. It tells of his efforts to restore temples all across Mesopotamia and letting people go back to their way of life in their home lands. This was something not heard of at the time. Some have called this clay “document” the first charter of human rights. The Jews are not mentioned specifically, but the record found in the Bible reflects this policy of Cyrus. According to the Bible, Cyrus was being used as God’s instrument.

So, when our scripture lesson tells God’s people to lift their eyes and look all around and see people being gathered to them, it is a very big deal. The exiles are to visualize themselves back home reconnected to Zion, the mount David established as the center of their life together under God. Zion is personified as a bride dressed in a wedding garment. Everyone who is being gathered to them becomes an ornament on this garment. It is a beautiful picture of God’s people being dressed as a bride adorned for her husband, who is God.

The Setting in Which God’s People Will Gather

19 Surely your waste and your desolate places
  and your devastated land -
surely now you will be too crowded for your inhabitants,
  and those who swallowed you up will be far away.

The condition of the land that once was Israel had become a wasteland, a desolate place, a place of utter devastation. This seems to be the most unlikely place to contain the abundance promised by the prophet. Surely now Zion will be too crowded for all the inhabitants that will be coming. These inhabitants are all the more likely to come, however, because the Babylonian army that swallowed them up will be far away. The Babylonians will be defeated by the Persian army. With the Babylonian army no longer posing a threat, God’s scattered people will be able to emerge from captivity and obscurity and gather once again.

Where Did All these Children Come From?

20 The children born in the time of your bereavement
  will yet say in your hearing:
“The place is too crowded for me;
  make room for me to settle.”
21 Then you will say in your heart,
  “Who has borne me these?
I was bereaved and barren,
  exiled and put away—
  so who has reared these?
I was left all alone—
  where then have these come from?”

In this scripture, the exiles who have returned home to Zion continue to be personified collectively as a woman – Lady Zion, if you will. With the devastating loss associated with her destruction and the exile of her people, it was as if she had been living in a time of profound bereavement. Surprisingly, it was in this time of bereavement that she bore children – more children than she realized. The exceeding number of children will say in her hearing that there is not enough room for all them to settle. Their sheer numbers will cause them to happily demand more room for them to settle. Lady Zion will ask, “Who has borne me these?” She will say that she was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away. She knows they are her children, but she seems to be unaware when and how they were born and how they were reared. She had been left all alone in exile, so she has no clue where all the children came from. What an amazing picture!

Let’s unpack the meaning of this vision. As we have learned, there were multiple waves of Jacob’s descendants displaced by war. Some were displaced by the Assyrian army more than a century and a half earlier. Others were displaced by the Babylonian army. In these waves of destruction, people were forced from their homes and scattered across great distances. We call these Jews in Diaspora. The word “dia-spora” means scattered like spores in the wind. God through the prophet was saying that these children of Jacob/Israel had been growing in number through the years. They had grown in number while hidden from view as persecuted minorities.

It was the rise of Cyrus, the Persian king, that was creating the conditions for God’s children to come out of darkness and show themselves. By removing the threat under which they had lived, they could come out of hiding and rally together. The interesting thing is that not everyone in Babylon returned home at once. Some would continue to live where they were for the rest of their lives. Some Jews in Diaspora from other places would choose to return home and others would form communities where they were. There seems to be no judgment upon those who choose to remain where they had already established a life. Even when they chose to remain, they gathered. They formed faith communities. The places where they met were called synagogues. The life of these communities would be nourished by God’s Word. There will be Jews reviving their spiritual life in Zion, and there will be others who will carry Zion in their hearts and in their life together wherever they happen to live. The story of Esther gives us a view of Jews in Diaspora living in one of the Persian capitals, named Susa.

God Is Making this Happen

22 Thus says the Lord God:
I will soon lift up my hand to the nations,
  and raise my signal to the peoples;
and they shall bring your sons in their bosom,
  and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.
23 Kings shall be your foster fathers,
  and their queens your nursing mothers.
With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you,
  and lick the dust of your feet.
Then you will know that I am the Lord;
  those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.

Notice that it is the Lord God who makes all this happen. It is God’s hand being lifted to the nations that raises the signal for the nations to play a role in the gathering of people. What was happening throughout the Mediterranean region was happening because of God’s direction. The sons and daughters of Israel, who had been scattered by world events, will be carried on the shoulders of nations – Gentile nations! In all this movement, it is as if Gentile kings and queens will become the temporary foster parents of the Jews during this period of history. It is as if they were brought to this moment to become the servants of the Jews. When all this is happening – and it really would happen – God’s people will hear God say to them, “Then you will KNOW that I am the Lord.” Who else but God could make this happen! Those who wait for the Lord, those who do not give up on God, or give up on their faith, or lose hope, will not be put to shame. There will not be a bit of regret that they put their trust in the Lord.

Fast forward centuries later when Jesus was born into the world and carried out his ministry in the land of ancient Israel. Think about where he started out when he went from town to town. He started in the local synagogues. The apostle Paul, in his missionary journeys, also went first to the local synagogues. The missionary work of the New Testament Church happened throughout the Mediterranean region in a time when it was ruled yet again by Gentiles – Romans in this case. The Romans were not nearly as hospitable as the Persians to God’s work. Yet, it was the infrastructure of the Roman Empire and the relative peace that they enforced that allowed Paul to travel as he did. The Roman Empire provided an abundance of Gentiles who would be receptive to the gospel of Christ. Everywhere there were conversions to Christ, congregations were formed. Believers were gathered. There would be the church in Corinth, the church in Ephesus, the church in Rome, and so on. The New Testament also speaks of the Church as a whole. All the countless local gatherings of believers across the globe constitute the Church, the Body of Christ, and the Bride of Christ.

God would still say to us, “Lift up your eyes all around and see; they all gather, they come to you.” God is still reaching people through the Church. We are to continue lifting our eyes to the people God is gathering to himself in love. We are to be involved in reaching out, inviting, and incorporating the people who are coming to us. The Church is being adorned as a bride for her husband, who is Christ. How beautiful to imagine everyone God gathers as an ornament for the wedding garment.

Prayer

Gracious and merciful God, you have gathered those in bondage and captivity from their scattered places into the light of your glory and love. Help us hear your call to be involved in your work as partners in your new creation, that we may discover significance, joy, and peace in this work that matters, through Christ, the Great Shepherd who gathers His sheep to Himself, Amen.

Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at jharris@sgaumc.com. Find his plot-driven guide to reading the Bible, the “Layered Bible Journey,” at www.layeredbiblejourney.com.  

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