You’re Gonna Be in Babylon for a While

Jeremiah 31, Steel Magnolias, and Unexpected Salvation

Guest Contributor / 4.24.20

This one comes to us from Chase Benefiel.

At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

Thus says the LORD:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.”

(Jeremiah 31:1-6)

My favorite movie is Steel Magnolias. (Spoilers ahead!) And my favorite scene is set in the cemetery. Here, M’Lynn, the bereaved mother of the late Shelby, is standing over her daughter’s casket, sprayed with pink roses and all five leading women are wearing black, a typical scene at a southern funeral.

Annelle, the recent, excited convert, offers her unsolicited theological musings: “It should make you feel a lot better that Shelby is with her King,” Annelle says to M’Lynn, whose gaze remains fixed on her daughter’s casket. “Yes, Annelle,” M’Lynn says, turning to look her in the eye, “I guess it should.” She answers with the biting tone that one would expect from a grieving parent.

“We should all be rejoicing!” says Annelle.

“Well you go on ahead,” M’Lynn says, turning her face back down to her daughter’s casket. “I’m sorry if I don’t feel like it—I guess I’m a little selfish; I’d rather have her here.” She doesn’t need well-meaning, inefficacious attempts to cheer her up. She needs resurrection.

Our passage from Jeremiah illustrates a rapturous vision of a family reunion, everlasting love, and faithfulness, talk of tambourines and dancing. There also seems to be a winery and a picnic in the not-too-distant background. This reading was chosen for Easter, and it makes sense. It sounds good with a background of white lilies and palms and pastels and echos of “He is risen, indeed,” mixed with Charles Wesley’s “Alleluia” still lingering in the nave. It sounds less appropriate for an empty nave and a congregation locked in their homes, the very things that were life-giving to them now being dangerous. There simply aren’t many tambourine foot-functions going on right now.

I have a feeling that this may be closer to the sentiment of the first hearers of these words. The Israelites are exiled in Babylon when they receive a letter from the prophet Jeremiah (that’s Chapter 29). They excitedly open the letter, hold their breath and hear, “Get comfortable—you’re going to be here a while. Your welfare is inextricably linked to that of your oppressors, so pray for them.” Then we hear Jeremiah 29:11 about the hopeful plans the LORD has for us. We get words of conditional covenant, like that with Moses: “When you pray to me [your responsibility], I will hear [my responsibility]; [and likewise] when you seek me, I will let you find me.”

Then comes what is known as the Book of Comfort, Jeremiah 30-31, full of promises of the saving acts of God, not dependent on the acts of the Israelites, echoing other exilic prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel. Here is where we find our passage.

And I wonder if those exiled Israelites–hearing promises of vineyards and dancing but seeing scenes of Babylon–if they felt something similar to hearing “we should all be rejoicing” while looking at your daughter’s casket. Or maybe it felt like self-isolation, wondering when you’ll be able to see friends again or worrying about your aging parents. Maybe it’s like saying “Christ is risen” and wondering what difference it makes in times like these.

We actually know that the Israelites weren’t joyfully living out their days in exile. One of the most famous imprecatory psalms begins: “By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Hardly the song of one whose mindset has been changed by looking on the positive side or practicing gratitude.

If you think the opening sentence of Psalm 137 is bad, it gets worse. It actually ends saying, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Now that doesn’t show up in our hymnals, does it? And yet it made it into our sacred canon. Hurt, broken, honest words to God.

So my question is: Where does God get the gall to say this? The people of Israel are in enemy territory and God’s answer to them seems platitudinous. Yes, God says that “[they] have heard a cry of panic.” God is listening, as we can tell, but God’s answers are promises totally disjunct from reality—that is, reality without God.

These answers—these pictures of family reunions with tambourines and dancing overlooking a vineyard, this everlasting love, this presence of God in the midst of desolation, this vision of a starkly different reality, is impossible. The saving works of God center on God’s unique ability to create ex nihilo, out of nothing.

In the season of Easter, we celebrate the saving work of God in history. The apostle Peter tells us, “We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear” (Acts 10:39-40).

What I can’t get away from, though, is that this cosmic ability to give a barren woman a child, part the sea, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, to raise the dead, is sometimes put aside and the answer we receive is “settle down, you’re gonna be in Babylon for a while.”

Sometimes salvation looks like a family reunion, like a tambourine dance party, or like the sunset over a vineyard. But sometimes it’s unknown, unfelt, and unseen, “a grace in the wilderness.”