Laurie and I once taught English to a family from the Karen tribe of Burma that had immigrated to the United States. They had lived for thirteen years in a refugee camp in Thailand. When the father was a child, his family had been attacked, and he ran into the jungle for safety. Tragically, he never saw his parents or siblings again. This family’s experience is just one in our world’s long history rife with heartbreaking accounts of people groups that have been uprooted from their native lands, dispersed, or forced into settlement or refugee camps. Time and space will not allow us to adequately recount these tragic events, some of which are occurring at the time of this writing. However, if we investigate Scripture, we will see that God’s people, both individually and nationally, became displaced people more than once.
Moses, exiled from Egypt, considered himself a stranger in a strange land (Exodus 2:21–22).
The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and dispersed because they had egregiously sinned against the Lord by worshiping other gods and setting up for themselves “pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree” (2 Kings 17:5–12).
Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was taken captive to Babylon because “All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the LORD that he had made holy in Jerusalem. The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy” (2 Chronicles 36:14–16).
The Lord allowed the diaspora of Israel and the captivity of Judah because His people had worshiped idols and turned away from Him. They became foreigners in lands not their own. He removed them from their ancestral home because He loved them and desired what was best for them: to love, know, and obey Him.
A Reminder of Uncomfortable Transience: the Feast of Booths
Israel’s celebration of the Feast of Booths is an instructive example of how the Lord reminded His people of their need for an abiding sense of uncomfortable transience. He did not simply think this was a good idea—He commanded it: “You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23:42–43). The people of Israel needed to be retold that there was a time when they had no permanent dwelling place. I believe one of the reasons the Lord established this annual feast was to challenge Israel’s tendency to give in to a self-contentment in what He had given them—the Land of Promise, flowing with milk and honey. After what their forefathers had experienced as slaves in Egypt, living freely as the chosen nation of God was another day in Paradise in comparison. They would be tempted to forget the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 8:11-28).
Christians Are Transients As Well
In the New Testament, God’s people are referred to in Hebrews 11:13 as strangers and exiles: “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” The idea that Christians are temporary residents on earth still exists as a stream of thought among Western Christians, but it seems to have been reduced to a trickle. Songs with lyrics like, “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through” seem to have been reduced to whispers. Our materialistic, this-world-is-all-there-is culture speaks with a very loud voice. Nevertheless, the impermanent condition for the Lord’s sinful-but-forgiven loved ones has been His heart throughout Scripture.