Do We Live in Israel or Babylon?

Do We Live in Israel or Babylon? February 1, 2023

Marvin Olasky, my friend and the former editor of World Magazine, asks a provocative question that reframes the issue of how Christians should engage with culture:  “Do we live in ancient Israel or a modern Babylon?”

In an article for Christianity Today entitled We Live in Babylon, Not Israel, he gives his answer.  He points out that the children of Israel were given specific laws that set them apart as a holy community.

Looking back to ancient Israel, the emphasis was on purity, not evangelism—God sent Ishmael and Esau into the wilderness, told Joshua to destroy the Canaanites, and instructed Ezra to insist that the Israelites put away foreign wives. To make the Holy Land holy, God commanded a zero-tolerance policy: There shall be no abominations among you.

He cites Jeremiah, who excoriates the Israelites for defiling the land God had given them, so that He will take it away and send them into exile.  But once the people are taken away in captivity to Babylon, Jeremiah does not tell them to overthrow that nation’s idols and impose Biblical law.  Rather, he says,

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. … Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:4–5, 7)

To be sure, even in exile, God’s people were to remain faithful to Him and follow His Word.  Though there were to be no soothsayers in Israel (Deut. 18:10–12), Daniel became the leader of the Babylonian soothsayers (Dan. 2:48).  Daniel did not try to put an end to Babylonianpaganism.  And yet he himself refused to bow down to an idolatrous image, even in the face of the lion’s den.

Daniel thought and acted independently from these ungodly people, but nowhere did he indicate a plan or desire to wipe them out. As a stranger in a strange land, he had to coexist with them—which makes him a role model for us. For at least 66 years, from 605 to 539 B.C., Daniel lived and worked under Babylonian authority, always trying to serve a strange public while remaining true to God.

With the coming of Christ, the emphasis shifted to evangelism.

In the Old Testament, all idols in the land of Israel were to be destroyed. And yet in the New Testament, the apostle Paul never tried to remove pagan altars and idols from public streets in the city of Athens (Acts 17:17–31). He and the gospel writers emphasized proclaiming the Good News of Christ at every opportunity, without calling for the imposition of biblical law. . . .

Without a land to preserve but with a gospel to proclaim, the primary directive for early believers was to bring in the sheaves rather than to try enforcing biblical law.

Marvin concludes with a warning against “Christian nationalism.”  “We have no holy land or temple to defend, but churches should aspire to be model cities in God’s kingdom—where, by his grace, individuals can and will be changed from the inside out.”

What do you think about this analysis?  It does seem that Christian nationalists speak of America as if it were ancient Israel.  If the USA is really a “Christian nation,” as they contend, that might make sense.  But certainly the whole nation is not “Christian” today and, indeed, never was or could be.  Christianity is for the salvation of individual people who have immortal souls, whereas nations, though estates from God, are temporal institutions, destined to pass away.  Besides, Christianity is not primarily about our fulfilling, much less imposing, God’s law; rather, it is primarily about recognizing our failure to do so and finding forgiveness through Christ’s fulfillment of that law and His atoning death and resurrection on our behalf.

The prophets did condemn the wickedness of Babylon and the other pagan nations (see Jeremiah 51 and Isaiah 21).  God will indeed judge the nations.

Christians should resist America’s embrace of abortion and other cultural evils.  Marvin is not agreeing with the pro-abortion slogan, “If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one.”  Though if the 72% of Americans who profess to be Christians would would follow God’s Word on the matter, that would put a major dent in the abortion rate.  Still, moral truth is not just for Christians.  And, Christianity has had a profound influence on secular culture.  (See Alvin Schmidt’s Under the Influence:  How Christianity Transformed Civilization).

Still, realizing that we are in Babylon, as “strangers in a strange land” (Ex 2:22;KJV), should give us a perspective on what we are up against and should temper any utopian expectations and ambitions.



The Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Tower of Babel by unknown artist (19th century) –, Public Domain,

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