For the people of God, the times wore like a heavy rail across their shoulders. Although they had food and family, they had no freedom. The worship of other gods was offered like lush fruit on a silver plate, a banquet of choices to simulate freedom while holding the people in a vice of oppression.
But what time am I describing?
Sadly, this was not a one-time experience for God's people. I could have been describing the Israelites' 400-year oppression in Egypt. Or, maybe I told of the Exile, when many Israelites were torn from their homeland in the Exile by Babylon, spending 80 years under that powerful regime. Or maybe the time of the Romans, when the Jews remained in their homeland but under the Latin strong arm.
Had you thought of the parallels before? In each case, God's people were oppressed by a powerful empire that favored a pantheon of gods.
In those days, empires often embraced the gods of the newly-conquered. They figured that if they simply added in the new gods, the people would be less likely to rebel against the regime.
So the pressure was great to adapt. Those who clung to one God were outcasts, seen as unwilling to fit in, as narrow and suspect.
As we read biblical texts, we have to understand that context for the people. (For a review, check out these links: provenance I and provenance II.)
One benefit of understanding the backdrop for biblical writings is that, as we see application to the original reader, we can also see how they might apply to us as well.
As I described the oppression in my first paragraph, did your mind flit to modern-day China? Or maybe modern-day America? Clinging to one God today often brands us as outcasts, narrow-minded and social rebels.
In that context, the words of Isaiah, who wrote to exiles in Babylon, resonate in a new way:
"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God." (Isaiah 40:1)
We need comfort as much as those exiles did - and to know that it comes from God and not from other gods or empires is, well, comforting.