Society & Politics

Leadership Lessons from the Life of the Exiles Part 7


Preston Manning, Senior Fellow

This article is the last in a series by Preston Manning on leadership lessons from the life of the biblical exiles. A member of the Canadian House of Commons from 1993 to 2001, founder of two new political parties—the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Allianceand the Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000, Preston works with the MI on the development and communication of faith-informed approaches to political leadership and public policy.

Re-establishing the Faith Community Under Hostile Conditions

Spiritual Renewal

Since the days of King David, the spiritual life of Israel and Judah had experienced a long decline, a decline attributed by the prophets to the departure of the people and their rulers from adherence to the law, will, and worship of God. This decline culminated in the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of the promised land and the carrying off of the people of God into slavery and exile in foreign lands. In those foreign lands, under hostile rulers and conditions, the embers of a vital relationship with the living God were kept alive by a faithful few. But would those embers also be extinguished, suffocated by the hostility and unbelief of their environment? Or would they, could they, in the purposes of God, be fanned to life again? Was it possible that the spiritual life of the faith community could be revitalized and restored under such conditions?

The same questions are relevant to the Christian community in the 21st century. We too, at least in western Europe and North America, have been in spiritual decline, attributable to the same causes that led to the spiritual decline of Israel and Judah centuries ago. Believers are now a minority in cultures and political systems indifferent or hostile to our faith. And while the embers of a vital relationship with God through Jesus Christ are kept alive by a faithful few, the questions remain: will they, too, be slowly suffocated by the indifference and hostility of a secular and materialistic environment? Or is a genuine renewal of faith in God through Jesus Christ possible under such conditions?

In the case of Judah, a revitalization and restoration of the faith community actually did take place under precisely such conditions. The story of how it came about is told, at least in part, by Ezra and Nehemiah. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were exiles in Babylon and Medo-Persia. Both were used by God to lead the return of a significant portion of the faith community to Jerusalem to rebuild its temple and walls and restore the worship of God. The study of their experience and the lessons derived from it is highly relevant to Christians today who desire a genuine spiritual renewal of the Christian community in our times.

Where Does It Start?

The spiritual renewal described by Ezra and Nehemiah had its beginning in a sovereign and simultaneous movement of God’s spirit on two very different kinds of hearts: the hearts of the exiles themselves and, strangely enough, the hearts of their captors—in particular, Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, rulers of the Medes and Persians. As we have seen from previous examinations of the lives of exiles such as Joseph, Daniel, and Esther, significant events occur when the sovereign movements of God intersect with human hearts—hearts which either respond to or resist his leadings.

In the case of the exiles themselves, Ezra describes those who were led to go and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem as “everyone whose heart God had moved”—in particular the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, the priests, and the Levites.[1]

This movement of God on the hearts of the faithful few appeared to manifest itself in two ways as reflected in the prayers of exiles like Daniel[2] and, later, Nehemiah.[3] It moved them to:

  • Acknowledge and repent of the acts and attitudes that had led to their people’s alienation from the person, will, and work of God in the first place.
  • Reaffirm and reassert their faith in the promises of God, in particular the promise communicated by Jeremiah that in due time God would restore his relationship with the faithful and restore them to their place of worship in Jerusalem.

In the case of the rulers of the Medes and the Persians during whose reign this restoration took place, Ezra asserts that “the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia” to make the proclamation that authorized it.[4] When the enemies of the Jews who had inhabited Judah during the exile endeavored to stop the work by advising the king that Jerusalem had a history of rebellion, letters were sent from Ezra to the Persian rulers defending their right to proceed.[5] And in the end, both Darius the Mede and King Artaxerxes re-authorized the rebuilding of the temple and the city, starting with its walls, leading Ezra to exclaim; “Praise be to the Lord, the God of our fathers, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials.”[6]

It is significant that both Ezra and Nehemiah give as much attention to recording the “movement of God” on the hearts of the Median and Persian rulers as they do to the movement of God on the hearts of his own people.

The Response of the Faithful to the Movement of God in Their Hearts

The great prayer of the exile Daniel, recorded in the ninth chapter of the book of Daniel, provides a classic and instructive model of the prayer for spiritual renewal:

In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.

I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:

“Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.

“Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.

“Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing on us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.

“Now, Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.

“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”[7]

There is of course much to be learned concerning the conditions and factors which have led to the periodic renewal of the Christian faith down through the centuries from the vast library of scholarly work that exists on this subject. I refer particularly to works on the history and nature of such “movements of God” as the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the First and Second Great Awakenings, and national and local “revivals.” The latter would include those that have occurred in Wales, Scotland, and New England, and more recently in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

This is not the place to more thoroughly analyze and discuss those factors and conditions and their relevance to our day and age, nor am I suitably qualified to do so. I would, however, encourage each of us to begin to identify from our own perspective what such a genuine divinely-inspired renewal of the Christian faith in our time, and in particular in Canada, might look like.

From my own perspective as a Christian in politics, by referring to the need for a renewal of the Christian faith in our time I am not referring to some restoration of the past political influence of Christianity. I am not referring to the “gaining of control” by professing Christians over the institutions and services of the state, nor am I referring to some dramatic increase in the size and impressiveness of church attendance, church buildings, or church budgets.

Rather I believe that such a spiritual renewal should manifest itself in the following ways:

  • In a renewal of our awareness of evil and its roots in our own lives and in the world in which we live, including the diabolical nature of the violence, crime, addictions, injustices, and self-destructive obsessions which afflict so many human lives today.[8]
  • In a renewed concern leading to action on behalf of the poor, the sick, and the victims of injustice and oppression.
  • In a renewed belief in the efficacy of spiritual practices such as prayer and Scripture study which draw us closer to Him, and the necessity and benefits of spiritual fellowship.
  • And most importantly in a renewed vision of who Jesus Christ is and what He has to offer in terms of deliverance from evil, the healing of broken relationships, and enabling self-sacrificial service on behalf of others.

The Response of Political Leaders to the Movement of God on Their Hearts

For a person with political interests and involvements, the most striking aspect of the restoration of the exiled faith community as described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is the role of rulers who did not share that faith in facilitating its restoration.

The prayer of Daniel previously cited indicates what the movement of God on the hearts of the exiles moved them to do—to pray, to repent, and to claim his promises for renewal. Likewise Ezra’s citing of the proclamation of King Cyrus of Persia in the first year of his reign indicates what the movement of God on the heart of this political ruler moved him to proclaim throughout his realm:

“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’ ”[9]

Here then is a pertinent question for those longing and praying for a renewal of the Christian faith in our time. Should we also be looking for some movement of God on the heart of some secular political leader who does not share that faith but which would nevertheless facilitate genuine spiritual renewal and complement the movement of God on the hearts of his own people?

In a secular pluralistic state such as Canada, this facilitating and complementary action by a political leader or government could not take the form of an explicit endorsement or provision of support for the Christian faith and its institutional forms. But it could conceivably take the form of a genuine and renewed championing of freedom of conscience and belief from which not only Christians but also others with faith-based convictions would benefit.

The historians tell us that Cyrus the Great of Persia was a remarkable ruler for that age and time in that he did not try to impose the religion of Persia on the nations and peoples he conquered. Rather he was quite magnanimous in allowing captive peoples to retain and even restore their traditional religious practices.[10]

In a similar vein, one of the first major acts of the Roman Emperor Constantine (Emperor from 306 to 337 AD and the first Emperor to claim conversion to Christianity) involved proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. Contrary to popular opinion the Edict did not make Christianity the official religion of the Empire (this came much later in 380 AD). Instead it expressly granted religious liberty not only to Christians who had been the targets of ruthless persecution but also to the practitioners of all religions throughout the Empire.[11]

It was the granting of such freedom of conscience and practice, as much as the favor of the Emperor himself, that then permitted the Christian faith to flourish and expand its influence throughout the Empire.

If there was one thing a secular political leader, for example, in Canada, could do to facilitate a renewal of the Christian faith in our time without explicitly endorsing or supporting it, it would be simply to ensure that the guarantees of freedom of conscience and belief contained in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms are actually honoured and accorded in practice to those whose consciences and beliefs are rooted in a faith perspective, just as those guarantees are presently applied aggressively to expressions of conscience and belief rooted in secular and non-religious (even anti-religious) perspectives.[12] Such a genuine renewal of freedom of conscience and belief in Canada, in particular freedom from the dictates of political correctness and the imposition of secular values by our media, academic, judicial, and political elites on those who do not share those perspectives, might be highly conducive to a renewal of genuine Christian faith in our time. 

The Need for Caution

In scanning the political horizon for proclamations or actions by secular leaders and governments which might, even inadvertently or indirectly, facilitate a renewal and reinvigoration of faith in Christ, it is especially important to guard against the dangers of such leaders using a revival of religion for strictly political reasons.

In Russia, for example, while it is dangerous to impute motives to leaders most of us only know about through the media, Vladimir Putin’s efforts to revitalize the role and influence of the Eastern Orthodox church would appear to be more related to his interest in stimulating a revival of Russian nationalism than it is to restoring the influence of the Christian faith in Russian society.

In the same vein, I recall a conversation I had a number of years ago with a Chinese Communist official concerning the professed efforts of his party to stamp out corruption. He acknowledged that “religion” in many societies had played a role in establishing and enforcing moral standards such as “Thou shalt not steal.” And while it would be inconceivable for the Communist Party of China, being atheistic in principle, to consider facilitating a renewal of theistic religions for the purposes of combatting corruption, it was not inconceivable that it could facilitate renewed interest in a non-theistic religion such as Confucianism and harness it to that task.[13]

Can Christian Believers Learn from Secular Efforts to Restore the Morale of Defeated and Demoralized Organizations?

One of the strangest and most arresting stories told by Jesus of Nazareth was about an “unjust steward.” The man was about to be sacked from his position by his master so he used his last days on the job to ensure a favorable position for himself with his master’s debtors by writing down their debt notes. While Jesus was obviously not condoning the dishonesty of the unjust steward, he did draw attention to his “shrewdness” and what might be learned from it, remarking that “the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”[14]

Without carrying this line of reasoning too far, it might nevertheless be helpful to those longing for a renewal of the faith community—weakened and demoralized by past defeats and years in exile in hostile environments—also to study some of the examples of successful attempts to restore the vigour and morale of non-religious communities and organizations which have been “down and out.”

This is a subject that political leaders must frequently consider, especially after one personally loses an election or one’s political party has suffered a devastating and demoralizing electoral defeat. In my case, a “rebuilding story” which I have found most instructive is that involving the revitalization of the British Army in Burma during the Second World War as told by its leader, Field-Marshall Viscount William Slim.[15]

In 1942 the British Army was systematically driven back across Burma by the Japanese, all the way to India, suffering defeat after defeat and horrendous casualties along the way. After retreating to India, its shaken leader, William Slim, was instructed to rebuild its ranks, rebuild its morale, and rebuild its fighting capacity—all of which he did. This reinvigorated army then successfully fought its way all the way back across Burma and by 1945 secured complete victory over the retreating Japanese forces.

Slim’s memoir, Defeat into Victory, is regarded as a military classic and is still studied at military academies around the world. In it he urges the leaders of defeated and demoralized troops to “remember only the lessons to be learned from defeat—they are more than from victory.”

He then specifically addresses the question of how to restore the morale of a defeated army, defining morale as a “state of mind … which will move a whole group of men to give their last ounce to achieve something, without counting the cost to themselves.” He then goes on to say that if that morale is to endure,  “… it must have certain foundations … spiritual, intellectual, and material, and that is the order of their importance.”[16]

Slim uses the word “spiritual” not in its strictly religious meaning but as “belief in a cause,” in particular, a just cause, a “great and noble object” larger than one’s self and self-preservation. Slim would likely argue that an army whose members’ sole interest is in “saving themselves” will never experience victory in the broader sense, something that we evangelicals with our heavy emphasis on personal salvation need to reflect upon. His observations and perspectives are well worth study by anyone involved in efforts to renew the morale and effectiveness of a defeated and demoralized community, including a faith community. 

Summary of Lessons from the Exiles

As we close these lessons in leadership from the lives of believers living in exile it is appropriate for each of us to ask what aspects of their experience are most meaningful and applicable to us personally.

Is it their faith in the sovereignty of God—the belief encouraged by the inspired words of Jeremiah instructing them to settle down, to build, to pray, to disregard false spiritual advice, and to trust in the providence and promises of God—even in dire circumstances and while living in societies and organizations hostile to their faith?

Is it the realization that God can and does use major disasters and calamities in the lives of individuals and nations to lead and place believers in positions of influence and authority that they might not otherwise come to occupy—economic crises, environmental crises, health crises—at the international, national, local, and personal levels? Could it be that he is even now using some such crisis in your life or community to position you for service in advancing his kingdom and the well-being of others?

Have we perhaps gained from these studies a deeper understanding of the perverse spiritual dialectic whereby the author of evil endeavors to twist things which are in themselves good or at worst neutral—faith, science, freedom, public and private service bureaucracies—toward evil and destructive ends? Has that understanding strengthened our resolve to guard against and resist such abuses? And have we gained insights into opportunities and means for doing so—such as protesting and addressing the abuse of freedom by extremists, including religious extremists, or recognizing and addressing the dark side of science, technology, and bureaucratic organizations?

Have we also gained from these studies a deeper appreciation of the grace and work of God in preventing such transformations of good into evil and in effecting counter-transformations of evil or potential evil into good?

With respect to safeguarding and “delivering from evil” the bureaucratic organizations in which so many of us as believers find ourselves embedded today, do we sense ourselves being led:

  • To insist that other care-giving alternatives be considered before automatically consigning persons in need to such systems?
  • To frequently visit the “front lines” of such organizations and expose ourselves to the conditions and experience of those who work there and those whom they serve?
  • To be, within such organizations, that ethical salt and light of which Jesus spoke—to listen to that still, small voice of our spiritually sensitized consciences and to follow its dictates?
  • To accept responsibility for some of the negative outcomes of bureaucratic organizations and behaviours, even at personal cost?

Have we, through examining the lives of the exiles, gained a deeper appreciation of where and how to “draw the line” between cooperation with those systems and cultures in which we are embedded and actions which compromise our faith? Have we ourselves “drawn the line” at some point in our own circumstances—for example, at the point of:

  • Granting our ultimate allegiance to God and not to someone or something else?
  • Whether to uphold or compromise some personal moral standard?
  • Our identification with or disassociation from the faith community?
  • Our willingness or reluctance to speak uncompromised truth to power?
  • Or at some other point that God has shown us?

And finally, have we been challenged to pray for and participate in some way in the restoration of faith in Christ in our times and circumstances through the movement of God on our own hearts and on the hearts of those responsible for our public affairs?

All of the above are valuable “lessons in leadership from the lives of the exiles”—believers in another time and space yet whose experiences are highly instructive to Christians today, especially if and when we find ourselves embedded in cultures and organizations indifferent or hostile to our faith.


[1] Ezra 1:5

[2] Daniel 9:1-19

[3] Nehemiah 1:4-11

[4] Ezra 1:1-4

[5] Ezra 4:6-6:12

[6] Ezra 7:27-28

[7] Daniel 9:1-19

[8] Since we invariably reap what we sow, is not any society which increasingly entertains itself by viewing, hearing, and reading about evil, increasingly likely to be afflicted in real life by those very same evils? Do we not need a heightened awareness of the possibility that for every murder, assault, and deception whereby we entertain ourselves via our literature, movies, plays, and video screens, we may well be destined to experience real-life murders, assaults, and deceptions on our streets and in our communities? Although the context is different, the principle is the same as that referred to by Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address when he declared: ”Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’" Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln (March 4, 1865).

[9] Ezra 1:2-4

[10] A famous document inscribed in clay and dated to the days just after Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon describes how Cyrus had improved the lives of the citizens of Babylonia, repatriated displaced peoples, and restored temples and cult sanctuaries. This “Cyrus Cylinder” is preserved at the British Museum in London; while some scholars dispute its interpretation, it is generally accepted that Cyrus permitted considerable religious liberty among those peoples and nations he conquered.

[11] “When you see that this has been granted to [Christians] by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity of any religion.” Quoted from "Edict of Milan," Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De Mortibus Persecutorum), ch. 48. opera, ed. 0. F. Fritzsche, II, p 288 sq. (Bibl Patr. Ecc. Lat.).

[12]Part I, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Clause 2, reads:  “Everyone has the following fundamental Freedoms:  (a) freedom of conscience and religion; (b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media communication; (c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and (d) freedom of association.” (The Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11.)

[13]  The Chinese government has been encouraging the revival of Confucianism, including the teaching of Confucian classics in secondary schools and promoting Confucianism abroad through the Confucius Institute. An editorial from the Herald Tribune entitled “China’s leaders rediscover Confucianism” can be found at Accessed June 26, 2015.

[14] Luke 16:8

[15]  Field-Marshal Viscount William Slim; Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945 (Cooper Square Press, 2000).

[16] Ibid., p.182

Source: Marketplace Institute

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