In 597 B.C., the Babylonian army marched into Jerusalem and carried off thousands of Israelites, forcing them to walk hundreds of miles across the desert to live in Babylon. The long-prophesied fall of Jerusalem had begun, though the final sacking of the city would not occur for another decade. The Babylonians had defeated the Egyptian army at a place called Carchemish, and as a result, Judah, a vassal state of Egypt, came under Babylonian control. So it was that some of the people of God found themselves in an alien place, living in exile in Babylon, among people who did not share their deepest convictions.
Three years later, in 594 B.C., the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to those Jewish exiles, a copy of which is found in Jeremiah 29. It was a message the exiles desperately needed to hear, because they found themselves living in a situation that was totally new to them. It was a message of hope and instruction designed to teach them how to live faithfully in exile.
A Model to Make Sense of Life
In this series of articles I have suggested that the model we should adopt that best makes sense of living in our pluralistic culture is that of living in exile. That is, if we think of three great cities of the Old Testament—Jerusalem, Samaria, Babylon—and ask which place seems to best serve as a metaphor for our own situation, the answer is Babylon. Certainly we do not live in Jerusalem, where believer and unbeliever alike acknowledge that the God of Abraham exists and that his word and law is the supreme authority. Nor do we live in Samaria where the true God is still acknowledged, even though orthodox belief and practice has been tainted by years of compromise with pagans. Rather, we live in Babylon where a variety of gods, beliefs, and values compete for acceptance, and where our world view is merely one option out of many. Thus we find ourselves, like the Old Testament people of God in Babylon, living in exile. It would be wise, then, to reflect on what Jeremiah’s letter might teach us.
Jeremiah 29 is a rich text, even though at first it can appear rather unexceptional. Buried, as it is, in a book few Christians study with care, its message to us can be easily overlooked. Yet it is a text of real significance for us, for the simple reason that it is God’s word to his people living in a pagan culture. It is a letter to real people who found themselves a minority in a cultural setting over which they seemed to have little if any influence. In Jerusalem they held positions of influence as priests, prophets, court officials, artisans and skilled workers (29:1-2), but now they found themselves in what had to be, to say the least, a disappointing situation.
With that as background, consider five lessons Jeremiah’s letter taught the Jewish exiles, and then reflect on what it could mean for us.
Lesson #1: Be Faithful in the Ordinary Things of Life
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon,” Jeremiah records (29: 4-6). “‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.’”
Notice how very ordinary these things are. Notice too that they were not added as a postscript after all the spectacular things were listed, but were the opening instructions of the letter. These were the people of God, a people whose God had done extraordinary things in history, and yet faithfulness in Babylon was defined as being faithful in the very ordinary things of life. When they built houses, planted gardens, ate regular meals, had families, and celebrated the marriages of their children they were not pursuing insignificant things, but fulfilling God’s call for their lives. Nor would they be allowed to see the exile as temporary, keeping their bags packed in the assumption that their time in Babylon would be so brief that they could afford to ignore such long-range things as homes, livelihood, and family. On the contrary, living in exile began with being faithful in the ordinary and routine things of life and human culture.
For us today: It seems to me that the constant agitation for a spectacular and decisive win in the modern culture war should give way to a holy spirited commitment to be faithful in the very ordinary things of life and culture. We need far fewer activists and many more thoughtful reformers. And the sacred/secular dichotomy that continues to plague the Christian community might actually keep us from concentrating on what faithfulness really means.
Lesson #2: Engage Babylon, Do Not Withdraw
“‘Also,’” God has Jeremiah add in verse 7, “‘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.’” Not only were they to be faithful in the ordinary things of life, they were not allowed to withdraw into their own subculture, a little ghetto safe from the dangers of the paganism of Babylon. Rather, they were to pray and work that Babylon might flourish. They were not only to establish a presence in the city, but expect that God was at work in and through them in that pagan culture. They arrived as captives, but now were to act as missionaries, seeking the peace and prosperity of a city that by every measure was in rebellion against the living God.
For us today: Is prayer a significant part of our lives, or are we so convinced in the efficacy of our programs, abilities, plans, and techniques that we tend, in actual fact, to live as if God does not exist? Perhaps we have forgotten that the unbelievers among whom we live—the abortionists, the neo-pagans, the movie directors, the media—are not the enemy, but are precious people for whom Christ died. Our increasing tendency to withdraw from the culture—for the sake of “holiness” and the “protection of our children”—may actually be a misguided effort that has far more to do with the American frontier spirit and modern individualistic survivalism than it does biblical faithfulness.
Lesson #3: Be Discerning
“‘Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you,’” God tells them (29: 8-9). “‘Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them.’” Notice the warning is not that the Babylonians believe false things—would not that have been obvious?—but that some of the Israelites’ own leaders were telling them falsehoods in the name of God. Skill in discernment was required for faithfulness while living in exile.
For us today: We will be ill-equipped to identify nontruth unless we recover biblical, theological, and creedal literacy. Since the false messages Jeremiah was warning against were pleasant messages the exiles enjoyed hearing, is it possible that the tendency to “shop” for a church that “meets our needs” might be contrary to Christian discernment? It seems that we are more reactionary than discerning—both in the church and in the wider culture.
Lesson #4: Be People of Hope
It is hard to live in exile, but harder still to be hopeful when there is little to be optimistic about. And so God graciously gave the exiles in Babylon a promise to remember, for he is a good God, and contrary to what they might have felt, he had not forgotten them. They remained his people, and because of that, though life might be disappointing and discouraging in Babylon, it was not hopeless. “‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon,’” God promised them, “‘I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to [Jerusalem]. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (29:10-11). Central to their hope was the covenant promise that he had repeated throughout Scripture: he was their God, would be with them, and would bring them to himself. “‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord” (29:13-14). It was God’s presence and redemption that was to be their hope, and his covenant was certain, regardless of what happened in Babylon.
But it is very hard to be people of hope in a fallen and disappointing world. Consider all that might have discouraged the Jews in exile so long ago in Babylon. For one thing, it’s disappointing to live in Babylon when you yearn for Jerusalem. It is not simply that you like Jerusalem better, but that you feel more comfortable there, more at home. It is hard work to be faithful and discerning in a pagan culture.
Second, it is disappointing to discover your spiritual leaders have clay feet. It is one thing to realize we have to be discerning about Babylonian beliefs and values; it can be discouraging to realize our spiritual leaders are less than fully dependable.
Third, it can be disappointing when your calling is so very ordinary when there are so many extraordinary needs. Building houses, planting gardens, raising families—none of it sounds very remarkable. But this is the message we read throughout the Scriptures. Our primary calling, the essence of our service to God is to be faithful in the ordinary and routine of our daily lives. Everything in our cynical culture pushes us toward the spectacular and the extraordinary, but the meaning of faithfulness before God will be found in the midst of that ordinary cycle of work and rest that is our life. Our focus must not be on the ordinariness, but on the faithfulness—for it is faithfulness that will earn us a “Well done!” from our God.
Fourth, God’s timing can be so disappointing. God promised to rescue them, but then said it would not occur for another 70 years. That means that all or most of the adults reading the letter would never see it for themselves—they would be dead by then.
And finally, it can be disappointing to have to seek the good of Babylon. It is far easier and far more satisfying to simply withdraw, except of course for occasional brief evangelistic forays or political protests.
And for us today: Perhaps our cynicism over the electoral process, and our discouragement over our failure to stop abortion reveals that we have placed our hope in events and in our techniques and efforts. Unless our faith is deepened we will never be able to replace our misguided optimism with biblical hope.
Lesson #5: Things Are Not Out of Control
If we are to be people of hope in a disappointing world, we must maintain a biblical perspective on history and the story of our lives. We must not see things primarily in terms of the ebb and flow of current events, but as part of God’s redemptive purposes in Christ to bring all things to their appointed end.
“I know the plans I have for you,” the Lord told the Jewish exiles (29:11), “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That is a wonderful promise, but remember: it did not rescue them from Babylon, nor did it transform Babylonian culture into something in which they felt more at home. In the meantime they would have to believe something that was very hard to believe: events had not swirled out of God’s control. While they waited they were to trust that God remained good, even if there appeared no evidence at the moment to support the idea. “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:4; emphasis added), God begins the letter to them. (And note God repeats this fact more than once.) Even the exile, painful as it was, had not taken God by surprise. On the contrary, though the exiles might not have been able to guess how or why, even this cruel injustice by a pagan king would be made, someday, to resound to God’s glory.
Christ has promised to return as King to consummate his kingdom, but that does not mean the world ceases to be a disappointing place in the meantime. What it does mean is that God’s plans are so much greater than we can possibly fathom that what he is doing to bring all things to their appointed consummation in Christ is utterly beyond our comprehension. We are part of the story, but the story is so much greater than we are, because it is God’s story, the working out of his eternal purposes in human history.
This means that regardless of what it looks like in the media, things are not out of control. Despite what we may think best, God’s plans and timing are, in fact, perfect. And no matter how much we are certain that it makes absolutely no sense to be stuck in Babylon, the truth of the matter is that when we get to the final chapter, we will stand and cheer for then it will make all the sense in the world. He knows the plans he has for us. We don’t. But he assures us they are plans for good. We may not see it yet, but that does not change a single thing. The timing may seem impossible, but that is our problem. Babylon may look unassailable, but that is only an illusion. God remains God.
We can nurture hope by walking with him, by carving out time to be in his word and before him in prayer so that his promises can fill our hearts and minds and inflame our imaginations. The covenant blessing of God is not personal peace and affluence, nor is it comfort and a lack of suffering. The covenant blessing is God’s presence with his people. Even in Babylon we can seek him, love him, serve him, and by maintaining godly perspective, cultivate gratitude and a sense of humor. We can refuse to become either cynical or discouraged, for the simple fact that against all appearances, and against all the arrogant claims of the Babylonians, there is one thing about which we can be fully certain: God exists, he is good, and the story of history is his story of redemption.
And that is why we can be—we must be—people of hope while living in exile in a disappointing and increasingly pagan world.
SourceHistorical information concerning dates, Babylonian culture, and the Jewish exile, and commentary on Jeremiah 29 are taken from Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary by Joyce G. Baldwin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1978).
Jeremiah & Lamentations: An Introduction and Commentary by R. K. Harrison (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1973).
Courage to Stand: Jeremiah’s Battle Plan for Pagan Times by Philip Graham Ryken (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books; 1998).