Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 “Flourishing and Finding God in Exile”
This is a crucial text, largely because of how popular Jeremiah 29:11 has become among many in Christianity in the early 21st century. Unfortunately, many often recite Jeremiah 29:11 without any clue what is going on in Jeremiah 29 or even in Jeremiah as a whole. As such this would be a great text to explore in order to properly give some context to Jeremiah 29:11.
Notes on the Text
Verse 1 offers a historical note that this letter was after King Jehoichin and his court had also gone into exile. The exiles were deported in 597 BCE. This letter is sent from Jerusalem by Jeremiah to the surviving elders among the elders, priests and prophets, the remaining exiles, those already experiencing divine judgment through this deportation to Babylon. However, it is crucial that those in exile here a similar message that Jeremiah was speaking to the Judeans at home (Jer. 27) “Do not resist, carry on your lives; learn to come to terms with your situation” (NIB, 792).
Certainly there must have been a temptation in Babylon to sit and live in despair. Yet in a similar charge given to Adam and Eve, the Lord commands them to build, plant, eat, take wives, have children, eat and marry off your children. Moreover, as exiles in foreign land they were charged not to be insurrectionists but they were to be a source of stability for Babylon. Moreover, they were to pray for Babylon and if it prospered they too would prosper. Faithfulness to God was not about the defeat of Bablyon or the resurrection of the city of Jerusalem.
The Lord wanted the people to realize that this exile is not a quick scolding, but there time was to be a space for transformation and renewal in learning how to love Yahweh again, even in a foreign land. Moreover, it was especially important that the Jews be encouraged that just because they were in exile geographically, it did not mean that God had abandoned them.
It cannot be overstated the significance of the promise of God connected to Land in the Old Testament. All of the years wandering in the desert saw a fulfillment in crossing into the promised land where they could settle. For many the fall of Jerusalem, something completely unimaginable to most Jews, was believed to be a sign that God had completed turned away and rejected them. While their exile was a form of punishment and an opportunity for repentance, God was not abandoning them in Babylon but inviting them to accept their exile and prosper in a foreign land. Exile was a means of grace inviting them to repentance, renewal and transformation. This exile is punishment, but it was not meant to be retributive, but restorative. In exile God desired that they would flourish. The Lord discerned that it was a proper and fitting penance for the Jews to be exiled in Babylon while also offering a chance to repent and be transformed.
Verse 8 notes that there were other voices speaking to the people of God in exile that were likely speaking contrary messages. While the idea of peace is found throughout our text, this is a different kind of peace that the prophecy of Hananiah recorded in Jeremiah 28:9. The peace from other voices was to come through rebellion and insurrection in Babylon. They were messages of keeping the people unsettled, discouraging any type of moving on and settling and telling them the exile would be over quickly.
Preaching the Text
I would certainly begin a sermon dealing with the popular version of Jeremiah 29:11 which is often used as a kind of encouragement that my life is going to turn out circumstantially great. This verse is often used in the Health and Wealth, Name it and Claim it “gospel.” What is often missed is that this promise of blessing is after 70 years in exile because of their sinfulness.
Jeremiah 29 is a chapter on “Accepting Exile.” There is some discourse today in North America that in light of supreme court decisions or laws written that Christians in the 21st century in North America are living in exile. I actually think such syntax is misguided. However, what is crucial to note about the exile as recorded in the Old Testament is that exile was not about foreign cultures or peoples (Babylonians, Assyrians, or Ninevites) making it difficult to worship Yahweh. Exile was the result of the sinfulness of the people of God. So if the current church is in exile it is because of the sinfulness of the Christians and requires a posture of penitence.
This text is an invitation to flourish in Bablyon. However, within this call to work, marry, plant, and build this was not an invitation to follow the pagan Babylonian gods. They were to still be the people of God, but do so in a context where others had different religious rituals and liturgies that were shaping a distinct imagination. In many ways this would be a key aspect to explore in a local church. I would think about cultural liturgies that shape our imaginations and behavior consumerism, sports, cable news, violence, etc. Then I would explore what are the Christian liturgies and practices that are shaping us to be the people of God within the “babylons” in which we live.
It is noteworthy that exile was about geography, because the Jews first had abandoned Yahweh in Jerusalem. So God loved them enough to exile many to Babylon in order that Yahweh could be found there. However, there is also the caution that living in Babylon, praying for it to flourish, that we do not read this as calling for the Jews to become Babylonians. Rather, while they prayed for Babylon’s flourishing they were called to be a distinct, set apart people of God, that they had failed to be in Jerusalem.