Jeremiah 29 contains one of the most misused verses in the bible, verse 11: “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” It’s something of a poster-child verse for why verses should never be quoted out of context. The lectionary reading only covers verses 1-7, but I encourage you to read the full chapter. Jeremiah is sending a letter to the former elites of Jerusalem; the royals and courtiers, the priests and the wealthy, the craftsmen and the artisans. I say former, because the bulk of the upper and middle classes of Jerusalem are being dragged off into exile in Babylon for abusing their power, oppressing the poor and powerless, cheating orphans out of their inheritance, and defrauding widows in court. Jeremiah had warned them that YHWH would not tolerate this apostasy for long. Rather than listen, the elites reprimanded Jerimiah, and sought out other prophets who would tell them what they wanted to hear; that so long as the temple was well kept, the sacrifices and festivals observed, that YHWH would never let anything happen to His temple or the city that held it.
Jeremiah was vindicated at great personal cost and tragedy. But though YHWH had condemned them to exile, He had not abandoned them. YHWH sent Jeremiah this oracle for those who were being dragged off to Babylon. It was not the oracle they wished to hear; Jeremiah had the misfortune of never getting to tell anyone anything they wanted to hear. The exiles wanted to hear that YHWH’s salvation was just around the corner, that Babylon’s judgment would be swift, and they would return to their homes in only a short while. The oracle YHWH sends? Two generations; the exile will last two whole generations. You will not see YHWH’s salvation; your children might not live to see YHWH’s salvation, but His salvation would come. The ‘you’ of Jeremiah 29:11 is the collective, national identity of Judah, not the individuals receiving the letter. The only comfort addressed to the immediate generation was this;
“5Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. 6Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. 7Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its shalom you will have shalom.”
Jeremiah 29:5–7 (NASB95)
Yeah, you know Babylon? The civilization with a reputation for brutality and evil? The people you’ve spent the last couple generations living in constant fear of? Yeah, pray for Babylon’s shalom, their peace, security, prosperity, and all the other positive things implied in that word. You’re going to be there the rest of your life, most if not all of your children’s lives, and at least half of your grandchildren’s lives. Settle in, make yourselves at home, work the land, build families, make connections, and pray for your captors. Your fate is now tied up in theirs. “I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not evil,” YHWH tells them, “but they won’t be the plans you want Me to have, nor will your futures turn out how you had hoped they might. Don’t be blinded to the future in front of you by the shattered plans you left behind.”
Not exactly the sympathy card worthy quote it’s usually billed to be, is it? And yet it’s precisely what Judah, not to mention many of us, needed to hear. We have a habit of building up our ideal life, the life we’re building towards, or had built towards only to have the rug pulled out from under us. We’ll hold that image up as the rule against which our lives as they are should be measured. We’ll wonder why God isn’t answering our prayers, why our ideals seem to drift further from our grasp with each passing day, why our efforts never seem to be good enough to overcome our past mistakes, or the consequences of the mistakes of our ancestors which we still suffer from despite our innocence. We become susceptible to a quasi-dualist perception of the world; our failure to reach the ideal isn’t our fault, it’s because the world is too broken for us to find happiness here; we must wait for happiness postmortem.
But that solely postmortem hope is not a full or accurate view of the hope offered in scripture. Yes, we do in fact live in a world broken by sin; but through the mighty hand and outstretched arm of God, the world has not been abandoned to brokenness. God never stopped working in the world, maintaining the boundaries of chaos, saying; “you may go so far, but no further”. God had not abandoned the creation He repeatedly affirmed to be good in the time of Jeremiah. How much less could that be the case now that the resurrection power of His Son is making all things new.
We, as believers baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, are Kingdom People. Our home is where Christ reigns, and while the world is still suffering the death throes of sin, and the birth pains of resurrection, to an extent we are not home yet. We are sojourners in a foreign land. However, strangers though we may be, we are never far from home, because Christ reigns in us if we are truly His. So while we yet live as strangers in a strange land, we ought to build houses and live in them, garden and eat the fruits of our labor, build families and lives. But most of all, we must be patient, and pray for the land of our sojourning; because our shalom is tied up in the shalom of our neighbors, even if those neighbors count us among their enemies, or we have previously so held them. Because we are resurrected through baptism, but not fully and finally resurrected.
We know that YHWH’s salvation will come, but we don’t know when or in what manner it will come. We have no control over any of that. What we can control is how we spend the days we have been given, what joys we allow ourselves to feel, what good we bring into the world-as-it-is in anticipation of the world-as-it-will-be. If we spend too much time waiting around for God to save us when we want Him to, and in the manner we expect Him to, then we will surely miss out on the salvation He has for us now, in whatever form and timing it may come.