One of the most popular biblical texts in our contemporary society is Jeremiah 29:11. But what we may not realize is the context in which itis situated. For those who may not know the text, it reads:
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 a hope and a future.
What an amazing word of hope and encouragement to a group of people who were interpreting their lives as being difficult and confusing. Conflicting messaging was being communicated to them from various sources, all claiming divine sanction. These exiles, or displaced people, certainly felt confused and forsaken. How were they to move forward now that they were captives and living in exile far from their homeland?
Hope is a critical component in life. Without hope, the will to move forward disappears. Others try to secure hope in the wrong places and what they end up with is either a false hope or no hope at all leading to despair. In Jeremiah 29, we discover the process of God’s discipline and how this was designed to bring about a change of thinking. Now living in a foreign culture, how were the Jewish exiles to move forward? Were they to resist the Babylonians? Should they join in the resistance movements that other people groups who had also been conquered and exiled were engaged in?
Having just addressed the false hopes in the city of Jerusalem regarding their continued rebellion against the Babylonians, Jeremiah turns his attention to the captives and exiles in Babylon. Reports are traveling between Jerusalem and Babylon. Jeremiah has a word from God to pass on to the exiles there and he gives it to some envoys traveling between the cities.
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
(This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.)
He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.[i]
We are about to explore God’s message to the Jewish exiles. What is striking about the message is its relevance to us today. We know what it is like to live in our fallen world. In one sense we were designed by God to live with Him forever in a society that is without sin and all of its destructive consequences. So how are we to live our lives in this ‘earthly exile’ when ultimately, we were designed to live with God forever? How should we then live while we are passing through this old world below? Even more importantly, how do we move forward when our personal worlds come crashing down upon us? We may quickly question where God is in such moments. Jeremiah was addressing the issue of hope, to those who were struggling, and had lost hope, and to those who were resting in false hope because they were believing lies. Where do we find hope and a future in our exile? There are three things we can learn from Jeremiah’s message of how to live in difficult times while waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. Or let me frame it another way: How should we be living in our ‘Babylon’ while waiting for Jesus to bring us home to Him?
THE FIRST THING WE NEED WHILE LIVING IN DIFFICULT TIMES IS TO BUILD A MEANINGFUL LIFE WHERE GOD HAS PLANTED US
We need to bloom where God has planted us. Despair and discouragement can cause us to put our lives on hold, and to live in hurt, anger, and bitterness. God wants to move us past life’s disappointments and even moments of Divine discipline to prepare for a more meaningful future. One thing we need to understand is that we are in our current situation for a purpose, often beyond our comprehension.
I was reading the story of Joseph (cf. Genesis 45) as he was revealing himself to his brothers, who had sold him into slavery. I’m sure for many years, while a captive, he wondered, why? But years later, elevated to be second in the land of Egypt, administrating that land during a time of famine, Joseph realized that he had been sent by God, not his circumstances, to go before his family and bring about their salvation from the famine.
However, for these Jewish exiles it was because of their rebellion and resistance to God. Yet, God had a plan for them, but they needed to learn submission, something they had continuously resisted. They needed to submit to God and embrace their covenantal obligations to Him.
A. Who brought the exiles to Babylon?
The obvious answer seems to be Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, but he is understood here as only the instrument that God used.
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:[ii]
Did we catch it? God carried them into exile. This time of chastisement would last seventy years, and the best response was to embrace life in this new context. In light of this concept of God’s placement of where we are, how should we respond to our present situation? Jeremiah is going to encourage the exiles to build a meaningful life right where they are.
B. What should the response be?
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.
Also, 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.[iii]
Imagine how shocking these words were.
What is God saying to the exiles through Jeremiah? Settle in for the long haul.
1. Build houses and families.
The generation now in Babylon would probably be buried there. The promise of restoration would not happen in their lifetime, so they were to build their families for a future generation’s return to the promised land. Often people are captured by the hour that they are in and allow the circumstances to direct their lives rather than God’s commands and promises.
2. Seek the welfare of their captors.
How does that apply to us? Seek the wellbeing of those who God appoints over us. Consider what Jeremiah is telling them; they are to seek the welfare of their enemies.
The Revised Standard Version best captures the sense of the Hebrew: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The recurrent word for “welfare” is the word shalom. “Seek the shalom of the city; its shalom is your shalom.” Shalom is comprehensive peace. “More than the absence of conflict and death,” says Clifford Green, “this rich term fills out the word community by embracing well-being, contentment, wholeness, health, prosperity, safety, and rest.” Shalom means order, harmony, and happiness. It means that all is right with the city.[iv]
If we are children of God, God has a plan and a purpose for us. Yet, the plan takes in the people that live near us. God wants to bless our community. We are to be His agents in bringing about ‘peace’ or ‘shalom’ to our city.
Isaiah reminds us of God’s restorative power in our lives as expressed by God, the Holy Spirit’s anointing. His servants are to proclaim good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom to the captives, release for the prisoners. We are to proclaim God’s year of favor, a day of vengeance, comforting the mourning, providing for the grieving. As a result, God will give a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair (cf. Isa. 61:1-3). God’s desire is to rebuild, restore, and renew the devastated cities in the promised land. This is a picture of our lives. If we fail God, devastation is the result; but God is in the restoration business. He wants to restore what has been damaged. Here we are reading these amazing promises of an incredible future.
3. Don’t listen to the false messages.
Yet, when we hear these amazing promises they can be destroyed by trying to take short-cuts. Jeremiah is warning the exiles not to respond to their captivity with the wrong attitude and actions. If they don’t submit to those who are currently in authority, it will not go well for them. They cannot allow themselves to be deceived and continue to rebel against God’s plan.
Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. 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,” declares the Lord.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.
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.
Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.[v]
What should we be about in waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled? We need to surrender ourselves to God. We need to seek His face and get to know Him. We come to what needs to be done in order to facilitate God’s promises being activated in our lives.
4. Pray in order to connect with God.
Notice God challenges the people to seek Him in order to experience His presence. What had been the problem that caused them to be exiled? They had forsaken God. Now in captivity, they are called upon to seek Him with all their hearts. Whatever captivity you are experiencing in your life, prayer is the most important response to the crisis. God hears our prayers. We need to get to know Him and His ways.
THE SECOND THING WE NEED WHILE LIVING IN DIFFICULT TIMES IS TO EMBRACE GOD’S PROMISES
The most powerful source of a stable life is to implement God’s word in our lives. Is the foundation of our lives built upon God’s word? What foundation are we building our lives upon? Our human ingenuity? Our confidence in others? Our confidence in science? Our confidence in ourselves? Listen to what Jesus said to the temptation to illegitimately meet his own needs or to put the material needs ahead of the spiritual life when tempted to turn stones into bread during his wilderness testing.
Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.[vi]
What is Jesus saying? He is saying that living as if this earthly, material life is all there is, is not enough. Things cannot sustain our life, alone. What sustains us in our most painful, confusing, dangerous, and trying times is God’s word. His promises stand firm throughout all generations. Today there is an amazing attack against God’s word. Many are trying to diminish the meaning of what God is communicating. Yet, we read that God’s word will endure forever.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.[vii]
May we hold on to God’s message and not the lies of the enemy who would move us away from nourishing our souls on God’s word, believing and clinging to that Word. Listen to what God is promising this group of exiles.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.
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.[viii]
A. Jeremiah is warning them not to forsake God in their captivity.
You may say, “The Lord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,” but this is what the Lord says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile—yes, this is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.
I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them.
For they have not listened to my words,” declares the Lord, “words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either,” declares the Lord.[ix]
Jeremiah is expressing concern that they were rejecting God’s counsel and embracing the lies that were being advocated by those who were telling them what they wanted to hear. What will sustain us during our earthly journey is not how much we possessed or accomplished. Rather what sustains us in this life is the wisdom that comes from God and His message to us.
Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you.
Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life.[x]
The apostle Paul tells us that wisdom is actually found in a person, and that person is Jesus. Jesus is our wisdom. If we follow Him, trusting and obeying, you will be walking in wisdom.
THE FINAL THING WE NEED WHILE LIVING IN DIFFICULT TIMES IS TO REJECT THE FALSE HOPE PROMOTED BY FALSE MESSENGERS
Let us take inventory and examine our hearts. What is it that we want to believe? Is it what God is promising?
A. Learn the lesson of judgment against those who promote sin.
Here we are introduced to two false prophets whose message and lifestyle were an affront to God and they were severely judged. They ended up being burned to death.
Therefore, hear the word of the LORD, all you exiles whom I have sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon.
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says about Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying lies to you in my name: “I will deliver them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will put them to death before your very eyes.
Because of them, all the exiles from Judah who are in Babylon will use this curse: ‘May the LORD treat you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon burned in the fire.’
For they have done outrageous things in Israel; they have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and in my name they have uttered lies—which I did not authorize. I know it and am a witness to it,” declares the Lord.[xi]
I agree with Old Testament scholar, John Thompson who believes that they were part of the political strife that was brewing in Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar would not have punished them merely for these offenses. There was something else. They seemed to have been involved in some political offense such as encouraging the people to revolt.[xii]
Earlier, God had condemned the false prophets who were preaching a message of false hope. It was true that God would restore the exiles, but not in their timetable. These prophets would be judged by God, not only for their false message but also for their marital infidelity. Once again we see that we ought to view the lifestyle of the messengers. God would use Nebuchadnezzar to punish them. We can see why he would since they were agitating people to rebel against his authority.
B. Further attacks against God’s messengers.
Tell Shemaiah the Nehelamite,
“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: You sent letters in your own name to all the people in Jerusalem, to the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah, and to all the other priests. You said to Zephaniah,
‘The LORD has appointed you priest in place of Jehoiada to be in charge of the house of the LORD; you should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons.
So why have you not reprimanded Jeremiah from Anathoth, who poses as a prophet among you?
He has sent this message to us in Babylon: It will be a long time. Therefore build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.’”
Zephaniah the priest, however, read the letter to Jeremiah the prophet.
Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: “Send this message to all the exiles: ‘This is what the LORD says about Shemaiah the Nehelamite: Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, even though I did not send him, and has persuaded you to trust in lies, this is what the LORD says: I will surely punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his descendants. He will have no one left among this people, nor will he see the good things I will do for my people, declares the LORD, because he has preached rebellion against me.[xiii]
Even in Babylon, Jeremiah was being attacked because of his message to the exiles. Shemaiah, sends a letter to the religious establishment in Jerusalem demanding that Jeremiah be punished, as these false prophets saw Jeremiah as a madman and a false prophet. However, God again speaks to Jeremiah and another letter is sent to speak a word of judgment against Shemaiah. Why? He is ‘persuading the exiles to trust in lies.’ His descendants will perish and they will not see God’s promised blessing.
The problem with false prophets is that they create a false hope which leads to despair and hopelessness. While the message of Jeremiah called for submission to God’s purposes, and it brought about a powerful hope for the future. Walter Brueggemann summarizes it this way:
Against both illusionary expectation and despairing resignation, Jeremiah speaks of God’s powerful governance which both settle into exile and ends exile. …The purposes of God cannot be trimmed and fitted to any political resolution, either falsely assuring or misleadingly negating. God has God’s way, which is utter freedom and, in the end, caring fidelity.[xiv]
What is Brueggemann saying? Simply that God’s ways transcend politics. The end result of obeying God will be to experience freedom in the end and God’s gracious care for us in our current challenges. It may appear that Jeremiah’s political position is pro-Babylonian, but what Jeremiah is saying is rises above that. Babylon is only a tool in God’s disciplinary measure against his wayward people. Babylon will also be judged for her actions.
How does this apply to us?
What life does to us depends largely on what life finds in us. If we seek the Lord and want His best, then circumstances will build us and prepare us for what He has planned. If we rebel or if we look for quick and easy shortcuts, then circumstances will destroy us and rob us of the future God wants us to enjoy. The same sun that melts the ice also hardens the clay. God’s thoughts and plans concerning us come from His heart and lead to His peace. Why look for substitutes?[xv]
It is interesting to me that some of the young captives took Jeremiah’s message to heart. We read that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego responded and worked for the welfare of the Babylonians and only resisted as it pertained to the worship of their God. Later in his life, Daniel prayed as he saw the time of Jeremiah’s prophecy of seventy years now about to be realized (cf. Daniel 9:2). Even in our difficult time here in our earthly Babylon, bloom where God has planted us, seeking the welfare of our community, embracing God’s promises to sustain us, and dismiss all the false promises that call for spiritual short-cuts.
[i] Jeremiah 29:1-3 The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[ii] Jeremiah 29:4.
[iii] Jeremiah 29:5-7.
[iv] Philip Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope, (Wheaton, Il: Crossway Books, 2016), 414.
[v] Jeremiah 29:8-14.
[vi] Matthew 4:4.
[vii] Isaiah 40:8.
[viii] Jeremiah 29:10-11.
[ix] Jeremiah 29:15-19.
[x] Proverbs 4:6,13.
[xi] Jeremiah 29:20-23.
[xii] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 549.
[xiii] Jeremiah 29:24-32.
[xiv] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 263.
[xv] Warren Wiersbe, Be Decisive, (Wheaton: Il: Victor Books, 1996), 126.