“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
The Babylonian exile is often seen by Christians as a paradigm for our current situation; and rightly so. We are in an alien world with contradictory allegiances, values and customs. More than anything, we are not yet home. We await a heavenly city and belong as its citizens (Rev 21:2; Phil. 3:20 cf. Heb. 11:10,16)
There are some notable differences between her exile and ours:
- The Babylonian exile was for seventy years, very short compared to the millennia of the New Testament era, albeit not that dissimilar to our own individual life-spans.
- Unlike Jerusalem’s inhabitants, Christian people are not physically exiled by another nation. We were born as their citizens. Furthermore, many of us only became exiles later in life, as we turned in repentance and faith to Christ, finding ourselves only now seeking a real home elsewhere.
- Unlike the results of Judah’s idolatry, our exile was not a judgment on a particular sin committed by the Christian church. It is our birth-right. The church was born at odds to its world and the moments where the worldly church feels it belongs here are the darkest spiritual blots on her imperfect history.
- That being said, our scattering among the nations was a part of God’s earlier judgment on us all at the Tower of Babel, which is the blueprint for the Bible’s whole theological understanding of Babylon (Gen. 11:9). In Christ, God is gathering his own people from the scattered nations of the world.
Yet how do we conduct ourselves in exile? How do we endure? How do we treat the temporary home in which we live? The book of Jeremiah provides some answers to their situation. Jeremiah wrote a letter from Jerusalem to the leaders who had been taken to Babylonia (Jer. 29). Provoking controversy in its own time, these words attacked what other false prophets were scandalously saying in the name of the Lord (Jer. 29:8-9,24-32). Rather than acting as a fifth column of resistance in Babylon, the letter calls on the people to build homes and gardens, have families, and seek the good of their exiled home (Jer. 29:5-7). The exile will be as long as 70 years (Jer. 29:10). Perhaps the most popular verse in the 21st Century Western Church is found therein. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11).
Jeremiah 29 has become a flower-bed of individual commands and promises that are quite profound, instructive and life-affirming, but if cut off from their context and the bigger situation they quickly become smelly rotten flowers that will have to be thrown out when no longer useful. These verses have become proof-texts for the prosperity gospel, middle-class protectionism, and a mandate for cultural engagement.
These are some things that this author has heard. God has great plans to bless us. He will make our businesses’ profits increase; he wants us to have our mini-mansion on the estate. The Lord desires that we make movies that are just as good as those that the ‘Babylonians’ make. He wants us to be people of influence who shape the culture around us. We can become a culturally Christian nation again, or at least our city can be culturally blessed by our church. They will like us. We can get on with all the things that those around us love. With these things, the radical teaching of Jesus’ great commission and cross-bearing persecution can be tempered by Jeremiah’s call to the exiles to be more like the city you live in (Matt. 10:38; 16:24; 28:28-20). All Churches to one extent baptise their own situation in Bible verses. Growing churches in thriving metropolises seem to be at the forefront of using these verses to explain what they are doing. Struggling churches in smaller corners of God’s earth see themselves as more marginalised and sometimes are more drawn to verses that predict hardship. At one extreme we have a CNN church and at the other end, we have InfoWars, either affirming or attacking the status quo. We need to think clearly into this situation.
I would suggest that we neither misapply nor dispose of these verses if they don’t work for us. Instead we need to think bigger thoughts about the exile and see the bigger vision that Jeremiah and the rest of the prophets have about the exile. Here is just a beginning:
1. Jeremiah 29 is not the last word on Babylon.
This is the most important truth that our world needs to understand. If you read the whole book of Jeremiah you must see how it finishes. The exiles live in a city whose days are numbered (Jer. 50-51). This part of scripture also needs deep consideration. Babylon will be cut down, and become a horror (Jer. 50:23; 51:41). “O you who dwell by many waters, rich in treasures, your end has come; the thread of your life is cut.” (Jer. 51:13) Her leadership, intellectual elites, idolatrous objects of art and her way of life will be over (Jer. 50: 35-28; 51:17). This is also a close parallel to our situation. Like the protagonist in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, we live in the city of destruction. While I could not find in the New Testament any direct allusion to the words of Jeremiah 29, Revelation makes much of its final two chapters. The world-city will fall before the heavenly city arrives.
”And he called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! … For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” (Rev. 19:2,3)
All her culture, riches and name will disappear. What difference does this make to us? Obviously, we do not play off one chapter against another, but we must hold the directions in chapter 29 in the context that the city will be destroyed and at the right time they must flee her (Jer. 51:6). In Jeremiah’s time, they are to build extensions, plant cabbages and set up a smelting business, but they must never forget that the city they live in is opposed to God and so will utterly perish. We, also in all our middle-class existences must never forget this also.
We can walk in the theological truth of God’s-future-judgment-on-our-city, while at the same time chewing the gum of living-well-in-her, can’t we?
2. Even in Jeremiah 29, the Jewish exiles were never to become Babylonians.
Neither are we. The story of Daniel and his friends is instructive. Daniel would not eat the kings food (Dan. 1:80) and would not stop praying towards Jerusalem even when it was against the law (Dan. 6:10) His friends likewise would not bow their knees in worship even when summoned by the rich national musical of their new home (Dan. 3:10-12). Likewise even in the midst of captivity the most skilled amongst them would rather curse themselves than forget their home country. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” (Psa. 137:5-6) This was not their home, their joy or even the object of their songs. Jeremiah 29 does not tell the exiles to become like the locals in every way, instead to live, work and breed there as a people who will return to their homeland eventually.
Christians are also are urged to be distinctive and honourable amongst the nations because we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation … that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9-12). We are never to belong here.
3. There is nothing about spreading culture in Jeremiah 29.
The letter to the exiles does not encourage the spread of culture, but rather the financial prosperity of the city, not for its sake, but strangely to-our-modern-ears, for their own sake. “[P]ray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer. 29:7) This is not disinterested altruism and perhaps grates with our Western sensibilities most strongly. But why should it? Babylon will be destroyed. God’s future is with his people, they are the object of his affections. Her culture will be burned up, but God’s people will escape through those flames.
Christians should work hard, pay taxes and honour those in charge (2 Thessalonians 3:12; Romans 13:6-7). We are forbidden to be rebels. 1 Timothy perhaps echoes Jeremiah’s logic the closest. Our prayers for “kings and all who are in high positions” is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). This matters more to us than anything else to us, because how God’s people live matters more to God than how our culture is changed.
4. The promises of God in Jeremiah 29 are bigger than our time in exile.
The most beloved verse in Jeremiah’s letter is verse 11. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11) This is not just about the here and now but has a much bigger picture. It is not just a plan for your business to exceed its five-year expectations, meeting that life-partner who “completes you”, or even having Christmas cards family updates full of victory-after-victory, with every kid topping their classes, winning sports events and raising thousands for charity. Like myself, some of these exiles may have experienced sixteen-year-old children dying. Others we do know about were tormented by their captors, some went to the fiery furnace, and one we know faced a pit of hungry lions.
God’s plans for their welfare is a collective truth and it is not primarily about their time in exile. The “for” in verse 11 is especially important. The verse before talks about what is their real hope. “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” (Jer. 29:10)
The real delightful expectation of the exiles is for God to appear and keep his word. The mere temporary orders of seeking the good of the city and even the provisions of God in Babylon will melt away when they return home and are met by God.
So too with Christians. The biggest problem with us misapplying the exilic theology is that in our cultural engagement, homemaking projects and welfare seeking endeavours we forget that we are not home. God’s biggest plan for us is to bring us home with him when he visits us. The Thessalonian Christians turned from their idolatrous culture and still remaining in that city. They now “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 These. 1:10). While we can get on with the stuff of this life, God’s plans for us are much bigger than to keep us as exiles forever.