Jeremiah’s Letter to Exiles
- Main Text: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14
- Accompanying text: John 14:27
“For the pious among the Hebrew exiles by the banks of the Euphrates, the great challenge was not to give up on Yahweh…But, for the most part, even in difficult times, they had been able to keep Yahweh foremost in their hearts and to worship him through the ritual observances and animal sacrifices they conducted in the great temple in Jerusalem” which “continued intact for a decade after Judah’s surrender to Nebuchadnezzar” (1a).
Most commentaries suggest that, when Jeremiah wrote “to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jeremiah 29:1 ESV), he intended it for this colony of exiles, those who had been captured in 597BC. Where was God? Had God’s apparent failure to intervene encouraged “every subversive thought that less pious Hebrews had ever had about their tribal deity”? (1b)
What should the captives do? How should they “sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4). Should they create a resistance movement? Join with exiles from other countries to rebel against the Babylonians? Go inward and form holy huddles of those who yearned for the faith of the fathers? Stage protests on the streets? Or become oppressors themselves in their zeal to defeat oppression? Jeremiah’s message, which was placed in a kind of diplomatic pouch sent from King Zedekiah of Judah to Nebuchadnezzar, was itself revolutionary, unlike any other letter of the time.
His message to the exiles was that they should get on with living and make the best of it. Not that they should forego or forget their heritage, but that they should build houses, cultivate their kitchen gardens, and marry to have more children And — this was the revolutionary and unprecedented idea — pray for the prosperity of the neighbourhood as well as for their captors and oppressors: “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 29:7). Thus, settle in Babylon and lead normal lives! Otherwise, any influence for the good would be negligible and their life in exile be made more difficult for them. Don’t listen to the lies of the false prophets (confusingly called Ahab and Zedekiah but obviously not the kings of the same names!) who say differently. Don’t worry, Jeremiah continues, you’re still in God’s plans and after you’ve all lived your threescore years and ten — God “will bring them (the exiled community) back and restore them” as promised (27:22).
Jeremiah’s message did not go down well with the religious leaders in Babylon. One of them, Shemaiah, wrote to Zephaniah (not the one who wrote the book of that name!), who was the high priest in Jerusalem. Shemaiah protested that Jeremiah was a false prophet who should be confined and restrained in the stocks, as had happened to Jeremiah before (20:2-3). Zephaniah, however, appears reluctant to do so. Jeremiah then sends another letter to the exiles in which he tells them not to listen to Shemaiah. “But then…Zedekiah, the Hebrew quisling whom the conqueror had put in place, was foolhardy enough to lead an uprising against his masters. The Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem…the siege dragged on, with famine, disease and desertion taking their terrible toll…The great Temple, the palace, and other civic buildings were burnt to the ground…Zedekiah’s sons were executed before his eyes; he was then blinded and carried off in chains. And once again a very large number of people were deported, joining those who had already been in exile” (1c).
Thoughts re application today
How should the community of the church behave today? We too are like “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), sharing the same spiritual condition of those who died in faith before us, who were “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). Speaking of his disciples and of those who through the generations would believe in his name, Jesus said to the Father that “they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14).
Jeremiah’s messages to those who remained in Jerusalem, that they should serve Nebuchadnezzar (see Jeremiah 27:12), and to the exiles in Babylon are reminiscent of what Paul had to say to the NT church: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (read Romans 13:1-7). Peter wrote, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13-14). God’s intention for us remains that all of us “walk in wisdom towards outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). Christ knew we’d have trials in this world but gives us peace as we face them, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
God’s will for us collectively and for each of us individually, “for those who love God”, is that “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). This involves our growing into the image of his Son, Jesus. Note what Jesus had to say in Matthew 5:44-45, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven”. Is this what Jeremiah meant re Babylon and its citizens in Jeremiah 29:7, “pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”? Jeremiah’s words are words of grace. The Babylonians had done nothing to merit the kindness that Jeremiah suggests, and yet the prophet says to pray for them.“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).
- Jeremiah 52:1-30
- Romans 12:14-21
- Matthew 5:38-48
Footnotes and references
- Stephen Greenblatt, The Rise and Fall of Adam & Eve: The Story that Created Us published by Vintage, a part of Penguin Random House, in the UK, Christian Focus Publications, UK: 2018. 1a:25; 1b:26; 1c:25.