Text: Jeremiah 29: 1-7
Date: Oct 10, 2010
Author: Catherine Thiel Lee
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the survivors…This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “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…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” (Jer 29: 1a, 4-7).
When I told my friend I was preaching on Jeremiah 29 she said, “Is that the passage they read to you when you graduate from high school?” (It’s not, by the way…) She was thinking of verse 11, “‘I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you…to give you a hope and a future.’” It’s a great passage for people setting off on a new stage of life, a beautiful reminder of God’s intimate love and faithful guidance. But it can also come off as a little…cliché. Even powerful texts can fall hopelessly flat. Especially when they lack proper…
Now let me be clear: I have no problem with this verse, nor with people speaking beautiful, important pieces of God’s word into each others’ lives. I’m all for that. But I am all too aware that today’s verses from Jeremiah can fall victim to a similar fate: they can be applied a little to quickly, with too little context, and can fall a little flat. Or at least flatter than they need to.
I have always head today’s verses in the “urban ministry application”: a general statement about making our home in the world and living in relationship with God and neighbor. Here’s what I see as a fairly standard reading: Jeremiah the prophet tells the exiles how to live in a difficult situation—settle down and seek the peace of the place where you are. And from there we move on to application. Good and edifying discussions about the ways we as a community can seek the peace and prosperity of our own cities. Helpful discernment into the metaphorical places of exile in our lives, and how perhaps God can meet us there. And these are fine ways of reading this passage of Scripture. They have always been good and helpful to me when I have heard them. But that’s not what we are going to do today. We’re going to take a different tack.
Today I want to spend the majority of my time talking about…
Because this week, as I have studied this passage, that is what has gotten under my skin, what has struck me, what has absolutely disturbed me: the deep context of Jeremiah’s story of exile. It is the context which renders the instructions of his letter as anything but flat. I want us to see together the nature of these benign sounding instructions, because in reality they are surprising, stark, preposterous, radical, world upending, and utterly impossible.
So let me tell you about the context.
YHWH, the Old Testment’s name for the unnamable God, created the world and everything in it. From its people he chose a specific nation, Israel. He made promises to love Israel, to be with her, to build her up, to provide for her, and asked that she love him in return. They made a covenant together, to live in devotion to one another. But Israel was unfaithful. She failed to love the Lord her God and her neighbor as herself. Which is a problem, since YHWH always intended Israel to be a blessing to all the nations. See, he didn’t choose her just for his own sake, or her own sake. He chose her that his love would be extended to all of creation.
And thus it has been ever since: God the faithful lover, his people running astray. God’s people are ever worshipping other gods and idols, enslaving other people, lying, cheating, stealing, killing, running amuck in every way you can imagine.
Leading us to the time of Jeremiah. At this point YHWH’s Israel is divided in two, and the larger nation to the north has already fallen apart completely and is no more. The other nation, now called “Judah,” is in the south. Judah’s king rules in Jerusalem continuing the line of the great king David. Judah can barely hold onto its land and is constantly fighting off surrounding nations. She worships other gods and injustice is rampant, especially among its civic and religious leaders. Things are not going well.
Now Jeremiah is a prophet who speaks the word of the Lord to Judah. And the word of the Lord is startlingly, consistently negative. Jeremiah’s prophecies speak over and over again, oracle after oracle, of YHWH’s great anguish and deep anger with his people.
Reading the book of Jeremiah is…exhausting. It is gut wrenching, it’s painful. It is long and over half of it is poetry, which makes it all the more emotionally draining. In my experience, poetry draws you into words and emotions and images with a weight that prose or dry history, or even good storytelling, tends to lack. Jeremiah’s words, YHWH’s words pile up on top of each other and overflow into our minds and hearts as readers and leave us drowning in a sea of utter devastation.
Jeremiah’s prophecies are about the impending destruction of Judah. There are a few hopeful spots, calls for repentance, allusions to a “Righteous Branch” and the hope of restoration. But even then we get the sense that YHWH, Jeremiah, the people, we the readers…we all know how this is going to turn out. They call Jeremiah the “weeping prophet” for a reason. Most of the time, I just want to sit down in the ash heap and weep with him.
And the book is filled with terrible, horrific images. Devouring lions unleashed (4:7; 5:6). Dead bodies lying like dung in an open field (9:22). YHWH himself as a father who destroys his own “daughter Zion, so beautiful and delicate” (6:2). Over and over again YHWH announces that all of Judah will be destroyed by “sword, famine, and plague” (34:17). It is the drum beat of the book, chapter after chapter of “sword, famine, and plague.”
Even prayer is useless. He tells Jeremiah, over and over, “Do not pray for these people,” (11:14; 14:11; etc.). And more. “I will not listen to their cry…instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine, and plague” (14:12). Earlier in Israel’s history YHWH rescues his people from slavery in Egypt. One of the key moments of this Exodus is when Israel cries out to God. He hears them, and comes down to deliver them (Ex 2:23-25; 3:7-8). Now he is the opposite of the YHWH of Exodus— rather than carrying his people out of slavery, he carries them into exile. Now, he won’t even hear their cries.
But there is another image in Jeremiah that gives me an even greater chill. In chapter four YHWH says:
I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone. I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying. I looked, and there were no more people; every bird in the sky had flown away. I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert; all its towns lay in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger (4:23-26).
It sounds like creation in reverse. Like Genesis backwards. YHWH the un-creator. He’s already undone the Exodus, now he’s undoing Creation. It has gotten so bad, the fabric of the universe is so out of whack that creation itself is being peeled back by the One who so lovingly put it in place. This, to me, is the most horrible image in Jeremiah of all.
I don’t know how to come to terms with these images. I can’t explain them to you, I don’t have any new theological insights to help us process them. I’m not going downplay their difficulty—they are deeply disturbing and a real block for many to any sort of relationship with the God of the Bible.
But when I read Jeremiah, explanation isn’t want I long for. I just want relief. It all leaves me shocked and horrified and terribly confused. Like Jeremiah. Like the people in exile. Maybe that’s how it’s meant to leave me.
Jeremiah is a book full of horror. Horrible images, horrible events. Judah loses her land, her home, her existence. Her people lose their lives—sword, famine, and plague are everywhere. Over and over again. Going on for years. The exile itself happens not once, but three times. Exile number 1: in 597 King Jehoiachin and much of Judah’s leadership are carried into exile leaving behind a subjugated sort of half nation. Exile number 2: ten years later Babylon comes back to finish the job. Jerusalem falls. Hard. Large parts of the city, its walls, the palace, and the temple are all destroyed. The palace and the temple. The seat of the throne of David, to whom YHWH promised there would always be an heir: destroyed. The central place of worship for all Israel, the home of the holy of holies, the dwelling place of God’s presence, the heart of their religious identity and gut: gone. And all the sacred objects of worship carried off into the desert to be desecrated by the Babylonian hoards…
While more people are carried off into exile to join the first group, “the poorest in the land” remain (40:7). They are mentioned as an afterthought, a remnant as insignificant as the smoking ruins of the city’s broken down walls. Then the governor of the land is assassinated, there’s a scrambling scene of chaos and we have exile number 3. The remaining Judahites flee to Egypt.
The people are scattered and prisoners of their enemies. The line of David has failed and the temple is destroyed. The promised land is desolate and empty.
This is the scene into which Jeremiah writes his letter, his instruction to exiles:
“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” (vv.4-7).
Are you kidding?!? I mean, on the one hand, the people receiving Jeremiah’s letter might be relieved—at least he’s not forecasting more destruction. I can only imagine how they felt about receiving more news from this guy. But his news is still not good. Other prophets were foretelling Judah’s return to the land, that they would be restored in just a few years. Jeremiah says, “No. Don’t listen to them. We’re going to be here for a while, people. Multiple generations. So build houses. Not tents. Houses. Plant gardens. Till the land and care for it. Work. Work hard.” One commentator points out that when they entered the promised land, Israel inherited a paradise of “cultivated land, cities, vineyards, and olive groves, all of which were technical and cultural achievements representing generations of work” (Keown, Scalise, Smothers, 71). Here, they get none of that. They have to start from next to nothing.
And there’s more. He tells them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (v.7). Seek the peace of Babylon. Of Babylon? The ones who have taken us from our homes, ravaged our land, killed our families? The introduction to Jeremiah’s letter reminds us none too subtly that it is written to the survivors, implication being that many others were slaughtered. Seek Babylon’s peace?
And Jeremiah goes on. “Pray to the Lord” (v.7). Remember what YHWH had to say earlier about prayer? YHWH, who would not even listen to their voices, now asks them to speak again—with prayers for Babylon. Not for their own deliverance, not for comfort in grief, not for help whilst under the yoke of their oppressors. Prayers for their oppressors.
These instructions are—preposterous. Insulting? Insensitive? Impossible?
They needed a sub at Raleigh Mennonite Church this morning so they asked me to preach, which was a little nerve-wracking given how “cheery” this sermon is. I was afraid they were going to think I was a bit glum. You all I wasn’t worried about—I figured you knew by now that I’m a little angsty.
But, believe it or not, there’s good news amidst all this context, and this gloom. And I’m convinced the only way to reach it is to go through the hard part, through the story of exile, somehow, as Israel actually lived it.
The question I come to after slogging through the context is, “why?” It’s a natural enough question, perhaps ever and always our natural reflex in the face of horror. “God, why?” Why does Israel end up here, and then receive these instructions in exile? And what do they have to do with us?
There are lots of possible answers to that question, but here are a couple ideas.
YHWH’s concern for Israel since the beginning of creation is to shape her into the people of God for the sake of his glory. And the story of the exile is no different. Perhaps here in the exile YHWH is reshaping Israel. Jeremiah is the prophet who famously uses the metaphor of YHWH as the potter, his people as the clay (18:1-6). The Hebrew word here for “carry into exile” has two basic meanings. The first, “to emigrate, go away, go into captivity,” are things we normally associate with exile. But then there’s the second meaning: “to open, be open, uncover.” Which is interesting to me: the exile as the opening, the uncovering of the true Israel.
How does exile uncover? How does exile reshape?
What, I wonder, might happen to Israel if she prayed for, sought to bless, forgave, and flourished among her enemies for generations? How might that shape her into the people of God? What might happen to us if we prayed for, sought to bless, forgave, and flourished among our enemies for generations? How might that shape us into the people of God?
And YHWH is not looking just to reshape, He does more. The instructions of Jeremiah’s letter are a “promise oracle,” commands with an implied promise of success (see Keown, Scalise, Smothers, 66). Like the commands of Genesis 1. Almost exactly like Genesis 1. Have children. Plant gardens. Live here and increase and prosper. YHWH’s commands at creation imply blessing. Perhaps his commands in Jeremiah do as well.
The remarkable thing about the book of Jeremiah is that this command of promise is spoken in the depths of chaos and disorder, at the bottom of the pit. It is here that YHWH gives his instructions of blessing. Israel can, and will, be redeemed.
But not just redeemed. No, YHWH doesn’t stop there. Remember Jeremiah’s terrible pronouncement, “I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone…” The oracle of un-creation? Well, it has come to pass. And now…He who created, and un-created, is now re-creating. The circumstances are pretty far removed from the beauty of the garden of Eden, but the echo is clear. The blessing and task before the people certainly sound similar, a lot like the beginning of the world.
“The future for Israel depends on the sure resolve of YHWH to begin again.” It always has. We know that. We call ourselves new creations in Christ. Because, after all, that’s one of the main things YHWH does: he creates. And not just once.
This—this takes my breath away. That this God, who loves so much, who pursues his sons and daughters even through anger that drives them to the end of the earth, him to the undoing of his beloved, this God who goes even further to re-create, to do it all over again. And again, over and over. It leaves me undone.
And it gives me hope. Because, truthfully, often when I look out at the world I see a lot of devastation. I see a lot gone wrong. War, habitat loss, sickness. Earthquakes, floods, poverty. Injustice, impossible political situations, slavery. It’s all there, and we live in an age when we know about it happening all over the world everyday.
I need to know, desperately need to know, that God can and does speak words of promise into chaos and disorder, as he does here. We need to see, need desperately to see, that God can and does re-create the world when it seems to be coming apart.
The Revelation tells us, “I will make all things new…[and you] will inherit all this, and I will be [your] God and [you] will be my children” (Rev 21:5,7). Like it did for Israel, it might take a while. So together we wait. We await God’s preposterous, improbable, impossible new creation.
The good news is that God is always reshaping things, reshaping us. Jeremiah tells us: God is always making things new.
Please pray with me:
Lord of the exiled, Father of those who dwell in the abyss, have mercy on us.
Holy Spirit, give us life and vision for living here in your world. Give us strength to seek impossible peace.
And come, Lord Jesus, come.