Wednesday, March 1, 2023

A Letter to the Exiles

Jeremiah 29 records a letter that God directed Jeremiah to write to the Jews who had already been carried off into exile around 597 BC (the final fall of Jerusalem occurred around 587 BC). This letter came to a community that was dislocated. They had become a minority and their whole world had been shaken. What were they to do? The letter provides an important message for the church today. It helps us to address the question: what should Christians do when they find themselves increasingly marginalized and caught up in the tumult of the nations?

In the letter Jeremiah stressed that this exile was not a mistake, that it would last for seventy years, and that despite appearances God's intentions were for their good. God's plans for them were for "for welfare and not for evil," to give them "a future and a hope" (29:11). He had sent them there, and he intended to bless them. “I have sent into exile… I will…bring you back…I will hear you…I will be found by you…I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations” (29:4, 10-14). God cares for his people, disposes all things for their good, and restores their fortunes in his timing.

Not all of Israel shared in this plan. Some were cast off and killed. Some would be uprooted. Yet a remnant would be blessed. The letter described how some had missed out on this: they had ignored God’s words and opposed his prophets. Some had proclaimed false and rebellious prophecies and committed adultery. That was the wrong way. 

So how should a person respond in difficult times to this message of a future and a hope?

1. Call upon the Lord with faith.

"Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you." (Jeremiah 29:12) 

Verses 12-13 describe how the people would receive God's restoration. They would find him through prayer. They would be blessed as they sought the Lord with sincerity. These years were intended to train the exiles to look to God with faith. And through faith, they would participate in this future he had prepared for them.

When Daniel read Jeremiah's prophecies at the end of those 70 years, he acted upon it by praying a prayer recorded in Daniel 9. “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake…” (Daniel 9:19) 

In other words, believe in God and his promises and call upon him to fulfill them. Persevere in faith, in prayer, in believing expectation. It is by faith in God and his promises that we participate in God’s grace. Those who seek the Lord with sincere faith will not be cast out. “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith” (Romans 11:20).

Like the exiles, we continue to await more of what is promised, both in what we expect in history and eternity. God’s word here teaches you to persevere in seeking the Lord and believing his promises.

And by this faith, a believer acts upon God’s word. The following points describe how God’s people express their faith by their deeds.

2. Build and plant.

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.” (Jeremiah 29:5)

Imagine them having just arrived in Babylon. What should they do? Should they expect a quick return? Should they give up hope of a return altogether? In either case, they would lack motivation to work on long-term projects.

But Jeremiah told them to invest themselves in improving their situation, digging in for a while, building homes and planting gardens. Just because they were exiles, that didn’t mean they were supposed to hold back and live in tents. They would be there for seventy years, so it was worth it to dig in. And their stay was not forever, so it was worth it to persevere. There was light at the end of the tunnel. 

Likewise, Christians are called to fulfill their callings and serve the Lord where they are. Dig in. Do not be held back by a pseudo-spiritual pietism that interprets our identity as exiles as if that means we shrink back from earthy things. You are called to take dominion of the earth in accord with your particular calling, building and planting. Develop where you live and use what you have so that it may be fruitful and productive. Do not linger in indecision, but work with what you have to maintain yourselves and others.

The apostle Paul sharply rebuked those who lived in idleness. He said, “we urge you, brothers … to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:10–12).

3. Get married and have children.

"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." (Jeremiah 29:6) 

Get married. Get your children married. They are imperatives, just as in Paul’s epistles (1 Cor. 7:2, 1 Tim. 5:14). While there are exceptions (1 Cor. 7:7-9, 1 Tim. 5:9-10), there is a general responsibility to seek marriage.

Getting married involves a number of steps. It includes preparing for marriage. But marriage is a goal to work towards. When a person is ready, finding a spouse is a task to pursue.

Notice in Jeremiah's letter that both singles and their parents have responsibility. Both those who are getting married and their parents should be working towards this goal together. Unfortunately, in our day parents are either generally uninvolved or involved in a primarily negative manner, with a focus on preventing bad marriages. But the emphasis here is positive. Parents should help their children to get married to good spouses and to form good marriages. Again, this includes preparation (character, skills, calling) and finding a spouse.

Why? To multiply and increase. Marriage provides the basis for the future of a community. One reason for marriage is to provide offspring. If the exiles were to multiply, their singles would need to get married and have children. 

Married couples should have children, as this perpetuates and multiplies the human race (Gen. 1:28), their nation (Prov. 14:28), the church (Mal. 2:15), and their family (Ps. 127:3, 128:3-4). In particular, the focus in Jeremiah 29 is on God’s people multiplying and increasing. Certainly that happens by evangelism as well, but this is in addition to natural increase and the covenantal nurture of children. 

This instruction implies a community of believers. The community of believers is a vital part of this survival plan! One cannot survive for the long term without a community. The community (or communities) of believers provides the spouses and it is the community of believers which is being increased. The letter is addressed to the exiles of Judah, a community with recognized leaders, their elders, priests, and prophets.

God teaches his people in this text to think multi-generationally: God’s plans extend beyond one generation. God also teaches his people to live with hope: there is a future for their children and grandchildren. So many people today do not have enough hope or enough purpose to have children. They don’t mind if their people, their family, or their church dies out. But God teaches his people to think otherwise. The church of Jesus Christ has a purpose and a future and a hope!

Therefore, even when the present is difficult or discouraging, the call to get married and have children remains. Yes, there may be some like Jeremiah and Paul, with the gift of continency, who may remain single, especially in times of distress. But the community in general are called to get married and multiply.

Remember Exodus 1:12: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel.”

4. Seek the welfare of the city where you dwell and pray for it.

"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 29:7) 

I was talking to someone recently about patriotism. Is it a good thing? Should one be devoted to one’s country? Even when your country does many wicked things? Certainly this devotion can be taken to excess when it is pursued without qualification. Jeremiah was thought to be unpatriotic when he criticized his people and rulers and told them to surrender to Babylon. But consider this: the Jews were told by God to seek the welfare of Babylonian communities. Babylon was not godly - it was pagan. And not only were the Jews not religiously united with the Babylonians, they were not of the same nation either. They were doubly strangers. 

You and I may rightly feel alienated by the secularism of our country. We should not assimilate into secularism. Parents must be diligent to teach their children God's word and raise them to keep the way of the Lord. But if the Jews were to seek the welfare of Babylonian cities, how much more should we "seek the welfare of the city" when it is our own nation and people? You should seek the welfare of your city, county, state, and country. You should work for the good of those around you.

Think of biblical examples. Joseph brought blessing to his Egyptian household, prison, and country. Daniel was a blessing to the Babylonian and Persian kingdoms. Mordecai saved the Persian king’s life and served in his administration. Nehemiah served a Persian king as cupbearer.

How does your work bless others around you? How do you contribute to the welfare, the well-being, of your community or country? Your contributions might not be as visible as those of Daniel and Mordecai and yet still serve an important role in our interconnected society. Figure it out and work on it with diligence, knowing that you are serving the Lord. You are also serving your own interest! “...for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

One way to seek the welfare of your community that God specifies is to pray for it. Similarly, Paul urges the saints to pray for kings and all in high positions, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2).

5. Do not be immobilized by false prophets.

Do not be misled by false prophets. Instead, hold fast to the word of God. This is the focus of verses 15-32. God will judge false prophets (Jer. 29:22-23, 31-32, cp. Rev. 2-3). Do not be misled by messages of despair or messages of quick and easy prosperity. Be careful about who and what you listen to and where those messages are leading you. False prophets and teaches often lead people away from godliness into speculation, idleness, and/or immorality. 


God intends good for his people. His church has a future and a hope. Therefore, call upon him with with faith, and exercise that faith: build and plant, get married and multiply, seek the well-being of your community. Do not be immobilized by false teachers, but get to work, serving the Lord. Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

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