The book of Jeremiah contains a letter to the exiles. Jeremiah was a prophet who ministered during the reigns of the final Kings of the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah). Chapters 28-29 are set in the 4th year of King Zedekiah’s reign and by chapter 32 he is in his 10th year and Jerusalem is under siege. The city final fell during his 11th year. We pick up the story when Jeremiah was still in Jerusalem, but two of the three waves of exile had already taken place. This letter was addressed to the remaining leaders amongst the exiles and sent with Elasah and Gemariah. It includes one of the Bible’s best known verses which in fact Google claims is in the top 10 for the whole world:
It is not hard to see why this verse is so popular and why it is often printed on mugs, posters and all kids of other things too. Taken in isolation it seems to be a promise for each of us that God is in control and has a plan for our lives to prosper us and give us a hope and a future. The problem is that this verse was not written to us, but to a group of Jewish exiles who had been taken into captivity. To see how this verse might apply to us we first need to see it in context.
1. The Prophecy: A False Hope (Jeremiah 28):
We pick up the story with a prophet called Hananiah who prophesied that God would break the yoke of the King of Babylon off of the necks of all the nations and return them home within 2 years (29:1-4). He really believed this prophecy was from God and declared it publicly before al the people. His timeframe of 2 years meant that it would not be long before they saw whether his prophecy would come true! The reason this was so radical was that a few chapters earlier in ch.25 under King Jehoiakim, Jeremiah had clearly prophesied that the exile would last 70 years. He probably reiterated this timeframe in his prophecy at the start of King Zedekiah’s reign too (27:1-11). In that chapter, Jeremiah even came to the King (plus the messengers from the other nations), bearing an animal’s yoke to urge them to remain subject to Babylon or face the consequences.
Here it’s very clear what he thinks of Jeremiah’s gloomy message, but his somewhat contradictory message seemed almost too good to be true. Jeremiah responds expressing his desire to see such things come true saying “He said, “Amen! May the Lord do so!” (28:6a). But he adds that “the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true” (v9). Hananiah retaliated by breaking the yoke Jeremiah was wearing and again reiterated his prophecy. Later God sent Jeremiah to confront Hananiah privately and tell him that He would replace the wooden yoke with an iron yoke. He was also to tell him that he had not been sent from the LORD and that he would die that year.
15 …“Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. 16 Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.’” 17 In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died.Jeremiah 28:15-16
Hananiah certainly had an encouraging message which picked up on their distress at being sent into exile and their desperation to get back to the Promised Land. Waiting is rarely easy, and certain no strong point of mine. But this waiting led them to this false hope which was clearly not from God. Regardless of how good the message sounds, we must resist the temptation to trust in false hopes rather than in God. There are no short cuts or quick ways out of the waiting that exile brought their way.
2. The Letter: Blessing the City (Jeremiah 29:1-9):
The Babylonian strategy for exile was to assimilate people into their culture and in so doing eradicate their spiritual identity. They would focus on a nations best people who would be taken into captivity for a time before being allowed to return home. Their aim was that their children and grandchildren would be assimilated into their culture and lose their former identity. Hananiah’s false message of hope encouraged the exiles to remain disengaged in Babylon as they waited for God to bring them home. The message of Jeremiah’s letter cuts against both: they were not to be disengaged in Babylon, but neither were they to be assimilated into the culture. Jeremiah writes to make clear how they should engage:
5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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.”Jeremiah 29:5-7
In the Bible Babylon is always described negatively and at odds with all God wants His people to be. So it is fascinating that God now calls His people to bless the city to which they had been taken. He says they were to build houses, settle down, plant gardens and eat of the fruits of the land. They were to marry and have children and find wives for their children so that they might increase in number. They were to seek the peace and prosperity of the city and they were to pray for it. Tim Keller in his book ‘Loving the city’ says “the citizens of the city of God are called to be the very best residents of this particular city of man” (pg. 125).
God wasn’t calling them to stick together and look after themselves: instead they were to be a blessing to the city. Doing so was part of their plan for them to grow in influence within the city and in time this would lead to them being allowed to leave. Their future was intrinsically tied to how effectively they were able to integrate within the city and be a blessing. This calling was in line with how God called His people throughout history to be blessed and be a blessing (e.g., Genesis 12:1-3, Psalm 40:1-3, Isaiah 42:1,6-7). There is therefore much that we can learn about how we might be a blessing to the cities in which we live. God also wants us to be best kind of residents of those cities. We too should be growing into people of standing, because others see our commitment, love, compassion, integrity and honesty.
3. The Letter: Hope and a Future (Jeremiah 29:10-23):
The letter then returns to the question of timeframes. God reiterates that He will fulfil His good promise to take them back to the land, but only after 70 years have been completed. God first promised this in Deuteronomy 30:1-4 anticipating that they would break His covenant. God said that it didn’t matter how far they had been scattered, He would bring them back. He promised to restore their fortunes (30:3) and that idea is repeated for those now in exile:
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 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.”Jeremiah 29:10-14
We have now seen the full context of verse 11, and specifically how it was written to those facing down 70 years in Babylon. They were in danger of either losing hope or trying to grasp onto false hopes. But God was true to His Word and the exile really did last 70 years (from the Babylonian victory at Carchemish in 605 BC to the return of the first exiles in 536 BC). For now however, they were living in exile, but God had not abandoned them. He knew the plans He had for them and they were plans to prosper and not harm them, they were plans to give them a hope and a future. God was going to bless them in exile and one day in the future He would bring them back to the Promised Land.
We’ve already established that v11 was written to a particular people in a particular context. But I think we can also appreciate that this verse is a good summary of something which is true throughout the whole Bible. God is for us (Rom 8:31). He has plans for our lives (e.g., Proverbs 16:9,19:21), which are most definitely for our good (Rom 8:28) and to that end He works to conform us to the likeness of His Son (Rom 8:29). That doesn’t mean that everything is going to be good but rather that in the bigger picture (which we cannot see) God says that things do work together for good. God is preparing us now or our forever future with Him.
4. The Field: A symbol of Hope (Jeremiah 32):
There is one final scene for us to look at in ch.32 which arises 6 years later during the 10th year of Zedekiah’s reign. At this point the Babylonians were undertaking their final siege of Jerusalem (v2) and Jeremiah was imprisoned in the courtyard of the guard because King Zedekiah didn’t liked his prophecies (v3-5)! God told Jeremiah that his uncle Hanamel was going to come to him and ask him to buy his field at Anathoth. He was the closest relative and so it was his right and duty to purchase the land in order to keep it in the family. However, this land was 3 miles outside of Jerusalem and was currently under Babylonian occupation. Suffice to say that this field was basically worthless!
Jeremiah however “knew that this was the word of the Lord” (v8b) and so he purchased it for 17 shekels of silver. The deal was signed, sealed and then Jeremiah instructed Baruch to put the documents in a clay jar to preserve them. Then comes the reason for doing this: “For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” (v15). This crazy property transaction for a worthless piece of land during a time of national crisis was actually a symbol of hope for the future. One day they really would return to the land. For us in this world, we get a taster here of all that is to come in the New Creation when we will finally be home. For now we cling to our symbols of hope – we cling to the cross and to things that remind us of God’s faithfulness, mercy and love to us.
These chapters are a huge encouragement to us. We’ve seen that God wants us to make a home for ourselves, to engage with society around us and seek to be the best possible residents in the cities / towns where we live. Our desire should be to be a blessing to those places – seeking peace, prosperity and lifting them up to God in prayer. That raises questions about how we act in the workplace, the playground or our local communities.
We’ve also seen that God really does have plans for our lives. But perhaps you are in a place of struggle right now. I have several friends who are in a period of waiting – waiting for tests, undergoing treatment before more tests or waiting for job interviews. Waiting is hard and might well lead us to doubt that God has a hope and a future for us. But the truth is that God is still on His throne – He is working out His plans which are for the good of those who love Him.
God is the God of all Hope and the only hope who will never disappoint. In this world there will never be a shortage of false hopes, but God’s hope is always better. He is the only sure and certain hope for our lives. Paul says that God will fulfil His promises to us which are always Yes in Christ. Judah really did return to the land although presumably after 70 years, few if any of the original exiles did go back. One day we too will see the return of Jesus Christ and the inauguration of the New Creation. That is our hope for our forever home with Jesus.
See other posts in this series: Far From Home