Part 1 of the Application of Jeremiah’s ‘Letter to the Exiles’ to Christian Living and Approaching Culture Today. Download PDF Version
Part 1: An Exposition of Jeremiah 29:4-14
In The City of God, Augustine teaches that in creation there are basically two cities: the city of God, and the city of man. The city of God is the kingdom of believers—the church, and the city of man is the world—symbolized throughout the Bible by the city of Babylon. In the book of Jeremiah, the nation of Judah is taken captive and exiled to Babylon. In Jeremiah 29:4-14, God gives specific instructions for how he desires His exiled people to engage the city of man. From a canonical biblical theology of ‘continuing exile’ , Christians can be seen as a dispersion, free from captivity, but sojourning in the world and not yet home. God’s people today are still dwelling throughout the world in the city of man. Through this lens, God’s instructions to the exiles in Babylon, in Jeremiah 29, have specific application not only to His Judean exiles, but also to His ‘elect exiles in the dispersion’ today (1 Pet 1:11). As Jeremiah’s letter calls the Judean exiles to glorify God by giving their lives to the shalom of their gentile captor; Christians should glorify God by loving their non-believing neighbors (Mark 12:31) in seeking the welfare and flourishing of the cities to which God has called them. Like the Judean exiles in Babylon, in desiring the welfare of their cities, Christians too will find shalom. The commands expressed in Jeremiah verses four through fourteen have strong and profound implications for modeling the posture of Christ’s sojourning disciples and their engagement in the present culture surrounding them.
“The Messenger Formula, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ is used more often [in Jeremiah 29] than in any other chapter of Jeremiah.” These statements are significant indicators mapping the outline of the text. To validate the application of Jeremiah 29:4-14 to the New Testament church, a verse-by-verse exposition will be performed by breaking the passage into the three sections marked by the statements, “Thus says the Lord.” First there will be a brief examination of the historicity, provenance, destination, and transmission of Jeremiah’s letter. Then the three sections will be examined under their key summarizing directives: 1) to commit, 2) to deny, and 3) to behold (in wonder and trust). These directives are applied to the three sections respectively. Within this framework there will be an expounding of God’s desired activity for the exiles in Babylon specifically. Following the exposition of the passage there will be an explanation of the biblical theology of ‘continuing exile.’ In this explanation it will be exegetically demonstrated that Jeremiah 29 is the first major pivot point for the redefinition of the geo-political identity of God’s people, and God’s first step toward expanding Israel’s spiritual borders in preparation for His salvation plan for the gentile nations. This section will further demonstrate that God’s people remain sojourners living in exile to this day. Provided the exilic continuity between the Judean exiles and the sojourning church, in tandem with the continuity of the directives of Jeremiah’s letter and the New Testament teachings of Christ; special attention will be called to the typological significance of the exiles and Babylon, and their typological fulfillment in Christ and the world. The conclusion will then follow the outline of Jeremiah’s letter again to provide application for the imitators of Christ sojourning in the world today.
Background, Verses 1-3
Immediately in verse 1 Jeremiah tells the reader that what follows is a letter written by Jeremiah, sent to the exiles in Babylon, regarding God’s directions and comfort for the people Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had taken out of Jerusalem. Further, the letter issues a warning to those Judeans resisting compliance with Yahweh’s will for their surrender to the Babylonians. To the exiles God says, “Endure!”, and to those remaining in Jerusalem God says, “Repent and link with your exiled brothers!” For decades Jeremiah had been prophesying the coming judgment of God upon His people, and this judgment has arrived in the form of Babylonian troops, here, in the year 597 B. C.
Babylon, earlier known as Babel (Gen 11), is the typification of the city of man, the city of the secular spirit, and great tempter of men (Gen 11:4, Rev 18:3). Babylon is the worldly, wicked, godless, and assimilated city that strives after self and against God. Jeremiah then writes this letter shortly after the first exile of Judeans to give them guidance in making their way in the new land. “The design of the Prophet was at the same time twofold; for he not only intended to mitigate by comfort the sorrow of the exiles, but designed also to break down the obstinacy of his own nation.” The Jews “had set their minds on an unreasonable deliverance [wishing to] immediately break through and extricate themselves from the yoke laid on them.” Hence it made sense that the Jews should not remain amongst the dregs in Jerusalem, longing for a return to former glory, but should move forward in joining with the new calling of God upon His people. In this new work in Babylon, verse seven says the people of God will find their welfare; but in verse seventeen Jeremiah instructs that those who cling to the past, resisting to go to Babylon and work for the welfare of the wicked captors, will be destroyed. Those who felt fortunate to have remained in Jerusalem, believing the comforts of home were a benefit to them, were warned they would face a far worse fate.
At this time, Zedekiah became the fifth king to sit on the throne of Judah in a thirty year span, and the result was an incredibly unstable time for Judah politically. As is typically the case in calamity and grieving, there are two groups present amongst the Jews: those who over-react in fear and desperation, and those who cling to false hopes for a return to prior conditions. Among this group hoping for simple resolution are tribal-minded agitators and diviners who seek to stir resistance to the new order. Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles is an open letter that Zedekiah has approved and has commissioned the king’s ambassadors, Elasah and Gemariah, to hand-deliver to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar allowed its delivery, not out of benevolence, but because the pro-Babylonian message served Nebuchadnezzar’s wishes in encouraging the Israelite assimilation in Babylon. The letter further served to discourage unrest among those who desired either segregation or an uprising.
Section 1 – “Thus says the Lord” – Commit
The first section marked by the phrase “Thus says the Lord,” verses four through seven, contains a list of positive “do this” commands that Yahweh gave to the Judeans in exile. The key take-away within this section is that God is calling for His people to commit. Yahweh desires the exiles to stop straddling the fence between settling in Babylon and holding out for an alternate reality. God says, “This is your reality. Commit yourselves to do these things.”
In verse five, the Lord instructs the Israelites to commit to Babylon. Yahweh commands this saying, “Build houses.” More important to Yahweh than the Israelites having adequate shelter is their adoption of a settled state in Babylon. Yahweh’s desire is that the exiles will make the city their home. In the verses that follow, Yahweh will give the Israelites several tasks of service that cannot be fulfilled by a people who are resisting involvement, remaining disengaged from their surroundings. Further to this end God says, “Plant a garden.” This instruction does not immediately translate to the present, but the concept holds. In Judah, gardens were not recreational. A large majority of the population were either farmers by trade or were dependent on personal gardens for their family’s food supply. Building houses and planting gardens are no small amount of work. Gardens require work to prepare, cultivate, and sow. Gardens require a season to bear a harvest. It takes several seasons of tilling and harvesting for the soil to develop the eco-system required for reaping good produce. Thus, the building of homes, and the keeping of gardens are not small undertakings. They require much personal expenditure and investment. Building houses and planting gardens means planting roots. This means commitment. God is saying, “Plant roots here. Invest yourselves here. Make this place home.” The Israelites should expect to be in this place for an extended time, and should abandon any vain notions they have about returning home. This is a call to stop the split-minded half-heartedness. Yahweh is telling them to, “Cease straddling the two limbs of My will and your desire. Desire My will.” Yahweh is calling for their full commitment to His chosen location for them, and their full commitment to His work and plans in the city.
Israel’s relationship to God as status-quo in Israel was not working. Yahweh desired to break the Israelites from their settled state. God’s people have grown hard and forgotten how to mourn their sin (Matt 5:4). In Judah, the Hebrews had become sunbaked, hardened ground, producing no harvest. God desired to churn the soil of the Jewish national soul for the cultivating of fruit. The Hebrew word for exile, Galah (גּוֹלָה), literally means: to uncover, expose, reveal, lay bare, or unearth. This is exactly the activity Yahweh performs in the exile. He churns the spiritual soil of the Israelite people. A. W. Tozer speaks this way about the fallow field:
The fallow [or the unplanted] field is smug, contented, protected from the shock of the plow and the agitation of the harrow [or being broken up]. Such a field as it lies year after year, becomes a familiar landmark to the crow and the blue jay. [. . .] Safe and undisturbed, it sprawls lazily in the sunshine, the picture of sleepy contentment. But it is paying a terrible price for its tranquility; never does it see the miracle of growth; never does it feel the motions of mounting life nor see the wonders of bursting seed nor the beauty of ripening grain. Fruit it can never know because it is afraid of the plow and the harrow. In direct opposite to this, the cultivated field has yielded itself to the adventure of living. The protecting fence has opened to admit the plow, and the plow has come as plows always come, practical, cruel, business-like and in a hurry. Peace has been shattered by the shouting farmer and the rattle of machinery. The field has felt the travail of change; it has been upset, turned over, bruised and broken, but its rewards come hard upon its labors. The seed shoots up into the daylight its miracle of life, curious, exploring the new world above it. All over the field the hand of God is at work in the age-old and ever renewed service of creation. New things are born, to grow, mature, and consummate the grand prophecy latent in the seed when it entered the ground.
Tozer casts light on the glory afforded the sinner by Yahweh’s miraculous hand concluding: “Nature’s wonders follow the plow.”
The exile is God’s hand upon the plow. What lay dormant is being awakened. What formerly lay under the surface, now is exposed and confessed. God’s people will soon be prepared to receive the Seed and bear a harvest. If what can be known about God is plainly revealed in nature (Rom 1:19-20), then there is much to be learned, and committed to heart, in planting a garden. For the exiles, the gardens Yahweh has commanded they plant will be to them a daily reminder of the work Yahweh is performing in their hearts. This too will be a reminder of their small promise of Eden—their own shalom, promised them in their work of seeking the shalom of the city (Jer 29:7). Both the toil, and the fruit of the toil, are gifts from God (Eccl 3:12-13).
In verse six God instructs the Israelites to commit to His plan for family. The instruction to bear generations is a further call to commit to His chosen duration for their stay in Babylon. Here, Yahweh reaffirms that the Jews should not put off their normal way of life until they are able to return to Jerusalem, but should multiply in Babylon, treating the city as their home. The command to settle in for generations was to show by their commitment and “patience that they were really penitent, and that they also expected [their salvation to come] in no other way than through God’s favor alone.”
The message here is one that instructs the Jews that they should neither segregate, in a fortification mentality, nor should they assimilate to the Babylonian culture. It was not God’s purpose for the Jews to set their hearts on Chaldea, or on the Chaldeans. On the contrary, they were to keep their return in mind, knowing they live for another kingdom, and as in the land of Israel restrict marriages to those of the same religious identity.
In Ezra and Nehemiah, after the Jews return to Jerusalem, the issue of intermarriage between Israelites and Babylonians is addressed, and those Israelites who have intermarried with Babylonians are called to separate from them. “The guilty are males who are presumably attempting to ‘marry up’ to exchange their low status of ‘exiles’ for participation in aristocratic society.” This is both a selling out of their faith for worldly pursuits, and a threat to the maintenance of their minority witness in the presence of the larger Babylonian culture. “The increased consciousness of identity in a minority subculture thrown into extensive contact with other cultures [is] in such a social context, ‘purity’ [which] becomes the language of nonconformity.” Thus it is vitally important that the Hebrews maintain their ethno-religious identity. As a caveat, the story of Ruth and Boaz indicates that the foreigner who denounces her country’s idols to faithfully seek Yahweh, and the Israelite who benevolently receives the repentant foreigner, will share a God blessed union. The underlying principle is that the Jews were to be ever mindful of God’s promises for their future. By honoring God’s plan for family–fruitfully multiplying in the midst of the gentiles–the Israelites would demonstrate the better way of life. The people of God would demonstrate to their hedonistic neighbors that healthy families are the foundation of healthy society.
A key focal point in Jeremiah’s letter, verse seven calls the Israelites to commit to God’s will by giving their lives for the welfare of the city. Yahweh says, “Seek the shalom of the city to which I have sent you, and in the city’s shalom, you will find your shalom.” This calls for a paradigm shift in Judah’s view toward the gentiles. This verse “reflects the political realism, urging the exiles to accommodate their imperial overlord. [. . .] The well-being (shalom) of Judah is dependent upon and derivative that of Babylon. [. . .] The imperative bestows upon this vulnerable, small community a large missional responsibility.” Here, Yahweh extends the Israelites His grace if only they will be willing to faithfully follow His direction in faith, and not reject the means by which He has instructed that they will find prosperity. This will require the Israelites to do justly, to seek justice, and to see God’s image in gentile humanity. Seeing God’s image in humanity, Yahweh desires that Israel will serve humanity, rather than attempt to establish dominion over humanity as if the gentiles are the subhuman beasts of the earth. Israel, by their relationship with Yahweh has an inherent sense of elitism. To love Babylon they will have to learn to genuinely love their neighbor. “Such a horizon prevents the exilic community from withdrawing into its own safe, sectarian existence, and gives it work to do and responsibility for the larger community.” In verse seven, God calls the Israelites to serve the common good, and not just the Judean good. Like instruments in a song, or as the sun and moon interact as they follow the laws of nature, God has called the Israelites to play their role in the harmony of His greater working of all things. Like the sun and moon, if the Israelites could obey their calling, God would use them to bring life to the world.
Section 2 – “Thus says the Lord”- Deny
The second section, cued by the statement “Thus says the Lord,” verses eight and nine contain a list of negative “deny this” commands that Yahweh gave the exiles for adherence to His will. The key take-away from this section is that God is calling His people to deny their fleshly desires, and to deny the false prophets who would tickle their ears with divinations about such hopes. Yahweh is calling His people to die to their wants, and align their hearts with His will. God says, “Do not listen to the prophets who prophesy your self-serving hopes and dreams. Deny them. I did not send them.”
Verses eight and nine are the direct response of Yahweh to the false prophets who were plotting to convince the Israelites to remain segregated from the Babylonians. Specifically mentioned in Jeremiah 28:3-4 is Hannaniah who was prophesying a return from exile in only two years. The desire of the false prophets and the religious leaders was that the Israelites would remain disengaged from the Babylonian culture, maintaining a strong tribalism as they held out for their return to Jerusalem. As many religious people do today, these diviners condemned the city’s culture and tried to find ways to encourage the Israelites to draw a hard line of segregation between themselves and their non-believing neighbors. The problem of the false prophets is seen earlier in chapters 23, 27, and 28 of Jeremiah. As Walter Brueggemann points out, the concern is that the Israelites, desiring an alternate outcome, are prone to chase flights of religious fancy. “The threat to the Jews is that they will be talked out of the reality of exile. [. . .] The warning of verses eight and nine is against an emotional, imaginative departure from that place. Prophetic faith is hard-nosed realism that is resistant to romantic, ideological escapism.”
Yahweh denounces the separatist stance, and the religious fortification mentality, and eliminates any false hopes for this generation’s return to their former way of life. Yahweh calls the Israelites to deny such hopes for a return to former comfort, and to deny any search for an alternative plan for prosperity. This is a call to deny false prosperity teachings. God denounces the people’s idolatry, and the people’s religion. The city lacks for neither idolatry nor religion , but demands people who adhere to the commands of Yahweh in verses four through seven. “The counsel to settle in exile (vv. 5-9) is against the popular notion that the Exile is short and temporary. The counsel to look beyond exile (vv. 10-14) is against the temptation to despair. Both affirmations from [Jeremiah] are in fact counter to prevailing opinion.” Where verse seven calls the Israelites to give themselves entirely to the will of God, verse eight calls them to deny their own self-serving wants. Yahweh calls His people to come not as fallen man comes, seeking only for themselves the fleshly good and avoiding the fleshly undesirable; but to come as Christ came, only desiring to take away the bad, and to freely give for the common good.
Section 3 – “Thus says the Lord”- Behold
Verses 10 and 11
The third and final section, cued by the statement “Thus says the Lord,” includes verses ten through fourteen, and contains God’s promises for the Jewish exiles who embrace God’s will and remain faithful through the exile. The removal of the Hebrews from Jerusalem bears no minor resemblance to Adam being excused from Eden, and such is the existence of all who live in rebellion, and have been excused from the presence of God. What follows in verses ten through fourteen is, “an assertion of the gospel: God is available in the midst of despair and will override both despair and the circumstances which generate it.” The juxtaposition present between sections 4-9 and 10-14 demonstrate how the judgment and purpose of Yahweh are held in tension. Present here are indications for a future hope through judgment. In an ancient world where a nation’s gods were judged by military might, the Israelites would need a new understanding for why Yahweh would allow the conquering of His people. Through the prophets the Israelites would come to understand that while “it was no small trial when the Jews were deprived of the land that was God’s dwelling place”, and seemingly “all hope had been cut off”, they were being led– “being chastened by God’s hand.” Beginning at Jeremiah 29:10, and expounded upon in the chapters that follow, are “some of the most wonderful promises in all of Scripture.”
After twenty-eight chapters of doom and gloom, Jeremiah came bearing tidings of grace and glory. [. . .] He would love them ‘with an everlasting love’ (31:3) and ‘turn their mourning into gladness’ (31:13). He would make a new covenant with them (31:31) and give them ‘singleness of heart and action’ (33:29). God would even ‘cleanse them from all the sin they have committed’ (33:8). Jeremiah summarized all these blessings in one wonderful promise: ‘For I know the plans I have for you’ declares the Lord, (29:11) ‘plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
In verses ten through fourteen God invites His people to behold the wonder of His goodness if they will only trust Him and live in light of His promises. “He will give them, not the expectations of their fears, nor the expectations of their fancies, but the expectations of their faith.” In faith they should seek shalom for the city, and in faith they should seek Yahweh. In faithful execution they will find both.
Knowledge, service, and hospitality become wisdom, love, stewardship, and ministry when they flow from a constant acknowledgment of God’s grace. Life becomes not just a temporal striving, a chasing after wind, and a preoccupation with the here and now; but a journey of service culminating in eternal shalom, when lived in communion with God. In verse 12, when the Lord’s work in Babylon is complete, the Israelites will come to understand this, and understand that operating outside of a dependence on God’s grace will always leave them short of where they desire to be. Then they will call on no one else, and they will depend on God alone. This desire of Yahweh is not merely for the sake of Yahweh, but also for the flourishing of mankind. In this God is glorified.
In verse thirteen God calls the Israelites to trust Him with their whole hearts, and their whole lives. “Yahweh had seemed to the exiles to be hidden, absent, and unavailable. Judah must reorient its life in exile. [. . .] Judah must only decide to seek its future exclusively from Yahweh.” They are to seek shalom even in the chaos and disorientation of displacement. No matter where they find themselves they will come to know their highest joy is found in obedience to God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Pros 1:7). When the Israelites finally settle, and when they finally stop striving after all things other than God, they will still their weary hearts, and behold the wonder of God. Then they will have hearts fully devoted to God. Then they will seek God, and they will obey Him. Then they will know fortune, and prosperity, and shalom.
It is evident from Jeremiah’s letter that, in his pro-Babylonian posture, he has addressed the letter to the people whom God intends to carry forth His plans for the future. “Those who remained in Jerusalem after the deportation of  continued to believe they were favored by God and regarded themselves as the blessed carriers of Judaism.” What is impressed upon the exiles by the promises of Jeremiah’s letter, however, is that the Judeans, defeated and humiliated by the exile, are the true people of God—the carriers of Judah’s future. It is just like Yahweh, that through the humbling of men and women, He is at work, shaping, chastening, developing, and bringing forth new life. John Bunyan put it well when he said, God’s people “in the fire of persecution [are] like Esther in the perfuming chamber”—being made “fit for the presence of the king.” “As exile is Israel’s most devastating judgment, so homecoming and restoration to the land are Israel’s deepest yearning and God’s best gift.” Just as the exile from Eden is the greatest judgment against mankind, the return of mankind to the kingdom of heaven is God’s greatest gift. Inherent in the judgment and promises of Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles is a helpful doctrine for every age. “God in a wonderful way gathers his church when scattered, to make it into one body, even though for a time he may obliterate its name and even its very appearance. Thus we see that this prophecy has not just been fulfilled once. God has often manifested the grace that is here set forth, and he still manifests it in gathering his church.”
* References are cited in the print format available for download above.
Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.