[Sermon preached at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, TN.]
In 597 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, exiled Jehoiakim, the King of Judah, along with some 3,000 others to Babylon. This was the second deportation from Judah (an earlier one was in 605 B.C.E.) and it would not be the last (another when Jerusalem is destroyed in 587 B.C.E.). This was the first to include the King himself and his family. Though Jehoiakim lived in Babylon, he was the legitimate King of Judah despite the fact Nebuchadnezzar had appointed Zedekiah, Jehoiakim’s uncle, King in his place.
[Interestingly, The Babylonian Chronicles, discovered in the early 20th century at the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, describes some rations provided to the King of Judah, Jehoiakim, and these date from 592 B.C.E.].
These exiles probably thought they were deported for only a short period of time. Some prophets assured them they would return to Jerusalem before long. Jeremiah, however, thinks otherwise. Yahweh exiled them in Babylon, and there they would stay for a long time. Jehoiakim, in fact, would die in Babylon (2 Kings 25:27).
In the light of this reality, Jeremiah, as a word from the Lord, offers this counsel (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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 welfare.
The text comes in two sections. The first encourages a proactive approach to life in exile. The second orients the exiles to their relationship with the city in which they are exiled.
The first reflects a common pattern within the Hebrew Bible. For example, it describes those who are excused from serving in the active militia (Deuteronomy 20:5-7), and it describes a blessed state (Deuteronomy 28:3-4). Further, Isaiah 65, envisioning the new heavens and new earth, uses this language to describe the bless of such a life. In a series ten rapid-fire imperatives, the Lord calls the exiles to flourish in their new setting.
- build houses and live in them.
- plant gardens and eat their produce.
- marry and have children
- give your sons in marriage
- give your daughters in marriage
- multiply and do not decrease
The language echoes what God envisioned for Israel in the land of promise. Yahweh settled them in that land and intended they would flourish as if in a new Eden. Israel’s mandate was to live in the land so that its peace and rest would draw the nations to Yahweh.
The language also echoes God’s purposes in creation where God intended humanity to settle the earth, build their lives, enjoy the fruit of the garden, and multiply. Humanity’s mandate was to expand Eden into the whole earth, fill the earth, and extend God’s peace to all creation as they subdued the chaos.
In this case, however, Israel is an alien in a foreign land; they are exiles, immigrants. They are a transplated people, deported from their homeland by hated enemies. They do not want to be there, and peace is not exactly uppermost in their minds. They want, we might presume, revenge (Psalm 137 reflects such, though it is placed in God’s hands).
Jeremiah says, settle into your new homes. Flourish in your new setting. Become in exile what you were intended to enjoy in your homeland; become what humanity was intended to be from the beginning.
In other words, your mandate–your mission–is still in place. Now, however, you must pursue it as exiles. The mission is still the same, whether in Eden, in the promised land, or in exile.
Flourish! Mulitply! Enjoy life!
God is still with Judah, and just as God blessed humanity in the beginning and blessed Abraham, so God will continue to bless Judah in exile. God will multiply them. God has not forgotten them. Quite the contrary, God renews the blessing of Abraham, even in their exile.
And Israel is still on mission…even in exile.
This includes seeking the peace of the city in which they lived and praying for it so that they might know peace in the city’s peace.
Flourish, but flourish in such a way that peace saturates and overwhelms the place where you are flourishing because human flourishing happens where there is peace. In other words, flourishing is not a selfless project. On the contrary, we only flourish when others flourish; we are only at peace when others at peace.
Exiles–aliens in the land–must look beyond their own self-contained communities. They must love the city in which they live and seek its peace. They must orient their lives toward peace for the city and pray for it. They must not neglect others or isolate themselves from the city. They must engage it.
For Israel, this meant seek the peace of their enemies and praying for their enemies–something Jesus would call Israel to do as well in the Sermon on the Mount. Disciples of Jesus are peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) and they pray for their enemies (Matthew 5:44).
For the sake of mission, God scattered Israel among the nations, just as he scattered humanity at Babel and later scattered the church through persecution. Since Israel did not attract their nations by their godliness, God sent them among the nations. God sent them as exiled missionaries. They live in Babylon because God sent them as exiles, and God sent them for the peace of the city, for the peace of the nations.
Jews have lived in the Euphrates river valley ever since the exile (over 2500 years), though they are now disappearing from that region due to instability and persecution. Judaism flourished there, and they were a light among the nations. Most Jews never returned to their homeland; they made Babylon their home.
The church is also an exiled people; light present in the darkness. Churches are missional communities, living in exile (1 Peter 2:4-10).
As such, the two basic directives from Jeremiah to exiled Jews in Babylon offer direction for the contemporary church.
- Flourish! Live, multiply, and enjoy.
- Seek the peace of the city and pray for it.
Enjoy life–build, plant, marry…. But remember we are on mission–seeking peace for the city with our lives and through our prayers.