By this part of the story of God’s chosen people, Judah, the southern Kingdom of a divided Israel, has been conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Sunday’s reading is from Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14.
To see where this fits into the broader story of the Bible, check out our Bible Story Outline. This story fits within the Exile portion of the Biblical story, and within Exile it is both under the Grief and Hope themes.
A significant number of Judah’s people have been taken into exile in Babylon. For a nationalistic people whose identity was tied both to the land and and to their special calling as a chosen people, this was an unmitigated disaster.
Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil?
Yet into exile is where they went. And there the LORD gives them an unexpected command:
Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
Due to the short Thanksgiving week, I am unlikely to record a Sermons in Progress podcast this week.
God instructs the people to make this new land their home. Settle there. Eat their food. Find partners for your children and grow your families. Pray for the city where you now live. Your welfare depends on the welfare of this city, the welfare of those who have defeated you and who make you their captives.
Smite them, O God?
Many Christians imagine wrath and judgment as a shorthand for God in the Old Testament. We’re not seeing that here, and indeed, such a shorthand does a disservice to our God. Instead of wrath and judgment we’re seeing prayer and promise, even for an enemy and conqueror of God’s people. This makes sense, of course, for the God who protected Cain the murderer (Genesis 4), clothed Adam and Eve the disobedient (Genesis 3), and healed Naaman the foreign warrior and adversary to Israel (2 Kings 5). Our Lord is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8).
Yes, in this land of exile the Jewish people are finding an unexpected promise – that God is with them and will rescue them (vs 11). But first, they will remain in this land of exile and captivity for seventy years (vs 10). In the meantime God tells them to “have children … increase in number,” (vs 6) echoing the command and promise God gives in Genesis 1:22 (to “be fruitful and multiply” in the first creation story) and Genesis 9:7 (to “be fertile and multiply. Populate the earth and multiply in it” after the flood waters receded).
The people of Judah were called by God to reconcile themselves to their current circumstances, and even to embrace them. “Don’t pay attention to your dreams” the LORD proclaims (vs 8), referring to their dreams for immediate relief, speedy victory over Babylon, and a prompt return to their promised land. Such dreams were misguided, and failed to see the promise and presence of God in their current circumstances. Yes, God will provide release in the future. But for now, God promises presence and blessing even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Hundreds of years later Jesus would bid the people to pray for their enemies (Matthew 5:44), and would reject the sword as a means of the Kingdom (Matthew 26:52), echoing the counsel the LORD gives the captive Jews in Babylon. Whereas a military victory and restoration of Israel to its prior glory might have been most satisfying – during the Exile and in Jesus’ own time – the pathway God calls his people to follow is quite different. “My peace I give you,” Jesus says (John 14:27). “I give to you not as the world gives.”
As we look toward the manger in which our infant Lord will be born – in the shadow of military occupation and oppression – we remember the peace of God is a peace not found in might but in care for others, and even our enemies. We know that God’s blessings are not more abundant in “the good times” of victory and comfort, but instead flow generously especially in times of trial. This is the unexpected promise of God.
A blessed Thanksgiving to you.
For prayers and psalms for Thanksgiving and for travel this weekend, please click here.