Today, we’re diving back into the Old Testament to take a look at one particular section of the book of Jeremiah. There’s one specific verse in here that gets quoted all. the. time., so we’re going to look at it in its original context.
To make a very long story very short, the kingdom of Judah has fallen to the Babylonians. Jerusalem has been destroyed, along with the temple and all of its contents, including the ark of the covenant. All of the elites have been carried off into exile, including the king and his family, the artisans, the political and religious leaders—anyone who could be useful was forced to leave Jerusalem and then scattered across the Babylonian empire. This was part of the strategy for total destruction.
What we’re about to hear is God’s message to those exiles.
Scripture: Jeremiah 29:1-14
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 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 your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
This moment was every Israelite’s worst nightmare. Everything they had staked their lives on was suddenly gone – their homes, their temple, their king and their freedom – and I’m sure it seemed like God had abandoned them, too.
Jeremiah was a prophet in the classic sense, which meant that he was a messenger between the people and God. He wasn’t a fortune-teller, but a mediator. This was one of the last messages he sent before he was forced to flee to Egypt.
But to fully understand the impact of what’s happening in this letter, we need to see the big picture of the history of Israel and God’s covenant with them as a people.
There are two major events in the history of the Israelites: the Exodus, where God led the people out of slavery in Egypt and eventually led them into the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants, and the exile – this moment, where they were carried away from that promised land in bondage to another empire once again.
After the Exodus, God made a covenant with the people – an agreement that involved mutual promises. The people promised to worship this one God, to follow all of God’s commandments, and to be people of love and justice. God then promised to keep them safe, to grant them abundance in all things. Those two promises were explicitly connected. You can read that whole story in Joshua chapter 24.
The people failed, almost immediately. It didn’t take long before they were worshipping their neighbors’ gods alongside their own and started trying to rip each other off, saying “ehhhh, God promised we would be fine!”
But rather than give up and destroy it all, God was patient – and sent judges and prophets to show them the way.
It only got worse, however, when the people demanded a king – just one person to tell them what to do, rather than everyone having to pray and discern on their own what was right.
They only lasted three generations before the kingdom was fractured in two – the kingdom of Israel in the north, and the kingdom of Judah in the south. Jerusalem became the capital of Judah, and Israel began drifting further and further from worship at the temple.
By the time we get a few generations away from the split, a good king who worried about the welfare of everyday people and worshipped God alone was the exception rather than the rule.
But still, God was patient. God sent more prophets to warn the people away from especially terrible behaviors and encourage them to love the Lord their God with all of their heart and soul and strength, no matter what the king was doing.
Sometimes it worked – Elijah and Elisha were two of the rather successful prophets, despite their ups and downs with certain kings.
Sometimes, though, it didn’t. In 732 BCE, the kingdom of Israel was captured and destroyed by the Assyrians, and most of its inhabitants were carried off into exile across the known world.
Jeremiah, in particular, is often called ‘The Weeping Prophet’, because he prophesied in Judah for forty years that if they didn’t turn around and follow God, then the same thing would happen to them – and not a single person listened.
So, in 586 BCE, about 150 years after Israel fell, so did Judah. This time, it was the Babylonians who sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, carried off anything of value, and took the king, his officials, every person who knew a useful trade, and the rest of their spoils of war into exile.
The people of Judah thought they were safe because God would never allow the temple – God’s home on earth – to be destroyed. After all, God promised that no harm would come to them, that Jerusalem would stand forever.
But they forgot their own promises. They forgot their part in God’s plan for the world.
If you’ve ever been on the wrong side of a broken promise, you know how much that hurts. While the people broke their own promise, they also thought God had broken God’s promise to them, and they went into exile with immense grief.
And then there’s this letter, handed off from messenger to exile—a tiny glimmer of hope in the midst of unimaginable agony. God is saying: “you’re going to take some time on your own, but this is not the end. There is a future for you and I, and we’re going to get there together.”
“I have plans to prosper you and not to harm you,” says God, “but to give you a hope and a future.”
But in the meantime, God also tells them to live full and abundant lives in the best way they can. They are absolutely not to sit on their hands and wait and wither for 70 years. God tells them to plant gardens, love their little ones, continue to pray and teach and grow. They’re even told to do good to their captors and seek the welfare of a city and an empire that’s not their own.
It might feel like the end of the world, but even there God calls us to be people of life and love.
And they do. Some build businesses and homes, some become servants to the king, and some of the priests double down on their study.
Fun fact: this is actually the period in Israel’s history where those priests began to write down and compile the stories they had told for generations, in order to preserve them for future generations. This is where what we know as The Old Testament began—in workshops and attics and living rooms in Babylon.
And eventually, after a couple more regime changes, a group returns to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.
So where is the good news for us, who are trying to follow Jesus and live as God’s people in a world that’s very different from ancient Judah and Babylon?
Part of our good news is knowing that we are not bound by that same ancient covenant, where God’s goodness depends on our faithfulness. God has made a new covenant with us in Jesus, given to us in baptism: Jesus has done the work of conquering sin and death, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are united with Christ and share in his resurrection.
And yet, we still live in a world that’s not that different from ancient Judah. There’s plenty of greed, injustice, anger, hopelessness, and broken promises to go around, and at least some of that’s on us.
So perhaps the good news is that we get to try and try again without any fear that God is suddenly going to cut us off. We have this new morning to practice following Jesus again. And every time we fall, the Spirit is there to pick us up and say: “this is not the end. Let’s go one more time.”
What we learn from this ancient letter is this: whether to the ends of the earth or the end of our days, God is with us – so there is always hope.