This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 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 29:1-14)
While Babylonian troops look on in triumph, a convoy of deportees leaves Jerusalem for their journey into exile. The year is 597 BCE. Among them are king Jehoiachin, the queen mother, court officials, skilled craftsmen and others (2 Kings 24:8-17). The armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, seem invincible, absorbing one nation after the other. A second larger group of exiles will leave for Babylon eleven years later, in 586, after a doomed uprising ends in the brutal siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple as well as vast parts of the city (2 Kings 25:1-21).
From as early perhaps as 627, a young man by the name of Jeremiah, descendent of a long line of priests from a town not far from Jerusalem, had been proclaiming that the people must change their ways and return to the Lord; otherwise disaster will strike, he said. As the kingdom of Judah enjoyed relative peace at the time and there were no signs of imminent danger, his words went largely unnoticed. But soon enough, the political landscape begins to shift and Jeremiah’s words suddenly prove true. An increasingly powerful and ambitious Babylonia is threatening Judah as it is other nearby kingdoms. Jeremiah’s message takes on a new and much more dramatic pitch: not only danger but now crushing defeat at Babylon’s hand is inevitable. This is God’s will, he tells them; there is no other way forward. Until then regarded by many as just an annoyance, Jeremiah now looks like a traitor and is roundly treated as such, often brutally. Yet soon after the first group of exiles arrive in Babylon, Jeremiah writes them a letter. In it, incredibly, he speaks to them about the future and about hope.
God wants you to settle down, Jeremiah writes, to build homes and start families. You should seek the well-being of your new home and pray to the Lord on its behalf. In its welfare you will find your welfare, the letter says. We can well imagine the shock on the exiles’ faces as the letter was being read aloud to them. Not only was God telling them, according to Jeremiah, to accept life among their dreaded enemy, but God also wanted them to seek Babylon’s welfare and to pray for this! Those among the exiles with any hope left for the future would no doubt have been praying for Jerusalem, not for Babylon.
Do not let the so-called prophets among you who are promising a quick return to Jerusalem deceive you, the letter continues. No foreign nations are coming to your rescue. Do not entertain false hopes. It will take seventy years before any return will be possible. Rather than being intended as a prediction, the figure is probably meant first of all symbolically, as seventy years is often cited in the Bible as the span of a lifetime. It means that those who return will not be those now forced into captivity. The exiles’ role will be to prepare a future for others. But God wishes to speak to their hearts and assure them that he has nothing but their good in mind: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
The next part of the letter speaks about the eventual return of the exiles to Jerusalem and could seem anticlimactic at first, as if the future were nothing more than a simple return to the past, to life as it was before. A careful reading, however, reveals an all-important word which points to the place where a change will come. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and will bring you back from captivity.” The new future of hope will be the one made possible by a new, undivided heart (see also 24:5-7). Throughout his life, Jeremiah had seen firsthand how agonizingly inadequate appeals to obey God’s will were. “I know, O Lord, that the way of human beings is not in their control, that mortals as they walk cannot direct their steps” (10:23). God himself must change our hearts, the prophet had come to realize. In chapter 31, verses 31 to 34, Jeremiah tells of a “new covenant”, a time to come when the people shall be able to accomplish God’s will because he writes it directly on their hearts. Five centuries later, the first Christians will find themselves thinking back on this vision as, full of wonder, they ponder the life of Christ and the new way he is opening before them.
What aspects of the letter to the exiles most surprise me and why?
How would I describe the kind of hope Jeremiah is talking about? Is it different from the way I usually understand the word?
As I read and reflect on the letter of Jeremiah, am I reminded of any passages from the Gospels or from elsewhere in the New Testament?