I’ve been looking at some key concepts in thinking about how a culture (and ultimately a world) change. First I looked at “vision,” expanding on Zechariah 8. Next I examined “justice,” taking some points from Isaiah 58. Last I’d like to take a concept from Jeremiah 29.
The context of this passage is very important. At this point in the book of Jeremiah, Jerusalem has been besieged and taken by Babylonian forces, and its royalty, nobles, and ruling class taking into exile. Jeremiah (always the bearer of bad news, at least in the short term) not only has to set forth the Lord’s word to the exiles, but also combat the teachings of certain false prophets, who were claiming that the exile would be very short in duration – and so the exiles should remain uninvested in their new homes. They may well have been living in temporary housing – akin to refugee camps – on the outskirts of Babylonian towns and cities. They were certainly refusing to involve themselves in the civic life of the Babylonians. And understandably: these were their killers and captors! Through Jeremiah, God does promise a return from exile – but not for nearly two generations.
4“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6Take 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. 7But 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.”
I want to make a couple of basic notes about the content of God’s commands to the exiles, and then step back and make some more general observations about their situation and ours.
The exiles are to literally invest in the cities of the Babylonians. They were to put money and energy into urban real estate. They were to plant gardens. These are economic activities that entwine them deeply with the well-being of these Gentile cities and their inhabitants.
The exiles were to live for the long term in cities that were not their own. There is permanence here. Build – don’t rent or tent. Plant – don’t just buy your food.
The exiles were to multiply and not decrease, in the midst of their captors and enemies. There are echoes of God’s commands to Adam and Noah, his blessing of Abraham, and even Exodus 1 and its record of the Israelites thriving in Egypt. In a Christian context we might extend this to include multiplication through both childbearing and the making of new disciples.
The exiles were to work and pray for the common shalom – even understanding their shalom to be wrapped up in the shalom of their Gentile neighbors! The promise to Abraham that in him all the nations would be blessed is to shape the lives of his exiled heirs.
This new life-in-exile is an urban life. “Houses … gardens … the city.” I suspect there are a few reasons for this. For one thing, this is what the exiles were used to. These were inhabitants not just of Judah but of Jerusalem specifically. Second and more importantly, cities were the only places that could absorb exiles in this way.