And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto YHWH for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace (Jeremiah 29:7).
What had possessed Jeremiah to say such things?
Judah and Judahites were rife with unfounded hopes in the days of Zedekiah king of Judah. They held out hope that somehow a rebellion against Babylon would prove successful; somehow YHWH would deliver them from the hand of Nebuchadnezzar and restore all the persons and possessions which Nebuchadnezzar had taken with him to Babylon (2 Kings 24:11-16, Jeremiah 28:1-5). Some “prophets” among those who had been exiled encouraged those in Babylon to maintain similar hopes (Jeremiah 29:8-9, 15-23).
Jeremiah had received the word of YHWH; he knew better. The end of Judah would come soon; the exile would not last a few months but until after the seventy years of Babylon had been accomplished (Jeremiah 29:10). The exiles were being set up for distress on top of distress, hindering them from establishing some sort of life while in exile. Therefore YHWH directed Jeremiah to send a letter to those exiles, the substance of which is seen in Jeremiah 29:4-23. YHWH encouraged His people in Babylon to perpetuate life: build houses, plant gardens, get married, and have children (Jeremiah 29:5-6). They were to seek the shalom of the city in which they have been exiled, praying to YHWH on its behalf, for in its shalom these exiles will find shalom (Jeremiah 29:7). The letter would go on to explain its purpose, to warn against listening to the false prophets, and to set forth the promise that YHWH would restore them to their land and would do good to them, but only after the years of Babylon had been completed; the doom of the false prophets was also foretold (Jeremiah 29:8-23).
Jeremiah, therefore, wrote so as to provide the exiles with a bit of divine context in order to understand their situation. At the time it was less than appreciated (Jeremiah 29:24-32); after the events of 586 BCE it would prove to be the sustaining lifeline of Judah in exile. YHWH would restore them to their ancestral homeland; YHWH would not abandon them in Babylon. Yet, for the time being, they must be nourished and sustained within Babylon.
While Israel knew they could not sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, they could at least make a living in Babylon and prepare their descendants to maintain confidence in YHWH, to prove loyal to His covenant with them and their fathers, and to prepare to return to the land when that day would come (Jeremiah 29:5-6). But the shalom of the city? shalom is the word used three times in Jeremiah 29:7. It is translated as “peace” in the American Standard Version (ASV; also in KJV, NKJV), which is its standard definition. shalom, however, goes beyond the idea of peace as the absence of conflict, representing wholeness and blessing as well; such is why the term is also frequently translated as welfare (so ESV, NASB, RSV, NRSV) or prosperity (so HCSB, NIV). Thus YHWH intended for the exiled Judahites to pray for the city of their sojourning for its overall benefit: an absence of conflict, absolutely, but also its welfare or prosperity, so that all would go well for all of them.
Such is why Jeremiah’s letter would seem so scandalous to the exiles. To seek the shalom of Babylon? shalom for the place and the people who had led Judah captive, who tore down the Temple of YHWH, and who had overpowered the people of God? How could they seek such a thing?
Yet Jeremiah pointed out that the shalom of the city would lead to their own shalom. The Judahites, after all, had just experienced 30 years of significant instability; Judah had seen invasions by Egypt and Babylon, many deportations and plundering, and all of that was before the final convulsive end of the Kingdom of Judah, in which the number exiled most likely paled in comparison to the number who suffered and died from war, plague, famine, and lawlessness (cf. Ezekiel 5:1-17). They needed some shalom. YHWH would provide some shalom for Babylon, not because Babylon deserved it, but on account of His people who now dwelt there. YHWH would bless it for their sake. The people of Judah had no need to fear; the condemnation of Babylon had already been decreed (Jeremiah 29:10, 50:1-51:64). Yet it would happen in stages, and its ultimate end would come without harm to the Israelites who still dwelt in Mesopotamia. YHWH judged His people in His anger, but He never stopped loving or caring for them.
Over six hundred years later Peter would write to the chosen “exiles” of his day, the Christians of modern-day Turkey (1 Peter 1:1, 2:9-10). He encouraged them to abstain from the lusts of the flesh, to maintain righteous conduct among the “natives,” to remain subject to the “native” rulers, for husbands and wives to dwell with each other in appropriate and God-honoring ways, and to seek the good of the “natives” in their midst, even if they are reviled in return (1 Peter 2:11-3:18).
Therefore, while Jeremiah did not write his letter to Christians today, we can learn much from his recommendations for Judah in exile, since we are to understand ourselves as exiles of the Kingdom of Heaven in a modern-day Babylon. We may live in the midst of the people who have or would oppress and persecute us for our confidence in the Lord Jesus. We may wonder how we can sing the songs of Zion in such a foreign land, or how we could “get settled” in such a place.
We do well if we carry on our lives while in exile, to work, marry, and raise up children to know the story of the people of God and to perpetuate it (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15). We do well to seek the shalom of the city in which we reside, to pray to God in Christ for it, so that in its shalom we may have shalom (1 Timothy 2:1-3). Such does not mean God’s judgment will not come against it; the “time of Babylon” will meet its end, and so will that city and its nation-state. Yet we, as sojourners and exiles, know that when those seventy years of life in “Babylon” have come to an end, we will obtain the victory of God in Christ, and will rise triumphantly on the day of resurrection.
The Christian’s hope, therefore, is not in the salvation of the nation-state in which he or she lives. Such a state will fall; its end is decreed; we are to reckon ourselves as sojourners and exiles, citizens of the Kingdom of God, waiting for our ultimate restoration in the resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 1:1, 2:11). Yet the Christian is to live in that city, work in that city, and pray for its shalom: we cannot imagine that we can simply escape the problems of the city in which we live, but must do good to all of its inhabitants, and pray on its behalf, both for its peace and for the salvation of its inhabitants (1 Timothy 2:1-4, 1 Peter 3:14-18).
If the Judahites exiled to Babylon could find shalom through YHWH there, we can find shalom in the place where we sojourn. The place in which we sojourn should never feel exactly like home; nevertheless, we must seek its shalom as we await the resurrection of life and a permanent home in the presence of God. May we strive to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ in the midst of this world, doing good to all, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of YHWH!
Ethan R. Longhenry