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Jeremiah 27-29

April 10, 2017

These three chapters tell a powerful story with many possible implications for us today. For me, this is perhaps the profoundest part of the Book of Jeremiah.

In 597 B.C. the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and took away King Jeconiah and many leading officials and artisans as exiles to Babylon. The Babylonians also took with them the most portable treasures out of the temple. But Jerusalem and the temple were not destroyed, and the nation of Judah was allowed to continue with a new king, Zedekiah, on the throne (although Judah had to pay tribute as a vassal kingdom to Babylon). So were Jeremiah’s prophecies about the destruction of the nation right or wrong? And would the exiles remain in exile, or might Babylon itself be overthrown soon, allowing the former king and his officials and the temple treasures to return to Jerusalem? These were hotly debated questions in King Zedekiah’s court.

In about 594 B.C. King Zedekiah invited representatives from surrounding kingdoms (Moab, Edom, Ammon, Tyre, Sidon) to come to Jerusalem to discuss the possibility of a revolt against Babylon. Jeremiah spoke against this plan. He warned that such a revolt would lead the Babylonian king to utterly destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Speaking for God, Jeremiah says, “If any nation will not serve this king, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, then I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, says the LORD, until I have completed its destruction by his hand” (27:8).

It strikes me that this way of thinking is entirely contrary to the American ethos. We have been brought up on the notion that submission to another nation is always wrong and must always be fought. In the famous words of Patrick Henry: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Imagine a prophet today telling the American president to submit to the yoke of China or God will destroy the United States! I am quite sure the prophet Jeremiah would not have survived in the United States.

He barely survived in Judah. He was opposed by another prophet in the royal court, Hananiah. Hananiah was convinced that Babylon would soon fall and that the exiles would return within two years. Jeremiah visualized his message by walking around with a wooden yoke around his neck. Hananiah visualized his message by breaking Jeremiah’s yoke! Which prophet was right? Both spoke in the name of Yahweh. Both represented “good theology”: Jeremiah was convinced that the sins of Judah would lead to its destruction (as Moses had warned the early Hebrews), and Hananiah was convinced that God’s punishment would be limited and that the Davidic kingdom would continue (as God had assured David).

Today we face crucial issues and decisions in which both sides can quote the Bible equally well and both sides claim to be “biblical.” How do we decide which side really speaks for God? Only time will reveal which message was the most true. In the meantime, we must be as open as possible to the leading of God’s Spirit, being sensitive to the character and principles we see most clearly lived out in the ministry of Jesus. I think we also need to avoid reading the Bible in a too literal fashion. After all, Hananiah turned out to be wrong. The Davidic kingdom, assured by God to David, literally ended in 587 B.C. Only in a spiritual form, through Jesus, do we believe the Davidic kingdom continues.

The most beautiful and hopeful part of this story is the letter Jeremiah then sends to the exiles in Babylon. He tells them to be prepared to stay for a long time; settle down and build houses; get married and have children. “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” (29:7). Jeremiah expects their exile to last some seventy years.

I am struck by this passage because Jeremiah is telling the exiles to look upon the city of their exile in a favorable way–to pray for it and to make it better. It seems to me this is the position Christians are in today–no matter where we live. We are, in effect, exiles on this earth. We don’t really belong to any nation or city or society. We belong to a kingdom that is both here and yet to come, and which is quite different from the ways of the world. But while we’re here, we should pray for our cities and nations, and we should work to make them better. Jeremiah’s words are against withdrawal from the larger society. He believes in engagement with “pagan” society. Its welfare is our welfare.

For this reason I vote in elections–even when I don’t like the candidates and I am sickened by a political system that is in many ways dysfunctional and warped by money and special interests. I will seek the welfare of my city, state, and nation–and world. I believe in the church as a sort of counter-culture and as a sort of foretaste of God’s kingdom, but I will also work for the welfare of a society that does not center itself on God. Because God is involved in it anyway.

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