Bless Wider Society Through Your Work (Jeremiah 29)
In Jeremiah chapter 29, the prophet draws attention to God’s intention that his people's work should bless and serve the communities around them, and not only the people of Israel.
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…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. (Jer. 29:4-7)
This theme was already present in earlier chapters, as in God’s command not to oppress the aliens living within Judah’s borders (Jer. 7:6, 22:3). And it is a part of the Covenant to which Jeremiah keeps calling Judah. “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (Genesis 18:18). Nonetheless, false prophets in exile assured the exiled Jews that God’s favor would always rest on Israel, to the exclusion of its neighbors. Babylon would fall, Jerusalem would be saved, and the people would soon return home. Jeremiah attempted to counteract that false proclamation with God’s true word to them: you will be in exile in Babylon for seventy years (Jer. 29:10).
In encourages us not to despair and not to give up seeking God’s peace. Though we may have little opportunity to impact major structures of our society, we can touch our neighbors and colleagues. We can work for justice in our spheres of influence. We can seek to be people of shalom in our relationships at work, at school, at home, and in the community
Babylon would be this generation’s only home. God called the people to work the land there diligently: “build houses…plant gardens and eat what they produce.” The Jews were meant to flourish there as the people of God, even though it was a place of punishment and repentance for them. Moreover, the Jews’ success in Babylon was tied to Babylon’s success. “Pray to the Lord on [the city’s] behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). This call to civic responsibility twenty-six hundred years ago is valid today. We are called to work toward the prosperity of the entire community, not merely for our own limited interests. Like the Jews of Jeremiah’s day, we are far from perfect. We may even be suffering for our faithlessness and corruption. Nonetheless we are called and equipped to be a blessing to the communities in which we live and work.
God called his people to use their various job skills to serve the surrounding community. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” (Jer. 29:7). It could be argued this passage doesn’t prove that God has any real care for the Babylonians. He simply knows that as captives, the Israelites cannot prosper unless their captors do too. But as we have seen, caring for those beyond the people of God is an inherent element of the Covenant, and it appears in the earlier teaching of Jeremiah. House builders, gardeners, farmers and workers of all kinds were explicitly called to work for the good of the whole society in Jeremiah 29. God’s provision is so great that even when his people’s homes are destroyed, families deported, lands confiscated, rights violated and peace shattered, they will have enough to prosper themselves and bless others. But only if they depend on God; hence the admonition to prayer in Jer. 29:7. In light of Jeremiah 29, it is difficult to read 1 Corinthians 12-14 and the other gifts passages in the New Testament as applying only to the church or to Christians. God calls and equips his people to serve the whole world.
Note that this often-quoted verse is about a people in exile because of their sin; the future and hope promised will not come until the seventy years of exile have purged the survivors of the sin that took them there. It is only at the end of the seventy years that the people will be ready to seek God: “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 bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (29:13-14).
Even today many Christians cannot imagine that God is both near and far. As finite human beings limited to time and space, we think of God in terms of distance from us. It is difficult for many to believe that God is really near.