Bless Wider Society Through Your Work (Jeremiah 29)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Work for the Peace and Prosperity of the City
In this daily reflection on Jeremiah 29 from The High Calling, Mark Roberts 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.
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).
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.
This should be no surprise, of course, because “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). God’s presence is no longer to be found only in Jerusalem or Judah, but even in the enemy’s capital city. We can be a blessing wherever we are because God is with us wherever we are. There in the heart of Babylon, God’s people were called to work as in the presence of God. It is hard for us today to understand how shocking this would be to the exiles, who had thought up until then that God was fully present only in the temple in Jerusalem. Now they were told to live in God’s presence without the temple and far from Jerusalem.
The feeling of exile is familiar to many working Christians. We are used to finding God’s presence in church, among his followers. But in the workplace, working alongside both believers and nonbelievers, we may not expect to find God’s presence. This doesn’t mean that these institutions are necessarily unethical or hostile to Christians, but simply that they have agendas different from working in God’s presence. But God is present nonetheless, always looking to reveal himself to those who will recognize him there. Settle into the land: plant gardens and eat what they produce, work and take home your pay. God is there with you.
This brings us to an expanded notion of the common good. Pray for Babylon because Israel is intended to be a blessing for all humanity, not just for herself: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Now in the moment of utter defeat comes the time they are called upon to bless even their enemies. This blessing includes material prosperity, as Jer. 29:7 makes clear. How ironic that in chapters 1-25, God withheld his peace and prosperity from Judah because of their faithlessness; yet by chapter 29, God wanted to bless Babylon with peace and prosperity even though the Babylonians had no faith in the God of Judah. Why? Because Israel’s proper end is to be a blessing for all nations.
This immediately calls into doubt any scheme designed for the special benefit of Christians. As part of our witness, Christians are called to compete effectively in the marketplace. We cannot run subpar businesses, expecting God to bless us while we underperform. Christians need to compete with excellence on a level playing field if we are to bless the world. Any trade organization, preferred supplier relationship, hiring preference, tax or regulatory advantage, or other system designed to benefit only Christians is not blessing the city. During the Irish famines in the mid-1800s, many Anglican churches provided food only to those who would convert from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism. The ill will this created still reverberates 150 years later, and this was merely the self-dealing of one Christian sect against another. Imagine the much greater damage caused by Christians discriminating against non-Christians, which fills the pages of history from antiquity to this day.
The work of Christians in their faithfulness to God is intended for the good of everyone, beginning with those who are not God’s people, and extending through them to God’s people themselves. This is perhaps the most profound economic principle in Jeremiah, that working for the good of others is the only reliable way to work for your own good. Successful business leaders understand that product development, marketing, sales and customer support are effective when they put the customer first. Here, surely, is a best practice that can be recognized by all working people, whether Christ-followers or not.