When the good news isn’t: Revisiting Jeremiah 29

[This was one of the major assignments I worked on while on hiatus. I’m pleased with the result. Citations available on request. Enjoy! –b.]

The prophets never were the life of the party. Truth be told, they were the party poopers: get things right, God is mad, judgment is coming; not exactly the most enviable of tasks God had for people. One can readily imagine a group of people in Ancient Israel, minding their own business, going about day-to-day affairs, and then one in a conversational group stops laughing, straightens out his shoulders, squints his eyes and stops the conversation. A shouting, naked man, flailing his arms about, saying something about God and judgment. And the conversation probably could be summed up thus: “Oh crap, it’s Isaiah,” and the rest of them would groan. Now what?

Unenviable as the task might have been, and as equally unreceptive as the audience typically was, the prophets—God’s spokespeople to God’s dysfunctional people—had a necessary and vital role in the life of the people of Israel and Judah. Jeremiah, euphemistically referred to as the ‘weeping prophet’, was one particularly wretched fly in the people’s ointment. Already having earned a reputation for being decidedly disenchanted, though willing nonetheless, with the call God placed on him to speak to the nation, power and plebeian alike, Jeremiah not only had to deal with his wayward people, but with competing prophets whose deceitful words made his own sound even worse than they were.

In fairness, when times are tough, and one is part of a nation whose power, as limited as it was to begin with, was waning in the time of rising regional superpowers, it’s not easy to listen to God’s judgment and warning of impending takeover and exile. It’s an unenviable message for an unenviable people in an unenviable time. And this is precisely the socio-political location of Jeremiah 29, and the passage where we find the ever-cliched ‘hope and a future’ verse, faithfully and strategically deployed by Evangelicals and fundamentalists during high school graduation season or to the diseased churchgoer while interceding for God’s divine convalescence.

And Jeremiah would be just as irritated with that as he was with his poseur contemporaries.

God is telling his exiled people, through the prophet, to get comfortable being a subjugated people in a distant land; because God is persistently faithful to keep an agreement in justice and judgment, and bring about redemption in time.

Jeremiah 29 is somewhat anachronistically inserted into a series of passages contrasting the prophecy of Jeremiah with the prophecies of false spokespeople, particularly Hananiah and precedes text that takes place during Babylon’s siege of Jerusalem, where Jeremiah was imprisoned by King Zedekiah—himself a vassal for Babylon, as Judah had been more or less a vassal state since the Assyrian empire—for prophesying against the king (while in support of the emperor!) Jeremiah 29 is not directly related to the confrontation of Hananiah around 597, when King Jehoiakim, Zedekiah’s predecessor, surrendered to Babylon and initiated the first exile: it is a note this reader thinks makes more sense if written to the exiles around the time of the utter fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian war machine circa 587 BCE.

Assyria was supplanted as the superpower of the region by Babylon in 627, around the time Jeremiah received God’s call to take up the prophetic mantle. Babylon, under the leadership of Nabopolassar, having assumed political and military control of its chief rival in 612, sought to assert its dominance over the remaining territories vacated by the collapse of Assurbanipal. Judah had struck a deal with Egypt, then enjoying a brief renaissance as a regional power, in the hope of leveraging itself back into independence. The takeover of the lands was God’s judgment against his wayward people, and the giving of Jerusalem to the Babylonians was guaranteed by God through Isaiah to Hezekiah well over a century prior.

This regional turmoil is the backdrop for social and cultural existential distress amongst God’s people, just when things couldn’t get any worse—it was bad enough to be under the thumb of Assyria, and then to establish an alliance with Egypt, and then to have been besieged by Babylon twice in ten years; but now the city is in ruin, the people are exiled from their land, the land God promised to Abraham, the land they conquered coming out of Egypt, the land which flourished under David and Solomon! The land now pillaged and conquered by God’s new servant, Nebuchadnezzar, the inheritance stripped from one recalcitrant heir and given to another (even if temporarily.)

Inserted into this historical, non-linear mess is a note Jeremiah sends to those already in captivity in Babylon. Here, Jeremiah, that cynical gadfly, that party pooper, that guy who happened to be right all along, conveys a word of exhortation and then a distinctly hopeful, even compassionate word of hope for a hopeless, existentially-exhausted people.

Verses 1-3 are the outline for context, audience and exactly how this note got from Jerusalem to Babylon in the first place. Jeremiah is writing to “the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile.” It also details the people used to get the message to the exiles: Elasah and Gemariah. These two would otherwise be mere footnotes to the historical context, but they are actually quite important. Their very names, respectively, mean “God has made” and “yhwh has accomplished”; further, they also the respective offspring of a religious reformer from the age of Josiah (Shaphan), and a member of the priestly line (Hilkiah), perhaps even Jeremiah’s brother, which would conveniently explain how Jeremiah knew the message got to his intended recipients. Indeed, God has made this, and God has accomplished this, and that point is one not lost on either a careful reader, or the intended audience.

On to the contents of the letter:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon…

It is interesting to note that even though other passages refer to Nebuchadnezzar as God’s new servant, God refers to himself through Jeremiah’s prophecy as the God of Gods in the idiom of the outsider (after all, Babylon’s chief god was Marduk) as well as the God of Israel and the exiles. It is a tacit recognition of God’s steadfastly honoring the covenant: to bless in the times of righteousness, chastise in the wayward, and to proceed with judgment when things break down completely. Regardless of the circumstances, and moreso of the Hebrews’ cognizance of the situation, God remains, and as the messengers’ names indicate, elohim yhwh has made and accomplished all these things.

Jeremiah scholar William Holladay makes an interesting point here as well, noting that most letters in that time period come with a salutation of peace at the outset, noting that the ending of the letter in verse 23 is consistent with other letters, but is missing the typical greeting of peace at the beginning.

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take 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. 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.

Holladay then notes that something is lost in translation, as verse seven is translated into English as ‘welfare’, when the Hebrew is shalom, ‘peace’. What is happening is a fascinating conflation of both God’s prophetic message and Jeremiah’s written voice: Jeremiah launches into the prophecy headlong, and gets around to the salutation midway into his prophecy! Holladay interprets this as God “writing a rude letter” and that would be an acceptable hermeneutic here. This writer does not disagree, but rather focuses on the human tone placed in the divine voice: “Better make yourself comfortable! Get used to Babylon! Go about your business! Oh, by the way, greetings and peace to you and the city where you are…” And all of these things are pretty much what the prophet is telling the exiles. Proper written etiquette tends to take a backseat in the time of crisis, as it should. 

It should also be noted that the prophecy has an admonition in it that refers back to the Abrahamic covenant. “[I]n its [shalom], you will find your [shalom]” is not unrelated to the promise that God “will bless those who bless”. The point here is clear; only by getting back to covenantal basics will the people ever be restored. There is no way around the terms of the contract.

For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.

Again, Jeremiah uses God’s dual titles, and here is where the anachronism between the Hananiah account and this correspondence is elucidated. It is also of note that God parses between prophets, or spokespeople, and diviners, or fortune-tellers. This, when looked at from a literary perspective, is an intentional placement to echo back to the false prophecy of Hananiah in chapter 28. There, Hananiah tried to convince the people that God would deliver them from Babylon, and Jeremiah called him out on it; here, Jeremiah is preemptively making a warning against anyone who would dare do a Hananiah impression in exile, “uttering rebellion against the LORD.”

For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.

Combined with the previous passage, the message is clear: get used to exile. Don’t listen to anyone who says that this is just a pit stop, it’s going to take decades for us to get square again. The covenant/promise language here is intentional, the land inhabited by Israel and Judah was promised to Abraham and established in the conquest. God has not taken this land away; rather, God is allowing a new servant to take the land, but only for a while. The promise to the Hebrews, the covenant between God and Israel, remains. The word is, if possible, hopeful without being optimistic: while the casual reader knows the ending, said reader also misses the depths of despair in which the exiles would find themselves, the helplessness of the prophet to do anything but speak words that seem to fly in the face of prevailing circumstances. In a desperate time and place, this message is not good news. 

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Again, this prophecy is not good news: God knows the plans God has for his people. What is left rightly inferred here is that the people do not. This is not encouragement, this is rebuke. God, by repetitive implication, reminds the people that their brokenness is due to their abandonment of the plan and promise. They have no future apart from the contract they entered into with God. They will call out and pray to God because they are not now. God will hear at that time because they remain silent now. They will trust then because they do not now. They will be restored then because they are broken now. They will be in covenant then because they are not now: things will be made right then because they are so wrong now.

And when they do finally and fully turn back to God, when they understand that their trust in God goes hand-in-hand with justice and righteousness, God will restore. The repetition here is intentional, emphatic poetic repetitive devices used–‘I know the plans I have’, ‘I will be found by you’, ‘I will restore’, ‘I will gather you’, ‘I will bring you back’, as well as repeated usage of the term ‘declares the LORD‘–acts as both an underscore and an exclamation point that God seeks reconciliation and justice as desperately as the people face their exile. God’s promise remains ever true, even if it is neglected or forgotten. Especially when it is neglected or forgotten.

In the meantime, go pick out some nice carpet and living room sets for yourselves. You’re going to be here for a while.


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