Living in Babylon
Sermon on Jeremiah 29:4-14
Having once lived in the Promised Land, the Hebrew people of Jerusalem were taken captive by the soldiers of King Nebuchadnezzar and carried off to the strange land of Babylon. While by this time the Babylonian Empire included much of the Middle East, many of the captives were taken to the city of Babylon about 600 miles east of Jerusalem in what is now modern day Iraq. Needless to say, this was a time of hardship, being strangers in a strange land. The Jewish people of Jerusalem longed for home, for the Land of Promise. Instead, they were exiles.
How then were they to live? Should they resist being exiled? Should they rebel against the Babylonian conquerors? What about the false prophets that said this exile would be short-lived?
It was under this very scenario that God spoke to the people through the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah answered these questions for the people of exile then and by extension, answers these very same questions for us today.
You see, while the Promised Land was a type of Paradise into which Joshua led the people of Israel, the fact is, the Promised Land was not Paradise. It was a type of Paradise, a picture of Paradise, but not Paradise itself. So while the people longed for home, for the Promised Land, their longing was for something temporary. Jerusalem was not their eternal home.
Growing up as a child in the 1960’s and as a teen and young adult in the 1970’s, I lived through a period of time was socially tumultuous. Yet even in the social rebellion, Christian morals were still deemed as the norm. As the TV station signed off for the evening after the late movie, the Star-Spangled Banner would play and end with the flag waving and below the flag was written Psalm 33:12, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.” (NKJV) Invocations in the Name of Christ were still given at graduation ceremonies. Christmas programs included the Luke 2 narrative while kids portrayed Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men. Prayer before football games was standard.
Not so much anymore. Today these same acts would invite a lawsuit resulting in fines and/or jail time, both in the name of the very same Constitution that protected these acts decades earlier. The new normal is to avoid the term “Christian” at all costs. The new normal has taken tolerance and moved it toward court-ordered acceptance and support of lifestyles that not too long ago were deemed to be deviant. The truth is, we’re even unsure as a society which restroom to use!
And so we long for what once was. Yet, in this longing it’s easy to make the same mistake made by the Jews of Jerusalem. The United States of America is not our eternal home. It never was.
How then are we to live? Let’s turn to Jeremiah 29 to find out. For what God told the exiles then is still true for us today. There are three points in this passage. In verse 4 we first learn why the Jews were in exile. Second, we learn in vv. 5-9 how the Jews were to live as exiles. And third we learn in vv. 10-14 about the end of the exile. Along the way we’ll see how each point applies to us today.
Why the Jews were in exile
So why were the Jews from Jerusalem in exile? Read verse 4 again. “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who were carried away captive, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon.”
The short answer of why God’s people ended up in Babylon is that God caused them to be carried away. Take a closer look. The prophet Jeremiah is telling the people that this message is coming directly from God. Verse 4 starts with, “Thus says the LORD of hosts…” Jeremiah makes it clear from the onset that this message is from the LORD. Our English version uses “LORD” in all capital letters to denote God’s covenantal Name, “Yahweh,” “I AM”. The God who made a covenant with the people of Israel is the same God making this decree. Not only that, this is The LORD, Yahweh, the great I AM, who is Lord of the hosts. Or in other words, God is all powerful. Thus, this statement through Jeremiah was made by the all-powerful God who made a covenant with Israel that He would be their God and they would be His people. And the LORD said to His covenant people that He caused them to be carried away captive. While Nebuchadnezzar thought it was his matchless strength that caused this captivity, the truth is that Nebuchadnezzar could do nothing else by God’s decree. Matthew Henry said, “All the force of the king could not have done this apart from the will of God.”
God caused them to be carried away captive. But why? Why did the Promised Land fall under the authority of foreign and ungodly kingdoms? The first answer can be found in 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, “14 Moreover all the leaders of the priests and the people transgressed more and more, according to all the abominations of the nations, and defiled the house of the LORD which He had consecrated in Jerusalem. 15 And the LORD God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. 16 But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, till there was no remedy.”
This captivity was directly related to God’s covenant people turning away from the God of Jacob. This shouldn’t be a big surprise. We read in Deuteronomy 28:58, 64, “58 If you do not carefully observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, THE LORD YOUR GOD . . . 64 “Then the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known—wood and stone.” In his farewell address, Joshua, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, saw this coming as well when he said in Joshua 23:15-16, “15 Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all the good things have come upon you which the LORD your God promised you, so the LORD will bring upon you all harmful things, until He has destroyed you from this good land which the LORD your God has given you. 16 When you have transgressed the covenant of the LORD your God, which He commanded you, and have gone and served other gods, and bowed down to them, then the anger of the LORD will burn against you, and you shall perish quickly from the good land which He has given you.”
And so the people were exiled.
How does this apply to us today? Well, we’re not all that different. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, lived in Paradise. There was no sin and they were in perfect fellowship with God. Then came the fall. Through Adam’s disobedience, they were exiled from Paradise. Having been born with the sin of our first parents, we are likewise exiled from Paradise. We live in this land as exiles. The exile out of Paradise was caused by sin. The exile to Babylon was caused by sin. Whether it be ancient Babylon, modern day China, or even the USA, the covenant people of God are living as exiles. Regardless of where we live on this earth, those of us who profess the Name of Christ are exiles longing for our real Home.
How the Jews were to live as exiles
So how then are we exiles to live? That is what Jeremiah answers in vv. 5-9. “5 Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. 6 Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. 7 And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace. 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are in your midst deceive you, nor listen to your dreams which you cause to be dreamed. 9 For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them, says the LORD.”
The Jewish exiles were to live normal lives. Specifically, they were given four instructions. First, they were to build houses and plant gardens. With a sense of semi-permanency, they were told to live and work in Babylon. To build houses and to live in them is to establish themselves as members of the community. While transplanted to Babylon as captives, they were to nevertheless become citizens. And as citizens, they were to work there. By planting gardens and eating the fruit thereof, they were instructed to be laborers, earn wages, start businesses and contribute to the commerce of the land.
Second, they were told to marry, have children and give their children in marriage. They were to carry on and grow as a people and not diminish.
Now notice here, these first two instructions were nothing more than the command to carry out the cultural mandate given in Genesis 1, to subdue the earth and be fruitful and multiply. Being in exile doesn’t change this mandate.
Living as exiles today likewise doesn’t change this mandate. Before sin entered the world Adam and Eve were given the mandate to subdue the earth and be fruitful and multiply. This mandate did not change after Adam’s sin. Sure, the curse of sin from Genesis 3 certainly made this more difficult through thorns and thistles, the pain of childbearing and marital strife. But we are still called to carry out this mandate. In doing so, Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:13-16 that we are salt and light. He concluded in verse 16, “16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” We are thus to exercise the cultural mandate in such a way that brings glory to God. We are to carry out our work, practice our marriages, and raise up children in such a way as to preserve and enlighten society to the glory of God.
That’s what the exiles in Babylon were called to do. Furthermore, they were called to pray peace for Babylon. For in that city’s peace, God’s people would have peace and would work toward the preservation and extension of God’s covenant people. By praying for and working toward the peace of Babylon, God’s people showed themselves to be faithful subjects of the conqueror. This faithfulness of God’s people was later rewarded by King Cyrus of Babylon in authorizing the reconstruction of the temple. In fact, King Cyrus asked in Ezra 6:10 that priests in this newly rebuilt temple in Jerusalem would pray for the king and his family.
As exiles today, we are likewise called upon to pray for and work toward the peace of our nation. Of this call, Matthew Henry said, “Every passenger is concerned with the safety of the ship.” Indeed, we are concerned for the safety and direction of our nation, which is why we ought to heed 1 Timothy 2:2, which says, “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” Notice that Paul’s exhortation to Timothy is focused on prayer, but to what end, but to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For it is in living this life that we serve as light and salt, that the Gospel is freely put forth and that our Father’s Name is glorified. It is in seeking this peace that we pray for our leaders and submit ourselves to the governing authorities as commanded in Romans 13. And here’s a bonus for us in the USA. We are citizens in a democratically elected republic. We as exiles are allowed to participate in the governance of this nation. We carry out commerce, we raise up families and we participate in electing officials, voting for laws and even get elected to office.
Let’s consider several people who were faithful subjects that were used by God for the good of His people. Joseph ended up as second in command to Pharaoh only to be used in saving Egypt from starvation. Daniel was elevated to the office of ruler and chief administrator over Babylon. Esther became queen and was used to save God’s people from annihilation. Paul exercised his citizenship in squelching a mob and reinforcing the gospel in Rome. To be certain, we are afforded rights in this land that we can and should take advantage of for the good of the nation and by extension, to the church.
The fourth instruction given to the Jews was to ignore false prophets and even their own ideas. For there were prophets that said this was only a short exile. Of these prophets, Jeremiah 14:14 says, “And the LORD said to me, “The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I have not sent them, commanded them, nor spoken to them; they prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart.” For these prophets were not speaking the Word of God, they were speaking what the people wanted to hear.
We likewise need to heed this instruction living as exiles. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 says, “3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” Is this not a picture of the Christian church today? Has not the church in the Name of Christ turned aside from the Word of God to embrace false teachings today? Has not the church even used a convoluted use of Scripture to support these false teachings?
The only standard that we are to acknowledge as truth is the Word of God. Anything contrary to God’s Word is false and is thus a sin. That was the message through Jeremiah and is the message for us today. Living in Babylon as exiles we are to keep our eyes on being excellent workers contributing to the economic health of our society, we are to marry in the Lord and conduct our marriages in such a way that mirrors Christ and the church, we are to raise up godly children giving them in marriage to believers for the propagation of God’s people, we are to pray for our leaders, yes, even those with whom we vehemently disagree, we are to humbly submit to governing authorities, we are to pray for and work toward the peace of this nation and we are to do all these things in accordance with the infallible and inerrant Word of God, the Bible. That’s how the Jews were to live in Babylon then and that’s how we are to live in the United States of America today.
The end of the exile
However, as I share these Biblical standards, the truth is that none of us do so perfectly. We all fall short. God’s covenant people were not obedient in Jerusalem and certainly didn’t live in perfection in Babylon. And yet Jeremiah brings good news in vv. 10-14. This is our third point, the end of the exile.
God fixed a time for the end of the exile. Verse 10 says, “For thus says the LORD: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place.”
Jeremiah says that after 70 years of being exiled, God’s people will return home. Daniel 9:2 echoed this prophecy as he likewise said that after 70 years God’s people will return home. Now 70 years may have sounded like a long time to the exiles. Yet the number 70, being the number of completion taken to its superlative is definitive. God promises that the end will come and that end is defined. And the end did come 70 years later as described in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23, when God stirred up King Cyrus to send people back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.
Now that’s all good and fine. But the real end of the exile is found in verse 11. “11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” This means that all the horrible events leading up to the captivity, being taken captive and living as exiles in a strange land, these actions towards the Jews were driven by God’s thoughts of peace.
Yet this future and a hope was more than a peaceful existence in Jerusalem. In fact, peace in Jerusalem didn’t last. The Roman conquest followed by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. gave witness to that. Rather, the real peace being described here is peace with God. Earlier I said that the first reason that God caused the captivity was because of the sins of His people. Yet even in the sins of the people, God’s purposes will prevail. And that is the real reason for the exile. God was keeping His covenant of grace while His people were living as sinful covenant breakers. God took them out of the Promised Land so that they would call on Him.
And this is what we find in vv. 12-13. “12 Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”
Through the hardship of being conquered, of losing loved ones, of living under a foreign nation, God’s covenant people called on Him. They searched for Him with their whole heart and they found Him.
This would become their future and hope. The future and hope was not to be found in living in Jerusalem. The future and hope would be found later in the unblemished sacrificial Lamb of God that would ultimately bring peace with God. This is the very One that the Heavenly host announced to the shepherds in Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” Peace was ultimately to be found in Jesus Christ who would suffer and die on our behalf of His covenant people. Jesus is the One that would satisfy the justice of God with the perfect sacrifice while granting mercy. Christ is the One today who cleanses us and makes us pure so that we can enter into the very throne room of God, enter into His special presence and commune with our LORD in prayer. It was the Messiah to come that gave them a future and a hope. It was the Christ who came that gives us a future and a hope.
Amidst the terrible violence all around us; the hateful rhetoric being hurled on the streets, in the media and over the podium; the broken relationships that break tender hearts; a land calling good evil and evil good; we know and are confident that we have peace with God, for the LORD’s thoughts toward us are of peace and not of evil, to give us a future and a hope.
The exiles had a sure hope in their return to Jerusalem. We have a sure hope in our return to Paradise. Revelation 21:1-4 beautifully gives us a picture of the end, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
And we won’t be alone. For we have brothers and sisters in Christ living all over the world. The Jews living in Babylon received comfort in the words of v.14, “I will be found by you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive.”
Today we can add to Jeremiah’s promise the words of the Apostle John’s vision in Revelation 7:9-12, “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might, Be to our God forever and ever. Amen.””
You see, we’re not all that different from our brothers and sisters in Christ living in China, Germany, Brazil, Syria, the Philippines, or anywhere else around the world. We all hold dual citizenships. While we in the USA endure painful politics, insane social issues and unsustainable economic practices in our earthly country for which we hold citizenship, others endure everything from illegal worship services to beheadings. Others endure everything from an influential godless culture to just plain apathy. Nevertheless, we are all called to work toward and pray for the peace of our respective countries; we are all called to pray for our respective country’s leaders; we are all called to do commerce; we are all called to propagate our people through marriage; we are all called to ignore false teachers and rely on God’s Word in faith; and we are all called to look for the future and hope of our heavenly citizenship when God will gather all His people from all over the earth and from throughout time in a glorious resurrection into the new heavens and the new earth, into Paradise restored, where we will have perfect fellowship with our God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Until then, let us pray that each of us live as godly citizens full of salt and light in our respective Babylon. To God alone be the glory. Amen.
Elder Roger Gallimore
Grace Reformed Church,
Rapid City, SD