Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
JEREMIAH 27-28. THE CONTEXT:
Chapters 27 and 28 addressed the two major themes that continue through chapter 29:
• The Lord delivered Judah into the hands of the Babylonians, so the people of Judah (whether currently exiled in Babylonia or remaining in Judah) need to accept Babylonian rule. The Lord will not help them to win if they instigate a rebellion.
• False prophets prophesy otherwise. Hananiah prophesied that the Lord would deliver the exiles from Babylonia within two years (28:2)—a direct contradiction of Jeremiah’s prophecy that the exile would last for seventy years (25:11; 29:10). Because Hananiah prophesied falsely, the Lord took his life that same year (28:16-17).
In chapter 29, Jeremiah sends a letter to the people of Judah/Jerusalem who were taken into exile in Babylonia in 597 B.C. (vv. 1-15, 21-23). This letter was written between the 597 B.C. exile and the 587 B.C. destruction of Jerusalem.
Following our reading, Jeremiah tells the people not to believe the false prophets who are predicting an early return. Yahweh says, “After seventy years are accomplished for Babylon, I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place” (29:10).
Jeremiah then directs his attention to King Zedekiah and the people still living in Judah (29:15-19). He tells them that, while they have escaped the exile to Babylonia, they have not escaped God’s judgment—nor are they better than the exiles. They will experience “the sword, the famine, and the pestilence” and God “will make them like vile figs, that can’t be eaten, they are so bad” (29:17) because “they have not listened to my words, says Yahweh” (29:19).
This mention of bad figs alludes to chapter 24, where the Lord showed Jeremiah two baskets of figs, one good and the other “bad, very bad, that can’t be eaten, they are so bad” (24:3; 29:17). It wasn’t the people who escaped the exile who were the good figs, but those who were taken into exile (24:5). The Lord promises to bring them back to Judah and to “build them” and “plant them” (24:6). But the Lord will make of King Zedekiah and the people remaining in Judah “a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse” (24:9; see also 29:18).
Jeremiah mentions Zedekiah and Ahab, “whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire, because they have worked folly in Israel, and have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and have spoken words in (Yahweh’s) name falsely, which (Yahweh) didn’t command them” (29:22-23). Then Jeremiah addresses the false prophet, Shemaiah, and his false prophecies (29:24-32). He says that the Lord will punish Shemaiah so that “he shall not have a man to dwell among this people, neither shall he see the good that I will do to my people, says Yahweh, because he has spoken rebellion against Yahweh” (29:32).
JEREMIAH 29:1. A LETTER FROM JEREMIAH TO THE EXILES
1 Now these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the residue of the elders of the captivity, and to the priests, to the prophets, and to all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon,
Jeremiah is writing from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylonia. He specifies the groups of people whom he intends to address. The elders are men of authority within the community, usually older and presumably wiser. The “residue of the elders” suggests that some of the elders have died—either before the exile or during the movement to Babylon or at the hands of the Babylonians after arriving in Babylonia. The elders, priests, and prophets would constitute the Jewish leadership. The people would constitute the rest.
In chapter 26, the priests and prophets said of Jeremiah, “This man is worthy of death; for he has prophesied against this city” (26:11), but the officials and all the people said, “This man is not worthy of death; for he has spoken to us in the name of Yahweh our God” (26:16)—and the elders counseled that they were about to bring great disaster on themselves by killing Jeremiah (26:17-19).
JEREMIAH 29:2-3. THE EXILES
2 (after that Jeconiah the king, the queen mother, the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the smiths, had departed from Jerusalem), 3 by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, (whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon), saying
The lectionary excludes these verses, but the preacher needs to be aware of them.
Jeconiah is an alternate name for Jehoiachin. 2 Kings 24:12-16 provides an account of the king of Babylon taking King Jehoiachin, “his mother, and his servants, and his princes, and his officers” prisoner (2 Kings 24:12). Nebuchadnezzar also carried off temple artifacts made of gold, and carried away all the leading people of Judah so that “no one remained except the poorest people of the land” (2 Kings 24:14).
Jeremiah’s “letter went in the diplomatic mailbag” (Thompson, 545).
We know little about Elasah and Gemariah other than that they are King Zedekiah’s emissaries or couriers to King Nebuchadnezzar. It might be that Zedekiah sends two men instead of one as a security measure. As a vassal, Zedekiah has responsibilities to keep Nebuchadnezzar informed. If he were to send a single courier and that courier failed to complete his mission, the consequences for Zedekiah could be serious. Sending two men increases the likelihood of a successful mission.
JEREMIAH 29:4-7. BUILD HOUSES—PLANT GARDENS—TAKE WIVES
4 Thus says Yahweh of Armies, the God of Israel, to all the captivity, whom I have caused to be carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat their fruit. 6Take wives, and father sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there, and don’t be diminished. 7 Seek the peace (Hebrew: et·selom) of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to Yahweh for it; for in its peace (Hebrew: bis·lo·mah) you shall have peace (Hebrew: sa·lom).
“Thus says Yahweh of Armies, the God of Israel, to all the captivity, whom I have caused to be carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon” (v. 4). Jeremiah begins this verse with the standard formula for introducing a prophetic message. He makes it clear that Yahweh rather than Nebuchadnezzar is responsible for the exile. Nebuchadnezzar is only acting as Yahweh’s agent.
“Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat their fruit” (v. 5). Verses 5 and 6 encourage the exiles to settle down for the duration—to make Babylon their home. Jeremiah is trying to counter the influence of false prophets, who are telling the people that the exile will last only two years (28:2). He is trying to help the exiles to face the reality that the Lord plans to leave them in Babylonia for decades.
The Babylonians gave the Judean exiles considerable freedom to do these things. Their elders continued to exert leadership (Ezekiel 8:1; 14:1), as did their prophets. “They no doubt had tasks to perform for the state but otherwise could lead a reasonably normal life” (Thompson, 546). In fact, life in Babylonia will prove sufficiently comfortable that some of these exiles will decide to remain in Babylonia when presented with the option of returning to Jerusalem.
“Build” and “plant” are words central to Jeremiah’s calling. The Lord has appointed him “to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). The plucking up and pulling down—the destroying and overthrowing—have been accomplished. Now it is time to begin the building and planting.
This building and planting is to be done as an expression of the faith that the Lord will redeem them when the time is right. Even though they are in a foreign land, they can dedicate their houses to the Lord (Deuteronomy 20:5) and the first fruits of their crops (Deuteronomy 26:2) (Pilkington, 433).
“Take wives, and father sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there, and don’t be diminished” (v. 6). “Be fruitful, multiply” has been a recurring admonition from the beginning (Genesis 1:28; 8:17; 9:1, 7; 35:11; Leviticus 26:9). The Lord’s concern here is that the people of Judah grow in numbers and strength in this exile even as they did in their sojourn in Egypt. They are not to wither and disappear as did the people of the Northern Kingdom during their exile a century and a half earlier.
“Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to Yahweh for it; for in its peace you shall have peace” (v. 7). Everything that Jeremiah has said from the beginning has been controversial. He has advised the king and the people of Judah to cooperate with the Babylonians. He has encouraged them to accept the reality of a lengthy captivity. Now he embarks on his most controversial advice—encouraging Judeans to pray for the shalom (peace and prosperity) of their captors and to recognize that their own shalom is dependent on the shalom of the Babylonian people.
But Jeremiah’s counsel does not constitute “a directive to assimilate into the dominant culture and to embrace its maxims, values, and patterns of behavior” (Stulman, 251). They are to continue following Yahweh and to observe his laws faithfully even as they pray for those who do not.
“It is ironic that Jeremiah was told not to pray for Judah (7:16; 11:14; 14:11)” (Bracke, 223). It is nevertheless understandable. The Lord had a plan to redeem Judah, but that plan required their subjugation by Babylonia. Therefore, the Lord could not have answered Jeremiah’s prayers if Jeremiah prayed that the Lord would spare Judah. But now the Lord’s plan calls for his people to endure a lengthy stay in Babylonia, so it is in keeping with the Lord’s plan that the Babylonians prosper.
Earlier, Jeremiah prayed for his enemies even as they plotted to kill him (18:20). In the New Testament, Jesus will say, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Even though we are quite familiar with these New Testament verses, they remain difficult for us to hear and to observe.
JEREMIAH 30-33. POSTSCRIPT
Jeremiah 27-29 prophesies a lengthy exile. However, the exile will not spell the end of Judah. It is for the purpose of purifying Judah, even as gold is purified in the fire. The chapters that immediately follow are known as the Book of Consolation (chapters 30-33) because they tell about the restoration of Judah that will follow the exile.
This promise of restoration is a significant prophesy. The people of Judah saw the ten tribes of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, disappear after they were taken into exile by Assyria in 722 B.C. They experienced no restoration. They never returned. The closest thing to a remnant for those tribes was the Samaritans, whom the people of Judah despised. Jeremiah, who has delivered mostly bad news, holds out the promise that the people of Judah will not suffer the same fate as their northern neighbors. The Lord will restore them to their land and their status as God’s people. But first, they must experience the exile, which is the Lord’s provision for purifying them and making them worthy.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 1-29 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Clements, R. E., Interpretation Commentary: Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Fretheim, Terence, E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Keown, Gerald L.; Scalise, Pamela J.; and Smothers, Thomas G., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 26-52 (Dallas: Word Books, 1995)
Martens, E. A., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1986)
Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Pilkington, Christine E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Thompson, J.A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2009, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan