Praying As Foreigners in Babylon An exegesis of Jeremiah 29:4-7
A passage from the Old Testament that provides a clear insight into being a foreigner and stranger is Jeremiah 29: a very special prophecy by letter. Verses 4-7 make up the central section of this chapter, and it is on these that we would like to briefly focus.
In order to understand this letter from Jeremiah it is necessary to give a concise description of the historical setting (§ 1), followed by a literary positioning (§ 2). The principal part of this contribution will consist of a brief exegesis of the verses 4-7 (§ 3). In the following paragraph we will summarize the whole and follow the lines we have drawn further to New Testament times and to our present day (§ 4). In conclusion we would like to reflect on how it is possible that an imprecation in Psalm 137 concerning Babylon can comply with the prayer to bless Babylon, which the prophet Jeremiah enjoins in Jeremiah 29 (§ 5).
The facts, names and places mentioned in Jeremiah 29:2-3 take us back to the height of the NeoBabylonian Empire (605-539 Bc). Between 605 and 587 the end approached for the people of Judah as an independent entity, for the Davidic monarchy, for the city of Jerusalem, and especially for the temple, the pulsating heart of Israel's faith and life. It is not without good reason that Jeremiah is often portrayed as 'the weeping prophet' seated on the ruins of Jerusalem. The Book of Jeremiah shows God's people splitting into three groups:
the core, the elite, who are captured and taken into exile to Babylon,
the large majority of the people ('the people of the land') who stay behind in Judah, and
a large group that travels voluntarily to exile in Egypt, forcing the prophet Jeremiah to accompany them.
The tension between the expectations of and the perspective for these three groups is what determines the Book of Jeremiah, the principal message being that the future of God's people lies not in Judah, nor in Egypt, but in Babylon. Babylon, which was the metropolis of the arch-enemy that had destroyed God's people, land, city, and temple.
There is some discussion about the precise date of this letter by Jeremiah. Did the prophet send his message to the exiles shortly after they had arrived in Babylon following the first surrender of Jerusalem in 597? It is more plausible to think of the period around 595, when Nebuchadnezzar's power seemed to be diminishing due to internal tension and threats from outside. It is in these times that hope of liberation and return would flare up among the exiles from Judah. Jeremiah makes use of the diplomatic correspondence between the court in Jerusalem and the King of Babylon (v. 3) in order to send this letter.
Did King Zedekiah on this occasion perhaps wish to give an extra demonstration of his loyalty to Nebuchadnezzar? However it may be, when reading Jeremiah 29 we should constantly keep in view the situation of the Jewish exiles in Babylon. We are speaking of the elite of the Jewish people, to which the list in the verses 1-2 testifies. Although they have been forced to leave everything behind, they have not lost all hope. The temple still stands, and there is still a king on the throne of David in Jerusalem. In Judah as well as in Babylon there are prophets still at work, predicting in the name of YHWH that the exile will be over within two years (Hananiah in Jeremiah 28:3). So there! But then the letter from Jeremiah arrives in Babylon...
In the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 29 stands at a crossroads, as it were, in a transitional position. Themes from former chapters, particularly from Jeremiah 24 onwards, return here, as can be seen in the many idiomatic and thematic correspondences. The threats proclaimed in the former prophecies have now become reality. The 'enemy from the north', which had received the face of Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar in Jeremiah 25, has come. A part of the people has in fact been taken into exile to Babylon, just as Jeremiah had been prophesying for years. God's judgment has commenced. At the same time, we see how in Jeremiah 29, next to the theme of doom and judgment, another theme is being broadly illustrated: that of salvation and a future for God's people. While there had been talk of this a few times earlier in the Book of Jeremiah God would not leave his people in exile forever (e.g. 12:15, 16:15, 23:8, 24:6) – Jeremiah's letter strongly underlines and unfolds this theme. In Jeremiah 29, the formula 'I will bring you back from captivity...' is used for the first time. This formula is repeated in the following section (Jer. 30-33) no less than seven times. The message of Jeremiah 29 in particular forms the prelude to the magnificent 'book of comfort by Jeremiah', Chapters 30 and 31, which lie at the heart of the Book of Jeremiah, both literally and theologically.
At the same time, Jeremiah 29 is part of the smaller entity of Jeremiah 26-29, chapters in which the confrontation between 'true' and 'false' prophecy plays a principal role. These passages do not stem from the same period of time (Jer.26 is set in the period of King Jehoiakim's reign [26:1], whereas the other chapters are from the period of king Zedekiah [27:1, 28:1, 29:3], yet they have the same theme). The message of Jeremiah's letter conflicts with the soothing comfortable predictions given by the 'false' prophets in Babylon (29:8ff, 15, 21-23), which could mislead the exiles. One of these prophets is Shemaiah, who, in reaction to Jeremiah's letter, advises the rulers in Jerusalem to imprison him (29:24-29), whereupon Jeremiah receives the divine command to write a new letter to the exiles, unmasking Shemaiah as a false prophet and passing judgment on him (29:30-32).
Exegesis in outline
Verse 4 'This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:'
Jeremiah's letter opens emphatically with a double title of divinity: YHWH Zebaot (tentatively translated as 'Lord Almighty') and Elohe Yisrael ('the God of Israel'). The same combination can be found another three times in this letter. This can be no coincidence. Two things are being put forward by this:
that YHWH is unchangeably the Almighty, the Governor of all (cf. 27:5), including in Babylon, and
that YHWH is and remains the God of Israel, also in Babylon.
The use of these divine titles contains a message of deep comfort – if only because of the fact that God presents himself in such a way to the exiles! God is still speaking, and to his people at that.
Something more fundamental is also said very directly in this opening verse, when we take note of the use of the first person singular: that 'I carried I allowed to be carried away into exile'. With this it is emphasized at the very beginning of the letter that the exile into Babylon is not some dark fate but clearly a judgment. At the same time, this contains an element of comfort: God has not let the situation get out of hand; it did not take him by surprise. On the contrary, this bold prophecy proclaims that YHWH himself had his hand in it all. Not unfathomable fate or doom but the finger of God determines the history of God's people.
Verse 5 'Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.'
The actual message is given in verse 5 with a list of imperatives. Two possible states of mind among the exiles are cut short by these instructions:
a short-term and dangerous optimism: 'it won't last long, just a short while and we will be returning' (cf. 28:3ff 'Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord's house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon.') 456
a feeling of dull and fatalistic resignation: 'all is now lost, there is nothing we can do'. Jeremiah's letter opposes such feelings. On the one hand it appeals to them to pick up their lives again, to get organized again after the catastrophe, and roll up their sleeves and get to work. On the other hand it appeals to them to invest in the future: 'building', 'planting', 'living' are verbs directed at a long-term stay. He who plants fruit trees must wait patiently for many years before he can enjoy the fruit of his work.
At the same time this opening sentence contains a deeper message. The words used here reverse the old covenant curse of Deuteronomy 28:30: 'You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit.' Implicitly, Jeremiah's appeal proclaims that there is life after judgment, and that there will be an end to the curse of the covenant that was violated by Israel.
Read in the broad context of the whole book, the opening words of Jeremiah's letter become even more significant. These words refer to the basic theme of the Book of Jeremiah. In the vision in which Jeremiah received his calling we read the prophetic command:
'See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.' (Jeremiah 1:10)
The first four verbs in this prophecy have a bearing on verdict and judgment, the last two on salvation and restoration. These six verbs convey the message that is the connecting theme throughout the book. In the first part of the Book of Jeremiah the 'uprooting' and the 'extermination' were the central theme, while now, in Jeremiah's letter, the words 'building' and 'planting' are directed concretely at the people for the first time. They may be far away in a foreign country, yet it is actually the time to start the building and planting – for YHWH is making a new beginning! Here lies the turning point in the dramatic course of the history of Israel. God changes the 'full stop' of his judgment into the 'comma' of his grace – the history with this people, the history of salvation, continues along the via Babylonica. God will not let his people be destroyed. He has 'thoughts' that reach much further.
Verse 6 'Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.'
Verse 6 elaborates on the content of verse 5. The charge is to put this building and planting into practice also along the line of the generations: increasing as opposed to decreasing. This verse also brings to mind Israel's stay in Egypt. In situations of emergency, people often abstain from this type of 'building'. Was not Jeremiah's own life a sign of this? He was unmarried and therefore without children. All this was a living proclamation of God's judgment over Israel: there is no future for the disobedient people of God. All the more significant therefore is this command in the letter to the exiles, which points in a very different direction. Being able to build for the future is a sign of God's grace and salvation.
Verse 7 'Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.'
The word pair 'seeking and praying' is cultic language for seeking God and finding him in the temple of Jerusalem. In this verse the same word pair is applied concerning the attitude towards Babylon. The exiles can no longer go to the temple, yet religious life continues. The exiles must exert themselves towards the wellbeing of this city. If it goes well with Babylon, it will go well with them. The reverse is also true: if it does not go well in Babylon, this will soon affect the exiles. Implicitly, therefore, the way of resignation or revolution is rejected, and an appeal is made to a positive commitment, while preserving their own identity. This appeal is misunderstood where it is understood merely as the result of purely utilitarian motives. On the contrary, it contains a deeply religious element, namely bowing to God's will and coming to terms with the consequences of God's judgment.
In an initial reading of chapter 29, Jeremiah's letter comes across as rather calm and reasonable, as a down-to-earth encouragement to start building up life once more. But to the original recipients this letter must have been shocking, for at least three reasons:
The exiles from Judah are completely robbed of their hope for a speedy return and restoration of normal life. The letter even opens up the possibility of having to live in Babylon for up to three generations (v. 6).
The summons to pray for Babylon must have sounded outrageous, even blasphemous, to the ears of the Jewish exiles. How could a devout Jew pray for this heathen, unclean city? This is comparable to the revulsion that Jonah felt against the salvation of the city of Nineveh. Does the Torah not say that it is forbidden to admit an Ammonite or Moabite into the congregation, and that Israel should never 'seek' prosperity or 'peace' for them? (Deut 23:6). The exact same word pair returns here in Jeremiah's letter, but now positively for the godless city of Babylon.
The most aggravating part, however, is the summons to pray for the ruthless executers. Babylon is the arch-enemy, preparing the downfall of Judah while murdering and plundering, later torturing and exiling Judah's last king, Zedekiah, and trampling and destroying God's own house.
Three times Jeremiah was forbidden to pray for his own people of Israel (Jer. 7:16, 11:14, 14:11). What the prophet is denied, the exiles must do – pray, not for themselves, but for the enemy city of Babylon. Here the Book of Jeremiah touches a chord that sounds a deep tone, which can be heard resonating to the full in the New Testament at the cross of Calvary.
A letter with an amazing message – yet this is the letter that the prophet Jeremiah must send in the name of YHWH to his people that are lost, or so it seems. The letter therefore continues with the sharp summons not to listen to the message of a speedy return, which false prophets, sorcerers, and dreamers are preaching to the people in Babylon (29:8). In the midst of their alienation, Israel must distance itself completely from the preaching of 'easy grace', and let itself be completely won over by the deep perspective of God's plan of salvation: his merciful thoughts, his appeals to repent, his future (29:10-14):
"'For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."'
This is the supporting foundation under Jeremiah's oh-so-shocking message in 29:4-7. The mystery of the history of salvation: God's goodness and patience, leading from Calvary to the New Jerusalem.
Following these lines further
Being foreigners and aliens means for the exiles that they place their fate in the hands of God and receive their life from his hand, in order to adopt a positive attitude, to apply themselves in calm dedication to the wellbeing of all those around them, waiting quietly for God's coming salvation. Not least in their prayers. We can follow this line of living as strangers in Babylon into the New Testament, where the same message resounds in passages such as Matt. 5:44f and 1 Tim. 2:14. Especially in times when alienation is being experienced, God's people may draw from a double fountain of comfort and hope:
God will always be there for us, even in a strange country, even when we are bereft of all the security of longstanding religious forms (the temple!) and traditions.
"'Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to 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 will bring you back from captivity."' (Jer. 29:12-14)
We can always fall back on the gospel hope that God's thoughts are higher than ours, far above our abilities and knowledge, and that one day he will bring all his people home. All exiles, strangers, and aliens not one will be missing.
"'Then I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile."' (Jer. 29:14b)
The church, foreign in the world of AD 2013, cannot seek shelter in fruitless isolation. Christians do not submit to passivism and resignation or to rebellion and negativism. The church takes a positive attitude within its own context so as to build up and be savoury salt, to seek prosperity and peace for all around her – going against the grain of temptation and opposition. In this the church should realize that the time of living as foreigners is a transitional time. The here and now is not all there is. This life as a foreigner is clearly defined. The seventy years for Babylon will pass (Jer. 29:10), and this world will also pass (1 Corinthians 7:31). Which means Christians should on the one hand be building houses and planting gardens, but on the other hand not hammering their tent pegs too firmly into the ground.
Prayer contra prayer?
The prophet Jeremiah appealed to the Jewish exiles to pray for Babylon. Did this actually take place, and if so, what did these prayers sound like? What words did the exiles choose when responding to the call in Jeremiah's letter? In the Psalter we find a specific example of a prayer by Jewish exiles in Babylon for the city in which they were forced to live as foreigners. The text of this prayer sounds thus:
Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
This prayer is one of the most horrifying imprecatory psalms in the Old Testament. A reader might question whether the one praying in Psalm 137 was perhaps ignorant of Jeremiah's letter, or whether he consciously resisted the prophet's appeal. Does the Bible contain contradictory texts regarding this point?
Psalm 137 is indeed a completely different sort of prayer from that to which Jeremiah encouraged the exiles, although we must keep in mind that Jeremiah 29, like every prophecy, was 'a word spoken in due season', a text meant for that time, which does not necessarily have the same value and validity in other situations separate from its own direct context. With these words the prophet was addressing the disorientated group of exiles in the period after the first captivity in 597 BC, to guard them from a passive negativism as well as from being blinded by a disastrous optimism. The Jewish exiles must comply with the way by which God is taking them, and positively apply themselves to the context in which they find themselves. At the same time, however, the Book of Jeremiah does contain words of disaster for Babylon itself (Jer. 25:12, 27:7). Particularly striking is the great prophecy against Babylon at the conclusion of the book (Jer. 50-51), proving that Jeremiah also sent a completely different letter to Babylon! Apart from the letter for prayer pro Babylon (Jer. 29), there is also the letter with a prayer contra Babylon (Jer. 50-51).
In the fourth year of King Zedekiah's reign, about the same time as the letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29, the prophet gave a 'scroll' to Seraiah to take with him, containing a description of all the disaster that was to befall Babylon (Jer. 51:59ff). This scroll is read and then thrown into the Euphrates, having been tied to a stone – an act symbolizing the downfall of Babylon.
'Lord, you have said you will destroy this place, so that neither people nor animals will live in it; it will be desolate forever.' (Jer.51:62)
There was a time that Nebuchadnezzar was God's 'war club' (51:20ff), but there comes a time when God will punish this club (51:25). In Jer. 51:35ff there is even an explicit imprecation for Babylon along the lines of Psalm 137: "'May the violence done to our flesh be on Babylon", say the inhabitants of Zion. "May our blood be on those who live in Babylonia," says Jerusalem'. How YHWH responds to this prayer is expressed in Jer. 51:36ff:
'Therefore this is what the Lord says: "See, I will defend your cause and avenge you; I will dry up her sea and make her springs dry. Babylon will be a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals, an object of horror and scorn, a place where no one lives".'
The prayer for Babylon in Jeremiah 29 and the prayer against Babylon in Psalm 137 are two texts on different levels, meant for different times. Jeremiah's appeal to pray for Babylon has its own function and purpose in the context of the early captivity, to bring the Jewish exiles to the recognition that it is the via Babylonica that God is taking with his people, and to build along that road towards the future. Later, from a thoroughly different perspective, the Psalmist, in the face of deep hatred against God's people, turns to YHWH in utter despair to pray for the fulfilment of his own words (Gen 12:2; Jer.14:17-22, Jer. 50-51). In the brokenness of life as a foreigner, both prayers have their rightful place.