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October 10, 2010
Jeremiah 29:1-7

In the context of exile in the early 6th century BCE, when Jeremiah prophesied, the instructions in these few verses and the understanding of God implied therein, represent a sea change in the attitude of the Israelites towards their way of being in the world. They are also entirely relevant to faith communities for their life as minorities in the world today.

The historical background to this text is described in the comment for Jeremiah 32 (see Pentecost 18). The texts of Jeremiah 23-24 and 27-29, like Ezekiel 1-24, relate to the quiet period of the early reign of king Zedekiah under the hegemony of Babylonia (see Jer. 27:12). Like Ezekiel among the first exiles, Jeremiah in Jerusalem instructed the Israelites to accept the reign of Babylon. His instructions to them (Jeremiah 29) are preceded by an address to the surrounding nations with the same message (27:1-11), then to the royal house (vv. 12-15), and finally to the priests and people (vv. 16-22). We next read of Jeremiah’s confrontation with Hananiah (Jeremiah 28) who, like other prophets in Israel and in exile, proclaimed a more optimistic message about return of the exiles after only two years.

The letter in today’s reading is a general epistle to all the exiles, but is presented as an oracle of God as Lord of Hosts, Yahweh Sabaoth. This name combines the particularity of the covenant name, Yahweh, as God of Israel, and the term Sabaoth, ‘hosts’. The latter is a noun derived from a verb for warfare, and early in Israel’s history it had military connotations (e.g. 1 Sam. 17:45; 2 Sam. 5:10) and was connected to the tradition of the ark of the covenant (1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 6:2). Such a name for God undergirds a view of God of irresistible strength and will.

The oracle has a typical pattern. Following the name of God we have an identification of God in terms of an historical event. This is usually in the form of God ‘who brought you up out of Egypt’, but in this case it has been changed to: ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon …’ (v. 4). These words are the very opposite of the traditional formula. God identifies himself not by his deliverance of his people from captivity, but as one who now has given them up to that very thing. We could easily gloss over this clause and its significance. It is a radical statement. But what is more, there is no justification in this text for the statement. Especially, there is no mention of the sin of the people which might give rise to God’s action of punishment in the exile. It was a common assumption that God was behind the experiences that befell the Israelites and that they involved a fairly predictable cause and effect relationship (cf. 2 Kgs 24:20). This, in itself, was a belief statement that not all God’s people then, or even now, would accept. But Jeremiah, with other prophets, accepted such a view. When he writes in this letter, encouraging them to build houses and to plant gardens (v. 5), including fruit trees, he sees the long term perspective of settling down to make a home in a new land. This is just as clear in the exhortation to marry and raise a family (v. 6) so that the settler community would flourish. From hindsight we see how, through the acceptance of Jeremiah’s instructions, the Diaspora became a significant means of fulfilment of the vision that through Abraham, God would bless all people (Gen. 12:1-3).

While it may not sound like it, Jeremiah was seeking to offer hope to his people, even if it was not what they wanted to hear – a long period of exile. He says on behalf of God a little later: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (v. 11) Jeremiah’s harsh words about the people’s faithlessness portray their confusion between immediate well-being and the future hope the Lord would give.

It was neither easy for the exiles nor for those left in Jerusalem. Prophets of different persuasion all claimed to speak the word of the Lord (vv. 8-9), and they were not unfaithful, deceitful men or women. They sincerely hoped in deliverance for their people. They too trusted in the Lord, but their reading of the situation, their understanding of what the Lord would do, neither took into consideration the people’s own complicity in their dilemma, nor the reality of the Lord’s judgment, even of his own people. Real hope for the people, according to Jeremiah, lay not in some immediate relief from social and communal death, but in living through that experience as faithful people, awaiting the Lord’s “future with hope”.

It meant calling upon God, praying to God, searching for God, seeking God with all their heart. In that they would know that the Lord is faithful. It also meant, ‘building houses, planting gardens, having children, marrying them off’ etc. That is, continuing to live as faithful people in a time of difficulty in the world in which they found themselves. They were not to forget their calling as God’s people, nor to forget they had a mission where they were, praying for the welfare of the city in which they lived in exile.

Psalm 66

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