A Letter to the Exiles

29: 1-32

DIG: What question does this letter answer for the exiles? Why did Jeremiah debunk those prophesying an early return to Judah? What is God’s reason for the length of the exile and the reason for ending it? What message did ADONAI send to the exiles about those left behind in Jerusalem, as well as the false prophets Ahab and Zedekiah? How do Jeremiah’s superiors learn of his letter to the exiles? Why was Yirmeyahu regarded as a crazy maniac if some of his prophecies had finally come true (like with Hańaniah)? Should Sh’ma’yah’s letter come as any surprise to Zephaniah the high priest? What do the two prophecies – Hańaniah in Jerusalem and Sh’ma’yah in Babylon – have in common? What clues do you see to spot false prophets?

REFLECT: Do you think God uses Satan to accomplish His purposes? What are some examples of that in the Bible? In your life? What happened? Could there have been an easier way to learn that lesson? Do you often rub people the wrong way, or do you blend in pretty well? Is criticism harder for you to take in person or in writing? Why? When’s the last time you gave criticism successfully?

596 BC during the eleven-year reign of Zedekiah

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) attacked Christian beliefs and morality. He was a German fatalist who believed that our existence is pointless and that God is dead. He did, however, believe in the fullest development of which people are capable of in this life. Then again, Christ is certainly no less concerned than Nietzsche that we should receive the fullest development of which we are capable. The difference between Nietzsche and Christ lies in the moral method by which the personality is put into possession of itself and its resources – in the one case by asserting itself, in the other by losing it . . . We complete our personality only as we participate and serve in the important movement of the society in which we live. Isolation means obstructed development. The aggressive egotist is working his own moral destruction by stunting and shrinking his true personality. Helping others and sympathy are the only conditions under which a true personality can be shaped. And if we asked how a society so crude, imperfect, amoral, and even immoral, as that in which we live is to mold a truly moral personality, it is here that Jesus Christ comes to the rescue with the gift of faith both of an active Spirit and of a society complete in Himself.

Peter T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind  259

It took four deportations to complete the exile of the Israelites (see Gt - In the Thirty-Seventh Year of the Exile Jehoiachin was Released from Prison). In 606 BC General Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and took the first deportation of exiles (and some of the Temple vessels) back to Babylon (Dani'el 1:1-2). The Babylonian king took “hostages” to assure continued loyalty. One of the most important “hostages” taken was a godly young man named Dani'el.

After a three-month reign, Jehoiachin was taken into captivity with the second deportation of exiles to Babylon in 597 BC. Along with Jehoiachin, Nebuchadnezzar also deported the queen mother, all the court officials and seven thousand fighting men, and a thousand craftsmen and artisans – a total of eighteen thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left (2 Kings 24:14-16; 2 Chronicles 36:9-10). Another one of those taken was Ezekiel the prophet. Five years later Ezeki'el began his prophetic ministry in Babylon. Most of the population was left behind under the puppet King Zedekiah. This letter was written three years after Nebuchadnezzar had placed Zedekiah as vassal king (see Dz – Zedekiah Ruled For 11 Years from 598/597 to 586 BC).

Exile is traumatic and terrifying. Our sense of who we are is very much determined by the place we are in and the people we are with. When that changes, violently and abruptly, who are we? The accustomed ways we have of finding our worth and sensing our significance vanishes. The first wave of emotion recedes and leaves us feeling worthless, meaningless. We don’t fit anywhere. No one expects us to do anything. No one needs us. We are extra baggage. We aren’t necessary.

How did these Jews in exile feel? How did they respond? If we imagine ourselves in a similar situation, remembering how we respond when we are forced to spend extended time with people we don’t like in a place we don’t like, we will not be far from the truth. It’s as if they were saying, “A terrible thing has happened to us. And it’s not fair! I know we weren’t perfect, but we were no worse than the rest of them. And here we end up in this Babylonian desert while our friends are carrying on life as usual in Jerusalem. Why us? We can’t understand the language; we don’t like the food; the manners of the Babylonians are boorish; the schools are substandard; there are no decent places to worship; the temples are polluted with immorality and everyone speaks with an accent. They complained bitterly about the terrible circumstances in which they were forced to live. They longed, achingly, for Zion. In other words, they wallowed in self-pity.

They had false prophets with them who nurtured their feelings of unhappiness. We know the names of three of them: Ahab son of Kolaiah, Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, and Sh’ma’yah the Nehelamite. These prophets called attention to the supposed unfairness of their plight and stirred the pots of discontent. “Yes, the old religion of Jerusalem is what we must get back to. Yes, it’s worse luck that we are here when so many are enjoying the good life back in Tziyon. But hang on a little longer and we’ll get back. It can’t last much longer. How can it? Not one of us deserves such a life. Justice will prevail.” These false prophets described their supposed “dreams” that revealed that the exile would soon end.

Those three false prophets made a good living inciting envy and promoting nostalgia. But their messages and dreams, besides being false, were destructive. False dreams interfere with honest living. As long as the people thought they might be going home at any time, it made no sense to engage in committed, faithful work in Babylon. If there was a good chance that they would soon get back all they had lost, there was no need to develop a life of any significance where they were. Since their real relationships were back in Yerushalayim, they could be casual and irresponsible in their relationships in exile . . . they weren’t going to see these people much longer anyway. Why bother planting gardens? Why learn the business practices of the culture? The false prophets manipulated the self-pity of the people into neurotic fantasies. The people, glad for a religious reason to be lazy, lived hand to mouth, parasites on society and indifferent to the reality of their actual lives.260

A letter from Yirmeyahu in Yerushalayim to the exiles in Babylon: This is the text of the letter the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from the City of David to Babylon in the second deportation of exiles (see Du – Jehoiachin Ruled For 3 Months in 598 BC). This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Tziyon, the craftsmen and the artisans had gone into exile from the City. He sent his message by diplomatic mail and entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan (26:24) and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah (who was the high priest under good King Josiah), whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon (29:1-3). One day these two trustworthy men from Jerusalem appeared unannounced among the exiles. They had come on official business, carrying a message to the king of Babylon.

On their way to the palace they visited the community in exile. The air was charged with excitement. Everyone had questions: What was this one doing? What was that one doing? Elasah and Gemariah waved them silent. Before giving them the local news from Tziyon the two had a message from Yirmeyahu, a letter to the exiles:

This is what the LORD of heaven’s angelic armies, the God of Isra’el says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. “You are not camping. Build houses and settle down (29:4-5a). Make yourself at home. If all you do is sit around a pine for the time you get back to Jerusalem, your present lives will be neglected and empty. Your life right now is every bit as valuable as it will be when you get back to Yerushalayim. Babylon is not your choice, but it’s your judgment. Dwell there. Plant gardens and eat what they produce (29:5b). Become a productive member of society. Don’t expect others to do it for you. Get your hands into the Babylonian soil. Become knowledgeable about the Babylonian irrigation system. Acquire skill in cultivating fruits and vegetables in this soil and climate. Get some Babylonian recipes and cook them. Grow where you’re planted.

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 (29:6). Just as the Jews did not assimilate with the Egyptians in Egypt; they did not assimilate with the Babylonians in Babylon. To assimilate would be no more than to repeat the sins of Jerusalem in Babylon. No . . . this was not a command to intermarry with the Babylonians; on the contrary, it was to increase the Jewish population (Exodus 1:9-10).

All letters of the period began with a salutation that had some expression of shalom. “Shalom to you,” or “shalom to you and your family.” But this letter had no such salutation. Verse 5 merely plunges into the body of the letter, giving the reader the sense that the writer is at best abrupt, and at worst rude. Where is the polite salutation, the greeting of shalom? First comes the instructions to the exiles to build houses, plant gardens, marry, have children, give your sons and daughters in marriage, and settle down in Babylon. Then, in verse 7, comes the deferred word about shalom.

Seek the shalom of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to ADONAI for [Babylon] because if it prospers, you too will prosper (29:7 CJB). Jeremiah’s letter was both a rebuke and a challenge. Don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourselves. Don’t have the attitude of a prisoner of war. Prisoners “do time.” They count the days until their release, days that are essentially empty. Don’t listen to the lying prophets who feed you false hopes. You are not there accidently, victims of bad luck. I have sent you there deliberately and you will be in Babylon for a long time. Do not live your days moping around for Tziyon. Live your lives there, in Babylon, and live them fully. Do not put aside the prayer of Psalm 122:6: Pray for shalom in Yerushalayim! Learn a new prayer: Pray for shalom in Babylon! For in Babylon’s shalom you will find your shalom.261

Living in exile forces a decision: Will I focus my attention on what is wrong with the world and feel sorry for myself? Or will I focus my energies on how I can live at my best in this place I find myself? It’s always easier to complain about problems than to live a life of dignity. Daily we face decisions on how we will respond to these exile conditions. We can say, “I don’t like it. I want to be where I was ten years ago. How can you expect me to throw myself into what I don’t like . . . that would be sheer hypocrisy. What sense is there in taking risks and tiring myself out among people I don’t even like in a place where I have no future?

Or we can say, “I will do my best with what is here. Far more important than the climate of this place, the economics of this place, the neighbors of this place, is the God of this place. God is here with me. What I am experiencing right now is on ground that was created by Him and with people whom He loves. It is just as possible to live out the will of God here as any place else. I am full of fear. I don’t know my way around. I have much to learn. I’m not sure I can make it. Change is hard. Developing intimacy among strangers is always a risk. Building relationships in unfamiliar and hostile surroundings is difficult. But I can do it with God’s help.262

Jeremiah had warned Judah against false prophets, now he will warn the exiles. Yes, this is what ADONAI-Tzva’ot, the God of Isra’el says: Do not let the false prophets and diviners among you deceive you (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Their dreams are made up from their own imagination. They are prophesying lies to you in My name. I have not sent them, declares the LORD (29:8-9).

The divine plan for Isra’el is now stated. This is what ADONAI says: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My gracious promise to bring you back (shuwb) to this place (29:10). It was probably from this letter that Daniel learned of the seventy-year near historical prophecy. In Dani’el 9:1-2, the prophet refers to the seventy years in that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. But he does not state that the captivity was supposed to last seventy years. That is an important distinction (see Gt – Seventy Years of Babylonian Rule).

But there was also a promise in Jeremiah’s letter, which finally came to the center and shaped the exile experience: 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 (29:11). YHVH’s plans for Isra’el are fixed. His plans were for her welfare, not for her destruction, for the future she had hoped for. This will be discussed in more detail in Chapters 30-33 (see El – The Book of Consolation). This is one of the most misused scriptures in the Bible. There are three important things to remember when interpreting Scripture . . . context . . . context . . . context! This verse is constantly taken out of context, and the context is the nation of Isra’el.

Then, under the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Second Timothy 3:16), Jeremiah gives a far eschatological prophecy, describing the national regeneration of Isra’el at the end of the Great Tribulation (see Gk – The Valley of Dry Bones). You will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you (see my commentary on Revelation Ev – The Basis for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ). You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. I will be found by you (Deuteronomy 4:29), declares the LORD, and will bring you back (shuwb) from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you, and will bring you back (shuwb) to the place from which I carried you into exile (29:12-14). This is in keeping with the unconditional divine Jewish Covenants (see Af – The Covenants of the TaNaKh)

Dani’el did correctly understand that Israel’s national confession needed to precede Israel’s final restoration, but he could not anticipate the Church Age (see the commentary on HebrewsThe Dispensation of Grace) because it was a mystery to him (Ephesians 5:32). A mystery in the Bible is something that was once hidden - unknown by mankind (although known by God) - but now is revealed. In Dani’el 9, he did not make this differentiation; as a result, he thought after seventy years the messianic Kingdom would begin. That is why an angel came to Dani’el and explained his error in thinking.

The people left in Jerusalem were saying that God had raised up prophets in Babylon. This was partially true because the LORD raised up Dani’el and Ezeki’el in Babylon. But they were not referring to those two godly men, they were referring to false prophets. You may say, “The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon who prophesy a return in the immediate future,” but this is what ADONAI says about King Zedekiah who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city of Jerusalem, your fellow citizens who did not go into exile – yes, this is what the LORD of heaven’s angelic armies says: I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I will drive them. For they have not listened to My words, declares ADONAI, words that I persistently sent to them by My servant the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either,” declares the LORD. Therefore, hear the word of the LORD, all you exiles whom I have sent away from Yerushalayim to Babylon (29:15-20). Without realizing it, the exiles were better off than those left in the Land because those living in Jerusalem would face certain death with Zion’s destruction. Nevertheless, the exiles shouldn’t make the same mistake those in the City were making by listening to false prophets who were feeding them lies.

Then Jeremiah sent a message to two of the false prophets. This is what ADONAI-Tzva’ot, the God of Isra’el says about Ahab and Zedekiah. They are prophesying lies to you in My name. Their sin was that of Hańaniah, prophesying lies in God’s name of an early return from Babylon. They gave the exiles false hope . . . they were not settling down to stay. Therefore, their judgment would be death, like Hańaniah, before the eyes of the exiles. This was looked on as an act of rebellion against Babylon, so Nebuchadnezzar had them burned in the fire. We know that the king liked to kill people by fire because he tried to kill Dani’el and his three friends in the same way.

As a result, it became a proverb or colloquial saying that was created about them and became a common curse among the people. Because of them, all the exiles from Judah who are in Babylon will use this curse, “May the LORD treat you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon burned in the fire.” For they have done outrageous things in Isra’el; they have committed adultery with their neighbors wives (they were not only false prophets, but they were immoral also), and in My name they have uttered lies – which I did not authorize. I know it (God is all-knowing) and am a witness to it, declares ADONAI (29:21-23). Saying, I am a witness was the standard term of the day meaning I am cosigner. God authorized, or cosigned this curse.

The false prophets were furious. After Jeremiah sent the letter to the exiles found in 29:4-14, Sh’ma’yah (another false prophet) didn’t like what Jeremiah had to say. So in 29:25-29, Sh’ma’yah wrote his own letter and sent a scathing, angry letter back to Zephaniah, the high priest, in Jerusalem (Second Kings 25:18-21; Jeremiah 21:1, 37:3, 52:24-27).

Tell Sh’ma’yah the [dreamer], This is what ADONAI-Tzva’ot, the God of Isra’el, says: You sent letters in your own name to all the people in the City of David, but more specifically, to the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah, and to all the other priests. The content of Sh’ma’yah’s letter read like this: The LORD has appointed you priest in place of Jehoiada (and in place of Pash’chur) to be in charge of the Temple (just as Pash’chur had been in charge of the Temple). Part of Zephaniah’s duty was to keep the peace in the Temple (just a Pash’chur had wrongly tried to do with Jeremiah (see Da – Jeremiah and Pash’chur). You should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons (29:24-26). So why have you not reprimanded Jeremiah from Anathoth, who poses as a prophet among you (29:27)? But Jeremiah did not pose as a prophet, he was appointed by ADONAI to be a prophet (see Aj – The Call of Jeremiah). Sh’ma’yah, however,was merely posing as a prophet. Jeremiah, the true prophet of God, had sent a message to the exiles in Babylon: You will be there a long time. Therefore, build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce (29:28).

Zephaniah the priest, however fearing Ha’Shem, read the letter to Jeremiah the prophet. Then the inspired word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, “Send this message to all the exiles, ‘This is Sh’ma’yah’s sin: Because Sh’ma’yah has prophesied to you, even though I did not send him, and has persuaded you to trust in lies (that the exiles would soon return to Jerusalem), Sh’ma’yah was then under judgment. YHVH said: I will surely punish Sh’ma’yah the dreamer and his descendants. They will all die in captivity. He will have no one left among this people, nor will he see the good things I will do for My people because he has preached rebellion against Me’ (29:29-32).” False prophecy always ferments rebellion against ADONAI because it says things that the LORD doesn’t say, mean to say, or even thought of.

But others, maybe most, accepted the message from Yirmeyahu. Shaken out of their routine by exile, they settled down to find out what it meant to be God’s people in the place they didn’t want to be – in Babylon. The result was that it became the most creative period in Jewish history. They didn’t lose their identity . . . they discovered it. They learned how to pray in deeper and more life-changing ways than ever. They wrote and copied and pondered the TaNaKh that had come down from Moshe and the prophets. They found that ADONAI wasn’t dependent on a place . . . that He was not tied to familiar surroundings. The violent dislocation of the exile shook them out of their false assumptions and allowed them to see depths and heights that they had never imagined before. They lost everything that they thought was important and found what was the most important: they found YHVH.

It keeps on happening. Exile is the worst that reveals the best. Normal life is full of distractions and things that are unnecessary. Then catastrophe: Dislocation. Exile. Illness. Accident. Job loss. Divorce. Death. The reality of our lives is rearranged without anyone consulting us or waiting for our permission. We are no longer at home.

All of us are given moments, days, months, years or exile. What will we do with them? Wish we were somewhere else? Complain? Blame others? Escape to fantasies? Drug ourselves into oblivion? Or build and plant and marry and seek the shalom of the place we live and the people we are with? Exile reveals what really matters and frees us to pursue what really matters, which is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).263

 

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