MORNING MESSAGE: John Cline
Text: Jeremiah 29-33
They had been taken, against their will, from their homeland of Judah, the name of which the identifying word forever applied to them would come, the “Jews”. It was not a happy time for them, with constant warfare, sieges of their capital city Jerusalem, and three different time periods in which the best and brightest of their land were kidnapped and taken to their conquering enemy Babylon.
King Josiah, Judah’s last “good” king, decided that he would go to war against Egypt after it had come uncomfortably close to Judah when it invaded the place better known as “Armageddon”, but at time was referred to as the Plains of Megiddo. The Egyptians were merely passing through the Plains of Megiddo on their way north to battle with the other superpower of the day, Babylonia. Having to stop and fight the Jews was a nuisance to the Egyptians and so they went straight for the heart of Judah and killed Good King Josiah in that battle. After “Good” King Josiah came a series of four really bad kings who turned out to be Judah’s final kings before the people were exiled to Babylon.
Josiah, 640-609 BC Jehoahaz, Josiah’s youngest son, 609 BC Jehoiakim, Josiah’s oldest son, 609-598 BC (1st exile to Babylon) Jehoiachin, Josiah’s grandson, 598/597 BC (2nd exile to Babylon) Zedekiah, Josiah’s middle son, 597-586 BC (3rd exile to Babylon)
The Babylonians first took the finest young men of the royal family to Babylon, including Daniel and his friends, then in the 2nd wave of exiles, they took King Jehoiachin, his family, his officials, Judah’s army, 1,000 craftsmen, artisans and influential people such as Ezekiel the prophet but not Jeremiah the prophet. They installed Zedekiah as king but they left Jeremiah behind because he annoyed Zedekiah, like a gnat or a fly in the night, buzzing around him with messages from God that bothered Zedekiah so much that he place Jeremiah under house arrest so that he wouldn’t have to listen to him. In 587 BC, a year before the city of Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Babylonians, Jeremiah heard that King Zedekiah was sending two officials, Elasah and Gemariah, to Babylon, likely to take taxes and tributes to the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah convinced them to smuggle a letter from him to the exiles there.
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) He entrusted the letter to Elasah and to Gemariah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. (Jeremiah 29:1-3a)
Exiling captured people groups was not uncommon in the ancient world, done for the purpose of separating those people groups from their land with the goal of thus destroying their culture and thus keeping them from rebelling. But, by taking the best and the brightest of Jewish society into captivity, the strategy backfired on the Babylonians for being in exile ironically strengthened the Jews rather than weaken them. History tells us that the religion of the Jews, our spiritual ancestors, became its purest and finest while in Babylon. For example, the worship of small-g gods, a practice that had plagued Judaism since the time of Jewish slavery in Egypt 800 years before, was done away by the Jews while they were in Babylon. The best and the brightest of Jewish society began rabbinical schools in Babylon and the study of the Old Testament writings happened like never before. The uncompromising and faithful leadership of individuals such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Ezekiel inspired the Jews to a more faithful, pure worship of YHWH God. And, the letters of Jeremiah encouraged them to hang on. The exiles consumed Jeremiah’s letters.
Before we get to the meat of his words, I need to tell you that they contained both good news and bad news. I’ll start with the bad news. At that time, gods were thought to be territorial. YHWH was the God of Judah. Marduk was the god of Babylon. The defeat of Judah and the exile of its leadership had to have meant that Marduk was stronger than YHWH and had sent His vanquished servants into exile. But Jeremiah starts his letter to the exiles with God saying, “Nah, I didn’t lose to Marduk. What happened with you being sent into Babylonian exile was that I sent you there.” And, because you are there, I am now instructing you to “bloom where you are planted” and to pray for the peace, wellbeing, and success of Babylon”. The Jews could not have liked how his letter started.
It said: This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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.” (Jeremiah 29:3b-7)
We have all seen cows stuffing their heads through wire fences to eat the grass on the other side of the fence. They think that the green grass on the other side is better than the grass where they are standing. Usually, it’s not. “People of Judah, bloom where you are planted.” But, more so…
“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.” (Jeremiah 29:7)
“Babylon is our enemy and yet you command us to pray for its peace and prosperity?”, the Jews no doubt thought. “It’s bad enough to learn that it was you, not Marduk, who sent us to this place, and that we are to bloom here where you have planted us, but now we are to pray for it’s success, and that our prosperity is dependent upon Babylon’s.” That would have been tough to digest but, as Christians, we can identify with their disease for we feel it every time we hear Jesus command us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”; and, “It was said, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’ but I tell you that anyone who is angry with another person will be subject to judgment”; and, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way, you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”; and, after Peter went to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” and Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” We really don’t like those commandments of Jesus.
The Babylonians much preferred to have their ears tickled by false prophets who were assuring them that their exile would be for two years and then God would return them to their homeland. But, about those false prophets, Jeremiah names three, Ahab, Zedekiah, and Shemaiah, who He says He will deal with for their lying prophecies.
Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty 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 drive them. For they have not listened to my words,” declares the Lord, “words that I sent to them again and again by my servants 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 Jerusalem to Babylon. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says about Ahab and Zedekiah, who are prophesying lies to you in my name: “I will deliver them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will put them to death before your very eyes. (Jeremiah 29:17-21)
Shemaiah, a third false prophet, demanded that Zephaniah the priest who was back in Jerusalem and in charge of the Temple put Jeremiah in stocks and neck-irons and forbid him from speaking. With that attempt to silence him, the Book of Jeremiah records that,
Zephaniah the priest, however, read the letter to Jeremiah the prophet. Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Send this message to all the exiles: ‘This is what the Lord says about Shemaiah the Nehelamite: Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, even though I did not send him, and has persuaded you to trust in lies, this is what the Lord says: I will surely punish Shemaiah and his descendants. He will have no one left among this people, nor will he see the good things I will do for my people, declares the Lord, because he has preached rebellion against me.’” (Jeremiah 29:29-32)
Well, that was the bad news part of Jeremiah’s message in chapter 29. Now, to the hope-giving, good news, prophecies, which includes one of the most beloved verses in the entire Bible.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you. The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,’ says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 30:1-3)
And how soon would that return to the Land be happening?
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:10)
This would have both thrilled the Jews – that God would arrange for them to return home – and frustrated them – that their return wouldn’t be for 70 years (well, actually about 50 more by that time as 20 years of exile had already happened, starting with the first exile where Daniel and his friends were kidnapped and taken to Babylon.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.” (Jeremiah 29:19)
As Daniel, Ezekiel, their faithful friends, and the rabbis in their schools studied the Old Testament writings, they embraced Jeremiah’s prophecy about being in exile for only 70 years and came to regard it as being of divine origin, as is seen in it being quoted in the Book of Daniel. The other thing was that those students of the Old Testament had discovered was how Jeremiah’s prophecies fit with the prophet Isaiah’s prophecies about the return to the land. Isaiah had written a prophecy 100-or-so years prior to the exile beginning, but then the studying Jews then made the connection with, pairing it with Jeremiah’s prophecy about them being set free after 70 years of exile.
I am the Lord who says of Cyrus “He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” “This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus…” (Isaiah 44:26, 45:1)
This amazing prophecy in which a person was named 2 centuries before he came onto the scene absolutely floored the Jews when they heard, at the end of their 70-year exile, that a King Cyrus of Persia had overthrown the Babylonian Empire. Josephus, the famed Jewish historian, stated that when Cyrus entered Babylon, the Jews there insisted that he go to a rabbinical library where they showed him and read to him Isaiah’s prophecies containing his name and describing his role in the scheme of YHWH God. Cyrus was floored. The historian Josephus says that this event motivated Cyrus to “fulfill what was written” (Antiquities of the Jews 11.1.2). Not only did he free the Jews from their exile and permit them to return to their homeland, he contributed funding for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. Again, as Isaiah the prophet had declared,
“I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness; I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city, and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 45:13)
The thrill in it for Cyrus was knowing that he was part of God’s plan. Returning now to Jeremiah’s prophecy about the Jews undergoing 70 years of exile, we come to one of the most famous verses in the Bible:
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.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
When I see this beloved verse on a graduation or retirement card or on some plaque, I am always tempted to add in the caveat, “after 70 years” but I don’t because I am so polite and shy. In any case, can you imagine how reassuring those words were to the Jews? They can be applied today to us, as well, of course, and how reassuring they are to many, many believers. As a result of them being assured, God then, through Jeremiah’s letter, told the excited but still exiled people:
“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. 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.” (Jeremiah 29:12-14)
When you seek God with “all your heart”, you will find Him. That is absolutely still true today. When humans seek God with all their heart, not just casually or every once in a while, they will find Him. Jeremiah reminded the Jews that this caring of God was not a new thing:
The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again, you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful.” (Jeremiah 31:3,4)
These chapters in Jeremiah’s book are known as the “Chapters of Consolation” because God was consoling, loving, and giving hope. Remember that though he was the “weeping prophet”, he trusted God.
This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy. So, there is hope for your descendants,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:15-17a)
The hope and restoration would not be for Jeremiah’s or those exiles but for their descendants. The one exception to that was the prophet Daniel who lived through the entire 70 years of Babylonian captivity, which is a staggering reality. The hope-giving words of Jeremiah would not end with the return to the land after 70 years but with something even greater. In their sinning, the Jews had thoroughly broken the covenants God had made with them at the time of Moses, in which His law was written down on two stone tablets and on parchment paper. God was going to overcome that problem, as well.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Jeremiah revealed that this “new covenant” would be made with the people through God’s revealed, “Righteous Branch”.
‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. “‘In those days and at that time I will make a Righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’ (Jeremiah 33:14-16)
Those Jews who had so fervently studied the Old Testament while in Babylon would have put two-and-two together and realized that the Righteous Branch of Jeremiah’s prophecy had to be the one Isaiah had prophesied about when he wrote,
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6,7)
Friends, we can hear the good news, the Gospel, preached, even in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, if we care to take the time to read them. In any case, showing how certain he was that the prophecy he had given about the people returning to the land would be fulfilled, Jeremiah bought a plot of land in his hometown of Anatoth, which was located 5 kilometres away from Jerusalem. His family would have land to return to after the time of exile was completed!
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. The army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was confined in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace of Judah…I knew that this was the word of the Lord; so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver. (Jeremiah 32:1.2,8b,9)
This display of trust in God would have impressed the exiled Jews.
Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:26,27)
Two more passages for today. First, one describing why the Jews had been sent into exile in the first place: it was because of their sins.
They turned their backs to me and not their faces; though I taught them again and again, they would not listen or respond to discipline. They set up their vile images in the house that bears my Name and defiled it. They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molech, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin. (Jeremiah 32:33-35)
Two sins are mentioned here: First, the desecration of setting up in God’s Temple images of false gods, Baal and Ashtoreth and Molech, whom the people worshipped there instead of YHWH God. You can imagine how insulting that was to YHWH; and, Second, the sacrificing of their children to those gods in fiery pits, in cooking ovens actually, in the Valley of Ben Hinnom located just outside of Jerusalem. By the time of Jesus, centuries later, that sacrificial spot had been renamed “Gehenna” and, about it, Jesus said, “If you want to see what hell is like, go to Gehenna”, a place which by then stank viciously from its double duty as Jerusalem’s garbage dump and continually burning crematorium. The always present fire burning underneath the surface of that place created a perfect illustration for Jesus of the horrors of hell. Now, here is where the good news, the Gospel message of the “new covenant” comes into play. Though His people would turn their backs on Him, instead of having their faces turned toward Him; and, even though all people sin in ways both small and horrifying huge, God still has forgiveness in His heart. The “new covenant” He would make through Jesus is a covenant of forgiveness and salvation.
“I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul. (Jeremiah 32:40,41)
At this point, we will close here for this week, as we move now to the communion table where we celebrate the “new covenant” God has made with us through His Son, the Lord, our Righteous Saviour, the Righteous Branch, Jesus Christ.