“Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
How do you live in the context of a hostile culture? As followers of Jesus in an American context, that is a question becoming more and more relevant to our lives every single day. Now, our brothers and sisters around the world and at various times in history have had to live with that question much more pressingly than we have in our lifetimes, but things are changing around us. What do we do? Jeremiah offers some advice to the people of Israel here that we would do well to consider.
Israel was living as a captive state. Some were still in Judah wondering when the other Babylonian shoe was going to drop as they watched their remaining leaders wrestle with their loss of power. Many others, though, had been forcibly taken to Babylon where they had no meaningful prospects of ever seeing their homes and friends again.
This was all bad enough. What was worse was that they were God’s chosen people while the Babylonians were pagan dogs. Babylon was an evil people who worshiped false gods and committed any manner of atrocities as a par for their cultural course. Israel already looked down on them for this. Now that Babylon had conquered them completely, their whole world had turned upside-down. How could these inferior people with inferior gods have conquered them, the followers of the One True God?
To make matters even worse still, the open plan of the Babylonians was to make the Israelites they brought home with them into fellow Babylonians. They thought themselves to be the cultured ones and wanted to enlighten these barbarians from the west by replacing their culture with a better one. And they weren’t going to be tolerant of them trying to hang on to it very tightly.
What were they to do? Into all of this, Jeremiah, the prophet who had been telling them for years to get on track lest something like this happen, wrote them a letter. Surely he would have some words of encouragement from their God for them to lift their spirits. If that’s what they expected, though, what they received had to be a system shock.
What God basically tells them through Jeremiah is that they needed to think about this new season of their lives in generational terms because they were going to be there for a while. And because of that, what became of their new home would become of them. In other words, if things went well for Babylon, if the economy was good and the cities were filled with peace, they would prosper right along with their neighbors. As Jeremiah puts it here: If it thrives, you will thrive with it. This being the case, it made the counter true as well: If things went poorly, they would suffer with them.
So what should they do? Pursue the well-being of the city. Seriously? These were people who hated them and looked down on them like they were slugs. They didn’t understand their culture and thought their religion was a joke. Their God obviously wasn’t very powerful since His people had been so thoroughly defeated. And if He wasn’t very powerful, then the cultural artifacts He had commanded needed to be discarded like the morning waste pots. This was how the people thought of them and He wanted them to seek their well-being?
Yep. Why? Because He was preparing to extend the glory of His name to some new places and this was where that process was going to start. If you want to think a little further forward, there were some people He wanted to come visit His Son in a few hundred years and He needed to lay the groundwork for their trip to make sense.
And also there was this: Anywhere He puts His people, He puts them there for a reason; to advance and accomplish His plans. He never puts them there to hate on and condemn their culture. That does not mean, however, that He puts them there to embrace it. Rather, He puts them there to redeem it.
Well, it’s hard to work to redeem someone you hate; someone about whom you don’t care. So God’s call and command to them was simple: I know you have every reason in the world to hate them, but I want you to love them because I do and I’m planning to do something with your love that will show the world how great I am. And here we find that we’re not just talking about them anymore. We’re talking about us.