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Politics of Scripture

Politics of Exile—Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Jeremiah’s letter is a bold admonishment to remember that we are all, together, members of the political community. Wherever we find ourselves, we must not forget that there is such a thing as the common good.

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 4Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The Lord, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, here lays out some principles for life in a mixed political community. While the Israelites lived in the promised land they were governed by the law of Moses, which they had received directly from God. This provided at least a potential ground for confidence—although there were many kings who disobeyed the law, the kings were at least theoretically bound to obey the law. In Babylonian exile, there could be no expectation that the king would rule righteously. This put the exiled Israelites in a difficult position: In a city where the other inhabitants could not be expected to follow the Mosaic code, how were they supposed to live? Jeremiah’s message was that the captives should establish themselves as part of the community and discern the common good that would unite them to the inhabitants of Babylon. 

Although Christians in the west today are not captive, exiled, and oppressed like the ancient Israelites, we, too, find ourselves in political communities that seem to be divided about fundamental commitments. Jeremiah’s word to the captive Israelites can speak to us: We, too, should root ourselves where God has placed us and establish a life that leads to a flourishing community in the future as well as the present. We, too, should learn to see the common good which unites us to the other members of our communities as we work to make that good manifest for all around us. 

Another aspect of exile is important for understanding the commands which follow.  Exile is involuntary; the readers of Jeremiah’s letter did not choose their new situation. In addition, the Babylonians marched against Jerusalem as an invading army. Babylon has been and continues to be the enemy. In such a situation, the natural temptation would be to retain the barriers and distinctions that existed before the war, especially the distinction between friend and enemy. Remarkably, this passage calls the exiles to a life without hostility toward their former enemies. The captives must recognize that the war is over and that a new situation has come into existence.

Jeremiah’s letter tells the exiles to do three things: first, they should establish the infrastructure necessary to remain in the city for some time. He says “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce” (29:5). Building a house and planting a garden are both forward-looking projects, even though they are not the longest-term projects possible. There is also an implicit promise here: if you build a house, you will get to live in it. If you plant a garden, you will get to eat the harvest. The exiles will not be hauled off from city to city every few months and they will not die in a sudden slaughter like the one Hamaan plots in the book of Esther. Building a house and planting a garden are also concrete ways of taking possession of the new land. 

Rather than waiting to move back to Jerusalem, the exiles should take for themselves the small pieces of Babylon on which they construct their homes and in which their vegetables take root. Building a house is the sort of activity that will also entangle the exiles with the government of Babylon. Owning land or renting it in a way that permits construction has always required some sort of civic recognition of your right to the property, even if it did not involve the bureaucratic oversight of a modern building permit. In all these ways, the exiles are supposed to make themselves part of the city.

The second command is that the exiles should prepare to be part of the city well into the future. They are urged to take wives—this implies that some of the hearers are young, unmarried men. These young men, once married, are told to “have sons and daughters.” And then these men, having begotten children, are told to “take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage” (29:6).  

That is, the men who are young and unmarried at the time of Jeremiah’s letter are given instructions for the next 20 years: children who are as yet unborn, whose parents have not yet even married, will marry and will themselves bear children. This provides a multi-generational framework for understanding the exile. At one level, this might be disheartening. It means acknowledging that you will never see your native land again. But it reveals a trust in the goodness of God because God can bless this people, wherever they are.

The third instruction is to seek the good of the city in which they dwell, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7). This is the conclusion to which the other commands have been building: the exiles must learn that their world is no longer separate from that of their captors. There is no arrangement in which destruction and evil can fall on Babylon without also falling on the exiled Israelites as well; even more importantly, the exiles must bring themselves to actively seek the good of the community in which they find themselves. 

It is not enough to stop praying against Babylon. The time has come to start praying for Babylon. We should not lose the sting of this command: Babylon is the city of oppressors, captors, enemies, warriors, and pagan kings who have plundered Jerusalem and kidnapped her people. And yet, despite this, the exiles are supposed to pray on behalf of Babylon, to seek its welfare and promote its flourishing.

How do these commands to the people captive in ancient Babylon encourage us as readers today? 

We can learn from these injunctions to trust in God’s generational faithfulness and to put away our natural despair. By building families and homes, the exiles were able, generations later, to place counselors in positions of influence with the king and to send a delegation back to Jerusalem in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild what had been destroyed. 

We will not be able to right every wrong in this generation (obviously!). We may feel like we are standing helpless and powerless in the face of rulers whose policies are bent on destruction of human life. But we must not forget that God is faithful. Even if we are not the generation that has the glory of restoring what was lost, we can prepare the next generation to seize the moment when it comes.

But in order to do that, there must be a next generation. Having families and raising them faithfully is a mode of resistance to entrenched power that does not tear away at the common good. It ensures the continued existence of the community, both the small community of the faithful and the larger political community in which we live. The text here is illustrating one natural element of political orders: Children tend to engender in their parents a sense of a greater responsibility for the future of society. Having families, therefore, is an investment in the future of society in the fullest sense of the word ‘investment’.

The nature of political order is also illuminated in this passage by the injunction to seek the welfare of the city. The promise that “in its welfare you will find your own” is not true because God has made a special exception for a chosen people, but because that is the nature of political orders. When we seek a common good that is really common to all (not, for example, a “common good” that is actually the good of slaveholders to the exclusion of slaves) then that good really will extend to all. 

Comfortable English-speaking western readers are not in the position of captives, involuntarily driven out of our homelands. But we do live in mixed communities where our religious commitments are not shared by all. We work and live side-by-side with people of many faiths, and with people who have widely varying political commitments. While we believe that the Christian faith has political ramifications, and that we should work to bring about a more just society wherever we live, we must also remember that political action requires certain preconditions.

Jeremiah’s words teach us how to prepare ourselves for political action. It is true that, in democratic societies, we are responsible for the rulers whom we choose. But democratic societies are often organized around faction and ideological division. Jeremiah’s letter is a bold admonishment to remember that we are all, together, members of the political community. Wherever we find ourselves, we must not forget that there is such a thing as the common good. We remind ourselves of that common good by putting down roots and by strengthening the ties that bind us to the places and people nearest us. We will only be in a position to bring about responsible political change when we can see that our welfare and the welfare of the whole community are bound up together. 

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