To the anticipated response, “We have to do something!” I will voice no disagreement. We should do something and here it is (divinely inspired of God): Get married, have kids, build a house, plant a garden, etc. Those who cannot receive that advice will never be open to that which follows: seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. (vs. 7)
Few, I suppose, would deny that we are indeed living in strange times. The word “unprecedented” has been essentially worn out through over-use during the past year. While I will not review all the “unprecedented” events we have recently experienced in America, I will say this: Most Christians are starting to feel like strangers living in a strange land.
That is a very good thing. No, it is not a good feeling, but it is good because that is how the Bible describes us. In both Old and New Testaments, we are described as strangers, pilgrims, exiles, those who are IN the world, but not OF it, citizens of heaven who are seeking a heavenly country; but who are also (even at the same time) citizens of earthly commonwealths, stuck in godless cultures, surrounded by unbelievers, and sometimes even oppressed.
The reality of that dual-citizenship had hit Jeremiah’s friends like a ton of bricks. Their city was sacked, their temple destroyed, their houses burned, the able-bodied men put in chains, and their brightest minds put to work in the Babylonian palace. They were very much in shock and some, it seems, were even in a state of denial; so Jeremiah sent a letter that they come to terms with their situation and survive it.
I am convinced that Christians today need to do the same (i.e., come to terms with our current cultural situation and survive it), so please allow Jeremiah’s letter to the captives to accomplish that good end. His counsel can be summarized into five practical words of advice.
Acknowledge the Sovereignty of God
This, of course, is one of the core doctrines of Reformed theology. We acknowledge the absolute and all-encompassing sovereignty of God. From the rise and fall of nations, to the salvation of individual sinners, to a little sparrow falling to the ground, even to the very number of hairs on our head; the Lord is sovereign over all.
Many recoil at the thought, but the Bible-believer not only receives this doctrine as true, but realizes that it is the only way he can make sense of his experience in this world (especially the bad experiences).
The Babylonian captivity was, arguably, the lowest point in the history of God’s people. They had lost everything and were now living as exiles in an extremely evil culture. They believed God, trusted in God, and had tasted and seen that the Lord is good. So why this? What had happened? Who, you might say, was to blame?
From an earthly perspective, the Babylonians certainly shared much of the blame. They are the ones who attacked Jerusalem in the first place, put them under tribute, kidnapped Daniel and his friends, attacked yet again, and finally razed it to the ground. One might also place some of the blame on God’s own people, for when he constituted them as a nation he also warned them that disobedience would result in discipline, even enemy invasions and exile.
Nevertheless, while we can acknowledge the ambition of Nebuchadnezzar and the iniquity of Jerusalem as true causes of the captivity, they were but secondary causes. The chief cause of all things (including calamity) was, and always is, God Almighty. This is clearly affirmed in vs. 4, Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon…
Do you believe that? Do you accept the attribute of God that we call his absolute sovereignty? You must or, again, you will never be able to make sense of your experiences under the sun. Worse, you might not even survive that feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. God wants you to survive, so he first declares his sovereignty over the situation.
Listen for God’s Voice in Scripture
That phrase in vs. 4, Thus saith the LORD of hosts is always the best news to hear (especially in Babylon). God was speaking to his people from heaven.
The God of the Bible, by the way, is a speaking God. He does not communicate himself through feelings or emotions or irrational ecstasies. He communicates through words, and vv. 1-4 show us something of how that works.
Now these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent… (vs. 1). This is the doctrine of divine Inspiration and 2 Peter 1:21 explains even further: the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. God, the Holy Ghost, moved Jeremiah’s pen as he wrote, ensuring that every word written in that letter was perfectly true.
Connected to that crucial doctrine of inspiration is also that of Transmission, for vs. 1 says the letter was sent from Jerusalem unto the residue of the elders which were carried away captives, and to the priests, and to the prophets, etc. This inspired letter needed to travel almost a thousand miles before it reached its intended audience, so how could Jeremiah be sure that it would arrive in-tact and unaltered by the false prophets that were in the land? Was it that the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan (vs. 3) was so strong? We can probably assume that Elasah and Gemariah were trustworthy enough as messengers, but this is no safe source of certainty.
Ultimately speaking, it is our sovereign God who keeps his word pure and entire. It is called the doctrine of Preservation, and it affirms that the same God who inspires scripture also protects it by his singular care and providence (even if that involves a thousand miles, or a thousand years, or a thousand manuscripts).
The believer must trust God to preserve his word, else how could he ever receive it as God’s word? That is, after all, what the exiles were supposed to do: They were to receive this letter not as the words of Jeremiah, but as the very words of God.
That duty applied to all, for vs. 1 mentions the elders, the priests, the prophets, and all the people. Also mentioned in vs. 2 is the king, the queen, eunuchs, princes, carpenters, and smiths. The specific mention of so many different individuals in such diverse stations of life lends itself to an important universal application: You also need to listen for the voice of God in scripture, and when you hear it, you need to receive it as God’s word and with all readiness of mind.
Embrace, my fellow-exiles, these essential doctrines of God’s Sovereignty, Divine Inspiration, and Providential Preservation so that you can, first of all, make sense of your experience in this world, but even more importantly, know how to live in it.
Just Keep Living a Normal Life
Though the captivity was a great tragedy and a sore chastisement from God, it was no reason for God’s people to give up hope or to start acting strange. They were still God’s people and God wanted them to act like his people (yes, even in Babylon). This would look very, very normal.
The first word of practical advice is Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them… (vs. 5) which assumes that they were going to be in Babylon for a long time. The substance of this counsel is, “Just settle down, settle in, and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.” In order to follow this advice, they would, of course, have to find gainful employment in Babylon (it obviously takes money to build a house) and this is where many stumble; but their scruples are without scriptural support. Daniel kept a clean heart while working for his pagan boss, so they could do the same. You can do the same.
The second word of practical advice is Take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. (vs. 6) Modern paraphrase: “Find a girl, fall in love, get married, and have lots of babies.”
Many stumble at this point as well, but also without cause. Marriage and procreation are also some of the simple pleasures of normal life under the sun. Besides that, Jeremiah adds a theological reason for receiving this advice: that ye may be increased there, and not diminished.