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Jeremiah's Letter to the Exiles

Bible Stories Which Teach Us How to Live in This World

Jun 27, 2021


by: Jack Lash Series: Bible Stories Which Teach Us How to Live in This World | Category: Old Testament Stories | Scripture: Jeremiah 29:1–29:23

I. Introduction
A. Series
1. I have been planning out my sermon schedule for my remaining years. One of my many ideas was to eventually preach a series of sermons on the exile and the restoration.
2. Because our situation is very similar to theirs, there is so much very relevant material there.
3. But it has now become clear that this series will never happen. The last six sermons of this summer series on Bible Stories which teach us about living in this world will be the closest I get. They are all taken from stories of the exile and the restoration.
4. But before I read the passage, one of the most loved verses in the whole Bible is in this passage.
a. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
b. If you stick with me through this sermon, you’ll never look at this verse the same again.
B. Jeremiah 29:1–23 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take 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. 7 But 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. 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD. 10 “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. 15 “Because you have said, ‘The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,’ 16 thus says the LORD concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who dwell in this city, your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: 17 ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, 19 because they did not pay attention to my words, declares the LORD, that I persistently sent to you by my servants the prophets, but you would not listen, declares the LORD.’ 20 Hear the word of the LORD, all you exiles whom I sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon: 21 ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning Ahab the son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah the son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name: Behold, I will deliver them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall strike them down before your eyes. 22 Because of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon: “The LORD make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire,” 23 because they have done an outrageous thing in Israel, they have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and they have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them. I am the one who knows, and I am witness, declares the LORD.’ ”
II. There are five parts of Jeremiah 29:1–23.
A. 1-4 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon...It said: 4 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon...
1. So, this was a letter from Jeremiah, who was still in Judah.
a. But the letter is not only from the prophet Jeremiah, but from God Himself.
2. And who was the letter to? Who are these exiles?
a. Well, in general Israel was not very faithful to God after they came into the promised land. They followed more in the patten of the golden calf than in the pattern of the 10 commandments.
3. And after a few hundred years, God had had enough.
4. After the nation split in two: Israel in the north and Judah in the south, God brought judgment upon the north through the nation of Assyria, and then He brought judgment on the south through the nation of Babylon, who subjugated the people of the southern kingdom and took them into exile in Babylon.
5. It was an intensely traumatic experience for God’s chosen people to go through.
a. They thought it could never happen. This was God’s place and He would keep it secure. They were utterly stunned when it was conquered – in spite of the fact that God sent prophets like Jeremiah to tell them.
b. The land of Israel was of utmost importance to the Jews. Here we are 2500 years later, and they still have a lot of their identity tied up in the land. But it was much more so back then.
c. Their hopes and dreams were so wrapped up in the land. You can see this in the psalms... e.g. 87.
d. And they were absolutely devastated when Babylon conquered them and removed them from the land into exile.
e. Psalm 137 “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion...4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”
6. So, this letter was God’s word to people who had been ripped from their homes and their positions in Judah and marched to a foreign land. You can imagine if this happened to you. They were not happy. They were frustrated, humiliated, disenchanted and bitter.
a. And we can’t grasp the power and profundity of this letter if we don’t understand this.
B. 5-7 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives & have sons & daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons & daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But 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.
1. So, the first instructions were to stop moaning over what they had lost and start investing in what they had found. Stop grieving over your lost houses in Judah, and build new houses in Babylon.
2. Instead of sitting there complaining about what’s happening, get busy making the most of your new life. Plant gardens, get married, have children.
3. But here was the hardest part: “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.”
4. Wow! How humiliating! He commands them to strive to make the land of their enemies/captors prosper, and even to pray for it to flourish. And He tells them their welfare is tied to Babylon’s.
5. How could you ever do this? There’s only one way: You have to view what’s happened to you not as something the Babylonians have done to you, but as something God has done to you. You have to view it not as something done to you not by your hateful enemies but by your loving Father.
C. 8-9 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.
1. Jeremiah wasn’t the only one prophesying in the name of the Lord. There were a number of false prophets who were giving the people alternative messages, claiming they were from the Lord.
2. First, they said that Babylon would not attack. Then they said that Judah would successfully break free. Then they said that the exile would only last two years (see Jer.28:3, 11)
3. Well, the Babylonian exile lasted for 70 years, not two, as Jeremiah says in v.10 (cf. Dan.9:2).
4. But, if an enemy came and took you into captivity in a faraway land, staying there 2 years would seem much better than staying 70 years. And so, in light of the very hard things God was telling them through Jeremiah, the message of the false prophets was very appealing.
5. And so God says, “Do not let your prophets deceive you, do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them.”
D. 10-14 “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
1. The people of Judah had plans for themselves which they wanted to be fulfilled. In those plans, they believed, was their happiness and their welfare.
2. But God clearly had different plans for them. Specifically, His plan was that they stay in exile in Babylon for 70 years, which was far from their idea of a happy future.
3. And He wanted to assure them of the fact that His plans were not for their ruin but for their welfare. His plans were focused on giving them a bright future, not just a comfortable present. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
4. Jeremiah goes on to say to them that if they accept God’s good plans for them, 12 “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”
E. The last section of the letter, verses 15-23, warns those who listen to the false prophets – in piercing, scathing language – that the false prophets and those who follow them will be destroyed.
III. So, what does this story teach us about how our lives in this world?
A. It teaches us how to view our lives in this world. The Jews in exile thought their problem was locational – and political. But God knew that their problem was not with Babylon but with Him.
1. And the same is true with us.
2. Right now in our society, there is a grand debate taking place over what mankind’s greatest problem is. Is it political? Is it environmental?
a. If it’s political, our main struggle is a struggle for political freedom or equality. It’s a struggle against the powers of totalitarianism or socialism or racism or traditional morality.
b. If it’s environmental, our main struggle is for the health/survival of our planet. It’s a struggle against the irresponsible exploitation of the earth, and preserving it for future generations.
3. Now, both of these – and others – are valid issues. And we should not be unconcerned about them. But when it comes down to the core issue facing mankind, and the core issue facing each man and woman on earth, none of these are the main issue. The main issue is spiritual.
4. The Jews in exile lost sight of that. It’s easy for us to lose sight of it too.
5. Christians need to know this. We must not get sucked into the hype or the frenzy of these issues.
6. This is so important for every single one of us to know: our problem is not political, it’s not environmental, it’s not marital, it’s not financial, it’s, it’s not physical, it’s not psychological, it’s not vocational, it’s not ecclesiastical.
7. Your big issue, my big issue is spiritual. It’s our relationship with God.
8. Jesus was asked what the most important thing was, and He said it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And though He insisted on mentioning a second thing as well (love your neighbor as yourself), He did say clearly that it was second. (Matt.22:36-39)
B. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to be concerned about the world around us. Far from it! He wants us to invest in this world, though He doesn’t want us to make it our ultimate home.
1. The Jewish exiles were exhorted to invest in the place God had put them.
2. 5-7 Build houses & live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives & have sons & daughters; take wives for your sons, & give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons & daughters; multiply there, & do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, & pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
3. Imagine how hard this was on their pride! These were the people who came and conquered their country and carried them to their country in chains. Promoting the welfare of your enemies has to be one of the hardest and most humiliating assignments you can be given.
4. Likewise, if God commands the exiles to work and pray for the welfare of Babylon, I think God wants us to work and pray for the welfare of our country, no matter who the president is, and our state, no matter who the governor is, and our community, no matter who the leaders are.
5. Of course, ultimately this world is not our home, and our real citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven. But, as long as God has us here, we must invest ourselves in not only our own prosperity, not only the prosperity of our friends, but even in the prosperity of our enemies.
6. We’re not here to beat the competition. Nor to make money. We’re here to honor God and love our neighbor. We’re here to serve our community. And if our work is not about helping our neighbor, if our work is not about seeking the welfare of others, we need to get a different job.
C. The next thing we can learn from this story about living in this world that is that it is very important to listen to what God says, not to what others say falsely in His name.
1. God hates those who lie to His people. I know that’s strong language, but I don’t think it’s too strong. Listen to the strong language of Jer.29:17-23:
a. “They have done an outrageous thing in Israel, they have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them.”
b. “I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence. I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they can’t be eaten. I’ll pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence. I’ll make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them...I’ll deliver them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall strike them down before your eyes.”
c. And that’s exactly what happened, of course, when Nebuchadnezzar came and ruined the land.
2. God is slow to anger and abounding in mercy. And yet every once in a while He speaks like this.
a. And in most cases, it’s when someone is doing damage to His precious people.
3. And that’s exactly what’s going on here.
4. Why does God react so fiercely to those who deceive His people?
a. It’s because He loves His people so much.
b. You can see how much God loves His children by how He treats those who seek to do them harm, who seek to lead them away from their heavenly Father.
5. You see, part of our human nature is that we are prone to believe lies when the truth is painful.
a. That’s why we’re so vulnerable to false teachers who tell us lies we’d love to believe:
(1) God wants you rich. God wants you healthy. He won’t ask you to go out of your comfort zone.
(2) Getting married is going to make you happy. Getting divorced will make you happy.
(3) Having a different spouse would make you happy.
(4) Getting a better job is going to make you happy. Eating this food is going to make you happy.
(5) The Bible doesn’t really forbid sex out of the context of marriage.
(6) The Bible is just the product of an ancient prejudicial society.
(7) The way you feel is the way God made you; He just wants you to follow what’s in your heart.
b. Just like the serpent’s lies in the garden of Eden, lies like these destroy, they ruin, they kill. Those who swallow the lies of those who tell them what they want to hear will suffer a crushing disappointment in the end.
6. This is why it is such a big deal to God that we resist the lies and embrace His truth.
7. “They have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them” to speak.
D. 29:11 I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
1. This is a very famous Bible verse. And one that’s precious to many believers.
2. The typical reading of this verse misses two things:
a. It misses the fact that God’s plan is very different than our plan. It’s not just that God has a plan; it’s that He has an alternate plan to our plan.
b. It misses the fact that God’s plan referred to in this verse is a very hard and very humbling plan.
3. He says, “I know you think you have a good plan, but I have a better one. I know the plans you have for yourself, and I know the plans I have for you. And my plans are so much better. I love you too much to go along with your plans. My plans are far better for you, and will lead to far greater happiness in the future. Your plans might make you happy now, but in the end they will work for evil against you; they will not work for your welfare. My plans will give you a future and a hope. Instead of escaping quickly from your captors, instead of getting revenge on those who stole your freedom and enslaved your loved ones, I want you to stay here in your enemies’ land until you die, or for some of you children, you are very old. And not only this, but I want you to serve your enemies willingly, and seek their welfare. This is the path to the good life for you. This is the way to achieve real prosperity.”
4. We don’t like plans which include discomfort. But sometimes it takes a long and hard road to get where we need to go. Sometimes there is value in 70 years of exile. Sometimes cancer does wonders for us. Sometimes losing a loved one is just what we need. Sometimes being single is the best medicine for our soul. Sometimes enduring a hard marriage is the best way to learn humility. Sometimes having a child rebel is just what the Doctor ordered.
5. For these Jews, these plans God had for them, “plans for [their] welfare and not for evil, to give [them] a future and a hope” included unthinkable sorrows.
6. This letter was written in 594BC, after Babylon’s second attack on Judah – in 597BC. But there was more to come. Six years later Babylon utterly desolated Jerusalem. It was such a devastating event that an entire book of the Bible is devoted to grieving over it (Lamentations).
7. God’s good plan doesn’t always feel good. In fact, it can be excruciating.
8. But it works for our welfare. It gives us a future and a hope.
9. 70 years of exile was needed to humble Israel, and make her zealous for purity.
10. And Israel’s 70 year exile gave us the great stories and visions of Daniel and all the stories and visions and prophecies of Ezekiel.