Most of the book of Jeremiah is unfamiliar to Christians today. We know the great promise given in chapter 29 and we know about the proclamation of the New Covenant in chapter 31 but most of the rest of Jeremiah is pretty foggy for us. If we are honest, we have to admit that even the context of the two famous passages above is unknown to us. In this lesson, we will learn the context of the great promise given in chapter 29.
The Theological Context
For twenty-eight chapters, Jeremiah has been prophesying “doom-n-gloom” for the people of Israel. Jeremiah lived during the reign of five Israelite kings. The people of Judah remained deeply committed to their idolatry. They worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but he was just one of many gods they worshiped. The kings and spiritual leaders even put idols in the Temple of God (Jer 32:33-34). The people intermarried with pagan tribes and even participated in child sacrifice (Jer 32:35). God was ready to discipline his people.
The Historical Context
When we begin with the first verse of chapter 27, we find the historical context:
"In the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the LORD (Jer 27:1).
Zedekiah was installed by Nebuchadnezzar as a “puppet king” in 597 BC after the previous king was taken captive to Babylon. This same Zedekiah would later lead a rebellion that would lead to the actual fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. Therefore, the incidents described in chapters 28-29 occur between Zedekiah’s rise to power and his eventual downfall. When Jeremiah prophesied, many Jews were living in exile in Babylon and many others were still living in poverty in Jerusalem. There was a lot of tension between these two groups. The people in Jerusalem thought that they were blessed and were in God’s favor while the people in Babylon were cursed and were being punished for their sins. Both groups thought this way but both groups were wrong. God gave Jeremiah the prophetic task of explaining his plan and actions to both groups.
God Places His Yoke on Israel
God instructed Jeremiah to make himself a yoke like those used with plowing oxen. Jeremiah gave basically the same message (see Jer 27:12-13). Judah was to consider themselves under the yoke of Babylon, which in actuality was to be under the yoke of Almighty God because Babylon was merely God’s servant. This is not the message the people of Israel wanted to hear.
False Prophets Speak Lies to Receptive Ears
Amazingly, even as Jeremiah is declaring the word of the Lord, other prophets began to say just the opposite (Jer 25:8, 11-12). The false prophet Hananiah “took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke them” (Jer 28:10). He delivered a message that everyone would appreciate and all wanted to be true. He promised that Judah would be restored and that Babylon would fall within two years. Because the time was short, the false prophet encouraged the people in exile to refuse to submit or serve Nebuchadnezzar, directly opposing the word of God given through Jeremiah. God put his stamp of disapproval on Hananiah’s ministry and just two months later, the false prophet paid the ultimate price for his disobedience. He rebelled against the “yoke of wood” and God placed on him a “yoke of iron” (Jer 28:13).
God’s Desire for Those Living in Exile
Jeremiah explained that the people of Judah were to submit to God’s discipline in Babylon. How could they do this well? The prophet Jeremiah returns to answer that very question with more words from God. Finally entering into the immediate context of the oft-quoted promise of verse eleven, the prophet writes a letter from Jerusalem to the “surviving elders of the exiles” in Babylon (the very fact that these elders are described as the “surviving” elders gives us a clue to the difficulties they were facing). This letter was to be read to the priests, prophets, and all the people Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from Judah (see Jer 29:1-2)
First, in the opening line of this prophecy, God declares that he is the one who “sent [the exiles] from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:4). Nebuchadnezzar was the tool that God used to do this but God was the originator and instigator of this act. This is the foundation for all he is about to say. To rebel against Nebuchadnezzar and their Babylonian captors was to rebel against God.
Second, the false prophet declared the exile would only last two years. The true prophet declares that God desires his people to build homes and plant their own gardens in Babylon. They are to marry and have children in their exile. Most astonishingly, they were to be at peace with their captors and work diligently for the betterment of that city and nation that took them from their homes and destroyed their country.
Why should they do that? According to Jeremiah, the stay in exile will not last two years but much, much longer than that. The prophet delivers the “bad news” next, intermingled with the “good news” in the verse we love to quote so much:
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. 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. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear 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 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” (Jer 29:10-14).
God knows that two years in exile would do nothing of permanence in the hearts of his people. Wise parents also know this. A five-minute “timeout” is often fruitless while a more “oppressive” punishment usually brings about the desired results. In seventy years, God had time to work within the hearts of his people and bring them to full repentance and submission. When they finally began to honestly call on him “with all [their] heart,” they would find him ready to receive them and carry them back home. The time declared for this punishment was not two years but seventy years. This was not the message the exiles wanted to hear. Against the backdrop of false promises and a quick recovery, God reveals that his wonderful plan for his beloved children is that almost every single one of them would die in Babylon. For most of them, their children would die in Babylon and only their grandchildren would live long enough to see the good news of God’s eventually restoration of their nation.
We often read Jeremiah 29:11 as if it is nothing but good news for us. However, to the people to whom it was originally written, these same words were surely a bitter disappointment. Seventy years? They had already suffered horribly – losing their land, their homes, their jobs, their families, their friends, their throne, their Temple. They had been forced to march almost 800 miles to be paraded through a foreign city filled with pagans. Now they are being told to make this hated place their home. They are told to pray for this nation that did this to them and to be a blessing to its king and citizens. It is in the midst of this great despair that God tells his people of his great promise, saying, “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.”
Imagine yourself in their shoes in our current era. Imagine being uprooted from North Carolina and taken prisoner by a foreign invader to a land hundreds of miles away. Now, imagine hearing that something good is going to happen but not until the year 2082. If this situation were to occur in my life, I can do some quick math and realize that while I am a relatively young man right now, I will be 116 years old if I live to see this prophecy fulfilled. Beyond that, my 18-year old daughter will be 88 and my youngest son will be 81 years old. For that matter, my first grandchild will probably be in his or her early 60s. The promise seems so far away that I can find little good news in it at the moment.
How often do we read Jeremiah 29:11 as if those words were uttered by Hananiah? We are too easily led to believe that every problem we have and every difficulty we encounter will be quickly resolved and all will work out to our great benefit and material advancement. We hear the great promise God gave to his exiled children and hear in it the promises we want to receive. In this way, we often treat God like a great cosmic vending machine. A new raise? Just hit B-8 and watch the blessings fall. Need help with a bad marriage? Just press E-2 and watch God rearrange up all the pieces so we will be happy and content. This is not how we are to interpret and apply this beautiful promise. How then? We will deal with that next time.