When Jeremiah was called to his ministry of prophet, it is estimated he was around 20 years old. He faithfully performed his duties for at least 50 years and it is hard to imagine a prophet who had a worse time of it.
Jeremiah had to watch his beloved nation be sacked by the Babylonians and was given the dreadful task of telling his people that the great calamity befalling them was actually God’s will.
Needless to say, they did not appreciate it. It seems there was always a false prophet close by to shout Jeremiah down and at one point he was kidnapped and forced to travel with a band of escapees to Egypt.
How ironic: the people flee back to Egypt when trouble comes; the place from which God had rescued them. If that isn’t a tell-tale sign of where their hearts are!
The change in circumstances was profound. One day every part of life was governed by God’s law; the next, they are under the control of a secular State with its own peculiar laws and customs. What’s more, God ordered them to obey these State laws.
Following the fall of Israel, Jeremiah took the bold step of writing to the leaders of Israel who were, by now, in captivity. That letter is recorded for us in chapter 29 of the book of Jeremiah. And it makes very interesting reading.
Not only does God himself take ownership of the exile (see verse 4), but the instructions given to the people reveal how God expects them to live for the 70 years it will last. What is often missed in this passage is the application for today’s believer.
Babylonian exile – a type of Christian life
In my opinion, the captivity of Israel in Babylon (and Persia following it) is the clearest example we have of an Old Testament parallel to the Christian life. There are two things which make it so:
Firstly, Israel continues to live as God’s distinct people. That is to say, they have not become just another bunch of people, but still clearly have the job of bringing forth the messiah from within their gene pool.
Likewise, Christians are distinct from the world in a special way: they are the worshipping people of God. That cannot be said of anyone else, unless you believe there is salvation outside the gospel of Jesus Christ. 1
But secondly, Israel was forced to submit to the law of the State (in this case Babylon) for the first time since they were in Egypt. In Egypt, however, the nation of Israel had not been formed and the Mosaic Law had not been given.
In Babylon, we have the first case of the people of God having to submit to both God’s law and the laws of the State and that makes it highly applicable today.
Admittedly, we don’t observe the Mosaic Law today, but that’s only because it has since done its job and led us to Christ (see Galatians 3) 2, but we do obey the law of Christ.
That’s another way of saying that Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament law and so we now relate to God by being in Christ. He is considered to have obeyed the Law for us.
Christians as exiles
What makes the final connection between the exiles in Babylon and Christians today is the revelation that the New Testament believer is also an exile in this world.
Peter addresses his first letter 'To those who are elect exiles'. He goes on to use the term twice more:
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile (1 Peter 1:17).
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)
So now that we have determined there is a parallel experience between Israel in Babylon and Christians today, we are in a position to fully understand Jeremiah’s point (which, of course, is really God’s word to us) about the place of material possessions in our lives.
“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. (Jeremiah 29:4-10)
Notice, in particular, verses 5-7: the people of God are to go about their usual business of raising their families, building houses, planting & harvesting their crops and generally growing old gracefully. They are even to pray to God for the welfare of their new country.
Why? Because under the terms of the covenant God made with Noah, the State executes justice on his behalf, albeit in a feeble & often faulty way. That means God had decided that the physical well being of Israel depended on the ability of Babylon to protects its citizens. The Jews were not just captured by Nebuchadnezzar; they were now integrated into Babylonian society and even protected by Babylonian law.
This command of God to fully integrate into the cultural life of the country while remaining distinct as his worshipping (ie covenant) people becomes the model for Christian existence from that day until this.
Jesus did nothing to overturn or undermine this. When asked about paying taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22), Jesus was quite comfortable with the idea of submitting to the laws of the State provided they did not impinge on his obligation to God. Jesus obviously did not think the two were incompatible provided the State kept within its God given boundaries.
The fact that States regularly do not keep within their God given boundaries is the reason Christians are so often persecuted. Evil empires come and go; there are times of blessing and times of persecution. It’s all part of this age.
70 years and then it’s over
What exiles, such as Daniel, understood was there was a definite time frame for the exile: it was to last just 70 years and then the people would return to the promised land. Even though life would never really be as it was before, the people would nevertheless be allowed to return.
But what is contained in Jeremiah’s letter is the underlying concept of owning property during your time of exile and yet having such a loose grip on it that you could happily walk away from it at the end of the 70 years.
By the end, the Jews would own land, have their own houses, be harvesting the grapes of their own vineyards and living amongst the fruits of their labour. But then they would have to walk away. I wonder how well we would do at that? Little wonder so many decided to stay on in Babylon (or Persia) forever.
How tight is your grip on material possessions?
Without milking the analogy too much, I think it’s fair to say that we may be given around 70 years in exile as well. Sure, you may get a few years more or less, but 70-80 is about the average these days. In that time, you will be called upon to work, raise your family, pay your bills, build a house and do many other things in life.
But will you be able to leave it all behind? You’re going to have to leave it all behind whether you like it or not, but in your attitude, can you do that already? That’s a good test for every believer.
Jesus did not mince words when it came to this:
And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
I thank God for calling a man like Jeremiah. It would not have been easy, but who the Lord calls he enables, right?
Today, the Church is under assault from those who take their Bibles into the pulpit and twist them until you would think material possessions are the centrepiece of God’s will for us. How sad.
Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet for his mourning over the state of his beloved people. What he is less known for is his clear understanding of how light a grip God’s people must have on their possessions during their time of exile.
If he were alive today, I suspect Jeremiah may still be weeping.
1. Without creating too much of a side issue, I am aware that many Christians like to distinguish between the individual believer and the Church. Of course the visible Church does not look the same as the true Church because we know there are false Christians among us. But for the purposes of this article, I am using the term “Church” to refer to the true body of believers as God sees it.
2. For the record, the Law given at Mt Sinai was never going to make it into our lives. It was given for a specific people for their lives in a specific geographical location at a specific time and none of that applies today. Christ has come. The Law had done its job.