Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and 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, says the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
God called Jeremiah, a prophet from the kingdom of Judah, to prophesy to the people of Israel before and during the captivity of Jerusalem. Jeremiah 36 explains the book’s composition as an anthology of poems, prophesies, and stories about Jeremiah’s life, written by a scribe named Baruch. The book of Jeremiah is the story of a crisis so great it informs much of the Old Testament- the destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile of the people by the Babylonian empire. In searing polemics and prophecies, Jeremiah repeatedly warned the people of Judah that because they had broken their covenantal vows with Yahweh, judgment was coming.
You see, Israel had witnessed the fall of their enemy empire, Assyria, and the rise of the new superpower, Babylon. The kings of Judah tried to gain security from their larger, more powerful neighbors by vacillating between Babylonian and Egyptian alliances, but these games of geopolitical roulette would eventually become their downfall. Babylon got tired of Judah’s independence, and in 587, the final decisive blow came to Jerusalem with the destruction of the temple and the beginning of the deportations.
The Ancient Israelites must have remembered the year 587 BC the way Americans remember 1776 or Palestinians remember 1948. It’s a year seared on their collective memory of when what it meant to be God’s chosen people was turned upside down. The core identity of the Israelite people was their connection to the land God had given them. This was the Promised Land that God had given to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was the temple built by King David where God literally dwelled on Earth with God’s people. Without the temple, without their land, God’s chosen people were now a people in exile.
To be an exile means to be away from your native country either by choice or by compulsion. We often imagine exiles like the Trail of Tears, where the Cherokee people were literally forced from their sacred lands to the barren lands of Oklahoma. It’s true that the Israelites were taken away from their land in a similar way, but that was not their only reason for leaving. Their city was destroyed and almost uninhabitable. This was not a place they could safely raise their children, provide for their families, and make a life. They left because they had no other choice. They were to be in exile for 70 years. Even the children who made the journey, who had no choice about where their parents were taking them, would probably never get to see their homeland again.
It is out of this crisis that Jeremiah writes his letter from the ravaged city of Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon. His message was not what they must have been expecting. God tells the exiles to build houses and live in them, to plant gardens and eat what they produce. God’s concern for houses and vineyards is found all throughout scripture, particularly in the blessings and curses to the nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses tells the people that God has brought them to cities and houses that they did not build and vineyards that they did not plant. Joshua also tells them of this and it serves as a reminder that their blessing meant someone else’s displacement. However, over a dozen times, the prophets warn the people that someday they will build houses, but not get to live in them. They will plant vineyards but not harvest the fruits. These were threats of wartime violence and displacement. In 587, these threats came true for the people of Israel as they were forced to leave their ancestral homes, gardens, and vineyards. Far from their holy lands, how could God tell them make this foreign land their home?
This command is theologically shocking and yet so practically unremarkable. It is not a command about how they are to worship, but how they are to live. Don’t miss this- God cares deeply about our physical lives—where we lay our heads at night and what we eat. Our physical needs are not secondary to our spiritual needs. We are not souls who happen to have bodies. God created humans with bodies that need sleep, that need water, that need food. Jeremiah 29 reminds us that these are not accidents nor anything less than theology itself.
I think God starts with houses and gardens because if our most basic needs for food and shelter are not met, we can do nothing else. 20thcentury psychologist Abraham Maslow called it a “hierarchy of needs.” At the very bottom are psychological needs—air, water, food, shelter, sleep, and clothing. He theorized that only when those needs are met, are people able to attend to needs for safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. People in crisis must attend to their most basic needs for survival, as the Israelite exiles must have done. Homes and gardens are vessels for theology. It is from there that God invites the Israelites to start families and have children. Food and safety come first, love and community come second.
God continues, not just to command their own welfare, but to seek the welfare of the city. The Hebrew word for welfare is one you probably know well. It’s shalom. Shalom is often used today to mean peace, but it is also meant to evoke a deeper sense of completeness, safety, and prosperity. Ironically, shalom is mentioned throughout the book of Jeremiah as a reason for Israel’s judgment. Jeremiah was not the only prophet in his time, and there were many prophets who made their living by claiming to speak for God, when in fact, they said what people wanted to hear. As Jeremiah says in chapter 7, they treated the wounds of the people carelessly, saying ‘shalom, shalom” when there was no shalom. In an ironic twist, God tells the people that God’s promised peace will come, but on enemy territory! No one saw it coming.
So, what does it mean to seek the welfare of this city? We may not be the ones who are exiles in hostile territory, but we are the people of God. 2,500 years may have passed, but we still have the same needs as our ancestors—food and shelter. If God cares about where the ancient Israelites dwelled, I think it’s safe to say that God also cares about where people live today.
God cares for the modern-day exiles who have left countries besieged by organized crime and drug cartels not because they want to go to a country that does not want them and does not speak their language. They leave their home because it is their only option. It is impossible to read any scripture this week without thinking about the families at our southern border being split apart by cruel and inhumane policies. Instead of homes and gardens, they get put in “tender age shelters” or family detention centers. As our country literally puts children in jails, I wonder if this is what the Israelites felt like in exile—abandoned and hopeless?
There are also exiles in this city, not just from places like Honduras and Syria, but from within our own country. They are the ones who have left abusive relationships, dangerous neighborhoods, and small towns with no opportunities. They have left their homes and come in search of something new. They come with their hopes, their fears, and their baggage. They may or may not be “the kind of people” you want as a neighbor. They work 2 or 3 minimum wage jobs to make ends meet but are always one paycheck away from losing it all. They have student loan debt from college degrees whose worth never translated into higher wages. They serve their children Burger King because their paycheck goes much further there than at City Market. Whether they are 5thgeneration Vermonters or showed up last Saturday, as they look at the classified ads of rental apartments they cannot afford, they must feel like exiles in this city that does not want them. According to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, America is 7.7 million units of low-income housing behind where it needs to be. To be able to afford a 2-bedroom apartment in Vermont, you need to make at least $22 per hour, almost $10 more than the state average.
So I ask you again, what does it mean to seek the welfare of Burlington? Does it mean food pantries and overnight homeless shelters? Perhaps. But perhaps it also means to build homes and plant gardens- to seek long-term solutions to long-term problems. As God commands the Israelites to seek the welfare of their new city, so God commands us to seek the welfare of ours. God commands us to seek the welfare of this city, whether we consider it enemy territory or the land of our ancestors. We are called to pray for the peace, the wholeness, the welfare of our city. Our prayers are just as theological as building housing for those who cannot afford it. Our worship can take the form of corporate singing or building a garden to feed those without access to proper nutrition.
Let’s not miss God’s promise in verse 7- “in the city’s welfare, you will find yours.” All you who long for peace in these days full of heart-wrenching, stressful, terrible news, God is offering peace. It is not a peace you can find on your own, but you can find it together. When you pray and work for the peace of your community, you will find the peace you have been searching for.
God’s famous promise in verse 11 is not for individual success and easy living, but for the community. If I were back in the South, this is where we might translate you as y’all. As these words were true for the people of Israel, I pray that they are true for this community. Hear the word of God to you today, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for shalom and not for harm, plans to give you hope and a future.”