Imagine you are living in a foreign land, far away from anything you once found familiar. The language is different. The food is different. The religion is different. The clothes are different. As you struggle to find your place in this strange land, there is something else that makes it even harder: You didn’t move there of your own free will. You were forcibly removed from your homeland. You are in exile — an alien in another country.
This is where we find the nation of Israel in Jeremiah 29. The prophet Jeremiah has just sent a letter to the leaders of God’s people as they live in exile in Babylon. But what he writes to them is not something you would expect in a letter to a weary and broken people. Instead of telling them to pine for their homeland, work toward ending their exile, or even to fight back against their oppressors, God says something surprising:
This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7, CSB)
Through Jeremiah, God tells the people to seek the good of the city as exiles. It’s a strange exhortation given they are to be a set-apart people. In Joshua 23:7, God told the people to distance themselves from the nations surrounding them. This is after they spent the entire book of Joshua putting many of those inhabitants of the nations to death. Even before the conquest, God told His people not to be like the nations around them (Deut. 12).
But here, in a foreign land, God tells Israel to live among the Babylonians, but not become them. He tells them to settle in, but not get comfortable. To seek prosperity, but that prosperity has a purpose.
These verses seem out of place, even contrary to God’s heart for His people, especially after they were exiled for becoming like the nations around them. They had become lazy and compromising, and as a result they fell away from worshiping God alone. But embedded in this letter to the exiles in Babylon, we see the very heart of God — a heart that has not changed, and a heart that existed from the very beginning of time.
A confusion of terms
These days, there is a lot of talk about justice — and a lot of misunderstanding about justice. In some circles, we hear someone say “social justice” and we immediately assume they care more about political causes than they do fidelity to the gospel. In other circles, we see a lack of participation in specific programs for the underserved as callousness and a failure to obey Scripture.
For those of us who (hopefully) do not find ourselves at either extreme, we are left confused, often with more questions than answers. What constitutes biblical justice? How should Christians live as exiles in this world? This is practically worked out differently for individual Christians, but before we talk about the practical, we need to first understand the theological underpinnings that compel us to care for the neighbors around us.
God of justice
Much like the Israelites in Jeremiah’s day, we are strangers in a foreign land. We are living in a world that is not our home. We are exiles. Every day we are confronted with the reality of our “otherness” in this world, while also being confronted with the need for this world to be made new.
When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them a garden to cultivate and a world to fill (Gen. 1:28, 2:15). His command to them was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. Everything in this world is the Lord’s (Ps. 24:1), so He desires the flourishing of every human being and the expansion of His creation. His heart from the beginning has always been the good of His creation — all of it.
But sin entered the world, and it made this command harder to implement. Instead of loving God’s world, we use and abuse His world. So He created a new people for himself, the Israelites, and gave them a Law — His Law that speaks to His very heart. We often think of the Law as being only the Ten Commandments, but it is so much more than that. The Old Testament Law was given to show God’s people what He was like and what He expected of them as they inhabited a new land — a land they were called to cultivate and fill with His goodness.
Embedded in this Law is a call to love the stranger and the sojourner (Deut. 10:19). Embedded in this Law is a call to justice toward outsiders (Ex. 21-23). Why? Because He is a just God who executes justice for all who are oppressed (Ps. 103:6). Even as He called His people to live set-apart lives, He also called them to live incarnational lives. In their daily living, as they obeyed His law, they told all who they came in contact with what God is like.
When God’s people rebelled against Him again and He sent them into exile, His heart did not change. His desire for His people did not change. They were to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth with more image bearers who would love like God loves and live according to His standards for holiness and justice. God desires to be known, not only by those who know His name, but by all who are created by Him and have yet to bow the knee to Him.
This call to live incarnational lives continues all the way into the New Testament.
Jesus is the model of justice, not only at the cross, but also in how He treated those who were marginalized in society (Samaritans, women, children, the sick and the poor). When He made a new people for himself, the Church, they continued on in this mission. They told the world what God is like both in their speech and in their actions (Acts 4:32-35, Gal. 2:10, Heb. 10:34).
This love for God spilling over into love for people is all throughout church history. It is often said that during the 14th-century plagues in Europe, everyone else fled to avoid disease while the Christians stayed, knowing they would surely get sick and even die. God’s people have always been a set-apart people, but not out-of-the-world people. If the earth is the Lord’s, then we should all be working toward the good of the world in every area of our lives as we live here as exiled — even if it costs us our lives.
A call to action
Let’s go back to Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles again and see how it can help us today. Like the exiles then, we are exiles now. Our work and everything we do in our communities should seek the welfare of our city and its inhabitants. Our work is for the good of the world. Christians are ones who don’t fall back in retreat in the face of oppression and exile; instead we move forward in love, desiring God’s glory to spread throughout the entire world.
Jeremiah told the Israelites to do several things:
- Build houses and live in them. Essentially, make yourself at home.
- Plant gardens and eat their produce. Cultivate the land that you inhabit for your good and flourishing.
- Find spouses and multiply there. Again, make yourself at home.
- Seek the good of the city
So how does this help us? The commands given by Jeremiah are relatively simple and also broadly applied. As exiles in a land that is not our home and that can be hostile to us at times, we can obey these same commands wherever we are located.
We can “bloom where we are planted,” as the saying goes. We can be good neighbors (“build houses and live in them”). We can keep our yards clean and make sure we aren’t too loud at quiet hours. We can invite neighbors into our homes and serve where we are needed.
We can get married and start a family. We can honor marriage, even if we are single. We can be “fruitful and multiply” by making disciples of all nations (Matt. 28). We can be faithful in our jobs, seeing our work as God’s means of creating order and flourishing in the world. We can volunteer in schools and serve in food pantries. We can get to know local officials. We can even watch the news. And we can always pray.
Just like the nation of Israel, we are exiles in this foreign land, waiting for our city that is to come. We are not to get comfortable or give in to compromise — but to dig in and contribute so the world will see that there is a God in heaven who has created all things, is holding all things together, and has a glorious homecoming planned for those who trust in Him.
Copyright 2020 Courtney Reissig. All rights reserved.