“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.
“Seek the welfare of the city.” As I write this on Monday afternoon, a day prior to the 2020 general election, I can’t think of a more fitting passage to guide our thoughts as the events of the next few days, weeks and years play out.
The seekers spoken of here are the Israelites living in the time of the captivity and the city is Babylon: the historically figurative seat of opposition to God and his people (think “tower of Babel” and “Babylon the great” of Revelation). The command comes after a horrific invasion, starvation-inducing siege, and the forced relocation of much of the population of Judah at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord’s servant. (Yes, that’s right, the Lord’s servant. Daniel chapter 1 makes it abundantly clear that the Lord gave Israel into the hand of the Babylonians. Three chapters later, Nebuchadnezzar himself comes to acknowledge that he is merely a servant of the Most High who does according to His will in all the host of heaven.)
The letter bearing this command comes in response to a dramatic showdown between an ear-tickling false prophet named Hananiah and Jeremiah himself. Chapter 28 describes the picturesque event during which Hananiah proclaimed that this trouble would all be a distant memory within two years, breaking a symbolic wooden yoke which Jeremiah had been carrying around as an object lesson. God’s point through his true prophet: “Yield to my discipline! Stop fighting back, stop calling up the Egyptians to come bail you out, and stop ignoring Me!” By seeking the welfare of the city in which they found themselves, the Israelites were acknowledging God's right to place them wherever he so desired.
In the mercy of God, the curse is quickly mingled with a blessing. The promise of verse 10 is that this discipline will be for a limited time -seventy years- after which they would be able to return to Israel. In Ezra and Nehemiah, we have the record of the Lord’s faithfulness to work this out precisely in accordance with the prescribed timeline. Beyond that historic return, there is also the hint of an even fuller future hope. God’s faithfulness in the time of the exile continues to serve as a proof to us about his faithfulness to be found by those of us who seek him with all of our hearts.
At this point I want to thank you for bearing with me as we considered the historic context for this passage because it’s only by doing so that we can have any confidence in our application of it to ourselves. Having done so, what can we learn about God’s nature and plan from such a passage that we might apply to our own troubling situation?
1. God can and does use national circumstances to punish a people. God does give people over to their passions and desires (Romans 1:26-28), and when this happens, the righteous can be “caught in the crossfire.” This does not mean that he is displeased with his own people directly. After all, we are “in Christ” and there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Beyond that, far from being “collateral damage” in a greater scheme, God ensures that for his people, every circumstance serves a greater purpose to make us more like Jesus as our character is refined as gold would be in a fire.
2. Whatever happens on a national level is ultimately in the hands of God. This truth alone is the one we must preach to ourselves regardless of who wins Florida, or Georgia…. or North Carolina…. or Pennsylvania! But as we see from the Lord’s command to seek the welfare of the city and pray for it, that truth is not a kind of fatalistic, throw-your-hands-in-the-air-and-give-up kind of determination; God really does respond to prayer. Whatever we do to make our land a better place, our ultimate confidence is not in our efforts, but in God.
3. Therefore, wherever we find ourselves, we are to be salt and light. Our homes, our marriages, our work, etc. is an opportunity to demonstrate our trust in God. Our work in the community, for the community, our votes and our voices must continue to advance the truth of the gospel and principles of love and righteousness no matter what the electoral outcome of this election or any other. In doing so, we trust that our reward will come, not primarily in this kingdom, but in the one to come. Our labor is not in vain in the Lord. So let’s pray for the welfare of the city.