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.
“Culture War” is a term coming from the German Kulturkampf which was first used to describe the bitter struggle of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck against the Roman Catholic Church as he attempted to bring Catholicism under state control. Today, 150 years later, stories of “Culture War” fill news headlines and conversation. Our nation often seems a house divided.
It feels that our culture is in decline and, apart from some turn back from its pell-mell race towards the cliff, that destruction awaits us. So we wonder, we debate, and agonize how to respond to our culture’s devaluation of human life, the increasing lawlessness, addictions, abuse, poverty, and dissolution of the family. It seems we awakened to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or George Orwell’s 1984! Strangely the culture’s god of tolerance shows little tolerance for those who speak for absolutes and name the name of Jesus.
And yet in the midst of the Culture War I feel a calmness and confidence in reading today’s text from the prophet Jeremiah. I see here in his words a course of action and attitude for Christians to take in the Culture War.
Jeremiah is writing to the Children of Israel at a time they might think is the end of the world. They have been taken off as captives to Babylon where they are confronted with the Mother of all Culture Wars! They are strangers and aliens in a strange culture, surrounded by a pervasive paganism. Psalm 137 records their lonely, anguished cry: “How could we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4).
After a long siege their holy city of Jerusalem and its temple was reduced to rubble by the Babylonian juggernaut in 587 B. C. Survivors were put in chains and force-marched hundreds of miles to Babylon, the center of all things the people of God knew as evil. From as far back as pre-history, Babylon, or Babel, had been the symbol of all the demonic and anti-God powers (Genesis 11). It was a culture of wall-to-wall spiritual darkness.
This meant that the Children of Israel no longer lived in the land promised them by God, and the Law of Moses was no longer their constitution. Nor was their ruler a king on the throne of David but a brutal tyrant worshipped as one of the gods. The people of God have been conquered, humiliated, and were bitter and vengeful against their captors. They prayed for a quick return to their homeland.
But it is here that Jeremiah speaks a word of God to them, and, I believe, a word to us as well. Jeremiah counsels patience. Yes, false prophets are saying that the Lord will quickly intervene and rescue them from exile. Yet Jeremiah tells them to settle down, stop living out of their suitcases, and take the long view of life in Babylon. They are not to despise the place where they find themselves, but to build houses there, raise crops, get married, have children: “multiply there, and do not decrease”. Then Jeremiah adds this important word to the exiles: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile”. They are to care deeply about the wellbeing of the pagan people who surround them.
The Hebrew word for “welfare” is the word shalom, often translated as “peace”. But shalom is a word so rich that no one English word can fully convey its meaning. In addition to peacefulness, shalom encompasses justice, prosperity, and human flourishing. All that makes for full humanity.
I note here God’s compassion, yes, for even Babylon, the epicenter of evil and anti-god powers. And Jeremiah says that by seeking the shalom of Babylon the people of God will find their shalom. Even in a strange and foreign culture antithetical to God they can flourish and be the salt of the earth. I think immediately of such people as Daniel and Esther!
Jeremiah warns against an anti-Babylonian policy but tells God’s people to open their lives and learn how to live in the new reality that is Babylon. And they are to “pray to the LORD on its behalf”. But they are not to forget their destiny as God’s people, or forget the destiny of Babylon. Just as the Babylon of their day will pass away, so will our Babylon.
It is significant to remember that the New Testament uses the term “Babylon” as a code word the represent the alien and hostile culture in which the church finds itself (I Peter 5:13; Revelation 18). Thus, the Apostle Peter urges Christians to live as “aliens and exiles” resisting the temptation to strike out. Rather they are to “conduct yourselves honorably, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (I Peter 2:11-12).
One day the rightful King will return and we will rejoice: “Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great” (Revelation 18:2). But until then, we have our marching orders! We must the long view and live as salt and light in a decaying culture of death. We dedicate ourselves to working for the shalom of Babylon, and pray for it’s people.
Ponder Jeremiah’s words to embolden God’s people, and pray:
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. (Jeremiah 29:11)
There is a future for those who are in exile! They are part of something far bigger than themselves that will reach beyond their lifetime. They are part of a grand adventure that is God’s plan to redeem the world.
Let us, like the ancient people of God, be going about our daily business, be working for shalom, and praying for the peace of the people. Let us be Jeremiah people!
Grace and peace,
photo by marsmet543