Exile can’t be easy. Different landscapes, different languages and accents, different customs and food, and foreign sights and sounds can add to a sense of displacement and anxiety. Add to that the fact that the people of Judah were forcibly removed from their homeland and family and taken to the homeland of a brutal dictator, and you have a recipe for cultural and personal destruction.
Here in chapter 29 Jeremiah sends a letter to the exiles to give them God’s word for the near future. His address adds to the sense of devastation when he says, “to the surviving elders of the exile.” (vs. 1) The fundamental message of the letter is straightforward if not surprising to the community in exile. Keep in mind the message of the false prophets Jeremiah has been countering for years. Recently, in chapter 28, we heard Hananiah promise a short and relatively pain-free exile. Jeremiah predicted 70 years.
The message of the letter is that the exiles should settle in and sink roots in the area and the culture. They should build houses, plant gardens, eat their harvest, and marry off their children; they should live as God’s people in a foreign land. At the end of the chapter, Shemaiah writes back to the priest in charge of the Temple in Jerusalem and tells him he should do something about this troublemaker, Jeremiah. Shemaiah is bothered by the long exile message, and intends to get rid of the messenger.
But Jeremiah’s message is clear-God will be with His people while they are in exile, not by taking them out of exile. His plan for them is that they live as His people in a foreign and pagan culture.
Into this context comes possibly the best-known verse in Jeremiah.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (vs. 11)
Many people have memorized this verse for personal edification and comfort, and it is true that God does pay this kind of personal attention to us. But two things should be understood about what Jeremiah means with this verse. First, the application is primarily corporate. God’s promise for a future and a hope is for the whole nation 70 years from now. This means that there are exiles hearing this promise that will not live to see the day it comes to pass. But that does not leave them out of God’s pledge. If they build a godly culture in Babylon, then there will be a faithful and strong remnant that will return to rebuild the Judean culture and religion after they are gone.
Secondly, it is a promise to people who are in exile and who will be in exile for a while. It is not a promise of immediate removal from exile, but of God’s faithful presence with believers who turn their entire attention and being upon Him in the midst of it all. He tells them:
…you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you…(vss. 12-14)
God is with me even now. It matters not how deep my sorrow or confusion, and it matters not how vexing my situation. All I need to do is turn myself to Him and seek after Him with all my will, intellect, emotions, and desires-everything. Then, He will be found by me.