Jeremiah 29: A Letter to the Exiles and the Recurring False Prophets

Letter to the Exiles

Psalm137-794316

Jeremiah 29
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 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 what they 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.
8 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, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.
10 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. 11 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. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 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.
15 Because you have said, “The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,”– 16 Thus says the LORD concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who live in this city, your kinsfolk who did not go out with you into exile: 17 Thus says the LORD of hosts, I am going to let loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like rotten figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be an object of cursing, and horror, and hissing, and a derision among all the nations where I have driven them, 19 because they did not heed my words, says the LORD, when I persistently sent to you my servants the prophets, but they would not listen, says the LORD. 20 But now, all you exiles whom I sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon, hear the word of the LORD:

The beginning of this chapter spends a long time situating when this letter is sent by royal courier to the people (predominantly the elites of Judean society) already in exile in Babylon after the first deportation in 597 BCE and the second invasion and massive deportation in 586 BCE. Here in the beginning of chapter 29 we can see some glimmers of hope for those already in Babylon. The Jewish people in Babylon now are charged with constructing their identity in the midst of exile, of getting on with their lives: planting gardens, building homes, getting married and having children for this will not be a short exile. They are to learn how to be the people of God as a minority culture in a very different culture. In their time they are to learn to embrace the exile as the place where God has placed them, that this is indeed from God and to oppose the exile is to oppose God. Also there is a hope in the long term for a restoration to their homeland, but the time is not near and certainly not now. For those already in exile Jeremiah writes a letter intending to bring comfort.
The Babylonian exile is a very productive time for the exiles, most scholars agree that this is when much of the Hebrew Bible reaches its final form. There are still books written after the exile, but being a conquered people in a foreign land caused the people to bring the traditions together to pass on their identity to their children and their children’s children. They became for the first time people of the book, rather than people of the land or oriented around the temple or the city of the Davidic dynasty. In particular these elites who are taken away in the first exile are the bearers of the hope for the future and, despite appearance to the contrary, are objects of God’s affection. Even in exile they are still the chosen people and they have a calling in the exile.
Even in exile they are to be a blessing to the nation they are exiled to. They have to learn how to be faithful to their identity as people of God, and that involves also seeking the well-being (shalom) of the city they are sent to. In contrast to the message they may be hearing from their own kin still in Jerusalem and Judah, they are bearers of God’s blessing. Those still in Judah and Jerusalem still have very dark days ahead, there is still more judgment before they can receive the consolation in the exile, but for those already in the exile they can begin the process of settling into their identity in the midst of the empire. Moving on with their lives in a new place, finding their new identity and holding fast to the covenant and promise that God intends for them.

More False Prophets

21 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name: I am going to deliver them into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall kill them before your eyes. 22 And on account of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon: “The LORD make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire,” 23 because they have perpetrated outrage in Israel and have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them; I am the one who knows and bears witness, says the LORD.
24 To Shemaiah of Nehelam you shall say: 25 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: In your own name you sent a letter to all the people who are in Jerusalem, and to the priest Zephaniah son of Maaseiah, and to all the priests, saying, 26 The LORD himself has made you priest instead of the priest Jehoiada, so that there may be officers in the house of the LORD to control any madman who plays the prophet, to put him in the stocks and the collar. 27 So now why have you not rebuked Jeremiah of Anathoth who plays the prophet for you? 28 For he has actually sent to us in Babylon, saying, “It will be a long time; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat what they produce.”
29 The priest Zephaniah read this letter in the hearing of the prophet Jeremiah. 30 Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: 31 Send to all the exiles, saying, Thus says the LORD concerning Shemaiah of Nehelam: Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, though I did not send him, and has led you to trust in a lie, 32 therefore thus says the LORD: I am going to punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants; he shall not have anyone living among this people to see the good that I am going to do to my people, says the LORD, for he has spoken rebellion against the LORD.

Even in the midst of this time between the exile we continue to see false prophets who will continue to encourage a false version of hope. Ahab, Zedekiah, and Shemaiah are the latest examples mentioned. Ahab and Zedekiah are mentioned at the end of the letter that begins the chapter while Shemaiah is mentioned in a second letter included in the chapter. The accusations against Zedekiah and Ahab also include personal accusations of morality as well (committing adultery with their neighbors’ wives) and while we will never know about what actually happened to these false prophets spoken of only here their punishment is one of particular horror (being roasted on the fire). Shemaiah once again tries to get Jeremiah punished for speaking words that would have been considered treasonous by many of his contemporaries. Jeremiah we see again at least has some who listen to him or respect him. Zephaniah reads to Jeremiah the letter and Jeremiah is captured again by the word of the Lord and utters condemnation against Shemaiah. These false messengers continue to confuse the people and allow them to hear the words that are more palatable and trust in them even when they are not true. In our own context there are many times I could point to where pundits or politicians or even religious leaders have obscured or overstated ideas that fit their view of the way things were or told people what they wanted to hear. But for those who claim the role of prophets their words are to come from God even when the message God has is one nobody seems to want to hear.

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