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"Grow Where God Plants You"? A Proper Understanding of Jeremiah 29

God's promises are not limited by our lifespans.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 29:4-14

This week's passage focuses on the famous (but oft-misquoted) promise from God to His people in exile. Many of them would spend the rest of their lives there, and God wanted them to start thinking about a much bigger picture than their immediate circumstances. He wanted them to think about future generations and neighboring societies.

Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. (29:7)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

When Life Gives You Lemons ...

If there were ever a phrase that everybody knows and is secretly tired of, it's got to be this one. (Except maybe "better to have loved and lost..."? Other suggestions?) It even has its own Wikipedia page: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade is a proverbial phrase used to encourage optimism and a positive can-do attitude in the face of adversity or misfortune. Lemons suggest sourness or difficulty in life; making lemonade is turning them into something positive or desirable." Thank you, Wikipedia. Remember this Super Bowl commercial written solely to make fun of the phrase? (It certainly couldn't have been written to promote a product.)

The internet loves to be snarky, and this is no exception.

We all know the saying. We have all used the saying. We have all heard the saying used. So, when has someone used this saying in a way that helped you? In a way that annoyed you? What was the difference between those situations?


This week's passage gives us one of the toughest commands to "make the best of a bad situation" -- the people are finding out that they are about to spend 70 years in exile. This is all the proof we need that the Bible wants us to be people of hope and anticipation for tomorrow, which means that there's biblical support for this "when life gives you lemons" saying.


But it's so much easier said than done, right? Are you more bullish or bearish on the "make lemonade" mantra, and why?


Handling the Dry Seasons of Life

If that discussion idea is a little too frou-frou, maybe just skip right to the point. What do you consider to be a "dry season of life"? Have you ever had one? (Are you in one now?)


This is primarily a Christian idea -- all of the Google results talk specifically about a "spiritually" dry season. (And that makes sense -- "dry seasons" refer to times when plants and crops can't grow to their potential because there isn't enough rain. The Bible often uses the image of rain as a symbol of the movement of the Holy Spirit.) But I think it can be used of many areas of life, i.e. any time you don't feel like you are "growing" as you should. This can be spiritually, but it can also be vocationally, relationally, or any kind of education. (The most important of those is spiritually, of course.)


When you have been in a dry season, how have you handled it? What brought you through it?


In this week's passage, we are going to be made aware of the ultimate "dry season" -- something that will last the rest of their earthly lives. They're going to have to find a new way to frame their understanding of "dry season" vs. "rainy season". I want us to try to put ourselves in their situation in the sense of how we would handle that kind of news.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Claiming a Bible Promise

Small group Bible study, at its best, does more than teach us parts of the Bible. These groups should also help us understand how to study the Bible for ourselves. And also how to apply the Bible to ourselves.


We've used the acronym "SPACE" as a Bible study tool (there are lots of variations; you might have heard something similar):

  • [S] Is there a Sin to confess/watch out for?

  • [P] Is there a Promise to claim? *

  • [A] Is there an Attitude to change?

  • [C] Is there a Command to obey?

  • [E] Is there an Example to follow?

This week's passage includes everybody's favorite promise in Jeremiah:

For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. (29:11)

I've heard this verse quoted many times, unilaterally "claimed" as a promise from God. And hey, the Bible is full of promises that God recorded for us to encourage our faith! We've studied that many times, most notably in this lesson from 2 Thessalonians:

But "claiming a promise" requires some nuance on our part. You know that God promised Sarah that she would have a child in extreme old age (90). You shouldn't need me to tell you that God made that promise to Sarah, not to every (any) other woman, so it would be inappropriate for a 90-yr-old today to claim that promise. Or would it?


We've talked about this before, but here's a sermon from Charles Stanley that I think did a much better job explaining this than I ever have. This link to the sermon recording also has a written summary of his outline with biblical references. Handy!

When Can We Claim a Promise [in the Bible]?

  1. It fits a personal need He wants to fulfill.

  2. The context of the Scripture allows it.

  3. Its fulfillment honors Him.

  4. It is consistent with His immediate will for our lives.

  5. Its fulfillment is encouraging to others.

  6. We are walking in His will.

  7. The Spirit of God confirms it.

Each of those points leads to a deep rabbit hole if you want to learn more. The Bible is filled with promises, and that list helps us contemplate each one of those promises.


For our purposes this week, the focus is on point 2 -- context. I have heard lots of people "claim" Jeremiah 29:11. I haven't heard very many of them talk about the context.


This week, as we study this passage, I'll do my best to explain how those "guidelines" suggested by Stanley work here. And my hope is that we'll all come away with a little more confidence how we can apply and "claim" even more promises in the Bible.

 

Where We Are in Jeremiah

Last week, we talked about the section in Jeremiah devoted to his adversarial encounters with the false prophets and wicked leaders of Jerusalem. The last chapter I mentioned was Jer 28, in which Jeremiah faces off with a named false prophet, Hananiah.


Here are the next things that happen:

  • God's letter to the exiles (29:1-23)

  • One official in Jerusalem was very upset with this letter (29:24-32)

  • A prophecy of future restoration (30:1-31:40)

  • A symbolic lesson of buying a field (32:1-44)

  • Another promise of restoration (33:1-26)

[We will look at chapter 31 next week!] So it seems like we're moving into a section that's directed to the Jews living in exile in Babylon. And yet, very few of the outlines of Jeremiah put a break here. I *think* the challenge is that chapter 29 deals both with the exiles and with opposition, so it's a kind of transitional chapter.


Aside on Timelines

You might be a little confused by the idea of Jeremiah writing a letter from Jerusalem to the Jewish exiles. Here's how that worked:

There were three "waves" of exile:

  1. 605 BC -- Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and carted off some of the "best and brightest" from Jerusalem to serve in Babylon (this included Daniel). This was standard practice in that day, intended to handicap the remaining people.

  2. 597 BC -- While Nebuchadnezzar was distracted by unrest elsewhere in his empire, Jerusalem thought it wise to follow Egypt's lead and stop paying tribute. Well, it wasn't wise. Nebuchadnezzar came back, killed the king, took most of the leading families (including Ezekiel), and appointed a true puppet government.

  3. 586 BC -- Because Jeremiah was apparently left in Jerusalem with no one but idiots, Jerusalem decided to revolt again. This time, Nebuchadnezzar completely destroyed Jerusalem and left a military governor.

(We'll find out about Jeremiah's depressing end when the few Jews remaining again decided to revolt a final time in 580 BC and flee to Egypt.)


Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem through all three of those waves of exile. Talk about a dystopian sci-fi novel! It's pretty rare for the protagonist to survive through that many waves of destruction. I really can't imagine what Jeremiah experienced. According to 29:2, this week's passage was written after the second exile.


Anyway, that's why Jeremiah was able to write to the exiles from Jerusalem.

 

Part 1: Thrive Where You Are Planted (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

4 This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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.”

You may have noticed by now that pretty much everything Jeremiah relays has an edge to it. It's always a bit aggressive. What's so aggressive about these verses? Well, think about it -- this is the first message from God to His people who have been captured and dislocated. "You had better settle down. You're going to be there for a while!" That's about as good news/bad news as it gets. [Note: The "I" in verse 4 is the Lord God; Hebrew poetry shifts between person much more than English poetry.] [Note also: God was responsible for the exile, though He used His chosen servant Nebuchadnezzar to accomplish it.]


But it's still a message of hope, so let's dive into that. The reference in verse 4 to Babylon is something we might take for granted. We've studied Babylon multiple times:

And we really focused on the city of Babylon in this lesson:

Babylon (in its heyday) was truly a wonder of the ancient world. It was the largest city in the world by land size and population for a very long time. It was the first "cosmopolitan" city, even if the cultural diversity was via military relocation.

I say that to say this: God gave His people as good a landing spot as was reasonable for the day. Those who resisted Nebuchadnezzar (contra Jeremiah's prophecy!) were dealt with brutally. But those who submitted to Babylonian rule (as God commanded) were given a safe and prosperous place to live. [The fact that so many Jews chose to remain in Babylon should convince us that it must have been a fine place to live.]


But it wasn't Jerusalem. It wasn't "home".


Soapbox: When people try to apply this passage, they say things like "you need to make your house your home", and they give examples like building a swimming pool or planting a tree. That's fine, but let's always remember that the Jews had been forced to move far from home at threat of violence. They were refugees. Strangers in a strange land where no one spoke their language or knew their customs. This was a move they didn't want to make. They didn't volunteer for it. To me, that's a big difference! Let's be circumspect before we complain too heavily about our circumstances. Let's remember that millions of people are at this moment refugees from violence. Russia has kidnapped Ukrainian children from their homes "for their good". People in the world today are experiencing the kinds of things that happened to the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah's day.


The closest scenarios I can think of that might happen to someone in our Bible studies are the family member whose family "breadwinner" has gotten a new job far away, the town that's evacuated due to natural disaster, and the forced job transfer. What scenarios can you think of where obeying this command from God would take a lot of faith and tears?


God quite literally tells the people to put down roots in their new home in Babylon. What He says about their crops and their families implies being there for generations. (More in this in a bit.)


The stat that apparently hasn't changed since 2007 is that the average American moves 12 times in his/her lifetime. However, according to census data, less than 20% of moves are to another state or country. And even then, I'm not sure that a long-distance move really parallels the situation. For example, we moved from metroplex Texas to small-town Georgia. That's a big change, right? Well, not really. We speak the same language (mostly) and have the same values (mostly).


Have you ever made a long-distance move that involved a culture shock? How long did it take you to "settle in"? What was the hardest part about it?


Or maybe even more to the point, have you ever made a move, gotten there, and hated it? Did you ever get over that? If so, how? How did that mindset affect your ability to view it as "home"? I've spent a lot of time with pastors and pastors-in-training, and I've heard a lot of stories where the pastor's wife strongly dislikes the new place of ministry. Let's just say that it negatively affected his ability to minister well in that location.


The language that God uses in this command (houses/gardens/children) has two easy-to-understand applications:

  1. "Plant roots" where you're going to live.

  2. Live knowing that you're going to raise your children there.

Those are some pretty easy discussion topics. Don't get too sidetracked by them! To you and your family, what does it mean to plant roots/settle down? And how does the idea of raising your children in a community affect your approach to it?


[Side note: you should care just as much about the well-being of the children in your community even if they aren't yours. But I digress.]


This is powerful, isn't it? And it's more than a bit edgy: "You're staying there. You're not coming home."


And this leads to the controversy in verse 7.

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.

"It's not enough that we're going to have to live here; now You want us to pray for the well-being of Babylon." The people who conquered them! Who carted off their relatives and brutally killed their neighbors! How could they in their right mind pray for Babylon?


On the one hand, this was part of their punishment. They were in exile in Babylon because they had sinned. The blessings that they had wanted for Jerusalem, now they had to ask them for Babylon. Rough! But let's not take this to mean that they were praying for Babylon to be let off the hook for their sin. God had already spoken to this in chapter 25:

When the seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation’—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, and I will make it a ruin forever. (Jer 25:12)

The Jews had been told that Babylon would suffer for their sin.


But I think the main thing is that this is the attitude God wanted His people to have toward all people. What did God say to Abram?

2 I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Gen 12)

The Jews had failed to be a blessing to all nations, so God was going to teach this lesson the hard way. That's why Jesus had to be clear to His disciples about going into all nations. About following the laws and paying taxes. Paul talked about being a "good citizen" wherever you lived -- which included praying for the governing authorities. And the result of that, the result of God's people being "ambassadors" and "missionaries" all over the world is that "After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." (Rev 7:9) I'm sure there are people who lived in Babylon who are now in heaven because a Jew told them about the One True God and how that God called on them to live.


And let's go further -- most (if not all) of the people living around the Jews were refugees like them. They were in this together. If there was security and prosperity in the region, it would be good for all of them and their children.


Don't we want that? Even selfishly?


How would we apply this today? Most of us [readers] live in Georgia. What does it look like for us to pursue the well-being of our community?


Before we move on, let me point out one person that I believe embodied this command from God better than anyone else: Daniel. Daniel was one of the exiles this letter was directed to. We studied his story a few years ago, and that book is a quick re-read.


Daniel was taken to Babylon against his will. He was given a new name. A new job. A new culture. And what did he do? He worked to the best of his ability as a competent administration for the Babylonian empire. But he did all of that without compromising his Jewish religion. In fact, he spread his beliefs through his integrity and his steadfastness. I wouldn't be surprised if Daniel's life and witness was part of how God inspired King Cyrus to support the Jewish return to Jerusalem.


But it sure wasn't easy. It almost got him killed (more than once). But he did it, and he's one of the heroes of the faith for all of history as a result.

 

Part 2: There Is No Quick Resolution (Jeremiah 29:8-9)

8 For this is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: “Don’t let your prophets who are among you and your diviners deceive you, and don’t listen to the dreams you elicit from them, 9 for they are prophesying falsely to you in my name. I have not sent them.” This is the Lord’s declaration.

(It seems like the Lifeway lesson subtitles are somehow getting worse. I don't even attempt to use them anymore.)


These verses would be very jarring if you skipped chapter 28. There, Jeremiah recorded the false prophecy of a man named Hananiah:

2 “This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: ‘I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3 Within two years I will restore to this place all the articles of the Lord’s temple that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took from here and transported to Babylon. 4 And I will restore to this place Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon’—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’” (Jer 28)

Hoo boy.

Through his words, this false prophet would have made God out to be a liar and unworthy of faith when in fact Babylon was not overthrown in two years.


But let's camp out on the nature of the falsehood. False prophets were saying that this exile was going to be very short-term -- two years. God already said in 25:11 that this exile was going to be 70 years. Think about that.


What changes in your mindset if you think you are going to be somewhere for a short time vs. the rest of your life?


We actually talked about an example of this in the New Testament -- Christians who thought that Jesus would be returning "any minute". Consider in particular this lesson on 2 Thess 3:

In that passage, Paul rebuked this attitude: "If Jesus is coming back any minute, why am I wasting my time planting next year's crops?" That led to all kinds of expressions of laziness which stretched the local church's capacity for welfare. To that end, we concluded that a proper Christian perspective would be: "Live as if Jesus is coming back today, but prepare as if Jesus is coming back 100 years from now".


With that illustration in mind, does the danger of that false prophecy seem bigger?

 

Part 3: This Is Going to Take Time (Jeremiah 29:10-14)

10 For this is what the Lord says: “When seventy years for Babylon are complete, I will attend to you and will confirm my promise concerning you to restore you to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 You will call to me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and places where I banished you”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “I will restore you to the place from which I deported you.”

Here's where it should really sink in. Seventy years. Where do you think you'll be in 70 years? Exactly. "You'd better get used to this because you'll be here the rest of your life." Does that sound a little aggressive? How would you react if someone told you that the next move you make would be the last move you would make? (And then forcibly moved you?) It's very final.


[Why 70 years? The rebellious generation in the wilderness were killed off in 40, right? In the first place, life expectancy in Babylon was higher -- quite a few people who had seen Solomon's Temple with their own eyes lived long enough to see the Second Temple dedicated. But in the bigger place, I think God was working through massive world events. God transitioned the world power from Babylon to Persia, and a lot of "civilization" had to be built for the conditions in which the Jews could survive in their new country.


There's a lot of debate as to what "70 years" means in the first place. When did it start? When did it end? Is it a round number or an exact number? In my graphic, I called the exile from 605 to 531 BC. I'm now leaning toward a date of 605-536 BC (when the bulk of the Jews actually returned to Jerusalem). But let's not get lost in the weeds.]


I believe that God was using the full 70 years to shape world events for the good of His people precisely because of the promise in verse 11 that we all know.


So, what do we get wrong about that promise?

Some people will yank this out of context and think that they should expect God to give them nothing but great things all the time.


??!!


What is the context of this promise? (We've just been talking about it.)


With that context in mind, what does this promise mean?


Verses 12-14 clarify the "long-term prognosis". Why did God send His people into exile? Because they sinned. But why did God send them into exile and not flat-out destroy them? Because His ways are above our ways. You might remember that Solomon prayed about this very situation when he dedicated the temple in Jerusalem 400 years earlier:

46 When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and hand them over to the enemy, and their captors deport them to the enemy’s country—whether distant or nearby—47 and when they come to their senses in the land where they were deported and repent and petition you in their captors’ land: “We have sinned and done wrong; we have been wicked,” 48 and when they return to you with all their heart and all their soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and when they pray to you in the direction of their land that you gave their ancestors, the city you have chosen, and the temple I have built for your name, 49 may you hear in heaven, your dwelling place, their prayer and petition and uphold their cause. 50 May you forgive your people who sinned against you and all their rebellions against you, and may you grant them compassion before their captors, so that they may treat them compassionately. 51 For they are your people and your inheritance; you brought them out of Egypt, out of the middle of an iron furnace. (1 Ki 8:46-51)

God doubles punishment as discipline. Their time in exile would wake them up to the great sin they had fallen into, and it would be the motivation to root that sin out. It worked so well that the Pharisees piled law upon law to make sure that the people never even came close to breaking God's law, sending them back into exile. And in that process, that became a sin unto itself, one that Jesus called out.


Anyway, like Solomon asked, God said that the people would eventually come to their senses and pray for forgiveness. God would hear that prayer, forgive their sin, and restore them to their land.


Do you see the difference between "I'll give you all sorts of great things" and "I'll give you back those things you lost because you sinned"?


There is no "prosperity gospel" at work here. This is about realizing what you had after you lost it. This is about resetting priorities and values. This is the prodigal son returning to his father's house.


What is that "future" and "hope" God is offering to His people"? That they will have a God. That their children will have a home. That their sin will be forgiven. Puts things into perspective, doesn't it?


Knowing all of that, what does this promise mean to you? What hope does it offer you?


If you have some friends who are in a "dry season", do what you can to help them realize how this promise applies to them. We also can't shy away from the fact that many of the recipients of this promise in Jer 29:11 would not live to see the day when it was fully fulfilled. They had to be satisfied with knowing that their children would. And that means they had to reset their expectations for their lifetime. Definitely not easy.


But God wants us to think beyond our own lifetime.

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