Whether in a warzone halfway around the world or on a peaceful college campus halfway across the country, a letter from home can be a welcome sight. Electronic words travel faster than ever before. But speed alone cannot surpass the well-spent time expressing heartfelt love, informative instruction, and hope for the future with hand-written correspondence. Just such a letter from Jeremiah the prophet was hand-delivered to the second group of exiles taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar and held in Babylon (see Jeremiah 29:1-23; 52:28).
In 597 B.C., Ezekiel and many others were taken from their homes. This is the group to whom Jeremiah addressed his letter (2 Kings 24:10-17). Daniel was among the first group of exiles arriving in Babylon eight years earlier. All three prophets spoke God’s word to the exiles with unified purpose yet from differing perspectives: Jeremiah from hometown Jerusalem; Ezekiel and Daniel from distant Babylon. But while the physical distance from Israel seemed vast, far worse was the distance God’s people had pushed themselves away from Him. Consequently, Nebuchadnezzar dished out God’s discipline through a series of human events.
Jeremiah’s warning words calling for Judah’s repentance and obedience fell on deaf ears for twenty-three years. God’s judgement die was now cast, “Therefore the LORD Almighty says this: ‘Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants…’” (Jeremiah 25:8-9 NIV).
And so it was. Jeremiah’s timely letter from home didn’t focus on the current happenings around Jerusalem but instead outlined ways to thrive in what would prove to be a multigenerational stay in Babylon. Daniel was already exemplifying the kind of faith God was looking for during the early years of the exile and now with the arrival of thousands more captives in 597 B.C., the instruction and warning urgently needed from God arrived via the letter.
“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; and plant gardens, and eat their produce’” (Jeremiah 29:4-5 NASB).
However, the letter didn’t stop there, but mirrored Genesis 1:28, albeit on a much smaller scale. So far, Jeremiah’s instructions for captive life in Babylon didn’t sound much different from that of back home. That was the point: continue living life since the quick turnaround falsely prophesized by some of the locals wasn’t going to happen. Instead, prepare for the long haul. Life in Babylonian captivity would differ with the absence of a temple to worship God as before—a major blow to an Israelites’ daily routine. Yet a priority of repentance and restoration of the exiles’ broken relationship with God needed to be addressed to fix the problem that had landed them there in the first place. Something had to change and not just the scenery! Daniel was showing the exiles how it could be done, for all to see, even as a godly witness seeking the welfare [or peace] of Babylon and praying to the LORD on its behalf (see Jeremiah 29:7; Daniel 4:27; 6:4-5). Daniel was ahead of his time in loving his enemies, a tough way to honor God.
Daniel was a man of prayer with concern for his fellow exiles. Daniel 9:3-19 records his confessional prayer (similar to Ezra 9:5-15 and Nehemiah 9:5-38) and in it refers to the exodus of his ancestors from Egypt. A student of Scripture, Daniel looked to Jeremiah 25:11-12 for help in calculating how soon the exiles could return home “…I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years” (Daniel 9:2).
Seventy years in Babylon meant countless wasted opportunities for those content just marking their calendars only to later become captive to yet another earthly kingdom. For the other exiles: repenting, obeying God and drawing closer to Him during this ordeal meant opportunity to find freedom found only in Jesus the Messiah.
Today’s believers in Christ the Risen Savior are also viewed as exiles living far from heaven. Unlike the judgement Israel received, our exile does not result from God’s fatherly discipline. Instead we are called to live a disciplined life in Christ as His disciple for the glory of God. Paul put it this way, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). Jesus prayed, “I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth. As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world” (John 17:15-18).
Followers of Christ are to be wise stewards of opportunity and time: “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity” (Colossians 4:5). “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). Living foolishly inside a “spiritual bubble” is no place to pitch your earthly tent. Burst that bubble and step wisely into the world that desperately needs Jesus! As a “letter of Christ… written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3), let us not always be on the receiving end of God’s good news but also delivering His message first-hand whenever the Holy Spirit writes that opportunity and time on our hearts.
What can we glean from the Babylon exile, as adopted children of God? First, heed the warning John signs off with in his first letter: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Secondly, obey God’s commandments and trust Him. For example, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD And whose trust is the LORD. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, That extends its roots by a stream And will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, And it will not be anxious in a year of drought Nor cease to yield fruit” (Jeremiah 17:7-8).
“Trust in the LORD, and do good; Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3) presents both attitude perspectives and action results. Perhaps this brings to mind again Jeremiah’s instructive words “plant gardens, and eat their produce” — not just in the literal context of Jeremiah 29:5 when he spoke about preparing for a lengthy stay in Babylon, but for us in believing the Lord, trusting Him fully no matter our circumstances. Cultivating faithfulness is an attitude that demands action. Even good soil needs cultivating to remain fertile and productive. Spiritually speaking, the same is true: good soil of the soul needs loosening to allow absorbance of God’s living water and nourishing word, plus regular removal of invasive, choking weeds: sins of unbelief, disobedience or idols.
Psalm 137 is a sad reminder to those who endured the captivity; unable to worship as before, distant from God and home. “By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down and wept, When we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst of it We hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, And our tormentors mirth, saying ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion’. How can we sing the LORD’s song In a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4).
God indeed brought His people home from Babylon “’For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place (Jeremiah 29:10) See Ezra 1:1-2:60 for more details. However, some stayed behind, including Daniel hearing these last words of hope spoken to him: “But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age” (Daniel 12:13).
Letters from home are sweetest when they come from heaven and can be read again and again to renew, refresh and reassure. “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart’” (Jeremiah 29:13).
Alan Summers, GBC Elder
All Scripture quotations from NASB (New American Standard Bible, 1975 edition) unless noted NIV (New International Version, 1984 edition)