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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

the promise of exile

Jeremiah 29:11.

We all know it. Come on, say it with me. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"

What an incredible verse! It is an amazing promise that God gives to his people, the people of Israel. And it is one that we are wise to remember and cling to today. And we do. When times get rough and the storm clouds start to build we take refuge in the strength of His word. We share it with others that could use some encouragement (like the time I told my college roommate to read it as he was questioning his future. Of course, I told him to read Jeremiah 28:11 instead. Read that one sometime...completely different message). I know people that have this verse tattooed on them, so as not to forget it when times get tough. We love this verse. And why shouldn't we? It shows God's sovereign hand at work in our lives. 

But, in most cases we fail to look at it in context. I am not saying that it is untrue, or that we shouldn't take solace in the strength that God exhibits here. It is, and by all means we should! I am merely saying that we should look at the broader context of this verse.

In this section, God is talking specifically to "all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon" (v. 4). His people had been removed from the land that He had promised their ancestors; land that He had given to them. It was the land that God wanted them to be. And yet, he removed, or "carried," them to another place, exile. Actually, this context fits well with those circumstances in which we usually return to this verse. Times of challenge, times when we are found in the desert, times when it seems like what God has promised or provided us has been taken away. Like Israel, we are confused, frustrated, even brokenhearted.

God doesn't give Israel his remarkable promise just yet, however. Instead, He tells them to wait, even in the midst of their exile. In fact, he goes so far as to command them to "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters" (v. 5-6). And He goes on, telling them to increase, not decrease, while they are in exile. He commands them to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city" (v. 7) where he has brought them. They are to pray for the city "because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (v. 7). In their exile, in their pain, confusion, and brokenheartedness, God commands them to not only wait but to seek the prosperity of the place that He has placed them in. I don't think we often consider this part of the story. The promise is so lovely and tempting that we skip right to it. (In my Bible, verse 11 is the only one highlighted.)  

After commanding his people to wait, to settle, to seek the prosperity of their exile, He comes to the promise by giving them a timeline. "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place" (v. 10). And with that said, God makes our much-beloved, oft-quoted promise to His people (v. 11).

God called His people to wait in exile, but He also calls he, to so much more. They were not to sit on their hands. Instead, He calls them to wait by going about their lives in an upright manner, seeking good in exile. It's a point similar to that of my recent post called "the beauty of suffering." In our sufferings, trials, or challenging circumstances, we must seek joy in the Lord, as these moments will grow our faith in significant ways. Indeed, these moments prove our faith in Him.

The last part of this section continues the beautiful promise of God to His people. (Why don't we all know this part?) "'Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to 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 will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,' declares the Lord, 'and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile'" (v. 12-14).

The Lord does know the plans that He has for us, because He alone is sovereign. His best is what He wants for us and what He has in store for us. He has plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future. As we cling to this promise though, especially in the midst of our own personal exile, we must recognize that God "carries" us into these times for a reason. And while we are in them, we should settle down and wait on Him. I'm not specifically advocating that we build a home, plant a garden, get married, and have kids and grandchildren. But I am saying that we need to be obedient to Him and the circumstances that he places us in. We must settle ourselves and seek to grow and prosper in these times. And then, oh, then, God's promise will reassure us and He will bring us back from captivity, back to the place from which He carried us into exile, back with a stronger faith and stronger desire for His will in our lives.