“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1). How difficult it must have been for those first-generation Judean exiles. They had lost everything. Their ancestral homes had been destroyed. Their family land, passed down from every father to every son since Joshua’s conquest, was stolen away forever. So was their culture. They now lived in a foreign land as prisoners of war coping with the prospect of living as Babylonian subjects.
The spiritual implications of exile would prove to be the most difficult. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4). This first exiled generation vowed to never forget their homeland. “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill” (Ps 137:5). How could they forget? They yearned for Jerusalem as long as they lived.
It is precisely in days of longing when the devil tempts us to ask, “Why?” Certainly these exiles were asking the question. Why did God exile us? Did we do something particularly sinful? Why must we long for Jerusalem when those still living in the city continue to possess everything?
Someone needed to answer these questions of longing. So the Lord had the prophet Jeremiah write a letter to these exiles. Jeremiah may not have known it at the time, but this letter would become one of the most comforting chapters the prophet ever penned. To those longing to return to Jerusalem, Jeremiah wrote: “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. Increase in number there; do not decrease.”
Quite a shocking command for these Judean exiles to follow! “Settle down” the Lord tells them, “because you are going to be there a long time.” These were not the encouraging words the exiles were hoping for. Escape must have been considered. Perhaps the exiles even contemplated revolution. The Lord gave a surprising response to each of these rebellious ideas: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Pray that Babylon prospers? Jeremiah must have sounded out of his mind! This may have been the point where the reader of the letter had to double check to make sure this was really signed by the prophet Jeremiah. It was, of course. And this barrel of exiles needed these commands because a few bad apples had been exiled with the bunch. “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them.” Even in Babylon these false prophets were convincing people that this exile was not so bad. “This will only be a short stay— a vacation!” the dreamers proclaimed. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
To every worry and fear, in the face of every question and doubt, the Lord gives a most comforting reminder: “For I know the plans I have for you."
“This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.’” Seventy years—the number must have hit their hearts with a thud. They knew what that number meant. It meant their generation would never see Jerusalem again. Such a realization can shatter people’s confidence and make them question whether the Lord knows what he is doing.
Does the Lord know what he is doing? So much in our lives feels random. Or worse, hardship seems to seek and destroy us while others in this world run free of sin’s consequences. Ministry especially feels this way. Pastors deal with not only their own difficulties, but the difficulties of their members, too. Teachers must lovingly teach children who have been cast off by their parents. Even worse, teachers must effectively educate children even when their parents constantly get in the way.
The effects of people’s sins on your ministry can threaten to lead you to the dark thought of retribution. Why should I keep putting up with people’s stupid choices? Why do I continue to feel punished for someone else’s mistakes? It doesn’t seem fair!
No doubt the exiles had come to the same realization. The party in Jerusalem continued while they suffered the humiliating sadness of exile. What was left for these exiles now? What was the plan? Was there a plan?
To every worry and fear, in the face of every question and doubt, the Lord gives a most comforting reminder: “‘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.’” The Lord knew his plans for his people. He even told them what those plans were: prosperity and safety, hope and a future during seventy years in Babylon. The Lord shared his plans for Jerusalem. Their idolatrous party was about to end. “I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.” Everything would switch. God would destroy Jerusalem and the exiles would be safe. The Lord told these exiles that their captivity would actually mean safety!
Only the Lord can work through awful, sinful situations for the good of his people. Only the Lord could use this Babylonian exile as a means of safety. Only the Lord can work all things for the good of those who love him. That includes you.
Have you felt exiled? Has the ministry removed you from family and friends that you have been forced to leave behind? Are you living in a foreign world among strange people with strange customs? The Lord has a way of using the ministry to plant us in uncomfortable ground. He moves you to use you effectively. Like those exiles, the Lord puts you in those sometimes difficult situations to keep you safe.
In this way, we are all exiles. You may not always live where you prefer to be. But your home and the place to which you were called is even better. It is the place that the Lord wants you to be. Like he told those exiles, the Lord also tells you to “settle down” and to “seek the peace and prosperity” of your community and your local leaders. Pray for them.
We have been comparing ourselves to exiles, but can you imagine what it was like to be born into exile? Every day you would hear about the “good ol’ days.” The old-timers would describe the grandeur of Jerusalem to you. They paint pictures of how the sun glimmered off the beautiful walls of the temple. The old women would recall the sounds and smells of their old houses passed down from one generation to the next. “But you never saw it. You have no idea,” they would say longingly.
In this way, we are all exiles. You may not always live where you prefer to be. But your home and the place to which you were called is even better.
The early years must have been the most difficult for those second and third generation exiles. All they could do was listen to what used to be. They were longing for something they had never seen. They would hear about a homeland they had never lived in.
You are that kind of exile. You have been hearing your entire life about a fatherland that you have never seen. Like those Babylonian exiles, you read the words from the prophets about what your home- land is like. But like those second and third generation exiles, you start to wonder if the wait is even worth it. You ask, as they did, “How long, O Lord?”
Then comes the encouragement for exiles, the Lord’s perfect plans for you: “‘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.’” Is there a more comforting promise for servants called away from their earthly homelands? You have been called to your location precisely because the Lord wants you there. He knows his plans for you, and those plans are described with words like prosper and hope and a future.
And someday, dear exile, the seventy years will be up. The Lord will return and take you to the home you have been waiting your entire life to behold. No more longing. No more wandering. The rivers of Babylon will give way to the river of the water of life flowing down the middle of your new city. Worldly thrones will crumble in the presence of the throne of God. And your Savior will open his doors and you will be home.
“I’m but a stranger here; Heav’n is my home. Earth is a desert drear; Heav’n is my home. Danger and sorrow stand Round me on ev’ry hand. Heav’n is my fatherland; Heav’n is my home.”
“Therefore I murmur not; Heav’n is my home. Whate’er my earthly lot, Heav’n is my home. And I shall surely stand There at my Lord’s right hand. Heav’n is my Fatherland; Heav’n is my home.” Amen.
— CW 417:1, 4