This chapter consists of prophetic letters sent between Jerusalem and Babylon. Jeremiah wrote two of the letters (4-23; 31-32), Shemaiah wrote the other (24-28). The letters highlight the continuing conflict between Jeremiah and false prophets—a conflict emphasized in chapters 27- 29 (Hananiah in 27-28; Ahab, Zedekiah and Shemaiah in 29).
The theme of the exchanged letters is God’s plan for Israel’s future. Both Jeremiah and the false prophets proclaim God plans to bring the exiles home. However, whereas the false prophets are saying this will happen very soon, Jeremiah says it’s 70 years away. Where the false prophets essentially encourage the exiles to keep their bags backed, Jeremiah tells them to settle in for the long haul. No wonder the people encouraged the false prophets to keep dreaming up their messages (8; 2 Tim. 4:3)
As in the previous two chapters, we see tension and trash talking between Jeremiah and the false prophets. Jeremiah names names. Shemaiah calls Jeremiah names (“mad man”—26). Shemaiah seeks to have Jeremiah locked up on the stocks. Jeremiah announces impending defamation and death for Ahab and Zedekiah and punishment for Shemaiah and his descendants.
Here we see the stark reality that Jeremiah’s calling involved calling out those who were peddling false hope. It involved being verbally attacked and targeted for physical attack. It involved being the bearer of good and bad news. It required large amounts of perseverance and courage. Speaking for God is no easy calling!
Jeremiah’s message from “the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel” (4) was both disappointing and hopeful. Unlike the pronouncements of the false prophets, Jeremiah indicates the exile would not be brief: it would last 70 years (10). This must have dashed hopes and clashed with expectations of a quick return to Jerusalem. Those who received the message were being told that they would never see Jerusalem again; they would die in captivity, as would many of their children. However, the hopeful news was that God had “plans to prosper” future generations of the exiles by bringing them back to Himself (“you will seek me and find me”—13) and back to their homeland. He was not forsaking them and was not finished with them. He had “carried” them into exile (4, 15; God was behind Nebuchadnezzar’s actions in verse 1); He would bring them home.
God’s statement of His plans to “prosper you and not to harm you” should not be taken as a statement of God’s unconditional goodwill. Jeremiah 18 reveals that God can also make plans to discipline and bring disaster (18:8). Though God’s covenant love and promises do not fail, we cannot presume on His grace and expect only good to come. Here in this chapter, God reveals the plans He has for Zedekiah, Ahab and Shemaiah, false prophets who had “done outrageous things” (23), inciting people to “believe a lie” (31) and “rebel” against the Lord (32). God has been “witness” (23) to their antics and plans to deal with them severely: Zedekiah and Ahab will be burned to death (22); Shemaiah and his descendants will not “see the good things I will do for my people” (32). God doesn’t deal with all false prophets in the exact, same way, but He does deal with them all!
It may have seemed that God was especially punishing the exiles and that those “lucky” enough to remain in Jerusalem were being blessed; in reality, the reverse was true. While neither of the two groups had listened and obeyed (19), God’s “gracious promise” (10) was given to the exiles. The remnant in Jerusalem would be handed over by God to “the sword, famine and plague” (a phrase mentioned about 15 times in the book). They would be the “bad figs” pictured in the vision of chapter 24. The exiles would be preserved by God and would prosper in His long-range plans. The exile was not only a divine punishment (Deut. 28:64); it was a divine protection for future blessing (Deut. 30:4).
While in exile in Babylon, the Jews are instructed to settle down, raise families (“increase in number there; do not decrease”—6) and seek the shalom of their new homeland by praying for it (7). The call to pray for the Babylonian’s welfare would have been a bitter pill for many to swallow. Psalm 137 recalls the Babylonians trash talking of the exiles and mocking their pain. This psalm ends with an imprecatory call for violent retribution.
Here in Jeremiah 29, God calls the exiles to actively pursue good for captors—contributing to the welfare of the city and praying for God’s blessing on it. The reason given is so that the Jews will prosper as well (“because if it prospers, you too will prosper”—7). In addition to praying, seeking the welfare of the city would have included using their gifts and abilities to contribute to the community. Some of the exiles were “court officials . . . craftsmen and artisans” (2). Daniel and his three friends used their God-given abilities to help serve the king’s government. Jeremiah 29:7 is a preview of the New Testament call for Christians to love and pray for their enemies (Luke 6:27) and to make a positive contribution to society through prayer (1 Tim. 2:1-2), paying taxes (Romans 13), work (Col. 3:22-25) and witness (Acts 1:8).
The exiles’ promised return to their true homeland would be preceded by a spiritual return to the Lord. They would “come and pray” to the Lord (12) and “seek” Him with all their hearts (13). Seeking Him would involve listening and obeying His words, something they had not been doing for years (19). Seeking Him would be shown by a patient waiting for His timeline and active obedience to His instructions (7). Their spiritual return would result in their ultimate physical return to Jerusalem (14). Here we see the amazing truth that God’s good promises are fulfilled in conjunction with His people’s faith and obedience. He moves our hearts to seek Him and find Him which leads to our experiencing His promised blessings. God’s plans work through our choices to accomplish His purposes.
In a sense, God’s people today still live in exile, away from our True Homeland. We are called to seek the welfare of the places we live, praying for God’s favour and living lives of obedient trust (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We are to be witnesses for Christ while we wait for His return. In His time, He will bring us home to our heavenly homeland (John 14:1-6).