by Doug Priest
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; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:4-7, NRSV)
The prophet Jeremiah began his ministry in Jerusalem around 627 and saw it fall to Nebuchadnezzar in 597. At the beginning of Jeremiah’s prophesies Josiah was the king. Josiah had purified the current worship practices by removing the sacred shrines and sacrifices. He made Jerusalem the center of sacrificial practices.
Josiah’s reign was relatively peaceful, but he became involved in a war with Egypt resulting in his death. Jerusalem rapidly deteriorated with a quick turnover of kings and the continued rise of Babylon. The Babylonian exile occurred after the fall of Jerusalem.
Chapter 29 of Jeremiah is termed a letter to the exiles. Jeremiah goes against the prevailing opinion, telling the exiles they need to settle down in Babylon for a long stay. The book of consolation, chapters 30-33, says that the people are experiencing exile and contains the promise that they will be restored to the land of Judah. At that time, God will make a new covenant with them which will be written on their hearts. Jeremiah prophesies that they will never be overthrown again.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:7). Those in exile should not expect an early return to their homeland despite what other prophets are saying. They should settle down where they are, making a life for themselves in Babylon. They need to know that God is present with them in exile. They can expect to return after seventy years (Jer 29:10). They not only need to settle down, they need to seek the welfare of the Babylonian city in which they are living. They should to pray on its behalf, because the welfare of exiles and captors is bound together.
Walter Brueggeman writes about this passage. “It’s a shocking decree. The slavers were commanded to pray for their captors; to seek the welfare of this foreign city; to invest in real estate and engage in commerce in a land wholly unfamiliar and hostile toward them. It’s unfathomable to think about life as the enslaved cheering for my enslaver. If God commanded Israel to invest in the welfare of their captive city, it makes me wonder how much he desires for us to love, cherish and invest in our neighborhoods, cities which are far from hostile.”
How are we to live in the city? There are several approaches. The first is the rabbit approach. The rabbit stays in its burrow to avoid danger. It pops its head out, sees that the coast is clear, and then hurriedly runs to get some food before quickly returning to its safe haven. This approach sees the city as full of evil, and one must avoid it as much as possible.
The second approach is the chameleon. A chameleon is able to adapt its skin color according to the situation, hence is able to hide. This approach to the city is not prophetic, but simply desires to fit in with the local surroundings.
Neither of these approaches—avoiding or totally blending in—is helpful. I prefer to think a better way is engaging the city, like a pet dog. A dog moves about, meetings its needs, but also helping. A dog can fetch your paper, play Frisbee with you, and protect you from thieves. The dog approach is one that sees problems and tries to address them. But a dog is not so conformed by the city that its essential nature is lost.
There are basically three English translations of a key phrase in this verse. The King James Version says “seek the peace of the city.” The New International Version and the English Standard Version say “seek the peace and prosperity of the city,” and the New Revised Standard Version is the one I quote, “Seek the welfare of the city.” Obviously, the later translations are trying to get at the meaning of shalom because the English word ‘peace’ has become so watered down in the last four hundred years since King James sponsored his translation.
We usually think of shalom as an expression for peace. The meaning of shalom goes farther. It means wholeness and health. Shalom refers to the internal peace we have in our soul, spirit, and body. But shalom is even more than that. It applies to our relationships at work and to our relationship with nature and creation. As one author wrote, “To have shalom is to be whole and healthy in yourself and in all that challenges you, be it people, be it the issues of your world, your environment, your society, or be it the problems which are at hand, the problems which await you.”
In current missiological terms, to seek the welfare of the city—to seek the shalom of the city—is described as community transformation. The goal of community transformation is: 1) to restore people to a full expression of their humanness as made in the image of God; 2) to promote trusting, reconciled and just relationships with people; 3) to form communities that have a shared vision, a sense of community; 4) to create new institutions and restore existing systems and structures; and 5) to seek God in all that we are and do, so that God’s kingdom and glory may become more present on earth as it is in heaven.
I know I am speaking to the choir—that ISUM members are more aware of these ideas than I. So let me talk about something you might not know so much about—sex. When I mention Sodom and Gomorrah, what images come to your mind? For many, the predominant image that comes to mind is illicit sexual activities. The word ‘sodomy’ comes from the word Sodom. But listen to what Ezekiel wrote, chapter 16, verse 49. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom.” Here comes the sex part, right? “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom. She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned.” But, Ezekiel still has more to say. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom. She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” That is the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah! It could not be clearer. Sure, they messed around, but the sin they should be remembered for was not helping the poor and the needy.
It is fitting to close with another verse from the book of Jeremiah as we seek the welfare of the city. Jeremiah quotes from the Lord in chapter 22, verse 16, “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.” Now, let me read the entire verse, because the last bit is super important. “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.” If we truly want to know God, we need to defend the cause of the poor and needy. For those of us who spend so much time in the Word, so much time in reading and worship and studying in our attempts to better get to know God, we dare not forget the poor and the needy. It is their welfare we seek, for as the Lord later reminded us, “In so much as you have done it to the least of these; you have done it to me” (Mt 25:45, paraphrased).