Does Jeremiah 29 call us to seek the welfare of the city?

  • Phil Colgan
  • 27 March 2017
A longer article that was first published in Vine Journal #5.

If I was writing 20 years ago about how Christians should live in the world this side of Christ’s return, I don’t think Jeremiah 29 would have been on the radar. Perhaps Jeremiah 29:11 might have got a mention —“I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord”—which has been on Christian posters with puppies and sunsets since time immemorial.

However, it’s funny how certain passages capture the Christian zeitgeist at a particular time, for good or for ill. Right now among Reformed evangelicals, it is Jeremiah 29’s time. This is thanks largely to Tim Keller’s very well-known and generally amazing work in New York, and his appropriation of Jeremiah 29:7—“seek the welfare of the city”—as a mission statement for Christian engagement with the world. For many people, this verse (or phrase) has become key for understanding the role of the Christian and the church in the modern world; the key verse for what it means to live as exiles in a fallen world.

I have to admit that I have always felt uncomfortable when I see Jeremiah 29:7 used in that way. Why? Because I am a child of Sydney evangelicalism, and that means I have been raised to understand the importance of biblical theology.

Moore College—from the days of Knox and Robinson through to Graeme Goldsworthy—is known for its focus on considering each part of the Scriptures in the light of the whole, and understanding each part through the lens of God’s great plans in Christ for all of history (which is what I mean by ‘biblical theology’). So I am always uncomfortable when Old Testament verses are taken and applied directly to the new covenant believer, especially when they are used as a slogan.

With that in mind, in this article, I want to look at Jeremiah 29:7 on its own terms, rather than as a mission statement. I want to see what it actually has to teach us—and not teach us—about living in exile.

Judgement, hope, and false prophets

The first thing we need to do is remember what Jeremiah as a whole is about. There are three dominant themes in Jeremiah:

Firstly, more than anything, Jeremiah is about God’s judgement on his people: for their apostasy; for their false assurance; for their ungodliness. It is a judgement that took the form of exile.

Secondly, Jeremiah is also about a future hope. It is a message that judgement and exile are not the end of the matter for God’s people.

The third dominant theme in the book is what I call ‘the battle of the prophets’, which is probably better thought of as the context for the first two themes. The book of Jeremiah maps out a constant battle between Jeremiah, who is bringing God’s message to his people, and false prophets, who want to contradict and undercut Jeremiah at every turn. All through the book, Jeremiah isn’t speaking the word of God into a vacuum: there are always these other voices with their false messages at every point.

Leading up to the exile itself, Jeremiah was primarily a prophet of doom to Jerusalem. In many ways, this pre-exile message is best summarized in chapters 15 and 16.

In chapter 15, the message is about God’s judgement for Judah’s sin and apostasy: some will die, some will starve, some will be exiled. However, the key thing is that God will be behind it all. The impending catastrophe, and all its consequences, are God’s doing.

Yet alongside this message of doom, there is also a prophecy of future hope. After the judgement, there will be salvation and restoration:

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, “As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers. (Jer 16:14-15)

Jeremiah is speaking of a new exodus (out of exile and back to Jerusalem) which will make the first exodus seem hardly worth talking about. This promise is repeated in chapter 23, but this time with a Davidic or Messianic edge to the hope.

So these two themes—judgement and restoration—run through Jeremiah’s prophetic messages.

However, nearly every prophecy Jeremiah shared is refuted and denied by his opponents. When Jeremiah says judgement is coming, his opponents say, “Don’t be stupid, God won’t judge his own people”. When God says through Jeremiah, “I’m finishing them all off—by sword, famine and plague”, the false prophets say, “You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place” (14:13).

These false assurances continue right through until the sword actually falls, the wave of exiles are taken off to Babylon, and Zedekiah is left on the throne in Jerusalem, effectively a puppet of Babylon.

Now by this point you would think that the false prophets would have learnt their lesson. But no, they keep at it:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel… I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant… if any nation or kingdom will not… put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the Lord, until I have consumed it by his hand. So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your fortune-tellers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, “You shall not serve the king of Babylon”. For it is a lie that they are prophesying to you… (Jer 27: 4, 6, 8-10)

Through Jeremiah, God has been telling them that he has put Nebuchadnezzar in place as the ruler of the world at this time, and that they must serve Babylon or die. But the false prophets tell Zedekiah, “No, you must not serve the King of Babylon. God doesn’t want us serving a foreign king!”

All this comes to a head with the message of the false prophet Hananiah, who prophesies in Jerusalem:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, declares the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. (28:2-4)

It is not hard to imagine why this ‘prophecy’ of Hananiah might have been popular, and what damage it might have done. As chapter 28 continues, Jeremiah chronicles God’s judgement on Hananiah for his false prophecy.

But Hananiah’s deceitful message wasn’t just heard in Jerusalem—it spread to the exiles who were in Babylon. And it is also not hard to imagine how those exiles would have received this message. If you were those exiles, being told that the message from God was “You’ll all be home in two years”, what would you do in response?

You would say: “Well, there’s no use settling down here in Babylon. We’ll just sit here on the banks of the river and wait it out. We won’t make a life for ourselves here, because we won’t be here long enough. We’ll wait till we’re back in Jerusalem before we get married, have children, or do any work.”

Or worse still, the response might have been: “Let’s fight then—let’s take on King Nebuchadnezzar—because we know that our victory is assured in two years’ time”.

In the face of Hananiah’s deception, and its likely effects, the exiles in Babylon needed to hear the truth. They needed to be told, “Don’t believe this rubbish; you’ve actually got 70 years in Babylon!”

This is essentially what Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in chapter 29 is about. It is a refutation of the fabricated hope of an imminent return to Jerusalem. It’s not a message to anyone and everyone about how to live in exile; it’s a response to this particular false prophecy they had been peddled.

Chapter 29

With that in mind, we can now turn to chapter 29. Verses 1-3 explain who is writing, the recipients, and how the letter reached them. Then the message gets started:

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 their 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. (29:4-7)

Now without the context we have sketched, and if we just stopped there, you might think that the main point of this passage—the exiles’ primary calling—was to seek the good of the city of Babylon. Perhaps this could be a timeless teaching for the people of God: to misquote an old pop song: “if you can’t be in the city you love, love the city you’re in”.

But it doesn’t stop there:

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. (29: 8-9)

These verses bring us back to the context of the letter. The argument is that they should do this as opposed to what they would do if they listened to the false prophets. They should not be seeking the downfall of the city, nor be trying to overthrow Nebuchadnezzar and break off his yoke, nor be withdrawing into a quietist Jewish ghetto on the banks of the Euphrates.

Why? Because they have a much greater hope than the city of Babylon:

For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear 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 I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (29:10-14)

This is the main point of Jeremiah’s letter: it is an explanation of the purpose of the exile. God is behind it. He has put them there in Babylon, not Nebuchadnezzar. And he has done it to drive them back to him, to seek him and pray to him. In fact, they are the hope for the future of God’s people—because their brothers back in Jerusalem are about to be punished and made a curse.

Chapter 29 holds out the glorious hope of the fulfilment of God’s promises to his people. In 70 years’ time, God will answer their prayers and restore them to their true home. God still has a long-term plan for their salvation. Verse 11 is the main point of this chapter, not verse 7, because their hope is not that God will bring prosperity to Babylon, but that he will return them to Jerusalem.

When we understand that, we see that verses 3-7 are a corrective that flows from that main expectation. The exiles are being told to take hold of a future hope without letting that anticipation lead to a withdrawal from their current situation. Importantly, it is also a corrective based on self-interest for Israel, not based on concern for Babylon. The one reason that God explicitly gives to pray for the prosperity of the city is so that the Israelites will prosper.

As I have worked through commentaries on Jeremiah and listened to sermons, I have been amazed at how hard people will work to explain away this reason God gives for the exiles to seek the welfare of the city. God does not say, “Seek the welfare of the city because I want you to love your enemies”. God does not say, “Seek their welfare because I am just as much with you here as I am in Jerusalem”. It’s not even, “Seek their welfare so that you might win them to the worship of the Lord”.

All those things might be true of God and his character, but they are generally an example of reading the New Testament back into the Old. What God says here in Jeremiah makes us uncomfortable. It just doesn’t sound very like Jesus to say “Seek the welfare of the city—for your own good”.

Perhaps because we’re too quick to apologize for God and to gloss over the seemingly selfish motivation that is given, we don’t do the hard work of asking why God wants them to do this for their own benefit. I don’t think he is meaning to encourage selfishness in them. The answer is in biblical theology; it’s all tied to the fulfilment of God’s covenant promises.

Here is the key point in verses 3-7:

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. (v. 6)

God wants the exiles to have grown in number by the time he takes them back to Jerusalem, because they are the centre of the fulfilment of his covenant promises, not those who did not go into exile. He wants them to have had children who grow up strong—physically and in faith—to take back with them when he ends this exile. The welfare or prosperity of Babylon is a means to an end of preserving God’s people.

We see this even more clearly when we read Jeremiah from beginning to end, rather than just jumping in at this chapter out of context. Back in chapter 16, God had said to Jeremiah in Jerusalem, “Don’t get married, and don’t have children, because they’re all just going to die. My judgement is coming.” But now God is saying, “Get married, and have children again, because there is a future for them. And that future is in Jerusalem, not Babylon.”

The main message of Jeremiah 29 is in fact the old puppies-and-sunsets verse 11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”. The message is that they are not forgotten and will be restored, that they will have to wait for 70 years for that restoration to occur, and so they should be using that time to get ready.

The currently very popular verse 7, then, is not a general exhortation to seek the welfare of whatever city we might find ourselves in. It is a specific corrective to a false and over-realized hope, peddled by the false prophets like Hananiah.

Chapter 29 today

How do we apply all this to ourselves, to Christians living this side of Christ? As with all Old Testament texts, we should do it carefully, looking to how this passage finds its fulfilment in Christ, and taking into account not only the similarities to our place in salvation history but also the very real differences.

Before I make three suggestions about how to apply this passage to us, let me first get out of the way a secondary, slightly polemical, point about how not to apply this verse.

Contrary to the way it is used by some today, this verse has no relevance at all to the question of the priority of reaching cities over other places. It does not say “seek the welfare of cities”; it says “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile”. The only reason they pray for this city is that it is where God has sent them into exile. In fact, the LXX doesn’t use the word city at all. Its translation is ‘land’ or ‘country’; perhaps seek the welfare of the ‘place’ I have deported you to.

Now there may well be arguments in other parts of Scripture as to why we should focus on mission to cities (though I haven’t found them). There may be current sociological or strategic reasons for focusing on reaching cities. But using this verse as a support or proof text for why we should plant a church in Sydney rather than in Broken Hill, or why Christians should move to the city rather than the suburbs or rural locations—that’s really one of those exegetical fallacies where we see a word and then import our agenda.

Having said that, let me make some comments about how this chapter is relevant to us, because we too are living in exile. We are “sojourners and exiles” in this world (1 Pet 2:11), and “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). But in assessing the relevance of Jeremiah 29, we need to carefully see the differences as well as the similarities in our situation.

1) Our exile is not a judgement on us.

God has not moved us from Jerusalem to Babylon as judgement for our apostasy. He has rescued us from within Babylon—where we were born—and where we now live with a foot in two cities.

Why is that important? It means that for us the biggest reminder we need is that this city is not our home. We haven’t had an experience of Jerusalem to pine for. We naturally feel very much at home in Babylon. We don’t need much encouragement to build houses, grow wealthy, get married and have children.

That’s why Jesus gives no balance or corrective when he says to store up treasure in heaven; he knows where we naturally store our treasures. We don’t need any encouragement to make ourselves more at home in Babylon. We have a far greater need to be reminded that our home is in the new Jerusalem.

2) We have not had a specific word on how long our exile will last.

The call to the Jews in Jeremiah 29:7 was in light of the fact that God had revealed a very specific long-term timeframe for the end of their exile. We don’t have that certainty. In fact—at risk of sounding like Hananiah and the false prophets—the encouragement of the New Testament is to see the days as short. We should stand ready for Christ’s return at any moment; we should not be found sleeping. Peter tells us that the only reason for delay is so that more people can come to know Jesus and therefore not perish (2 Pet 3:9).

Now again, why is this important? It is important because it means that we should actually be slow to apply the corrective of Jeremiah 29 to us. This corrective is aimed at people who are withdrawing from the world because they think Jesus is coming sooner than he promised, and those who are fighting with the world because they believe the eschaton is more imminent than it is.

There may be some Christians who do need to hear a new covenant version of Jeremiah 29:3-7, if they are so focused on the return of Christ that they have stepped back from the world into quietism. Some millennial views lead Christians in this direction. There could be Christians like the Thessalonians who Paul wrote to, who seemed to have stopped working and were scrounging off others because they thought the Day of the Lord was so imminent (1 Thess 5).

If that is us, then we might need a corrective like Jeremiah 29:7. But that’s not me and my church, it’s no Western evangelical I’ve met, and the New Testament suggests it’s not most Christians.

We really need challenges like 1 Corinthians 7, to consider remaining single for the sake of the gospel rather than marrying and having children. We need to be challenged not to find our home here, rather than to build homes and settle. The New Testament and my experience suggests that most of us more naturally live as if Jesus will never return, rather than like he could come before you finish reading this page.

3) If we apply this to ourselves, we must let the application be shaped by the New Testament.

I’ve been astonished by people I’ve heard who make an argument from Jeremiah 29:7 like this:

  1. They note that that word ‘welfare’ is the Hebrew word shalom, which has a wide possible range of meanings—it covers physical, emotional, spiritual and financial peace and prosperity.
  2. They then assume that it has all those meanings here, and so expand it into various applications about work and money and involvement in civic affairs and the importance of helping buses run on time for the good of our city.
  3. They then cast this vision for comprehensive, city-wide shalom as a bolder call for civic engagement than Jesus or the New Testament ever makes on new covenant believers.
  4. And so this one verse becomes a charter for a program of Christian ministry that not only ignores its context in Jeremiah (as we’ve seen) but goes places where the New Testament simply does not go.

We need to let the New Testament be our guide to what it means to seek the shalom of our world as we live as sojourners in it, rather than let an expansive out-of-context application of Jeremiah 29 drive our understanding of the New Testament.

The primary message of Jeremiah 29 to us is to live in the light of our future hope—to live now in this world as citizens of the next world, neither ceasing to do good to all those around us now (Gal 6:10), nor becoming so friendly with our world that we find ourselves enemies of God (Jas 4:4).

We should let the New Testament give us the correctives we need: don’t withdraw from the world, but overcome evil with good. Don’t hate your enemy; feed him instead. Don’t hide away, but love your neighbour in the broadest sense of that word. Don’t stand around waiting for Jesus to return while sponging off others, but work hard as if for the Lord.

Perhaps the closest message to Jeremiah 29:7 in the New Testament is the call to not fight the secular government, but to submit and pray for those in authority so that we can quietly get on with living godly lives (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Tim 2:1-2). Don’t withhold your wealth from the world: pay your taxes. Live such good lives amongst the pagans that, though they accuse us of doing wrong, they will one day glorify God (1 Pet 2:12).

But, more than anything, we should let our new covenant situation drive us to see that the most fundamental thing we can do for the welfare of our fallen world is not to contribute to the prosperity of our cities—it’s to share the reason for our hope, to offer other sinners the salvation we have found in Christ Jesus.