(36) For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, to give you hope and a future – Jeremiah 29:11

The people of Judah were taken into exile in Babylonia in three stages and, for everyone involved, it was a deeply traumatic event. Most of us can only imagine what it would be like to be forcibly taken from our home, our country, and everything we knew, to a distant land where we were left to make a new life. However, for the people of Judah, it was even more difficult to come to terms with as their whole identity was wrapped up in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (who became Israel) over a thousand years earlier. The people had been given the land by God and, after taking possession of it under Joshua’s leadership, they had lived there for eight centuries. Jerusalem, the city of David, where his successor had reigned, was home to Solomon’s temple and the centre of worship of the Lord.

Many of the people that were taken to Babylon in the first two stages, before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, saw their exile as a short term set-back, believing that God would step in and make it possible for them to return very quickly. Jeremiah, writing from Jerusalem where he saw the ongoing wickedness of the king and the people, wrote to the exiles to give them a very different message. He told them to “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters” (Jeremiah 29:5-6). His message was they were to put down roots and have families in exile and to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7).

Jeremiah told the people that the exile would last seventy years before they would return to the land (see Jeremiah 25:11-12 and 29:10). After his prophecies of disaster for the people living in Judah, he now told the people that the Lord had plans for them “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). This was because in exile the people would call on the Lord and seek him once again. Jeremiah goes on to prophesy about the time when the Lord will bring the people of Israel and Judah back to the land. As a visible sign of his confidence in God’s word, Jeremiah buys a field during the siege of Jerusalem as a sign that fields will be bought and sold again in the land when the Lord restores the fortunes of the people (see Jeremiah 32).

After the destruction of Jerusalem Jeremiah was given the choice of going to Babylon or remaining in the land and he chose to stay and support the governor, Gedaliah. When Gedaliah was assassinated, the people who remained in Judah feared the wrath of the Babylonians and planned to flee to Egypt, but they came to ask Jeremiah what they should do. This demonstrates how the prophet was accepted as God’s spokesman by his contemporaries.

We might expect Jeremiah, a man who had been a prophet for many years by this time, to have an instant hotline to heaven and give an instant answer, but it is interesting to note that it was ten days later when he responded (see Jeremiah 42:7). Jeremiah told them not to fear the Babylonians but to stay in the land where the Lord would establish them and he warned against going to Egypt where the sword and famine that they feared would overtake them.

We might also expect that the people who had been prepared to wait for the word of the Lord from a revered prophet for ten days would now accept God’s guidance and stay in Judah. But no, their response was to accuse Jeremiah of lying and head for Egypt away from the Babylonians, taking all the Jews who were living in the land with them, including Jeremiah himself. (Jeremiah 34:9 contains the earliest use of the word ‘Jew’ in the Bible, from the time of the siege of Jerusalem. It is derived from the word ‘Judah’, and became used as a term for any Israelite by the time of the books that were written after the exile and in the New Testament.)

Jeremiah’s last recorded prophecies are from Egypt. He, like his fellow Jews, was scattered among the nations. God’s people no longer possessed their land.

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