PREFACE TO PSALM 137: Jeremiah began his ministry in 627 BCE, and witnessed the final years of Jerusalem before it fell to Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE when he started taking the ruling class into exile in Babylon. Ten years later, Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem and desecrated the temple. It was the worst catastrophe in the history of God’s people – they were taken into exile away from Jerusalem, the temple, all that was familiar – they are refugees – an inconsolable people, with feelings of vengeance so strong that I chose to leave out the last verse of Psalm 137. You can read it for yourself in the Psalter PAGE…… They feel incapable of singing the Lord’s Song. Having been conquered, humiliated and deported by military force, they are bitter & vengeful. So let us listen to these words of lament from a people in exile as our choir sings and speaks them aloud. That is the background for the letter Jeremiah writes to them in chapter 29. The chapter holding comforting verses: “For I know the plans I have for you…”
Read PSALM 137 & Jeremiah 29:
Jeremiah has been prophet for 40 years at this point, warning the people about their lack of concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner – those on the margins.
John Holbert writes: Followers of YHWH were commanded again and again that concern for the marginalized was the determining reality for any great nation. Judah failed, and Jeremiah prophesied that exile and destruction were in their future.
You know the saying that the things we dread or feel anxious about rarely come to pass? One study cites that 85% of what we worry about never occurs. The exile must have fallen in the category of the 15% because the worst thing they could imagine HAS come to pass. Catastrophe has finally struck. They are a conquered people forced to march into exile. Jeremiah reaches out to a bitter remnant of leadership and artisans in Babylon, offering words of hope and a way forward. But not in the way the people would expect or could accept in that moment. They don’t hear these words as hope. Out of the desolation felt in Psalm 137, Jeremiah’s letter arrives answering the question: How can you sing the Lord’s Song in exile, when violence & corruption are all around you? When you are in such a dark place that you wish death on somebody? When it feels so hopelessly broken and divided. They are a demoralized people, fairly certain that God had abandoned them forever. Many of us have had similar feelings. Into this devastation Jeremiah introduces the understanding of God’s presence with us.
His letter contradicts false prophets, who predict the imminent doom of Babylon, implying a speedy return to Judah. Jeremiah rejects this optimism, informing them there is NO quick fix. They are to maintain the ethical practices of Israel AND accept their existence in this foreign land, in this vast metropolis, surrounded by temples dedicated to a number of foreign gods, with a 25-story tower, ‘mountain of god’ called Eti-men-anki, at the top of which resides a huge statue of the Babylonian god, MARDUK. Jeremiah’s words must feel like blasphemy and betrayal. Basically Jeremiah tells them to Eat, Drink & Marry. Not eat, drink & be merry or make merry as Ecc. 8:15 suggests, but to eat, drink and MARRY – like the kissing chant we sang as kids to tease kids who had a crush on each other.
“??? & ??? sittin’ in the tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G! First comes love.
Then comes marriage. Then comes baby in the baby carriage.”
Literally, that is what Jeremiah admonishes them to do. Build your lives HERE, NOW. Jeremiah didn’t offer false optimism. He offers a gloomy, but realistic assessment of their situation. Rather than resisting, resenting, or rejecting their circumstances, they are to stop living out of their suitcases, build houses, plant gardens, start families, put down roots, become productive, work towards peace in their own neighborhoods. Jeremiah recognizes that it will be a long time before they can return to Jerusalem, 3 generations long – it’s not 70 days long (which is about how far off Christmas is right now – you’re welcome), or 70 months long (which is a little less than Emma’s lifespan so far), but 70 years of waiting – a decade or two less than our expected lifetime.
Donald Musser – Feasting on the Word writes – They are not short-term tourists, and they must reconcile themselves to their long-term circumstances. Even though they might despise the plight they now find themselves in, their future depends on their acceptance of it. What they do have control over is their attitude. Jeremiah advises them to settle in the land of their captors, creating a community of faith, as unacceptable and impossible as it appears. They must sing a new song in a strange land, transforming the desert of internment into an oasis of fertility & fecundity.
AND THEN Jeremiah’s letter continues by saying that God is not only concerned with the life of those in exile, God is ALSO concerned about the well-being of their enemies among whom they live.
“Seek the good of the land to which God has banished you. Seek the well being of the land of your enemies. For their well being is also your well being. Their peace is also your peace. Pray for their land.
What cognitive dissonance that must have created or anger & denial. Some scholars are concerned that he is suggesting collusion with the enemy. I think we also need to be careful how we interpret these words because they can be twisted into forcing the oppressed to love their oppressor, for those who are enslaved to be thankful they have shelter & food, for women to forgive their abuser – putting the spiritual burden and work on the oppressed too soon.
Mennonite Theologian, ethicist and Christian pacifist John Howard Yoder also wrestled with these texts. He asks:
“Is there something about this Jewish vision of the dignity of the scattered people of God which might be echoed by other migrant peoples? Can this situation speak to the condition of indigenous people overrun by manifest destiny or imperialism? How can those who have been violently uprooted from their lands embrace the prophetic admonition to build houses and plant gardens in exile as good news? What does this mean for justice for the exiled refugee or a return to one’s land? Are justice and return endlessly deferred?”
Yoder deals with the tension by asserting that,
“The theological vision from exile is ONE of not being in charge, being in control. They live without sovereignty in the midst of empire. They must rely solely on God for sustenance. Those in exile and the church today are called to a nonviolent dependence on God instead of the sword, refusing to wield violent force. As they embody this alternative they are to go into the world, creating shalom.
“How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?” the Psalmist asks. Yoder responds:
“Painful as the question is, that is what the Jews learned to do, and do it well.”
Exile marked a new beginning in the history of God’s people, one which would continue in the life of the Jewish people in diaspora.
This passage reflects what we now might call restorative justice. The kind of peace-keeping our recent UCC missionary speaker, Michael Joseph spoke about, bringing abusers and victims together; it’s the understanding that came out of “The Institutions for Restorative Justice: The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. Jeremiah was calling for a paradigm shift centuries before Jesus spoke the revolutionary and nearly impossible words to live out: “You shall love your enemies.”
Seek the well being of the land of your enemies. For their well being is also your well being. Their peace is also your peace. Pray for their land. The welfare of the exiles and of their captors are bound together. It would be a much easier message to proclaim to the exiles that they will have an early return.
The letter is a testament of hope, although not an easy hope. Daniel L. Smith writes in an article:
“Jeremiah as Prophet of Nonviolent Resistance”: There are times we have to accept a tragedy that has happened or unexpected circumstances that life has dealt us. That is hard when all we want to do is to escape the pain. It’s much easier to listen to those who suggest a quick fix. It is a mark of Christian maturity that we are to pray for our enemies and in doing so both parties may find peace.
It will be 70 years before Persian King Cyrus thwarts the Babylonian regime and permit the Hebrews to return home. Hope for the future is also a recognition and acceptance that we can’t have it all now in the present. Some of the exiles never returned home.
And yet Jeremiah invites the people to live out the spiritual practice NOW … but the fulfillment will be generations later. Jeremiah is asking them to be part of something that stretches beyond their lifetime – to start spiritual practices whose effects will be felt like Chief Seattle references – until the 7th generation – build houses, plant gardens, start families, do good NOW, be part of a reconciliation and forgiveness process so that you don’t end up feuding forever like: Hatfields & McCoys, Sunnis & Shiites, Republicans & Democrats. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote,
“Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime…therefore we are saved by hope.”
Build houses, plant gardens. Seek the welfare of the city where you live. And pray.
God can be found even in a distant and foreign land. Call on God and God will answer.
Ask for God with all your heart.