We all know the promise. It’s been printed on bookmarks, posters, and coffee mugs for the better part the last century:
‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ (Jeremiah 29:11)
I entered seminary in 2007. My first class was called hermeneutics, which is a hundred-dollar word that simply refers to the task of discerning the meaning of Scripture within its original context.
Despite being over 15 years ago, I still recall my professor’s often used refrain:
Context is king.
In other words: the most important task in interpreting the Bible is discerning what its words meant to the original hearers/readers. This may sound like a relatively simple endeavor; however, when you recognize that the Bible is a collection of books and oral histories written across almost two millennia by dozens of authors on three separate continents…well, let’s just say, things can get challenging.
The problem with Jeremiah 29:11 (and other verses etched on Christian paraphernalia) is the verse is often applied in ways that venture far from the Biblical author’s intended meaning.
Jeremiah (the guy who wrote the Old Testament book that bears his name) was a prophet who lived through Judah’s forced exile following the pillaging and burning of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonian Empire–roughly 6th century B.C. His words were not primarily directed toward a fresh crop of high school graduates or a newly married couple.
Jeremiah’s words were primarily intended for a community witnessing the world as they knew it crumbling to dust around them.
The Context: (and feel free to skip ahead to “What’s the Point?” if you’re not interested in a little backstory)
Following the death of King Solomon, the Jewish nation-state quickly fractured into two separate and culturally distinct kingdoms: Israel (the North) and Judah (the South). Within a couple of centuries, the Northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. Many of the conquered Jews were subsequently flung to random points throughout the vast empire–from modern day Iran to Sudan. At the same time, non-Jewish subjects of the empire replaced outgoing Jews, which eventually led to culturally, linguistically, and spiritually blended communities. In time, the spiritual practice of Jews North (who became widely referred to as “Samaritans”) was viewed as a poor interpretation of the “untainted” Judaism practiced in the South. After all, the Temple (the spiritual center of the Universe for Jews) belonged to Judah, and, therefore, it was believed that the presence of God was only truly experienced within Judah.
After the fall of Israel (the North) in 722 B.C., the political and religious leaders (there really wasn’t much difference between the two) of Judah grew increasingly prideful. A theory began to take hold which suggested that Israel’s demise was the result of their spiritual waywardness. Too bad for Judah, Jesus wouldn’t begin preaching for another seven hundred years, because one of his teachings would have likely proved particularly helpful:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:13-15)
Within about 150 years of Israel’s fall, Judah would suffer the same fate. The only difference was that Judah’s invaders (who had previously reduced Assyria to rubble) were an even mightier foe: Babylon.
After brutalizing the Judean countryside, the Babylonian army surrounded the gates of Jerusalem. It was clear to everyone that there were only two potential options to avoid wholesale destruction and (for those lucky enough to survive the forthcoming invasion) exile: either God would miraculously intervene or an eleventh hour alliance with Egypt might deter the Babylonians from advancing further.
According to Jeremiah, the time for expecting God to intervene had passed. For generations, the prophets had warned Judah to offer spiritual fidelity to the Lord by not worshiping other god and to repent in the areas they had fallen short. Those prophets were largely ignored, and in some cases murdered. Egypt, for their part, were profoundly uninterested in risking war with Babylon.
This, Jeremiah’s job was primarily to forecast and bear witness to the inevitable consequences of Judah’s centuries long unwillingness to take heed:
Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: “Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. (Jeremiah 25:8-11)
In other words: exile is happening, whether you like it or not.
What’s the Point?
In the build-up to the famous, bumper sticker worthy words found in Jeremiah 29:11, the prophet offers God’s desire for how the people of Judah would conduct themselves during their forthcoming exile:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).
Judah’s exile experience would prove different than Israel’s. Instead of being scattered to dozens of different locations across a vast empire, the Judeans would march across the desert together–thousands of them–before laying roots in the same section of the empire’s capital. This form of exile offered important advantages to Israel’s experience. Namely, it gave the Judeans the opportunity to continue to live out their faith as a community. True, they no longer had access to the Temple–which remained a smoldering heap of ruins in the heart of a devastated Jerusalem–but the people of God quickly learned that the presence of God willingly traveled with them into exile.
To many of the Babylonians, witnessing the Jews devote all their worship to a single God must have appeared odd. After all, the dizzying number of Babylonian gods were widely known for displaying fickle, vindictive, and oftentimes childish behavior.* At the very least, the persistent devotion of Judean exiles to their God would have proved curious. And there is evidence that it may have been compelling enough to convert Babylonians.**
Only a God of profound love and grace would call a conquered people to reflect their God’s unfailing love in the presence of their conquerors.
Imagine watching an invading army lay waste to your city’s walls, kill your neighbors and/or family members, destroy your home, and set fire to the only house of worship you’ve ever known. Then, imagine that army forcing you to march 1,000 miles across scorching desert before forcing you to create a home in a completely foreign land. Finally, imagine God calling you to display love and goodwill toward your captors.
God’s instructions to the exiled Jews in Jeremiah 29:4-7 sound a lot like Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:43-45:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Which makes sense. After all, the Jews in Jesus’s time also found themselves under the thumb of a vast empire: Rome. This time, God’s people were prisoners in their own land.
This centuries-long thread that is woven across 8th century BC Israel, 6th century BC Judah, and the 1st century AD Roman occupation of Israel/Judah is now wrapping its redemptive stitch around the nation of Haiti.
I see it daily in the faithfulness of our Haitian staff, their persistent love, seemingly boundless hope that God, somehow, will save their island nation.
A couple months ago I had the opportunity to host a Zoom call with students from the University of Virginia. The purpose of the call was to provide a sort of immersive experience for students, introducing them to the ministries of Healing Haiti, as well as some of our U.S and Haitian staff.
Near the end of the call, I invited the students to ask any questions they may have for our Haitian staff. A young woman offered a question that I believe many of the students may have also been curious about:
Since Haiti shares an island with the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. appears to be in a much better situation than Haiti, why haven’t you considered fleeing Haiti for the D.R?
One of our staff responded quickly and compassionately,
Haiti is my home. It’s my country. Why would I leave my home?
In that moment, I experienced a profound sense of honor for the opportunity to serve alongside our Haitian staff. And I thought:
If I were in the same situation, would I have the same sense of calling, of devotion to a nation that appears to be perpetually locked in a downward spiral?
Then I remembered Jeremiah’s words, “…Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
And while Haitians aren’t technically exiles in their home country, the shriveling of Haiti’s government, subsequent gang control of up to 90% of Port-au-Prince, and the cold-shouldering most Haitians feel from the broader international community can make their situation feel a lot like what I imagine exile is.
Is it possible to pour your love and life into a nation that bears little resemblance to the home you’ve known? The staff of Healing Haiti is reminding all of us, every day, that not only is it possible…it’s the Biblical pattern. And out of their remarkable obedience, we’re witnessing God’s power on display.
‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
These are words primarily meant for people who find themselves staring down a seemingly impossible situation. When hope appears extinguished, God, through Jeremiah, reminds all of us that we still have a purpose. No matter where we are, how much we’ve lost, or how deep the darkness, we remain in God’s unshakable grip of grace.
Next week, I’ll move on from the what and why and tell the story of how our staff continue to live out their “exile” by praying, loving, and serving those around them, especially the most vulnerable. invest in a nation that bears little resemblance to the Haiti of just a couple years ago, a Haiti that increasingly feels like exile.
* If you’re interested in learning more about ancient Babylonian spirituality, check out Thomas Cahill’s book The Gifts of the Jews