A Message to Exiles

August 01, 2017

An ancient letter with contemporary content.

By Peter Sletmoe

T

he term “open letter” is used to describe a message that is addressed to a certain individual or group, but is intended to be read by a larger audience. Someone might write an open letter to a politician or celebrity and, rather than delivering the message directly to the recipient, publish it online for millions to read. The point is to state one’s opinion in a way that will capture much attention.

Some time ago while studying Jeremiah 29, I realized it actually includes an open letter from God to the Children of Israel, as recorded by the prophet Jeremiah. A key difference with this open letter is that it was not an opinion piece; Jeremiah began with the phrase “Thus saith the Lord of hosts” because it was dictated directly by God. The letter is addressed to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, but it has a timeless message which is still applicable in our day. Indeed, the fact that God included it in Scripture indicates that it was intended for us as well.

The situation facing God’s people when this letter was written is not unlike the situation facing believers now. At the time, some of the Children of Israel were living as exiles in the land of Babylon, far from their home. It was an unfamiliar place—the culture, food, and language were all foreign to them. In addition, Babylonian society was extremely sinful, filled with ungodly practices. The Israelites longed to return to their own land.

The letter penned by Jeremiah instructed the people regarding how God wanted them to live while in exile.

However, God let the Jewish people know that they would not be returning anytime soon. They had been exiled from Israel for sinning and God had ordained that even those who repented and turned from their sins would remain in Babylon for seventy years. That meant most of them would live out the rest of their days there. The letter penned by Jeremiah instructed the people regarding how God wanted them to live while in exile.

This situation is relatable to Christians today because, in a sense, we are also exiles from our homeland. We are far away from the place we long for most—Heaven. The sinful cultures that surround us are unfamiliar and unwelcoming. The Bible calls us “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13) because we are not meant to remain forever in a world dominated by sin. Like the Jewish exiles, we are not at our final destination, but we are where God wants us to be for now, and we need to know how God wants us to live while we are here.

Seek the peace of your cities

The letter to the Jewish exiles had three main points, the first of which is stated in verses 5-7 of Jeremiah 29. It begins, “Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters” (verses 5-6). With these words, God was reiterating that the Jewish people would stay in exile for an extended period. Even though Babylon was a sinful place, He wanted them to settle in and live righteously before the citizens of that land. What a witness they could be to people who knew very little about God! In fact, we know that some of the exiles, such as the prophets Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah did impact Babylonian history.

Verse 7 continues, “And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.” In other words, God wanted His people to be engaged and involved in the society where He had placed them. He did not want the Jews to isolate themselves from the ungodly Babylonians, but to become a blessing to them.

Christians are not meant to retreat from the sinful world around us. On the contrary, we are to go “into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

This is an important message for believers today. Christians are not meant to retreat from the sinful world around us. On the contrary, we are to go “into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). God put us where we are for a reason, and He has a purpose for us to fulfill while here. We are not to avoid sinners, but to become a blessing to them by sharing the Gospel. Just like the Jewish exiles, we are to pursue careers and have families, and while doing so, to live in a way that will point others to God. We are to engage in bringing His peace to our communities and to pray for those around us.

Fulfilling this call will not be easy. The Prophet Daniel faced a den of lions because he insisted on praying regularly while living in exile. He and three Hebrew children ate a restricted diet rather than be defiled with the king’s meat, and eventually the three were thrown into a furnace for not worshipping an idol while in exile. We may or may not face such severe persecution for our faith, but following God will require sacrifice. Seeking to win lost souls for the Lord will at times rob us of our sleep and evict us from our comfort zones. It will require us to be willing to lay aside our dreams and ambitions. It can cause us to experience heartbreak, suffering, and loss. We will be asked to love the very people who boldly proclaim hatred for us. Many have given their finances, their health, and more, for the sake of the Gospel, and found it is all worth it. It is worth it to be part of God’s bigger plan to bring peace and blessing to others.

Don’t be deceived

The second point in God’s open letter is a warning to beware of false prophets. In the midst of the calamity of being taken captive by the Babylonians, many false prophets had come along and were doing what false prophets usually do—telling people exactly what they want to hear. False prophets comforted the exiles with promises that everything would be fine and they would go home soon. Because the Children of Israel believed those lies, they continued disobeying God by trying to return to Israel instead of becoming a blessing in Babylon. This was a huge problem.

False prophets are a challenge in our day as well. There are a multitude of teachers of false religions who cause people to miss God’s plan of salvation. Additionally, there are many who bear the name “Christian” yet do not teach the true Word of God. It can be very confusing to have two professing Christians teaching contradictory doctrines, especially when the difference between the two might be the difference between eternal life and death.

We must take initiative in learning to distinguish what is true from what is false.

What is the believer to do? God’s message on this topic is recorded in Jeremiah 29:8-9, “Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you. . . . For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith the Lord.” This is a strong word of caution from God, and it indicates that it is our own responsibility to make sure we are not deceived. Certainly the Lord will help us, but we must take initiative in learning to distinguish what is true from what is false. We can do that by becoming familiar with the truth of God’s Word, so we can recognize when someone is speaking lies to us.

Scripture says, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Timothy 4:16). Notice this does not only say to study the doctrines of the Bible, but also to take heed and to continue in them. We have to cultivate such a love for the truth that we desire to know it, and also to conform our lives to it. As we embrace the truths that we learn in God’s Word, it will flourish in us. This is what will keep us from believing the lies that would cause us to go astray spiritually.

Promises of hope, assurance, and reward

That last part of the letter in Jeremiah 29 contains three promises. The first is in verse 10, “After seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.” Babylon was not a friendly place for the Jews, and they wanted to return to their own land. That was reality. Yet, they knew it was not God’s will for them to return yet. As they continued year after year in captivity, how encouraging it must have been to hear these words of hope. The captivity would last a long time, but it would not last forever. One day, they would be delivered. What a hope!

God’s people are still people with hope! The Apostle Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3-4). Because Jesus rose from the dead, we have a “lively hope” that one day the trials and temptations of this world will be over. The Bible says that Heaven is better than anything our minds can imagine. There will be no more tears, death, or suffering, and we will be with God forever. It will be wonderful! Until then, we must continue doing what God has called us to do and looking forward to that day with great hope.

Verse 11 offers the assurance: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11). We may not understand everything we go through in life, but we can rest assured that God’s plan for us is good. God is for us. Even when He ordains for us to go through difficult trials, we have this promise to remind us that His desire for us is good. If we let God have total control, our lives will turn out well in the end because everything He does is good.

The final promise is for a reward. Jeremiah 29:12-13 says, “Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” God Himself is our reward. These verses guarantee that He is not out of reach; He has promised to be accessible to us. When we are obedient to Him, He will hear and answer our prayers. There could be no better reward. If we are ever discouraged by the sinful world around us, these promises of hope, assurance, and reward can keep us going until we make it to our own eternal home.

God’s open letter to the exiles in Babylon was penned over 2,500 years ago, but the principles of His message are still important for us today. May we all heed the instruction and take hold of the promises God offers.

About the author

Peter Sletmoe is a minister at the Apostolic Faith Church in Grants Pass, Oregon.