Things were not easy for Jeremiah as he spoke God’s word to the people in Jerusalem. There was real opposition. We saw in the previous chapter that the opposition was specific and personal and was intended to deceive the people. At least, we might imagine it was easier for those who had been exiled to Babylon. They had shown a willingness to listen to Jeremiah’s warnings and had surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar: they after all were the good figs. Sadly, things were not so straightforward – there was opposition to God’s message both in Jerusalem and Babylon: truth was under attack from all sides. It seems that Jeremiah had become aware of the situation in Babylon. His response was to write a letter to the exiles in that great city.
- The letter
We have the privilege of having the text of this ancient letter of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon. The letter was addressed to ‘the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon (verse 1).’ It was a letter for everyone who had become exiles in Babylon. Verse 2 notes that the timing of the letter was after King Jehoiachin had been taken into exile. Jehoiachin’s forced departure to Babylon took place in the spring of 597 BC. So, the date of the letter is some time after this event. Jehoiachin was not exiled alone: he was accompanied by court officials, leaders of Judah and Jerusalem as well as skilled workers and craftsmen. Nebuchadnezzar wanted the best people Judah had to offer. He had already (in 605 BC) removed some of the best young men from Judah, among whom was Daniel.
Jeremiah entrusted his letter to Elasah who was the brother of Ahikam. You may recall that when Jeremiah was threatened with death by the priests it was Ahikam who supported the prophet. Ahikam and Elasah were sons of Shaphan who was King Josiah’s secretary – he was the one who read the book of the law out to the king after it was re-discovered in the temple. The letter was in safe hands! Gemariah was also entrusted with the letter: he seems also to have been a man in a position of authority who also supported Jeremiah. The delegation was sent to Babylon in the name of king Zedekiah – most likely the main purpose of the delegation was to reassure Nebuchadnezzar of the loyalty of Judah – but of course God had a higher purpose for these messengers as postmen for Jeremiah! It would no doubt have taken several months for the letter to arrive in Babylon – but the letter would be read for many decades thereafter – and now thousands of years later we can read its contents too!
- The text of the letter
The letter came from the hand of Jeremiah, but the message was from the ‘Lord Almighty, the God if Israel!’ Once again Jeremiah uses God’s title ‘Yahweh Sabaoth’ which is translated as ‘Lord Almighty’ in the NIV – others have translated this more literally as the Lord of Armies! Nebuchadnezzar may have had a seemingly insuperable army, but this message came from the Lord of Armies! You will recall that in Jerusalem, the false prophet Hananiah had been telling the people that the exiles would return within 2 years – it seems highly likely that Hananiah’s message had reached the ears of the exiles, but similar false prophets were operating in Babylon too and their message was that the exile would soon be over. This was a lie. God’s message was that the exile would last for a long time: the people should prepare for an extended stay. In our current Brexit turmoil businesses often talk about the importance of stability. If they are planning a large investment, they don’t want the market conditions to change suddenly and leave them with equipment and people they cannot use. Jeremiah’s message was that there would be no instability! The conditions for the exiles would be so settled that they should invest in house building, creating gardens and planting crops for food. The exile was not going to be over any time soon. To emphasise this, Jeremiah told them to marry, to have sons and daughters and for the next generation to marry and have children too! That sounds like the exile would involve as many as 4 generations! We had 4 generations around our table at Christmas this year. My mother in law was married in 1954 and now after 65 years she has two great grandchildren – this gives us a clue as to the sort of time the exiles needed to prepare for (more of this later).
Jeremiah encourages the people to contribute to the prosperity of Babylon: ‘7 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.’ The future prosperity and wellbeing of the exiles would be bound up with the people of Babylon! Some present-day believers have applied this sentiment directly to our situation as believers living in our increasingly secular world. I would have some hesitation in applying this directly to us today, but there is certainly much that we can learn from the way many of the exiles conducted themselves in Babylon. The book of Daniel gives some wonderful examples of how godly people ought to live amidst those who are not believers. Daniel and others excelled in their contribution to Babylonian society, but they never compromised their faith in God, even when this put their lives in danger.
Jeremiah’s message was opposed by ‘prophets and diviners’ from amongst their own people. Their message was no doubt attractive – who doesn’t dream of being back home when in a far away place! But these people were speaking lies and were not sent by God. This is a warning to us too. In our day, the truth is clearly opposed by atheists and secularists, but perhaps we need to be even more on guard for those from among our own community who do not speak the truth. Beware of anyone who adds or subtracts from God’s word!
How long will it last then Jeremiah? The people would ask. Jeremiah gives a very clear response: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place.’ What a remarkable statement! One of the exiles read these very words when the time of the 70 years was almost over – as he read the letter he was prompted to pray. You can read the prayer in Daniel 9 as well as the remarkable response that it brought about!
If the exiles were to be in Babylon for 70 years, then what about the people left in Jerusalem. What would happen to them? The news was not good. For those who had been listening to Jeremiah’s consistent message given over several decades this was not a surprise: ‘16 but this is what the Lord says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile – 17 yes, this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten.’ You will remember in chapter 24 Jeremiah spoke of the two baskets of figs, the good figs were those who surrendered to Babylon; the Lord would ‘set my eyes on them for good (Jeremiah 24: 6).’ In contrast, those who disobeyed and stayed to fight Nebuchadnezzar would come under God’s judgment: ‘I will sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.’ This did not come about because the people remaining in Jerusalem were incapable of responding. They had simply failed to listen: ‘19 For they have not listened to my words,’ declares the Lord, ‘words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets.’ Now there was a danger of the exiles making the same mistake!
The exiles would be given a particular warning and it involved the false prophets among them: ‘21 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says about Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying lies to you in my name: ‘I will deliver them into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will put them to death before your very eyes.’ The exiles would be left in no doubt! This is a great warning for us too – if we are those who teach God’s word we must do so with great care. God doesn’t seem to remove false teachers in our era as he did in Jeremiah’s, but the lesson is clear that God has no time for those who influence others with a message that is inconsistent with his word. And for listeners too, we bear a responsibility too, to listen carefully to what God’s word says.
- Another letter!
Jeremiah’s letter was effectively an open letter to all the exiles in Babylon. Now imagine for a moment that you were one of the false prophets in Babylon. Jeremiah’s letter even names some of them! They would be pretty upset with Jeremiah don’t you think! This guy was trouble in Jerusalem and now he makes trouble in Babylon! He must be stopped!
It seems that one of those infuriated with Jeremiah’s letter (Shemaiah) wrote letters to Zephaniah the priest and to all the other priests in Jerusalem. Zephaniah was the next in rank after the chief priest (see 2 Kings 25:18). In that letter Shemaiah reminded Zephaniah of his position of responsibility in the temple and gave him the following piece of advice: ‘you should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons.’ He then asked Zephaniah why he had not dealt with Jeremiah! What had offended Shemaiah was that Jeremiah had told the exiles in Babylon to settle down and prepare for a long stay. Shemaiah’s problem was that he did not like what God (through Jeremiah) was telling the exiles to do. He wanted something else and he wanted to silence a view that he did not agree with. It seems to me that when truth is rejected, those rejecting it often try to silence those who speak the truth. This is as true today as it was in Jeremiah’s time. Formerly in the Soviet Union, the state policy was to eliminate religious beliefs and replace them with atheism. In the UK today, it seems that more and more the Christian voice is subject to active suppression. Jeremiah was initially reluctant to take on the task of being God’s spokesperson but after many years of speaking the truth he is faithful in continuing to do so, even in the face of opposition. We ca learn from this excellent example.
Zephaniah was clearly not persuaded by the letter he received. He read out the letter to Jeremiah whereupon the word of the Lord came once again to Jeremiah. Jeremiah despatched God’s message in a further letter to all the exiles: ‘32this is what the Lord says: I will surely punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his descendants. He will have no one left among this people, nor will he see the good things I will do for my people, declares the Lord, because he has preached rebellion against me.’
Zephaniah’s message was inconsistent with God’s message. His preaching was thus in rebellion against God. Like Hananiah (in chapter 28), Zephaniah’s life would be cut short. Such is the importance of speaking the truth.