Pursue the Well-Being of the City
Jeremiah 29:1-9 and 24-32 teach us why it's important to love the communities we live in.
During the exile to Babylon in 597 B.C. about 3,000 Jews were sent away including a few priests and prophets. Some of the false prophets were predicting a quick return to Jerusalem while Jeremiah was saying it would take much longer.
But instead of the typical doom and gloom were used to hearing from Jeremiah, he starts to tell the exiles how to prosper in their situation with some of the most encouraging verses in the whole Bible. For example...
Jer. 30:3 “For look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah,” says the Lord. “I will restore them to the land I gave to their ancestors and they will possess it.”
Jer. 31 13 “Then the young women will rejoice with dancing, while young and old men rejoice together. I will turn their mourning into joy, give them consolation, and bring happiness out of grief.”
Jer. 32 39 “I will give them integrity of heart and action so that they will fear me always, for their good and for the good of their descendants after them.”
Jer. 33:8 “I will purify them from all the iniquity they have committed against me, and I will forgive all the iniquities they have committed against me, rebelling against me.”
And one of the most encouraging verses occurs in chapter 29:11...
“For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
And if you’ve ever seen this verse printed out it’s probably had a backdrop of beautiful mountains out in the country but the context of Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t in the countryside—it’s in the city. Next week we will focus more on verse 11 but first let’s look at the context of the verses around it.
Our Opinion of the City
Our congregation isn’t in the city. At best, we could say we live in a town — a cross between suburbs and rural. And many of us probably view the city as a necessary evil. We visit the city only when we have to — to work or shop or visit doctors, but we certainly don’t want to live there.
Cities are full of crime, homelessness, and despair. Rural areas have problems too but usually to a lesser extent. Cities also have more traffic and smog. They have more rules, more people, and usually more opposition to Christian values. So, it’s no surprise that many Christians try to avoid them if they can.
But God sent the exiles to a city, and not just any city. He sent them to Babylon, a city synonymous with all that is evil. Babylon is a picture of everything wrong with society and the Jews hated this city and the people in it—for good reason.
The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem. They had ruined their temple and economy. They had either killed their leaders or taken them into captivity and there probably wasn’t a Jew still alive that hadn’t suffered tremendous loss.
In Augustine's famous work “The City of God” he describes the world in terms of two cities— the city of God and the city of man. And in his book, Babylon is synonymous with the city of man and represents a way of life in direct opposition to the church and God’s people.
Nevertheless, God sent His people to the city of Babylon, and like the Israelites, we too are refugees in Babylon. And even if we don’t live in a city per se, the world is becoming more urban. Just look at Kittredge—Kittredge Community Bible Church used to be a rural church but now it’s nearly in the suburbs.
Some of us might be tempted to respond to these changes the way many of the Israelites did. Some tried to run away. Some tried to revolt, but God told them to settle down and make themselves a home.
Jeremiah writes these verses from Jerusalem and addresses them to all of the people Nebuchadnezzar had deported from Jerusalem. Perhaps Jeremiah wasn’t taken to Babylon himself because he served a vital role in Jerusalem. Or perhaps the Babylonians just didn’t see him as a threat. Anyway, the gist of Jeremiah’s message is found in verses 4-7.
This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.”
Now, imagine what the Jewish people would have thought when they received this word from Jeremiah. Most of them were likely living in the most undesirable places of the city— the ghetto. A few were doing better than others, but most of them were probably living in the slums aching to get out and go back home.
They hated the Babylonian school system. They hated the high crime. They didn’t speak the language. The prostitutes and the drug pushers were on every corner. Imagine the shock they must have felt when they got the letter from Jeremiah speaking on behalf of God telling them to “Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to.”
What? See, the Israelites were not captives, they were missionaries. God sent them there for a purpose. He intended to bless the Babylonians through them. And as the city thrives, they would thrive.
Now, God specifically told them to do three things. First...
Establish a Presence in the City
In verse 5 God told them to build houses and live in them. In other words, God said to settle down and make Babylon their home. Don’t just rent, go to the effort of building permanent homes. Invest in the community where God had put them.
God also wanted them to invest in agriculture. He told them to plant gardens and eat their produce. Don’t just buy from the local markets, instead grow your own food and become a central part of the community.
In verse 6 God told them to pursue lasting relationships. This wasn’t the time to think there’s no point in starting a family. God told them to find wives and have sons and daughters. In other words, live a normal life as best as you can despite the fact that you are in the city of Babylon.
Establishing a presence in the city means raising a godly family, worshiping and ministering in the city and for some it also obviously means actually living in the city. Now, I don’t think God calls everyone to live in the city but neither should we have a mindset of avoiding cities or urban areas in general. We need to think like God, whose plan for redemption calls all Christians to become involved in the communities in which they live.
Establishing a presence in the city means becoming involved where we are. But if we live 100 miles away from civilization, or are planning to move somewhere where we never have to talk to anyone else ever again, I think we should reconsider in light of these verses. Most of us, however, have plenty of opportunities to become involved in our communities without moving somewhere else.
But as you can expect not everyone loved God’s plan.
Opposition to God’s Love for the City
Not everyone liked Jeremiah’s message, so some responded with messages of their own. Shemaiah the Nehelamite wrote a letter accusing Jeremiah of being crazy and demanded he be locked up in the insane asylum. In verse 26 he wrote to the prophet Zephaniah trying to get him to take his side...
The Lord has appointed you priest in place of the priest Jehoiada to be the chief officer in the temple of the Lord, responsible for every madman who acts like a prophet. You must confine him in the stocks and an iron collar.
But Zephaniah didn’t take the bait. Instead, he shared the letter with Jeremiah and gave him a chance to respond. And respond he did. Jeremiah responded with a proclamation from God that Shemaiah would have no descendants or any part in the restoration of his people.
What Shemaiah didn’t understand was God’s love for the city. Why does God love the city? I think it’s because cities are often where the greatest concentration of broken people are living. Cities are known for their problems and God loves fixing broken people.
So, when God’s kingdom is fully restored on earth it will be centralized around a city, the New Jerusalem. Its many streets will be not be littered with trash or potholes, but with streets of gold and people whose primary purpose in life will be to worship their Creator in perfect harmony. God loves cities and his goal isn’t to erase them off the face of the earth but to restore them.
Jeremiah says in verses 8-9 to not listen to the opposition. Don’t listen to them even if they come to you claiming to have had a divine revelation, “For they are prophesying falsely to you in my name. I have not sent them.”
Don’t listen to the opposition. Instead, first establish a presence in the city and second...
Pursue the Well-Being of the City
The word for “well-being” is the Hebrew word “shalom”. Shalom is a word that is usually translated “peace”, but it doesn’t just refer to the absence of war. It is a term that means contentment, wholeness, health, prosperity, safety, and rest. It means complete peace.
As Christians who pursue the shalom of the city, God’s direction means doing everything we possibly can to improve the lives of those around us. It means shoveling our neighbor’s driveway. It means feeding the poor. It means volunteering for our local social services outreach. It means being friendly when we go to the store. It means driving safely and doing all we can to keep our neighbors healthy. It means replacing all forms of prejudice with the love of Christ.
And in some situations, it means coming alongside those we may not completely agree with every issue. It might mean working with Catholics against abortion. It might mean working alongside an atheist in the fight against hunger. It might mean voting for someone who isn’t a Christian but has a good plan for reducing pornography and sex trafficking. These are the kind of things Christians who pursue the well-being of the city will do.
Of course, I’m not saying to throw all discernment out the window. Christians must choose carefully with whom to form alliances, but I don’t think we should have an all-or-nothing mindset. When God told the Jews to pursue the well-being of the city, he knew full well that they would have to put a clamp on their pride and make some tough decisions in order to obey.
Also, I’m not saying that the well-being of the city only comes about by doing random acts of kindness. The only basis for real and lasting shalom is the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The city in which we live will never have lasting peace until everyone knows Jesus Christ as their Savior. All cites deserve to be destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah and lasting peace only comes through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1).
But in the meantime, while we pray and wait for God to change hearts and minds, we should do all we can to pursue the well-being of the city. It’s our calling. The peace that we have with God is what motivates us to be friendly, neighborly, compassionate, and charitable.
So, establish a presence in the city. Pursue the well-being of the city. And third...
Pray for the City to Thrive
Pray for the city to thrive because, as it thrives, so will we. Everybody benefits when the city benefits. When the city prospers, the church prospers, so we should have a vested interest in helping the city to thrive.
Jeremiah 29:7 says,
Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive.
We’ve probably all heard of the command to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6-9). Some might insist that we pray for the peace of Jerusalem every Sunday. Not a bad thing to do, but here the former inhabitants of Jerusalem are specifically told to pray for the peace of Babylon! That’s something we should do, too.
Jesus says 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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
So how can we pray for our city to thrive? We can pray for the economy of the city. We can pray for justice to the poor and prosperity for everyone within the city not just a few. We can pray for safety within the city and for the politics of the city. Pray for God’s blessing on all people and all people groups within the city. And, of course, we can pray for all of the city’s residents to come to Christ.
Tying it all together, we should establish a presence in the city, pursue the well-being of the city, and pray for the city to thrive so that we may be children of our father in heaven.