Jeremiah 29 – Letter to the Captives
A. A future and a hope.
1. (1-4) A letter from Jerusalem to the captives in Babylon.
Now these are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the remainder of the elders who were carried away captive—to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This happened after Jeconiah the king, the queen mother, the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.) The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon, to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, saying,
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who were carried away captive, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon:
a. The letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem: Jeremiah 29 contains a letter from Jeremiah (writing as the LORD’s prophet) to the exiles in Babylon. It was especially directed to the leaders (the remainder of the elders) of the Jewish community there.
b. This happened after Jeconiah: Jeconiah was taken to Babylon in 598 BC By this time Babylon had already invaded Judah and Jerusalem twice (605 BC and 598 BC) and taken captives each time. There still remained a sizable population in Jerusalem and Judah, but they would also soon be conquered and carried away in forced exile.
i. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah: “Diplomatic correspondence between overlords and vassals was common in the second millennium BC, as the Amarna letters written from Palestine to the pharaoh indicate.” (Thompson)
c. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who were carried away captive: This letter was a valid and true expression of Jeremiah’s prophetic office, even though it was written and not spoken.
2. (5-9) Make yourself at home and be good citizens in Babylon.
Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are in your midst deceive you, nor listen to your dreams which you cause to be dreamed. For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them, says the LORD.
a. Build houses and dwell in them: The Jewish people were in Babylon by the will of God, in that He was bringing judgment on Judah for their generations of rebellion against Him. In God’s plan they would be in Babylon a long time, so it was best for them to settle in and make the best of their lives and families there.
i. “Most likely, in expectation of a brief sojourn in captivity, they were wary of acquiring houses, land, and even children, since these would be encumbrances in the event of a return journey to Jerusalem.” (Cundall)
ii. “The freedom allowed them implies they were neither slaves nor prisoners in their new land.” (Feinberg)
b. That you may be increased there, and not diminished: God wanted the Jewish people to multiply in Babylon, even as they multiplied in Egypt. Exile didn’t mean that God forgot about them or wanted to destroy them.
c. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive: God wanted them to do good in their communities and be a blessing to their Babylonian neighbors. Ultimately, God caused them to be in Babylon, and they should be a blessing where they were set.
i. Pray to the LORD for it: “Unique in ancient literature was Jeremiah’s command for them to pray for their pagan captors.” (Feinberg)
ii. Prayer and good works of all sorts are ways to seek the peace [shalom] of the city. Yet, proclaiming the good news of God’s rescue in Jesus the Messiah is also part of seeking the peace of the city. “By themselves, random acts of kindness cannot bring enduring peace. The only basis for real and lasting shalom is the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.” (Ryken)
iii. “Jeremiah had foretold the ultimate overthrow of Babylon with no uncertain sound. Of that issue there could be no doubt. But so long as it remained, and they were held there as captives by the will of God, let them secure peace for themselves, by seeking the peace of the city, and that by prayer.” (Morgan)
iv. “Wherever you find yourself, seek the peace and comfort of those about you.” (Meyer)
d. Do not let your prophets and diviners who are in your midst deceive you: There were false prophets among the Jews in Jerusalem and in Babylon. These false prophets and diviners likely told the Jews in Babylon that they would soon be allowed back to Judah and they should plan accordingly. God said, “They prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them.”
i. “There was a period of unrest all over the Babylonian empire, and prophets both in Jerusalem and in Babylon were proclaiming the imminent ending of the Exile, evidently believing that Babylon was on the point of collapse. The Babylonian Chronicle hints at internal troubles in Babylon in 595/4 BC in which some of the deported Jews seem to have been involved.” (Thompson)
3. (10-14) The promise to bring them back into the land.
For thus says the LORD: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive.
a. After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you: As previously promised by Jeremiah, the captivity in Babylon would not go beyond seventy years. God had appointed an end to it, but it would be a long season in exile before God would cause you to return to this place.
i. The false prophets promised a quick return from exile. Through Jeremiah, the LORD told them it would not be a quick return, but there would be a return. In time, God would visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. God had a good word for the exiles; it just wasn’t the word the false prophets brought.
ii. “The prophet had the double duty of putting down their false hopes, and sustaining their right expectations. He, therefore, plainly warned them against expecting more than God had promised, and he aroused them to look for the fulfillment of what he had promised.” (Spurgeon)
iii. “The exile did last seventy years. R.K. Harrison counts seventy years from the Babylonian victory at Carchemish in 605 BC to the return of the first exiles in 536 BC” (Ryken)
b. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD: God knew His own thoughts toward these exiled Jews in Babylon. They did not know or did not remember His thoughts toward them, so God wanted to state them in writing through Jeremiah’s letter.
i. God thinks about us. In Psalm 40, David pondered the thoughts of God upon His people: Your thoughts toward us cannot be recounted to You in order; if I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered (Psalm 40:5; see also Psalm 139:17-18).
ii. “God’s thoughts run upon his children, the children of affliction especially, as a father’s do upon his dear children.” (Trapp)
iii. Yet what God told the exiles through Jeremiah was even better. God does not only think of His people, His thoughts are toward them. “The Lord not only thinks of you, but towards you. His thoughts are all drifting your way.” (Spurgeon)
iv. Furthermore, we may not know God’s thoughts, but He says, I know the thoughts that I think toward you. “Brethren, when we cannot know the thoughts of the Lord because they are too high for our conception, or too deep for our understanding, yet the Lord knows them.” (Spurgeon)
c.Thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope: The exiled Jews lived in the experience of God’s judgment upon their nation. It was easy for them to think that God was against them; that He intended evil for them. Through Jeremiah, God assured them that His thoughts toward them were of peace, and that in His heart and mind He had a future and a hope for them.
i. This promise was made to ancient Jews under the Babylonian exile, but they express the unchanging heart of God toward His people. Indeed, these were God’s thoughts toward Israel under the Old Covenant; we should not dare to believe that He is less favorable to those who come to Him in faith, through the Messiah, in the New Covenant.
ii. God has a future and a hope for His people even when they suffer in exile, even when they hurt under deserved discipline or judgment. It is the devil’s deception to rob God’s people of their sense of His future and a hope for them.
ii. The future and hope was not only expressed in a return from exile. “God had a special purpose in allowing the captivity of his people into Babylon. It was to scatter synagogues and the Old Testament, in preparation for the Gospel.” (Meyer)
iv. “Jeremiah’s words ‘hope and a future’ are literally ‘an end and a hope,’ which is a hendiadys (a figure in which a complex idea is expressed in two words linked by a coordinating conjunction) and means ‘a hopeful end.’” (Feinberg)
d. You will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you: This helped define the future and a hope that God had for His exiled people. Though they were not in Jerusalem and could not perform the appointed temple rituals, God would still listen when they prayed. Their prayer and God’s answer were part of their future and hope.
i. Though in exile, they were not without God and those God sent to serve them. “Ezekiel could minister to them, as could other prophets.” (Thompson)
e. You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart: God would not hide from His people when they sought Him. They would not suffer under the dark sense that God could not be found. Their seeking and God’s revealing were part of their future and hope.
f. I will bring you back from your captivity: This was a further aspect of their future and hope – that God would not only bless and be with them in Babylon, but allow His people to eventually come back to His and their Promised Land.
4. (15-20) God’s displeasure with those who remained in Jerusalem and Judah.
Because you have said, “The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon”— therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, concerning all the people who dwell in this city, and concerning your brethren who have not gone out with you into captivity— thus says the LORD of hosts: Behold, I will send on them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, and will make them like rotten figs that cannot be eaten, they are so bad. And I will pursue them with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence; and I will deliver them to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth—to be a curse, an astonishment, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, because they have not heeded My words, says the LORD, which I sent to them by My servants the prophets, rising up early and sending them; neither would you heed, says the LORD. Therefore hear the word of the LORD, all you of the captivity, whom I have sent from Jerusalem to Babylon.
a. Concerning your brethren who have not gone out with you into captivity: Many among the exiles in Babylon believed that those who had not yet been carried into captivity were somehow better than those who had been taken away. Perhaps there were prophets who encouraged this thinking. God told the exiles that those who remained would face severe judgment.
b. Like rotten figs that cannot be eaten: Jeremiah 24 told of the parable of the baskets of figs, and here the picture is repeated. Those who remained in Jerusalem and Judah were like the rotten figs, not the good ones. Their fate was to be a curse, an astonishment, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations.
i. “Do not envy the state of Zedekiah who sits on the throne of David, nor that of the people who are now in the land whence ye have been carried captive.” (Clarke)
c. Because they have not heeded my words, says the LORD…neither would you heed: It wasn’t as if those already taken in captivity were righteous and those who remained were far more wicked. It seems what God most objected to was the sense of superiority and favor that those who remained in Jerusalem and Judah held on to.
B. The message to certain individuals in Babylon.
1. (21-23) The message to the false prophets Ahab and Zedekiah.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning Ahab the son of Kolaiah, and Zedekiah the son of Maaseiah, who prophesy a lie to you in My name: Behold, I will deliver them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall slay them before your eyes. And because of them a curse shall be taken up by all the captivity of Judah who are in Babylon, saying, “The LORD make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire”; because they have done disgraceful things in Israel, have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and have spoken lying words in My name, which I have not commanded them. Indeed I know, and am a witness, says the LORD.
a. Concerning Ahab the son of Kolaiah, and Zedekiah the son of Maaseiah: In God’s letter to the exiles through Jeremiah, He addressed some specific individuals. Here, God spoke to Ahab and Zedekiah – two men considered prophets, and named after a wicked king of Israel and a wicked king of Judah.
b. I will deliver them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall slay them: Apparently, Ahab and Zedekiah were among the prophets who lied to the people of God, telling them of Nebuchadnezzar’s weakness and the soon restoration of the Jews to Judah. Not only were they wrong generally, they also were wrong regarding themselves personally, and would soon be executed by the king they said was fading in power and influence.
c. The LORD make you like Zedekiah and Ahab: This would become a proverb among the Jews in Babylonian exile. These men died such terrible deaths (roasted in the fire) that one could curse others by wishing their fate upon them.
i. “Literally, the Bible says Nebuchadnezzar ‘roasted’ them, which was the proper punishment for treason in Hammurabi’s Code.” (Ryken)
d. They have done disgraceful things in Israel, have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and have spoken lying words in My name: These men were unfaithful with their lives and with their words. Though their unfaithfulness was perhaps not public knowledge, God was a witness to it all and would hold them to account.
2. (24-28) The message to Shemaiah.
You shall also speak to Shemaiah the Nehelamite, saying, Thus speaks the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, saying: You have sent letters in your name to all the people who are at Jerusalem, to Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah the priest, and to all the priests, saying, “The LORD has made you priest instead of Jehoiada the priest, so that there should be officers in the house of the LORD over every man who is demented and considers himself a prophet, that you should put him in prison and in the stocks. Now therefore, why have you not rebuked Jeremiah of Anathoth who makes himself a prophet to you? For he has sent to us in Babylon, saying, ‘This captivity is long; build houses and dwell in them, and plant gardens and eat their fruit.’”
a. The LORD has made you priest: The second message was to Shemaiah the Nehelamite, who sent letters to the High Priest Zephaniah, telling him to stop and punish every man who is demented and considers himself a prophet, meaning Jeremiah (and perhaps others).
i. Demented: “Meshugga, in ecstatic rapture; such as appeared in the prophets, whether true or false, when under the influence, the one of God, the other of a demon. See 2 Kings 9:11; Hosea 9:7.” (Clarke)
ii. Zephaniah was priest after the good and godly Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 23-24).
iii. “He should have known, too, that the stocks (or pillory) had not silenced Jeremiah before, nor would the addition of the iron collar.” (Kidner)
b. Why have you not rebuked Jeremiah of Anathoth: Shemaiah wanted Zephaniah to do everything he could to oppose and discredit Jeremiah, denying his message that they would be in exile for a long time and should make the best of it.
3. (29-32) The judgment to come upon Shemiah.
Now Zephaniah the priest read this letter in the hearing of Jeremiah the prophet. Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying: Send to all those in captivity, saying, Thus says the LORD concerning Shemaiah the Nehelamite: Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, and I have not sent him, and he has caused you to trust in a lie— therefore thus says the LORD: Behold, I will punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his family: he shall not have anyone to dwell among this people, nor shall he see the good that I will do for My people, says the LORD, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD.
a. Zephaniah the priest read this letter in the hearing of Jeremiah: When the letter from Shemaiah came to Jerusalem and Zephaniah, Jeremiah heard the letter exalting Shemaiah and criticizing Jeremiah.
b. Behold, I will punish Shemaiah: God directed Jeremiah to respond with a prophetic declaration against Shemaiah. God would punish this false prophet and his family. They would die out with no descendants and never see the good that I will do for My people.
i. One reason to keep faithful to God through the difficulties of life is simply so we can be around when God does remarkable good for His people.