I’ve been astonished by people I’ve heard who make an argument from Jeremiah 29:7 like this:They note that that word ‘welfare’ is the Hebrew word shalom, which has a wide possible range of meanings—it covers physical, emotional, spiritual and financial peace and prosperity. They then assume that it has all those meanings here, and so expand it into various applications about work and money and involvement in civic affairs and the importance of helping buses run on time for the good of our city.They then cast this vision for comprehensive, city-wide shalom as a bolder call for civic engagement than Jesus or the New Testament ever makes on new covenant believers. And so this one verse becomes a charter for a program of Christian ministry that not only ignores its context in Jeremiah (as we’ve seen) but goes places where the New Testament simply does not go.
If I was writing 20 years ago about how Christians should live in the world this side of Christ’s return, I don’t think Jeremiah 29 would have been on the radar. Perhaps Jeremiah 29:11 might have got a mention —“I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord”—which has been on Christian posters with puppies and sunsets since time immemorial.
However, it’s funny how certain passages capture the Christian zeitgeist at a particular time, for good or for ill. Right now among Reformed evangelicals, it is Jeremiah 29’s time. This is thanks largely to Tim Keller’s very well-known and generally amazing work in New York, and his appropriation of Jeremiah 29:7—“seek the welfare of the city”—as a mission statement for Christian engagement with the world. For many people, this verse (or phrase) has become key for understanding the role of the Christian and the church in the modern world; the key verse for what it means to live as exiles in a fallen world.
I have to admit that I have always felt uncomfortable when I see Jeremiah 29:7 used in that way. Why? Because I am a child of Sydney evangelicalism, and that means I have been raised to understand the importance of biblical theology.
Moore College—from the days of Knox and Robinson through to Graeme Goldsworthy—is known for its focus on considering each part of the Scriptures in the light of the whole, and understanding each part through the lens of God’s great plans in Christ for all of history (which is what I mean by ‘biblical theology’). So I am always uncomfortable when Old Testament verses are taken and applied directly to the new covenant believer, especially when they are used as a slogan.
With that in mind, in this article, I want to look at Jeremiah 29:7 on its own terms, rather than as a mission statement. I want to see what it actually has to teach us—and not teach us—about living in exile.
Judgement, hope, and false prophets
The first thing we need to do is remember what Jeremiah as a whole is about. There are three dominant themes in Jeremiah:
Firstly, more than anything, Jeremiah is about God’s judgement on his people: for their apostasy; for their false assurance; for their ungodliness. It is a judgement that took the form of exile.
Secondly, Jeremiah is also about a future hope. It is a message that judgement and exile are not the end of the matter for God’s people.
The third dominant theme in the book is what I call ‘the battle of the prophets’, which is probably better thought of as the context for the first two themes. The book of Jeremiah maps out a constant battle between Jeremiah, who is bringing God’s message to his people, and false prophets, who want to contradict and undercut Jeremiah at every turn. All through the book, Jeremiah isn’t speaking the word of God into a vacuum: there are always these other voices with their false messages at every point.
Leading up to the exile itself, Jeremiah was primarily a prophet of doom to Jerusalem. In many ways, this pre-exile message is best summarized in chapters 15 and 16.
In chapter 15, the message is about God’s judgement for Judah’s sin and apostasy: some will die, some will starve, some will be exiled. However, the key thing is that God will be behind it all. The impending catastrophe, and all its consequences, are God’s doing.
Yet alongside this message of doom, there is also a prophecy of future hope. After the judgement, there will be salvation and restoration:
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, “As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers. (Jer 16:14-15)
Jeremiah is speaking of a new exodus (out of exile and back to Jerusalem) which will make the first exodus seem hardly worth talking about. This promise is repeated in chapter 23, but this time with a Davidic or Messianic edge to the hope.
So these two themes—judgement and restoration—run through Jeremiah’s prophetic messages.
However, nearly every prophecy Jeremiah shared is refuted and denied by his opponents. When Jeremiah says judgement is coming, his opponents say, “Don’t be stupid, God won’t judge his own people”. When God says through Jeremiah, “I’m finishing them all off—by sword, famine and plague”, the false prophets say, “You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place” (14:13).