Earlier this month I heard a talk by Chris Wright, an Old Testament scholar who serves as International Director of Langham Partnership and has written a number of books including The Mission of God, which is cosmic in scope (the book, that is, as well as the mission). He lives in London but was in town speaking at an event for the Surge Network. Two years ago he spoke in the same venue on faith in the marketplace, and at that time I summarized his main points.
This time around he was speaking on preaching missionally from the Old Testament—a topic clearly suited to the many church planters in the room, and not so much for those of us (like me) who are not pastors. But I’m enough of an armchair theologian to care about the topic, and I loved what he did with Jeremiah 29, his chosen passage for the day. Here’s a salient (and familiar) excerpt from the chapter:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (vv. 4-7).
Wright encouraged us to read Jeremiah 29 in light of Psalms 122 and 137, two passages of scripture that would have been quite familiar to the prophet’s original audience. In Psalm 122—as in Jeremiah 29—we’re exhorted to pray for the peace of a city, with the psalmist adding, “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good” (v. 9). Unlike Jeremiah’s exhortation, however, this has to do with the city belonging to “us” rather than “them.” In Psalm 137, the poet is homesick and in exile, wondering, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (v.4).
The people of God knew they were to pray for the flourishing of their own city and to seek its good. It made sense. What didn’t make sense was seeking the flourishing of a foreign city—a context in which they found themselves desperately homesick, and worse, in exile.
So when Jeremiah urges them to seek the shalom—the “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight”—of that foreign city, he wasn’t saying something predictable. He wasn’t saying something safe. He wasn’t saying something that made everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside. He was saying something that went against the grain of their natural inclinations. He was trying to cultivate in them a new set of virtues.
On the other hand, he wasn’t saying anything new. If anything, as Wright pointed out, Jeremiah was simply reminding the people of God of the mandate found in Genesis 12, when God commanded Abram:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (vv. 1-3).
Jeremiah was reiterating the ancient truth that when God blesses his people, their neighbors are to benefit as well—and that God delights in this. It’s part of his plan.
But Jeremiah also seems to be anticipating the New Testament command of Jesus to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. In Wright’s observation, this is as close as we come in the Old Testament to that command. Granted, Jeremiah doesn’t actually say anything about loving the neighbors in the city to which we have been sent into exile. But as Wright put it, “It’s hard to hate someone when you’re praying for them.”
In Jeremiah 29, Wright says, we discover a surprising new perspective, a surprising new mission, and a surprising new hope. But at the same time, we find nothing but a reiteration of an ancient perspective, an long-standing mission, and an unchanged and unchanging hope. It’s that ancient-future perspective, that ancient-future mission, and that ancient-future hope we’re called to embrace today, wherever God has led us.