Jeremiah wasn’t Isaiah, who was brought up in the city and was part of the establishment. Jeremiah came from the country, from Anathoth, the town to which his ancestors had been banished by Solomon. As such he had no great affection for Jerusalem or the political set-up there. So while Isaiah sought repentance in order to save the city. Jeremiah was happy to surrender it and urged the people to embrace the destruction that was coming at the sword of Nebuchadnezzar.
So Jeremiah had no qualms about telling the Jerusalemites to seek the welfare of Babylon, the city of their forthcoming exile. He recognised that the future prosperity of the exiles was related to the prosperity of their captors.
Jer 29:4-7 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.
Increase in number there; do not decrease. 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.
James Dougherty contrasts Isaiah’s view of the remnant that would survive the sacking of Jerusalem and the perspective of Jeremiah. He argues that the Jeremiah urges the exiles to adopt ghetto status in Babylon as a means of preserving religious purity, a purity that would never have been possible in Jerusalem. He writes,
…if God is with those who have His law written in their hearts, then the true winnowing takes place not in the chance slaughter of war but in the temptations of a dominating alien culture. God’s purposes then are best served not in a physical “Zion” where mere habitation and loyalty may define the Jew, but in Babylon, where to be a Jew is to resist—not just the cult of Bel and the pogroms of Haman, but also the opportunities to become not Daniel the Judean but Belteshazzar, prince of the satraps of Persia.”
Despite being under the ultimate judgment of God therefore, in the eyes of the prophet Babylon can continue to serve the purposes of God in clarifying the issue of faithfulness in ways that could never be, back in Jerusalem. In Babylon, with a new law of God written on the heart of the faithful (Eze 11:19; 36:26) the exile can look at the ornate idols of Babylon, even serve the state as a loyal politician, and not be assimilated by the culture. Faithfulness is only recognised through genuine engagement with the alien culture rather than locking oneself away with the gathered holy ones.
“As the law of Yahweh is internalized “in the heart” of each of the faithful remnant, so the remnant itself assumes a corporate identity within the foreign city, differentiated and organized around the service of God. The exile community gives form and membership to what was invisible in Isaiah’s Jerusalem by attracting to itself those who are truly faithful.”
Fascinatingly it appears that central to this new strategy was a vision of the city of Jerusalem, not as the physical city that needed to be defended from foreign invader, but as a new city with a new temple that was always ahead of them, not the ruined city they had left. The remnant thus becomes a pilgrim people much as their ancestors were, only this time on the way to a promised city, not a promised land.
This vision of this holy city is thus a magnet which draws the faithful, rather than a container which hosts them. Not an corral but a vista.
And faithfulness is always ‘on the way’. Dougherty points out that avoiding the seductions of Babylon is only possible if one can imagine oneself on the way to Jerusalem. The journey becomes more important than the sense of having arrived.
I find this an exciting picture of faith. And a challenging picture of the Way home. What would it mean then for us to ‘seek the welfare’ of our cities and towns, and the cultures which we imagine threaten our faith? What does it mean to live as an exile? To leave go any notions of restoring the holy city and embrace our status as strangers?