Christianity has always – like any global movement – had different flavors. Those flavors are often thought of as denominations, but denominations themselves mask a range of variation in how we express our Christianity – cultural variation, theological variation, and almost any other “-al variation” out there. At a time when one flavor of Christianity (the movement formerly known as “evangelicalism”) has become overly-politicized in one direction and another flavor of Christianity (the movement theologically known as “liberalism”) has become overly-politicized in the other direction, it would be easy for the rest of us to just give up on engaging with our world at all, maybe an over-simplified, unnuanced version of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Those who follow Christ as lord and savior and who hold to traditional biblical positions on issues such as sexual ethics, salvation, miracles, and many other doctrines can feel like “strangers in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22), and that feeling often leads us to flight, to insulation, to stepping away from that strange land.
This is not new. This was the question on the mind of Jews as they were marched out of Jerusalem into the Babylonian Empire. Their cultural and religious identity was tied to their geography, a land promised to them by YHWH on the condition of a covenant YHWH had made with their ancestors. No longer tied to the land, the question naturally arose of how to live now that they were strangers and aliens. Jeremiah 29:1-7 is the prophet’s answer to this question, written in a letter to the people of God living in exile. It provides ethical imperatives for the people of God living in exile, rooted in the Adamic and Abrahamic covenants. These ethical imperatives help shape New Testament ethics for the Christian Church in the first-century and beyond. These ethical imperatives can be categorized as behavior for the exiled community itself and their interaction with society, that is there are ethical imperatives for the people of God internally as a distinct people and ethics regarding their relation to the wider society. In light of this, we must understand – but resist – the strain of Christianity that advocates for withdrawal from society and instead remain integrated into wider society for the sake of radical Gospel transformation.
Life and Loss in Babylon
Jeremiah 29 is a letter written to exiles, those who have been brought over to Babylon as captives from war. This was the second wave of deportations, dating the letter between 597 BC and 586 BC. During this time there was unrest in the Babylonian empire, as noted in the extra-biblical source the Babylonian Chronicle. These signs of unrest caused some prophets among the exiles and even those who remained in Jerusalem to prophesy the imminent end of the exile and a subsequent return to Judah. Jeremiah, knowing that these prophets were false prophets, wrote a letter to the Jews in exile, both to establish its length and to address how they were to live in light of that exile. It is important to note that this letter was not simply addressed to the political or religious elite of Israel or the especially pious among the people. It was addressed, “To the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” The letter was addressed to all the people; thus its contents were meant to address and be applied to all of Jewish society that had been driven into exile. The implications of Jeremiah’s letter would vary based on social-political status and the level of integration into Babylonian society, but the general principles or ethics espoused in the letter were meant to be applied across the population in exile.
Following introductory remarks regarding the letters recipients as well as the identification of its carrier Jeremiah opens his letter stating, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel.” (Jer. 29:4, ESV) What begins this letter is the assertion that these words are not simply the words of Jeremiah the Prophet but the very word of YHWH being delivered to the people through Jeremiah. Jeremiah gives not simply a prophetic encouragement but a divine instruction. Polemically, Jeremiah purposes in his letter to combat the false prophets calling for an early end to the exile. He establishes who really speaks for YHWH and calls the exiles to heed his words as God’s own. He continues, “To all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” (Jer. 29:4, ESV) Not only does Jeremiah assert that the message is from YHWH, but he affirms that YHWH’s divine plan caused this exile. This affirmation works on two levels. First, it defends the supremacy of YHWH over and against the pagan notion that ascribed victory in battle to victory in the divine realm, a view which would have led many to believe that YHWH’s supremacy had been challenged by the pagan gods of Babylon, especially Marduk. Second, it frames the exile as a covenant judgement according to the stipulations of Leviticus 26.
Jeremiah then begins to describe how his people should live in exile, a description that uncouples his purposes for his people from their possession of the promised land. With their identity and vocation seemingly tied to their nation-state it made sense to ask whether they had any vocation to fulfill in Babylon. This passage then illustrates a theological development of Yahwism which, according to McKane, “leaves behind the territorial limitations of Yahwism and the dependence of its practice on residence in Jerusalem and access to the temple cult.” The instructions that follow demonstrate how the Jewish people might continue to fulfill their vocation as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex. 19:6, ESV)
Jeremiah’s first instructions to the exiles include building homes, plating gardens, and getting married. These instructions are not simply to continue on with daily living but instead encourage integration into Babylonian society. Only then does Jeremiah’s call to seek the shalom of Babylon make sense. They also can be read as a call to abandon any military action while in exile. Louis Stulman points out that, “according to the rules of warfare, those who have recently “built a new house,” “planted a vineyard,” or “become engaged” are exempt from military service (Deut. 20:1-20).” Jeremiah does not call the Jews to build isolated lives insulated from the happenings of the empire but instead to flourish in the land by integrating themselves and thus participating in its flourishing. Instead of revolt or withdrawal, Jeremiah’s call is to be רבה, to be numerous. The word רבה echoes the Adamic covenant in which humanity is called to multiply and fill the earth, the call for the images of God to fill the earth as an expansion of YHWH’s rule and reign on the earth. The call for the exiles to multiply carries over this connotation and develops the theme of image; as the people of God integrate within Babylonian society and multiply so their capacity to image YHWH grows. It is through living according to his commandments and statues within the empire that they fulfill their national vocation, no longer tied to the land. The land flourishes as YHWH’s representatives integrate into that society and multiply, all the while embodying his good rule and reign among the pagan society.
This flourishing is not a passive byproduct of the exiles’ presence in the land but instead a flourishing that must actively be pursued. Jeremiah calls the exiles to seek with care the shalom of the land. J.A. Thompson in his commentary on Jeremiah 29 rightly calls this notion “revolutionary.” He continues, “Such advice would not have been easy to accept for people who had been carried off from their homeland by those for whom Jeremiah was asking them to pray.” Yet YHWH calls the captives to carefully seek the shalom of their captors. Here we see the tie to the Abrahamic covenant. Despite their exile the people of God were still called to be the family though whom the nations experience blessing. At the height of the Davidic kingdom bringing blessing to the nations meant the expansion of Israel’s borders, but now with no kingdom left to their name the question arises, how will they be the people through whom flows blessing? Jeremiah proposes the radical idea that by pursuing the good of the empire which brought them into exile they are still fulfilling their role as a kingdom of priests. This is further accentuated by Jeremiah’s call for the exiles to “pray to the Lord on its behalf.” (Jer. 29:7, ESV) The exiles take up a priestly role serving the Babylonians by becoming intercessors on their behalf. They are mediators between the pagan empire and YHWH, interceding for its welfare.
Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles outlines a distinct way the exiles must live within their new situation, one that stands in stark contrast to their expectations. Jeremiah calls them to adopt a new ethic, a new understanding of life as the people of God in exile. This ethic challenges the exiles because it “concedes that the future of the exiles is tied to the interests of their captors.” It calls the exiles to fulfill their covenantal vocations through subversive service rather than through the expansion of their own political-social machinations.
Ethics for Exile
Two distinct ethical categories arise from this passage, ethics inside the exiled community and ethics for interaction with wider society. Inside the exiled community, Jeremiah prescribes integration and multiplication. For the broader society, he calls them to pursue the common good, both in spiritual and social dynamics.
Jeremiah’s first piece of instruction to the exiles, mentioned above, is, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.” This instruction carries with the call to integrate into society, to plant roots within the land of exile. The great temptation of the exilic period was an inordinate hope in an immediate rescue and return to Judah. This hope had the potential to stir up revolutionary sentiments or to create a community isolated from the wider society in which the exiles found themselves. J.A. Thompson asserts that this ethical imperative, “Was practical. Any other approach would result in deep resentment or leave the people open to the persuasion of false prophets who might provoke rebellion.” Jeremiah’s instructions permit neither rebellion nor isolation for the exiles; instead, YHWH called them to integrate into Babylonian society. Note that this integration was not a wholesale adoption of Babylonian culture. Instead it was an active call to careful integration. As noted by McKane,
These expressions are paradigms of ‘integration’ and are used to project Jeremiah’s advice that the exiles should take a long-term view of their residence in Babylon; that they should plan on this assumption both for the welfare and continuance of their own community and for the prosperity of the Babylonian communities from which their own highest interests cannot be dissociated.
The key to exilic existence of Jewish people was to adopt a policy of integration, to make their current residence a “home.”
This ethic of integration is the foundation stone on which multiplication and the pursuit of the common good is rooted. Integration serves as a vanguard against revolutionary sentiments and thus serves to protect the exilic community and to prepare it to bless the nations. In order to fully embrace this ethic, the community must accept the length of their stay and YHWH’s role in it. Integration encourages them to see their enemies as neighbors and the prospering of the land as directly connected to their own prospering. It prevents isolationism and a self-centered ideology that condemns the culture and privatizes YHWH’s blessing for those within the exiled community. The community itself is to live full and flourishing lives and to adopt a sense of care for its new home, exercised by building of permanent residences and preparing to root itself in the land.
Multiplication and Dominion
The basic human vocation defined in Genesis 1 includes in two mandates: multiplication and dominion – “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen. 1:28, ESV) This mandate to fill the earth must be understood in light of the Imago Dei. The word צֶ֫לֶם in Genesis 1:26 is the same word used to describe “a created and formed artifact that is worshiped as or as representing a pagan deity.” Humanity in this framework serves as YHWH’s representatives in creation, commissioned by him to bring out its fullness. J Richard Middleton affirms this stating, “As imago Dei, then, humanity in Genesis 1 is called to be the representative and intermediary of God’s power and blessing on earth.” Beale expands on this idea asserting that,
Being ‘fruitful and multiplying” in Gen. 1:28 refers to the increase of Adam and Eve’s progeny, who were also to reflect God’s glorious image and be part of the vanguard movement, spreading out over the earth with the goal of filling it with divine glory. Thus, Adam and Eve and their progeny were to be vice-regents who were to act as God’s obedient children, reflecting God’s ultimate glorious kingship over the earth. The task itself of creating progeny with the goal of “filling the earth” mirrored God’s own creative work in Gen. 1, which also was to climax with the goal of filling the earth with his creation.
YHWH’s glory and reign are directly connected to the multiplication of his divine images. Israel takes up this vocation both through its ritual and cultic practices and the unique ethics given by YHWH in the form of the Torah.
The Jewish people do not lose their vocation in exile; in fact Jeremiah calls them to multiply so that they might continue in their priestly vocation of imaging YHWH and subduing creation. While during the Davidic dynasty this vocation had been connected to temple and conquest, it would take on a new shape in exile. The call for the multiplication of the community is the call for YHWH’s influence to expand within the confines of a pagan society. The more they multiplied as a people the more their witness would expand. If they would decrease so too would their witness. The call to bear children is also an act of faith. To bear children in this period was to bear children who had not known or seen the promised land and temple. They would be children immersed in the Babylonian way of life and yet subservient to YHWH. Thus, they would serve as subversive agents adopting the culture without shirking their vocational call as image bearers. The call to multiply is an ethical imperative, for the more YHWH’s people filled the land, the greater the blessing it would experience as they worked and lived in the land.
Pursuing the Common Good
Shalom has wide semantic range, though it is commonly translated as peace and more appropriately translated as welfare in Jeremiah 29:7. “The word ‘shalom’ (meaning “wholeness” and “peace”) has been used by theologians to capture the ideas in Genesis 1–2 concerning the ideal environment and ways of relating between God and human persons.” Shalom is a state:
The webbing together of God, humans and all creation in justice, fulfillment and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed.… Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
It is this wholeness, this universal flourishing, that Jeremiah calls the exiles to pursue. They are to use their gifts to benefit those around them, integrating into their society and participating in its flourishing. This ethical imperative is a recapitulation of Abraham’s divine vocation. The exiles become the people through whom the blessing of YHWH flows. This blessing could be brought about in one of two ways, through social participation and spiritual mediation. The exiles were called to willingly participate in the social order of the day as ones seeking the welfare of the land into which YHWH had brought them. They should work not simply be done out of self-interest but out of care for the needs of those around them. They should follow the national agenda in so much as it did not call them to compromise the orthodoxy of their faith.
The land should be better for having the exiles dwelling there. Their contributions to the economy and politics of the state should be guided by this ethic. The result is the flourishing of the empire and in turn their own flourishing. As the old adage goes, “They were blessed to be a blessing,” and indeed would benefit from a peaceful society. They were to also serve as spiritual mediators taking up the spiritual care of the land, praying to YHWH on its behalf. This is a radical switch, the tradition of praying against the nations had been long and rightfully ingrained in the Jewish tradition, but Jeremiah calls for a change in the program, a call to remember their mediatorial role, to serve as a go-between for the nations and YHWH. “This is more than mere prudential or pragmatic talk, for in doing so the people of Judah demonstrate they are once again the means by which God will bless all the nations of the earth.” The welfare of the land is tied to its spiritual condition and so the exiles are responsible for interceding on the behalf of the people of the land so all may experience YHWH’s blessing.
Ethics in Exile
The question remains: what did these ethics look like when lived out? How did Jews living during the exilic period adopt these ethics and employ them in their daily living? How did the NT writers understand the theme of exile and how should these ethical imperatives guide the modern Christian life?
Daniel: An Old Testament Case Study
Daniel serves as our clearest example of a life lived according to the ethics of Jeremiah’s letter in the Old Testament canon. He was led into captivity alongside other young men of prominence from the Judea courts. They were given new names, names that were pagan and that served to glorify the gods of Babylon, but there was no protest, In fact what we see here is Daniel and his friends integrating into Babylonian society, neither retreating nor revolting. Montgomery notes that, “This change of name was a requisite for members of the court.” To have resisted their name change was to resist the integration called for by Jeremiah. Without the change of his name Daniel cannot work in the Babylonian courts. It would be in service to the government of Babylon that Daniel was in a position to seek the welfare of Babylon and thus seek the welfare of his own people. He instinctively knew that ethics of the exile required integration without compromise, for he would allow his name to be changed but would not defile himself with the king’s food. Again here we see Daniel walking the line, adapting to the culture without succumbing to pagan standards that would violate his faith. It is important to also note not only did Daniel enter into the service of the Babylonian emperor as a magistrate within his government but he did so with “learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and…understanding in all visions and dreams.” (Dan. 1:17, ESV)
Daniel did not endeavor to simply survive but chose to enter into the service of a foreign king to seek the welfare of the land using all his skill. And while Daniel does not directly illustrate the ethic of multiplication through the act of siring progeny called for by Jeremiah, we do see his influence multiply as he worked diligently in the kingdom’s service.
Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon. 49 Daniel made a request of the king, and he appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of the province of Babylon. But Daniel remained at the king’s court. (Dan. 2:48-49, ESV)
Daniel “was in the cabinet, while his friends were subordinate officers.” They did not shy away from these positions of power within the empire but embraced them, using them to fulfill the ethic of Jeremiah and demonstrate their faithfulness to YHWH by seeking the common good of the land through their administrative duties.
1 Peter: Developing the Exilic Theme
The theme of exile and the exilic ethic are not left behind by the New Testament writers. Peter’s first epistle explicitly picks up the exilic theme. Peter begins by addressing his letter to the ἐκλεκτοῖς παρεπιδήμοις διασπορᾶς or “to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion.” Bigg warns us that, “We must not take the word here in its secular political sense, though this would be very applicable to the Jews of the Diaspora.” Instead we must see that, “the Christian is chosen and called by God (the choosing precedes the calling) to leave his earthly father’s home. The call makes him a pilgrim; henceforth he journeys by slow stages, through many dangers, towards the far-off promised rest.” Like the Jews in exile in Babylon, Peter writes to Christians who are exiles, momentarily separated from their true home and yet called by Christ to live according to the ethic of their heavenly abode. The exile is brought over into the NT and developed in such away it applies to the Church, those who, like the exiles, are not permanent residents of the world – “They are in but not of it.” The church is called to an ethic, just like the exiles were called to embody a certain way of living in a foreign empire. The church is to be, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” Christians are mediators pointing the world to “Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9, ESV) In this vocation we are to seek the common good. Like the exiles, this call requires integration and multiplication. We take up the Abrahamic call to be the fount of blessing by being preaching and living the Gospel.
The Exilic Ethic Applied Today
The question that remains is this: how can the exilic ethic espoused by Jeremiah, taken up by the exiles, and adopted by the New Testament church be applied today? How do the ethical imperatives of integration, multiplication, and the pursuit of the common good shape the Christian? There are two ways in which to apply these ethical imperatives, one for the individual Christian and the second for the church at large.
Eugene Peterson in his pastoral treatise The Contemplative Pastor calls the pastor to be a subversive. Quoting Ivin Illich he coins the work of the Pastor as “shadow work…the work…few notice but that makes a world of salvation.” Peterson’s thinking is a helpful paradigm not just for pastors but for all Christians who are called to the exilic priesthood of Christ. Every believer is indwelled with the presence of God and thus serves in the world as a priestly mediator pointing to the King in the proclamation of the Gospel. But this proclamation is incarnational. Like the exiles, the Christian does not stand outside the wider society but within, ingrained in its politics, culture, economics, and pastimes. Our proclamation is lived out in our living amongst the people. Though we are strangers with a heavenly citizenship, we may not sit idly by and await our new home. Instead, we bring our new home to bear on the land in which we are exiled. The Christian thus works shoulder to shoulder with the world, working for the common good, modeling the ethic of the kingdom of God in all we do. In turn we serve to multiply the image of God as our life and proclamation call others into this glorious kingdom and to join the Christian in our exilic life. The Christian is a subversive agent within the empire, conquering not by the power of the sword but by subservience, service, and prophetic protest. The Christian does not retreat from the world but like the exiles, builds, plants, works and prays for the common good. We await our redemption not idling by, but caring for the politics and culture. We admire and admonish; we support and critique. We do this not with power as the world deems power but by shining as lights in the darkness, cities on a hill, and by being the salt of the earth.
If this is true of the individual Christian then this also must be true of the church. It has always been a danger for the church to forget its exilic status. The Christian empire, the corruption of the papacy, and many modern political engagements are all products of a church that has forgotten its exilic call. We have forgotten the art of subversion and instead look to make the world subservient to our agenda. This is not Jeremiah’s call. Indeed, Christ will reign and rule over all, but it will be at his timing, not our own. For now we are called to embrace the exilic ethic, to integrate into the world, to pursue the common good through humble service, prayer, and proclamation, so that the “whole earth is filled with his glory.”
The Temptation to Withdraw
Despite the call of the exilic ethic there has always been a strong impulse in the Christian tradition to wait out the exile. Whether it has been the eremitic monks of the Egyptian dessert, the cenobitic Carthusians who withdrew into the mountains, or the more extreme sects of the Mennonite tradition, there has always been a flavor of Christianity which desires to withdraw from the world to better serve Christ. Without critiquing every monastic movement, one can critique a thread of thought that often runs through these traditions.
The impulse to withdraw we see in the church’s history is rooted in an implicit dualism. The influence of Middle-Platonism is not to be underestimated in its impact on the Christian tradition. NT Wright and others have long belabored the point that there has and continues to be a strong dualistic worldview adopted but the church. Platonic dualism is marked by a belief in a, “Supreme deity [who] was remote from the material world. This led to a belief in material things as inferior substances and the body as a hindrance to progress toward God.” The material world and the body are seen as something to escape in pursuit of the divine. This impulse has led many Christians to adopt a dualistic anthropology and cosmology. When the body and the world are things to escape or seen as less then, the call to integration in society is lost and we begin to withdraw. Working for the common good becomes a devalued venture, as it is integration which creates the conditions for the pursuit of the common good. Dualism neglects the incarnational heart of Christianity. The telos of the Biblical story is not an escape from a lesser physical reality but the renewal of all creation. The impulse to withdraw that is cultivated by dualism must be confronted with the incarnation and the resurrection. As the old saying goes “matter matters.” God is in the business of renewing his world, not abandoning it. Thus the Christian ethic is naturally one that does not call for our escape but our endurance, as we work for the Kingdom, integrated in the world and waiting for the kingdom to arrive from beyond this world.
While withdrawal has always been a temptation, Jeremiah’s exilic ethic calls us to remember Jesus’ own integration with the life of man. The Christian life is a life lived in exile. We are awaiting our true home but have been called to live as if our true home has already come as we integrate into the world, multiply the image of God, and work for the common good, so that people might see our good deeds, “And glorify our Father in heaven.”
 Stulman, L. Abingdon Old Testament Commentary: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005) 580.
 Thompson, J.A. The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980) 1088.
 Stulman, 581.
 Thompson, 1078.
 McKane, 742–743.
 Swanson, J. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) Electronic ed., accessed 7/20/2020.
 J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005) 122-145.
 Beale, G.K. A New Testament Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011) 38.
 Harrower, S. God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019) 8-9.
 Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 10.
 Kaiser, W. C., Jr., & Rata, T. Walking the Ancient Paths: A Commentary on Jeremiah (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019) 332.
 Montgomery, J. A. A critical and exegetical commentary on the book of Daniel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927) 123.
 Ibid, 183
 Bigg, C. A critical and exegetical commentary on the Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude (Edinburgh: T&T Clark International, 1901) 91.
 Peterson, E. The Contemplative Pastor (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989) 37.
 Keown, M. J. Discovering the New Testament: An Introduction to Its Background, Theology, and Themes: The Gospels & Acts, Vol. I (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018) 83.