Jeremiah 29 is one of the seminal texts to biblically consider faith, work, and vocation. Unfortunately, verse 11 is often read without the surrounding context:
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV)
While undoubtedly a rich promise, the promise of verse 11 is much richer and deeper when read in light of the surrounding text. Jeremiah 29 is a letter from the prophet Jeremiah to God’s people in exile in Babylon.
“These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem 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. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers 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.” (Jeremiah 29:1–3, ESV)
Their exile was God’s just punishment on his people for their sin. They had been conquered by the Babylonians, deported from their land, marched approximately 1,000 miles, and forcibly resettled as servants and slaves in the Babylonian civil service. And the prophets – of whom Jeremiah was one – repeatedly insisted that this punishment was just and right, God’s judgment for sin.
In such a situation, it would be easy to think that God was done with them. But quite the opposite – Jeremiah insisted that God was not done with them, even in spite of their sin. He was still in control of their lives, their situations, and their callings. And he still had great plans for them, plans to bless them and even some day to bring them out of slavery and servitude.
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:10–14, ESV)
Possibly even more amazing, though, was the fact that God was not done working through them, either. God insisted through the prophet Jeremiah that their time in Babylon was not simply judgment, nor simply a waste, nor simply biding time until he would return them to their own land. Instead, it was a time where he placed them in Babylon and called them directly to love the city and to work for its good. Everything in this group of exiles would want to hate Babylon, the city that conquered them, mocked them, and oppressed them. But God’s call was to love that city and to work for its good.
“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.” (Jeremiah 29:4–7, ESV)
Far from hating our world or withdrawing, God called his people into the world, even the world that is stacked against them, oppressing them and standing for everything they reject. And further, the dominant ways God called for this to occur were quite specific: having and raising children (“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.”) and working and developing the industry of their day (“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.”). The predominate ways God laid out to love their city were vocational. Everything in them would want to hate Babylon, but God said to work for the good of Babylon – through their vocations.
Where am I called to love my city and culture, not hate it? How can I do that through my vocation?