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 29:7 (ESV)
Charlie “Tremendous” Jones said, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.”
That has been true in my life, as key people and books have helped place me where I am in life today. At William and Mary, I joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and spent time with a campus minister who encouraged me to read Run with the Horses by Eugene Peterson.
One chapter in that book is “Letter to the Exiles.” Peterson explains, “being in exile means being somewhere you don’t want to be, with people you don’t want to be with.”
Quick backstory: In 597 B.C., invading soldiers overran Jerusalem and sent some Jews off to exile in remote, pagan Babylon. Forcibly removed from their homes, families, culture and temple, most were heartbroken with homesickness and culture shock. In that void, many false prophets claimed to speak for God and told the exiles pleasant-sounding lies such as: “Cheer up! We won’t be here long! God will take us back to Israel soon!”
In contrast to all the lying voices, the lone Jewish prophet Jeremiah gave the true word of God, explaining they were going to be stuck in Babylon for seventy years, so they had better make the best of it. (Side story: many times the truth-teller is solo, while the liars form a mass chorus. But that is a topic for another day.)
Here is Jeremiahs’ message to the Jews, as recorded in the Bible:
“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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.
“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. — Jeremiah 29:4-13 (ESV)
In sum, Jeremiah is telling his people: “Stop daydreaming and wasting your time. Stop listening to the liars and deceivers. You’re going to be in Babylon for 70 years, so get over it and get used to it. Make the most of it. Don’t live in tents or shanties, but build houses and settle down. Don’t live meal to meal, but plant gardens and feed yourself season by season. Don’t get by with non-committed relationships, but marry, have children, and help them find good spouses. The people of Babylon are not better than you, but they are not worse than you either: they are your equals, with whom you can have responsible, respectful interactions. Seek the welfare, blessing, and prosperity of Babylon while you are there, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
How does this ancient story relate to us?
Last March, when experts were warning us the new virus was bearing down on us here in the US, I read one expert who observed: “All pandemics are local.” In other words, even though pandemics are widespread and serious, they are not universal: some areas get hit harder than others. My prayer from then till now has been to ask God to spare our region–Southwest Virginia–the worst of the coronavirus.
Likewise, I encouraged everyone in my circle to take the virus seriously and do what we can to avoid its scourge coming here in force. So far, God has answered our prayers and our efforts have paid off: the virus has not taken a huge toll in our area. We can all be thankful for this. As the ancient story of Jeremiah tells us, when our city and locale do well, we personally well. We hear this summed up today as, “We’re all in this together.”
Now, let’s look at today. Many of us are heartbroken as parts of our wonderful country and state are riven by injustice, rage, destruction, and conflict. Many are losing their property; more tragically, some have lost their lives. Jeremiah spoke to Jews who hated being stuck in a hostile, alien country. Today, many Americans feel like we are in a “foreign country” as we are confronted with overwhelming images of American cities burning and torn by violence. What are we to do?
God’s advice to His people via Jeremiah is still valid for us today. “Seek the welfare of the city.” Today the word “welfare” has some negative connotations, but in biblical Hebrew it is “shalom,” which can be translated as “prosperity, wellness, wholeness.” Pray for your city. Are you in Southwest Virginia? Pray for Roanoke; pray for Mayor Sherman Lea. Pray for city council, the faith leaders, the business leaders, the parents, the police and first responders. If our city does well, you do well. We all do well.
Are you in a smaller town or rural area of Southwest Virginia? Are you in Salem or Vinton? Or an outlying county? Pray for your locality and local leaders, but pray for Roanoke too. As the largest city in the western half of the state, Roanoke sets the pace for the region. If it does well, we do well. If it suffers, our whole region suffers. This principle holds true wherever we are: we should pray for the welfare of our city and do what we can–by word and deed–to contribute to its wholeness and wellness.
When people can live in harmony, do their jobs, go about their business, and make an income to take care of themselves and their family, we all benefit. When stores and services are open, everyone benefits.
Customers can buy what they need.
Employees can earn their salaries so they can stay solvent, provide for themselves and their families, and also spend and invest in their community.
Governments get taxes to maintain basic services like schools, first responders, social services, etc. The virus and shutdown have already crippled much of the economy, making many wonder: how will we pay our teachers? Our first-responders? Fix our roads or parks? Any further chaos or shutdowns would only make matters worse.
Pray for the peace of the city. Work for its welfare and wholeness. If it does well, you do well.
Scott G. Dreyer,
President & CEO / Dreyer Academy LLC
Educator & Bestselling Author