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A Future of Hope

The powerful words of Jeremiah 29 challenge and encourage all who grapple with the reality of loving their enemies

Just at the start of the sixth century B.C., the Judean exiles in Babylon received a letter from Jerusalem from the prophet Jeremiah. This must have generated tremendous excitement and anticipation within that desperate group, and we can imagine how eagerly they gathered to hear the messenger read aloud the letter that had traveled for some months over hundreds of miles to bring them the Word of the Lord. Here is some of what Jeremiah wrote:

“Thus says the LORD of Hosts, God of Israel, to the whole exiled community that I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down, and plant gardens, and eat their fruit. Take wives and have sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. And seek the well-being, the shalom of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray for it to the LORD, for with its shalom lies your own shalom. ... For thus says the LORD: When seventy years have passed in Babylon, I will take note of you and fulfill for you my promise to bring you back to this place. For I myself know the thoughts that I am thinking concerning you–an utterance of the LORD–thoughts of shalom, well-being, and not of evil, to give you a future of hope” (Jeremiah 29:4-7, 10-11).

Surely this is not the message the exiles were hoping for. Look again: “Settle down in Babylon; make yourselves content. You will live and die in that place. So seek the welfare of the Babylonians, pray for them, because your welfare is linked inextricably with theirs.” We can imagine what the exiles must have said after hearing that letter from home: “This is prophetic encouragement? What kind of phony hope is this? Jeremiah has sold out to the Babylonians.” “We always knew he was a Babylonian collaborator,” some would have said. “We exiles are the true Judeans. We may be stuck in Babylon, but we’ll make no peace with our captivity. We may be here a long time–God forbid–but if so, then we will live by our seething hatred for every living Babylonian.” “Happy are those who take their little ones and dash them against the rocks!” someone shouted, and it became a chant, a spiritual of sorts; we know that enraged song as Psalm 137.

Abiding hatred for Judah’s Babylonian captors is well represented in the Bible and even within the book of Jeremiah. True, Jeremiah speaks a reconciling word in his letter to the exiles; he envisions Babylonians and Judeans prospering together. But reconciliation is not the final word in the book of Jeremiah, which concludes with two long chapters (chapters 50 and 51) of rage against Babylon, prophetic poetry declaring that Babylon is doomed by God, utterly damned and marked for destruction. So in the book of Jeremiah as we have it, the commitment to abiding hatred of Judah’s worst enemy trumps the great vision of reconciliation in chapter 29. And just in case that book is not enough, the book of Revelation celebrates Babylon’s fall all over again, although this time “Babylon” is a stand-in for Judah’s new Great Enemy, Rome: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Revelation 18:2).

What we see in the Bible is what we see in every religious community, in every place in the church, and also in our own hearts: a profound tension between a vision of reconciliation on the one hand, and committed hatred on the other . This is the crucial thing for us to see: folks have good reasons for both reconciliation and hatred, even good religious reasons for both. That is why the tension is so deep and often seems impossible to resolve. The religious imperative for reconciliation is obvious enough to us, I suppose: “Love your neighbor.” But hatred of the neighbor near or far may be equally a matter of religious principle; the operative principle is Divine Justice. From a sixth-century Judean perspective, the strong denunciation of Babylon is an appeal for God’s just judgment on those who wreaked havoc on the holy city of Jerusalem, toppled the eternal throne of David, and exiled the king, along with thousands of skilled workers, teachers, musicians, poets, prophets, priests, and community organizers. Why would Judeans not believe that God hated the powerful and vicious enemy who had inflicted on them a forced march across the top of the burning Syrian