The Text: Jeremiah 29:1-12
29 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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. 7 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. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.
In the reign of Jehoiakim, King of Judah, in 597 BCE, Babylonians attacked and carried the king and the elite into exile, alongside the articles or sacred utensils from the temple. An utterly humiliating experience like this could hardly be interpreted as being the will of God. The temple and all its articles were sacred, and the Israelites were God’s chosen people, loved by God above all other nations. Surely, there was no way God would allow them to suffer humiliation in the hands of a heathen king.
Although Jeremiah had dramatically prophesied that Jerusalem would fall under the yoke of the Babylonians—even parading with a yoke on his own neck—his message had proved unpopular. It did not seem to provide the much-needed promise and hope of immediate restoration. Instead, messages from false prophets, especially Hananiah, had carried the day. He soothed the ears of the Israelites by offering immediate hope that the exile would end in two years. Jeremiah sees this as a misleading hope, which would only cause more misery and pain.
Today the world is faced with a deadly coronavirus pandemic, with no cure or vaccine as yet, and false prophecies, religious and otherwise, abound. As many Christian believers seek answers to as to why God has allowed such suffering to be experienced, others make it their business to provide the much-needed answers, and they claim to speak for God. Mixed messages are heard from different quarters. Some call for repentance, prayer, and fasting, alone. Others call for following public health measures. Still others call for both as means to curb the pandemic and its effects on the human race. These mixed messages can be likened to the prophecies competing during the time of the prophet Jeremiah.
This leads us to grapple with the question posed in all ages: how do we discern the voice of God in difficult times when, as often happens, false prophecy sounds convincing while true prophecy is hard to take in, accept, or believe?
The Text in Its Context
Jeremiah writes to the exiles in Babylon because false prophecy was becoming popular there and was going to further mislead the people of God, who were now in captivity. He tells of God’s awareness of their situation, God’s constancy, and even of God’s good intentions behind Nebuchadnezzar’s “chains.” He also warns them against the false prophets, whose lies would cause them more trouble than what they already experienced. False prophecy addresses the people’s fear and panic and despair, with the implicit message, “This can’t be happening! God cannot allow this to happen to God’s chosen people.”
The message by the self-proclaimed prophets, among them Hananiah, was in part, “Very soon now the articles from the house of the Lord will be brought back from Babylon” (Jer. 27:16b), and both the exiles and the articles from the temple would return in two years.
Jeremiah pleads, “They are prophesying lies to you. Do not listen to them, serve the king of Babylon and live” (27:17). The die had been cast, Jeremiah argues. Israel had to fall in the hands of Nebuchadnezzer, who is even referred to as the servant of God in 27:6. Babylon was in effect to carry out the judgment of God over Israel and the nations. The exiles had the option of subjecting themselves to the rule of the Babylonians or being punished by the sword, famine, and plague (27:8).
Jeremiah is quick to note that Hananiah’s message, however comforting, was a destructive one. It would lead God’s people astray into further complacency in their self-delusions and encourage wrong actions, which would add to their pain and misery. Jeremiah urges the exiles to be patient, calm down, take a deep breath, act soberly and make the right choices. He is saying, in effect, “You are now in Babylon, this situation is not reversible, it is going to get worse, as those who remained in Jerusalem will soon join you. So be realistic: study the situation, live normal lives, work for peace, because if there is peace your life will be more bearable.” God will restore the people, though only after the exile has gone the full cycle of 70 years. God’s plan for Israel’s prosperity still stands.
Jeremiah seeks to convince the people that their exile will be long; they need to find ways of coping; and God has promised to restore them in the end. “Jeremiah has often been regarded as a prophet of doom by some scholars, while others see him as prophet of realism.” His message contains both judgment and hope of restoration.
Prophecy and Truth-Telling Today
False prophecy, especially in Africa, worsened the spread of HIV in the first two decades after its appearance, which were critical to mitigating the spread. Even when science provided the truth about HIV’s cause, mode of transmission, prevention, and treatment, many Christian believers fell through the cracks of life-threatening theologies and succumbed to AIDS. In dealing with COVID-19, we must learn to discern the voice of God amidst many popular voices, and not repeat the mistakes we made with HIV.
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, spreading fast and causing death globally. In every country, individuals, organizations and governments had to implement measures and observe precautions meant to contain the spread of the deadly virus. The virus has brought havoc globally, leaving governments, institutions and individuals to make hard choices between life and livelihood. Governments the world over restricted or banned international travel and advised citizens against attending any social, religious or political gatherings.
Many Christians have seen challenges with these new guidelines, and some preachers have seen the urgency to prophesy God’s message in the midst of the existing fear, panic, and confusion. We have witnessed many messages of hope in social media, purportedly coming from God through preachers, which imply that believing in God and living a righteous life is the magic bullet against COVID 19. Some governments have also advised their citizens to pray and continue going to church and beseeching God, heedless of the call to stay away from crowds. False prophecy gives false hope and takes away responsibility from the people facing suffering to seek care and follow medical directions. False hope leads to misaction and inaction and worsens the situation.
The paradox I see in this story, however, are the two discordant voices, each claiming to be from God. The people of God need wisdom and spiritual insight to discern the true message from the false. The temptation is always to lean toward the soothing message.
This text is an invitation for people facing challenging moments and situations, such as ourselves, to adapt, and try to make life meaningful in unusual times. Jeremiah urges his people to brace themselves for tougher times and not to listen to the lies of the false prophets. Jeremiah advises the exiles to settle in, for they are there in Babylon to stay (Jer. 29:5-10). This was a message which no exile would have desired to hear. Yet, however dim it appeared, it was the true message from God. God’s promise of restoration still stands, but the time of its fulfilment is not dependent on the people’s desperation nor the false prophets but on God.
The people of God are exhorted by Jeremiah to exercise patience while in exile, and to contribute positively to the society they now live in. As a prophet of realistic hope, he exhorts the people to understand the times and their situation and act accordingly.
Exile, COVID-19, and the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
The world today is grappling with a pandemic for which experts warn there is yet no cure or vaccine. Facing this pandemic especially in Africa the imagined reality is overwhelming and scary: no infrastructure, no adequate food and basic amenities, no adequate health care facilities: the list of challenges and dangers is endless. Many would want to embrace the theology that God cannot allow this to happen, others have prophesied that God has spared Africa because it has upheld the sanctity of marriage and shunned same-sex relations, saying, “Africans are godly and prayerful.”
So one may ask themselves, is God a sadist who enjoys seeing the people suffer? And as believers we can answer in the negative with certainty. God loves and draws the people back to God, even when they go astray, as in the case of the Israelites in this Bible story. Exile is to be a time for self-examination, enabling the people to seek and find God. As the world grapples with COVID-19 and its effects, it calls for self-examination at individual, community, church, national and global levels. Where have we placed value for life? Where have we invested our resources, including our money and time? Maybe we will realize that our political affiliations were not important after all, our investments were valueless after all. In the face of adversity, they do not count.
Pandemics can linger on for a long time; a good example is HIV, which has been with us for four decades now. As the human family, we must not make the same mistake we made decades ago with our response to HIV, making us lag behind in interventions for prevention, stigma reduction, and treatment uptake and adherence. That vacillation and self-delusion had dire consequences, and millions of lives were lost. In the face of COVID-19, we need to brace ourselves for harder times, understand the pandemic, follow the public health guidelines, work with science to provide a cure and a vaccine and with healthcare workers to educate the well and heal the infected, even as we patiently await God’s right time.
- What do you think God want us to learn in this situation?
- What are the conflicting messages we hear in relation to the pandemic? Where do you find misinformation, stigmatization, or manipulation? Where do you find truth, best advice, and good counsel?
- How should we as believers discern the voice of God amidst competing prophetic voices?
Practical ideas for action
- Devise ways of worshipping God and offering pastoral accompaniment in the reality of physical distancing.
- Christians should lead by example in following the public-health guidelines as doing so will help contain the virus and limit the misery and suffering it brings.
- Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998).
- Lynda Randle, “God on the Mountain,” with lyrics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvkCoC0ZOZc
- By the Rivers of Babylon ( with lyrics) -YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYK9iCRb7S4
Spirit of God, calm our fears and free us to prayerfully discern and authentically live your truth for us. Though exiled from our usual circumstances and ways, we trust in your constant care. Enlighten our minds, enflame our hearts, strengthen our limbs to serve you and our neighbours this day and always. Amen.
Rev. Pauline Wanjiru Njiru, based in Nairobi, Kenya, is regional coordinator for Eastern Africa in the WCC’s Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy programme.
 See, for example, the pastors and church leaders cited in a recent article in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/christian-cruelty-face-covid-19/610477/
 W. J. Wessels, 2016, ‘Patience, presence and promise: A study of prophetic realism in Jeremiah 29:4–7’, Verbum et Ecclesia37(1), 1584. Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/8d69/29744498ebee498c3624a8dab7d405fb5ad3.pdf