“Then the word of the Lord came to me. ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles of Judah whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” Jeremiah 24:4-7
Now let’s contrast what God has told us through Jeremiah in the above verses with what He says in verses 8 through 10. “But thus says the Lord; Like the bad figs which are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his princes, the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land which I gave to them and their fathers.”
The contrast is quite startling between the blessings on the exiles and the curses upon those who stayed in the land. For most of us that goes against everything we perceive to be true. We tend to believe that the exiles, the ones taken into captivity, are the ones who are suffering while the ones who didn’t go into captivity are the fortunate ones. But, that is not how God sees it and what He has to say about these two groups, the exiles and non-exiles, helps us understand a great deal about suffering.
God makes it clear in verse 5 that He regards “as good the exiles of Judah whom I have sent away from this place.” It is as if God is saying that He needed to remove the people from Judah and send them to Babylon to save them from the debauchery and rebellious attitudes of their fellow countrymen back home.
How seldom do we stop to wonder if God is leading in some development in our life when we can only see the downside of the situation. I am positive that as the leaders of Judah went into captivity they were not seeing the experience as an opportunity to reconnect with God and escape the evils that had pervaded their lives. I doubt that they could have seen the hand of God “for good” in what had happened, and yet that is exactly what was happening. In exile God says, “I will regard as good the exiles in Judah,” “I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land.” He continues recounting His blessings upon them, “I will build them up, and not tear them down,” and “I will plant them, and not uproot them.”
Notice it is in exile that the people learn to depend upon God. He does everything to teach them through their hardship that He loves them and will deliver them out of their exile. Count up the number of times God says, “I will” in these few verses. But, regardless of all that God plans to do for the exiles the greatest gift He bestows upon them is found in verse 7. “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; as they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.”
For most of us, we think of the promise of a new covenant with the people of God as being articulated in Jeremiah 31:31-33, but here is a forerunner to that great passage. For the exiles they had to come to grips that they were separated from the Temple in Jerusalem where they believed God dwelt. As they tramped off into exile they believed that God had remained behind and they were now on their own. That way of thinking was the common thought throughout the region and the big reason nations like Babylon sent people into captivity. They believed that their gods were only located in one area and if you removed the people from the vicinity of their god he would have no power over them any longer.
In Ezekiel we are introduced to a chariot, a wheel within a wheel that is simply God saying that He travels with His people. When they go into exile He goes with them and they are not abandoned. But through Jeremiah God makes it clear that He not only is with His people when they face problems but He also deliverers them out of those problems. In fact, He makes it clear in this passage, (4-7) that sometimes what His people go through is for the best, because it makes us turn to Him and trust in His grace and love to see us through the problems.
When you lose a job, have a husband walk out, or face an unforeseen illness it is very difficult to believe that God could turn the problem into a blessing, but it often turns out that way. I remember a lady who had her husband leave and it felt like the end of the world to her. However, the man had been emotionally abusive to her for years and as she began to unfold all that garbage out of her life things began to change for her. She developed new confidence, and made new friends and eventually found a wonderful Christian man who she could love and could love her back. The storms of life, if we are open to learning from them, can revamp our entire outlook on life.
It is God who gives us a heart “to know that I am the Lord” when we struggle with our own exiles in life. But they are used by God to give us hope, confidence and assurance that we can depend upon His love and comfort to see us through the bad experiences. God never promised us that, as Christians, we wouldn’t face trials; instead He promised us that He would see us through them. The people who suffer and yet continue to trust God are “God’s people” and He is their God.
And what about the remnant that remained in Jerusalem? They learned nothing from the experience and continued on their way believing they were God’s people and they were special for dodging the bullet called exile. In their pride, arrogance and egotism they drifted further and further away from God relying upon their traditions instead of God. The result is they are finally cast out of the land and the exiles that have learned to trust in God through hardship reclaim the nation.
You might feel in exile today but God is with you and He holds you close and shares your tears. He is your God and He will never let you go. That is the love of God.
* Please remember our Christian brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted for their faith. Some of their stories can be found at http://thebeggardanced.com/nine-oclock-club/