Exile is traumatic and terrifying. Our sense of who we are is very much determined by the place we’re in and the people we’re with. When those things change violently and abruptly, we wonder who we are. The accustomed ways we have of finding our worth and sensing our significance vanish. When the first wave of emotion recedes, we’re left like a broken shell on a vast expanse of beach, in a suddenly foreign place, feeling that we are worthless and that our lives are meaningless.
Judah, the southern kingdom, was taken into exile to Babylon in 587 B.C. The people were uprooted from their birthplace. The land that had been promised to them, which they had possessed and in which their identity as the People of God had been formed, was gone.
Israel’s exile was a violent and extreme form of what all of us experience from time to time. Inner experiences of exile can take place even if we never move from the street where we were brought up. We are exiled from the womb and begin life in strange and harsh surroundings. We are exiled from our homes at an early age and find ourselves in the demanding world of school. We are exiled from school and have to make our way the best we can in the uncertain and sometimes unsettling world of work. We are exiled from our hometowns and have to find our way through the disorientation of new states and unfamiliar cities.
The essential meaning of exile is that we find ourselves separated from home. Exile is an experience of dislocation—everything is out of joint; nothing fits together.
One day two men from Jerusalem—Elasah and Gemariah—appeared unannounced in Babylon. They had come on official business, carrying a message to the king. On their way to the palace, they visited the Hebrew community in exile. They came bearing a message from Jeremiah, who had received the message from God.
“Build houses and make yourselves at home,” Jeremiah told the exiles (Jeremiah 29:5). You aren’t camping. This is your home. This may not be your favorite place, but it is a place. Dig foundations; build houses; develop the best environment for living that you can. If all you do is sit around and pine for Jerusalem, your present lives will be squalid and empty.
“Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country,” he told them. Enter into the rhythm of the seasons. Become a productive part of the economy of the place.
“Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you” (verse 7). The Hebrew word for “welfare” is shalom, which means “wholeness”—the dynamic, vibrant health of a society that pulses with divinely directed purpose and surges with life-transforming love. Jeremiah essentially told the people, “Seek shalom. Throw yourself into the place you find yourselves. Not on its terms but on God’s terms. Pray. Search for that center in which God’s will is being worked out, and work from that center.”
Jeremiah’s letter was a rebuke and a challenge to the Babylonian exiles: “Quit sitting around feeling sorry for yourselves. The aim of people of faith isn’t to be as comfortable as possible but to live as fully as possible. You will be in Babylon for a long time. You had better make the best of it. Don’t just survive—thrive. The only place you have to be human is where you are right now. The only opportunity you have to live by faith is in the circumstances you’re experiencing this very day—in this house you live in, in this family you find yourself in, and in this job you’ve been given to do.”
All of us are given moments, days, months, years of exile. What will we do with them, you and I? Wish we were someplace else? Complain? Escape into fantasies? Drug ourselves into oblivion? Or build and plant and marry and seek the shalom of the place we inhabit and the people we’re with?
Help me not to feel sorry for myself because of where you’ve called me to live my life.
Whether I’m living in Jerusalem or Babylon, you’ve called me to yourself, to love you, to trust you, to obey you.
Help me to see that you’ve also called me to more than that.
You’ve called me to make the best of whatever exile I find myself in, to bless those around me, however foreign they may seem to me.
Help me to seek the welfare of . . .
“Live As Fully As Possible” is a contemplative reading on Jeremiah 29 found in The Message Devotional Bible. This excerpt is one of the 52 contemplative readings found in this special edition. It also contains more than 600 insights and 400 reflective questions set alongside the Scripture that inspired them.