At Work & Public Square & Theology 101

Why Jeremiah’s 2,600 Year-Old Call to Serve the Common Good Still Matters Today

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The year is 607 BC and the most powerful army in the ancient world is knocking on the gates of Jerusalem. In the past decade, a formidable empire had risen up in the east, conquering land from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

Under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian Empire forced the Israelites to surrender the city of Jerusalem. It was during this time that Nebuchadnezzar took many of the strongest and brightest men from Israel and brought them back to his capital city.

Among them were the prophet Daniel and three young friends: Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. You may know them better as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

The prophet Jeremiah was an eyewitness to this destruction of Jerusalem. A few years into their exile, Jeremiah wrote to his captive countrymen in Babylon:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses… plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29: 4-7, NIV ).

Babylon would be this generation’s only home. God was asking his people to work the land there diligently. Their success in Babylon was tied to Babylon’s success.

This twenty-six hundred year-old call to serve the common good is still valid today. We are called to work toward the prosperity of the entire community, not just for our own limited interests.

God intends the work of Christians to be for the good of everyone, beginning with those who are not God’s people, and extending through them back to God’s people themselves.

This is perhaps the most profound economic principle in Jeremiah, that working for the good of others is the only reliable way to work for your own good.

Successful business leaders today understand that product development, marketing, sales and customer support are effective when they put the customer first. Here, surely, is a best practice that can be recognized by all workers, whether you follow Jesus or not.

Another prophet, Nehemiah, grew up as an exile in the Babylonian captivity. At some point when he was young, he got a hold of Jeremiah’s letter urging them to settle in and create prosperity for the city around them. He was a smart man and a hard worker. He rose quickly through the ranks of the King’s advisors to a position of high honor and strong influence in the kingdom.

When Nehemiah received a letter from friends in Jerusalem, he was burdened by how desolate his homeland had become. Nehemiah leveraged his influence in Babylon to get permission from the King to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. When he later explained how he was able to rally the Jews around this mission, he simply said,

I was cupbearer to the king (Nehemiah 1:11b, NIV).

A position he earned, I would add, by taking Jeremiah’s letter to heart.

Seeking the prosperity of Babylon was not just something God commanded to keep his people busy while they were in captivity. It was the very tool God would use to bring them out of exile and restore his promise to their nation.

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