Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #810 -- November 7, 2020
I went round the streets and squares of the city of
this world seeking Thee, and I found Thee not, because
in vain I sought without for Him who was within myself.

St. Augustine {354-430 A.D.}

Our Obligation to Our Oppressors
Jeremiah's Difficult Directive to the Dispersed

Elmer Davis (1890-1958) was a news reporter, author, and the Director of the United States Office of War Information during World War II. In 1946 he made the following astute observation: "Atomic warfare is bad enough; biological warfare would be worse; but there is something that is worse than either: It is subjection to an alien oppressor." The tyranny of tyrants and the oppression of oppressors is common throughout the history of mankind. Regardless of time, place, or culture, there have always been those who seek to subjugate others to their own will, just as there have always been those people and nations who find themselves in subjection to those who would lord it over them. We can all easily recall and recite examples of such from history, whether past or present. Sometimes the oppression witnessed is racial in nature: one race afflicting and oppressing another. Sometimes it is religious in nature: one religion afflicting and oppressing another. We can also find ample examples of men lording it over women throughout history. And, most certainly, we are aware of nations seeking to subjugate other nations. Although most of us understand that these things ought not to be, we must nevertheless acknowledge the reality that they do indeed exist, leaving misery and destruction in their wake.

Those of us who are students of the Scriptures will immediately call to mind the people of Israel, who have lived under such oppressive tyrants century after century for thousands of years. They suffered through the Egyptian bondage, their captivity under the Assyrians and Babylonians, and their terrible affliction at the hands of the Greeks and Romans. Like the Jews, the followers of Christ Jesus have also experienced the painful injustices inflicted on them by those who had no use for them or their God. We find the same occurring even to our present time, and even within our own nation. We all know, though we sometimes experience periods of doubt, that God will ultimately deal with such tyrants, and we know that He sees our circumstances and hears our cries for relief. We also know from history, both biblical and extra-biblical, that God's timing and ours are not always the same! We want relief NOW, but all we may get in response to our cries is a promise of relief from God that may not be realized for decades or centuries. This being true, we must ask, "How would you have me/us live under such oppression? What would you have me/us do? Would You advise passive endurance on our part; would You advise acts of aggression against those who afflict us? What sayest Thou?!" Individuals, groups, and nations have wrestled with this for thousands of years. Many are wrestling with it right now, for it is rather obvious that the forces of Darkness are waging warfare against the Light and those who seek to dwell within that Light. So, again, what would God have us to do?

I believe there is some very good advice for us today in the advice given by Jeremiah in a letter to his dispersed countrymen who had been captured and exiled by the Babylonians. Notice first their dire circumstances. The people of the southern kingdom (Judah) were living in open rebellion against their God, even though Judah had witnessed the earlier fall of the northern kingdom (Israel) to the Assyrians for many of the very same sins. Thus, their own time of divine punishment (with a view to ultimate restoration of relationship) was about to come upon them. Prior to the actual fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., many of the leaders, as well as some of the people, were led away from their homeland, and they were made captives in a strange new land. Although various dates have been suggested for this early carrying away of captives, most biblical scholars place it around 597 B.C., which would have been just eleven years prior to the fall of Jerusalem. It wasn't long after this first deportation that Jeremiah heard that false prophets were spreading misinformation among these exiles. "The predictions of the false prophets fostered a lively hope that the domination of Nebuchadnezzar would not last long, and that the return of the exiles to their fatherland would soon come about" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 8, pt. 1, p. 408]. "In 597 B.C., some three thousand Jews had been exiled with Jehoiachin, among them a number of priests and prophets along with the royal household. In Jerusalem, Jeremiah heard that some exiled false prophets were predicting an early fall of Babylon and an early restoration of the exiles to Judah" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 551-552].

Although such a brief exile would have been great news to these captives, yet it wasn't true. They were being provided with a false hope. God had ordained this period of captivity to be 70 years in duration, and it was designed to bring the people to repentance. By being given a false hope of a much shorter captivity, the false prophets were undermining this divine punishment and its purpose. The Lord instructed Jeremiah to write a letter to these exiled Jews and inform them that the information they were being given was not true. Jeremiah includes this declaration from the Lord in his letter to them: "Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them" (Jeremiah 29:8-9). The Lord then states, "I know the plans that I have for you" (vs. 11a). His plan was to bring them to repentance, and as a result of that repentance to bring them back to their homeland (vs. 11b-14). He also revealed to them in this letter from Jeremiah: "When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place" (vs. 10). The deep, heartfelt repentance of the people would not come quickly; it was going to take some time. By suggesting a much briefer captivity, however, the false prophets were thwarting the divine purpose of the captivity. In the latter part of this chapter (Jeremiah 29), God spells out in some detail what He intends to do to these false prophets, and it would not be a pretty sight: "Behold, I will deliver them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall slay them before your eyes. And because of them a curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah who are in Babylon, saying, 'May the Lord make you like Zedekiah and like Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire'" (vs. 21-22).

Why such a harsh punishment for these prophets (and specifically, the two named above)? Because the result of their misleading messages to the exiles resulted in "a spirit of discontent and restlessness that took hold of the Jews, which not only increased the bitterness of their affliction, but also tended to break down all moral restraint. Jeremiah, therefore, by God's command, sent a letter to the exiled Jews, in which he gave them some excellent rules of behavior in the midst of the trying circumstances in which they found themselves" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: the OT, vol. 2, p. 451]. This letter, by the way, is "the first letter recorded in the Bible" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 551]. In verses 5-6 of Jeremiah 29, the Lord, "in opposition to the false prophets' suggestions, who told the captives that their captivity would soon cease" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 631], made it clear that He expected these captives to make the best of their situation. Rather than seeking ways to revolt against this pagan nation and its leaders, rather than plotting escape from captivity (for, after all, it was God Himself who sent them into captivity - vs. 7a), they should accept His punishment and wait patiently for Him to restore their fortunes. "Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens, and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease" (vs. 5-6). God's punishment was not designed to destroy them, but to awaken them to their sin that brought on this punishment so as to bring them to a genuine repentance as a nation. "It was God's will that the seed of Abraham not fail" [ibid], thus they were to marry and reproduce and thrive. "Prepare for a long continuance in your present captivity. Provide yourselves with the necessaries of life, and multiply in the land, that ye may become a powerful people" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 4, p. 327].

In addition to these Jews seeking to lead "normal" lives in very adverse circumstances, they were also instructed by the Lord to do something that is perhaps even more unnatural. Indeed, Dr. Charles Ellicott wrote, "This was, we may believe, the hardest command of all" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 5, p. 98]. "And 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 have welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7, New American Standard Bible). "Verses 5-7 (and especially verse 7) are so remarkable for their advice to the exiles that they are without parallel in the literature of antiquity. ... Instead of expecting an early return to their homeland, they were to settle down in Babylon and even work and pray for its peace and prosperity. Otherwise, their influence would be negligible and their exile all the more galling. What unusual advice for Jeremiah to give his exiled countrymen! History shows that in all the centuries of their world-wide dispersion, the Jews have tried to follow this pattern. They have identified themselves with the country of their residence, while at the same time looking toward eventual restoration to their native land. ... Unique in ancient literature was Jeremiah's command for them to pray for their pagan captors. To this day they pray in their worship on the Sabbath and on festivals for the rulers under whom they are living" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 553-554].

Praying for those who mistreat us is not the normal human response, but it is the response the Lord asks of His people, both then and now. The first century disciples of Christ were living under equally difficult times, and yet they were taught this same principle! The apostle Peter was martyred by the Roman emperor, and yet he wrote, "honor the emperor" (1 Peter 2:17). The apostle Paul, who also would lose his life at the command of the Roman emperor, taught that we must "be in subjection to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1), even paying our taxes (vs. 6-7). We are further, writes Paul, to "pray for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity" (1 Timothy 2:1-2). This certainly seems to echo that last phrase in Jeremiah 29:7 - "for in its welfare you will have welfare." Other renderings of this phrase in various other translations are: "for in its peace, you will have peace" ... "when it thrives, you will thrive" ... "the more successful that nation is, the better off you will be" ... "if good things happen in the city, good things will happen to you also" ... "when it prospers, you will prosper" ... "if it is well with the city you live in, it will be well with you" ... "for in the shalom thereof shall ye have shalom," and a good many other such renderings. "Here is a gracious lesson to the people of God throughout all ages. In a nation's peace, the Church of God shall have peace. See that ye pray for it, therefore, and promote it by all the lawful means in your power" [Robert Hawker, Poor Man's Commentary, e-Sword].

Some see in Jeremiah 29:7 a "theme" for us today: "Christian Patriotism: If we commit to seeking our nation's welfare, then we shall do nothing, and join in nothing, that tends to disturb its peace or hinder its welfare; e.g., conspiracies, inflammatory speeches, sowing discontent and disaffection, and depreciating those who govern in a way so as to bring government into contempt" [The Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary, e-Sword]. "True religion teaches patient submission, not sedition, even though the prince be an unbeliever. In all states of life let us not throw away the comfort we may have, because we have not all we would have. There is here a foretaste of gospel love toward enemies (Matthew 5:44)" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 631]. "Jeremiah advises the captives in Babylon to take a course that is eminently brave and wise. The first inclination would be to stir up a useless revolt, the second to sit down in sullen despondency. When trouble overcomes us, we are tempted to follow one or the other of these courses - to rebel or to despair. Jeremiah teaches us, as he taught the Jews of his day, that neither is right. He indicates a better way" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 11, p. 589].

What is that better way? Let us, as God's people, seek to bring the Lord into our every circumstance, whether that circumstance be positive or negative. Let us be the light that reflects His Light in our daily interactions with the world around us, even when that world is less than benevolent toward us. Look at Joseph and Daniel and the three Hebrew "worthies" and Esther and Mordecai, and on and on. We must allow our faith to elevate our citizenship in the "cities" in which we dwell. In so doing, we may perhaps impact them for good. There are those who suggest that we, as Christians, should never involve ourselves in the political process of the nations in which we live. I could not disagree more!! We are the very ones who should ... indeed, who must ... be that salt and that leaven that, when mixed in with "our city," will perhaps be the catalyst for change. Being at peace within a culture or society, even one that is secular rather than spiritual in nature and character, is not achieved by removing ourselves from it, or by seeking to attack it or undermine it. Make it your home, reproduce (the faith) within that community, and by your influence begin the process of transformation of your community (while other brethren are doing the same in theirs). "If it is our duty to seek the peace of a strange city, how much more are we bound to interest ourselves in public duties for the good of our own country? Private citizens will find their personal condition improved through the successful discharge of public duties. The citizens reap the fruits of the peace of the city. In ministering to others generally we shall discover the secret of our own blessedness" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 11. p. 589].

So, what are we to grasp from this advice given to these Jewish exiles by the prophet Jeremiah (who actually was sharing the message of God)? Perhaps it is best summed up by the graphic at the top of this article: "Love Where You Live." No, that doesn't mean we are to love the location in which we live. There have been places I have lived that I did not like or love at all. Rather, the charge to us is: in the location in which you find yourself living ... LOVE. Wherever you live, in whatever circumstances you find yourself, whether good or bad, practice LOVE. It is in this way that we impact the world about us for good. It is in this way that we show the love of God. It is in this way that we change the world about us ... one person, one neighborhood, one city at a time. May the Lord open doors of opportunity for each of us to BE "the church" in such a powerful, visible way! During the uncertainties of our post-election climate, as our nation faces some culture-changing challenges, and as we contemplate what our place is in a nation that has to a great extent lost its way, we, the people of God, must be a visible, vocal expression of God's love to a fallen world. Let us each serve Him, as well as our city, state, and nation, as ambassadors of His love, mercy, and grace, and as ministers of reconciliation, rehabilitation, and redemption. "For in its peace, you will have peace." You and I may never be called individually to be that bright guiding light that turns a nation back to God, but each of us can, and must, let our light shine brightly in our own communities, and in so doing help promote the healing (both secular and spiritual) our nation so desperately needs. So, wherever the Lord has "planted" you, be that agent of love where you live! God did not call the ancient Jews in Babylon to lead an insurrection; He called them to be an inspiration! Sounds like some incredibly good advice for us today as well.

An Important Afterthought

I would be remiss if I did not include the following considerations in addition to the thoughts presented above. We have been through, and are still going through, a highly emotional period in our nation's history. People are angry; they are confused and conflicted. People are being murdered, businesses are being looted, cities are being burned. This is a dangerous time, and at the time of this writing our nation still is uncertain as to who our next president is going to be. Either way it goes, there is going to be a public outcry that will spill over into violence. Like most people, I have strong feelings about where our nation is, where it seems to be going, and where it needs to be going. On the other hand, as a pastor, I feel the need to call people to a reasoned, reflective response to the chaos that surrounds us during this troubled time. The above article is a small effort in that direction. I would also suggest an article I wrote following the election of 2012: "Post-Election Reflection: Where Do We Go From Here?" (Reflections #555). Yes, there are things happening in our nation that are greatly troubling, and which break my heart. There are also things that give me hope. I can only pray that "we the people," and specifically "we the people of God," will stand strong against the darkness and be the voice of love and reason. I also believe that we should not just do this passively from the sidelines. If ever the political system of this nation needed an infusion of godly participants, it is now! The Church must be involved in the political process far more than it is. Please take a moment to read and reflect upon my article titled "Church and State: May Disciples of Jesus Christ Participate in the Political Process?" (Reflections #211) which I wrote 15 years ago.

I would further be remiss if I did not point out that although we, as followers of Jesus Christ, should not be numbered among those who are burning, looting, and murdering, it is nevertheless true that there are times when God has called His people to rise up and take up arms against those persons and forces that seek to oppress others, and He has at times called and raised up specific persons to lead such assaults against the darkness that sought to overpower those in its path. A good biblical example can be seen during the time of the OT judges. In light of this aspect of our union with the Lord, may I suggest a careful and prayerful study of my following articles in which I reflect on these truths in some depth: "Christians Bearing Arms: May Disciples of Jesus Christ Serve in the Armed Forces?" (Reflections #232) ... "Concealed Carry Christians: Pistol Packin' Pastors & Parishioners" (Reflections #345) ... "Justifiable Use of Deadly Force: Defining the Parameters of the Use of Deadly Force in View of God's Law in Exodus 22:2-3" (Reflections #467) ... "Pastors Politicking From Pulpits: May Pastors Publicly Endorse Politicians?" (Reflections #546) ... "The Black Robe Regiment: The Pastor-Patriots of the Revolution" (Reflections #547) ... "Chaplain at an Execution: Reflecting on a Difficult Choice" (Reflections #554). Brethren, let us pray fervently for our nation, and let us also pray that we will never be called to take up arms in our warfare with evil. But, if that day should ever come, may God give us the strength and the wisdom to do so boldly.


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Readers' Reflections

From a Bible Professor in Texas:

Al, I just wanted to say Thank You for your study of the Greek term translated "as often as" in Reflections #808 ("Factional Feuding Over Frequency: Can We Remember Jesus' Offering Too Often?"). I just now got around to it. By the way, that was a lovely picture of you and your little granddaughter on Facebook. God bless!

From a New Reader in California:

Dear Al, I have been turned on to your writings by Jimmy Albert, an author here in central California. Please add me to your mailing list for your Reflections. Thank you.

From a Reader in Hawaii:

Aloha Al, Thanks for sending me an advanced copy of the study you did in response to my question ("A Good Outside Reputation: Reflective Study of 1 Timothy 3:7" - Reflections #809). I really appreciate what you did with the Greek term "dei." This issue of your Reflections really helped me to grasp what Paul wanted us to do in the situation I spoke with you about. Thanks!

From a Reader in West Virginia:

I have been reading your article titled "A Good Outside Reputation: Reflective Study of 1 Timothy 3:7," and also some of the readers' responses at the end of that study. I like your statement, "...qualities that the Lord desires His spiritual leaders to possess." Let me open by saying, as I've said before: I am not a legalist, a sectarian, a traditionalist, or an institutionalist. For years I have "chafed" over the way we have created the "office" of Elder. Many years ago I began to think we had been asking the wrong questions. Rather than seeking to fill an "office," we ought to have been looking at the subject of the Leadership of God's people. I searched the Scriptures for the types of leaders God had used in the past. I found terms like: kings, prophets, princes, leaders, elders. Elders appear in every section of the Scriptures; even as early as the days of Moses. Other nations had them. I do not see them in positions of leadership in the sense of "holding an office." Moses consulted them, David consulted them, Rehoboam consulted them, then ignored them. Elders were part of the crowd that condemned Jesus. But, I do not see them as "officials" of the Jews in the first century. Elders were older men in a community, perhaps held in respect for their age, wisdom, and experience. But, they were not office holders. The Sanhedrin was an official council, perhaps made up of elders, but the elders themselves held no office. We know Native Americans speak of tribal elders, yet the ruler of the tribe was the Chief.

I believe there were elders in every Jewish community. Timothy was given the task of marking those elders who had gained with age the wisdom, experience, and qualities which exemplified a mature Christian. I suspect most all congregations today have elders. My fear is that not many of these persons exhibit the characteristics (qualities) Paul describes. It is interesting to me that in the same instruction given to Timothy to mark the mature men among them, Paul also gives responsibility to older women. Why don't we have an "office" for them? Why aren't we having "elections" for "Old Woman," like we do for "Old Man"? Anyway, all of that aside, as usual I really enjoyed your Reflections article on this. You are a blessing, Al, and a breath of fresh air in a stagnant atmosphere of religiosity.

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Thanks, Al, for another good writing ("A Good Outside Reputation: Reflective Study of 1 Timothy 3:7"). Also, the discussion that ensued from those who read your previous study ("Factional Feuding Over Frequency") was well worth the time and effort expended by all involved. May God bless you, brother.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, I just read "A Good Outside Reputation." Makes sense to me! It seems the church isn't just supposed to make sure the congregation is served, but also to make sure the outside community is served as well (i.e., we are to be an "outreach center"). We are to constantly be sharing the Good News of Jesus to the communities in which we live and serve. That message of good news could be a difficult message to share if our leadership is known in the city to be of questionable character. Wasn't it Jesus who said, "If then the light in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!" (Matthew 6:23)? If the Light we spread is dimmed by our reputation, we're doing far more harm than good, it seems to me! Way to keep it honest, Al. Love ya, brother.

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