Crammed With Heaven: Will you serve in the courts of Babylon?  

A monthly column in which Jenni Pretorius Hill shares stories of hope which bring Heaven’s perspective to Earth

“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future” — Jeremiah 29:11

If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you can probably quote this Scripture verbatim. At some point in your life, it’s a promise that you may have grabbed hold of like a drowning man reaching for a piece of floating driftwood. It’s a beautiful reminder of the hope that is always on offer for those who love and serve a good Father, and it may well be your go-to Scripture in troubled times. But do you know the context in which it appears?

Following a 30-month siege, Jerusalem had been sacked, and the temple, raided, and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army.  Forced into exile, the Jews were made to settle in Babylon under the rule of the pagan king. In Jeremiah 28, the prophet Hananiah offers false words of comfort in promising his people an exile that would only last two years. In the following chapter, Jeremiah rebukes Hananiah because he has not spoken truth. Instead of two years, they would be in exile for 70, and to add salt to the wound, he instructs them to make Babylon their home and to take care of the health and prosperity of the city; for in the shalom (peace, wholeness, and prosperity) of Babylon, they will find their peace. Following this, he offers the profound words of comfort in verse 11.

With the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews must have felt that all hope was lost. But God had a good future planned for them; it just didn’t look like what they had imagined.

I can’t believe it was a promise they wanted to hear. To be told to serve a king who had forced them from their homeland, and destroyed much of what they held most dear, must have been a bitter pill. God was not offering the kind of future they thought they needed to thrive and prosper. They surely believed their shalom lay in their lost homeland among their own people, in much the same way we believe that our circumstances determine our peace and prosperity. God’s promise to them was far more precious however – an opportunity to thrive and prosper despite their circumstances; a chance to live free of the manipulative control that comes when we allow external reality to dictate our outcomes. He offered them a future and a hope in a land not of their choosing, under the rulership of a king who did not serve Yahweh. 

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I have often tried to flee my circumstances. I injured my back at the beginning of 2017. For 18 months I suffered constant pain, which failed to respond to any intervention. It was ongoing and relentless and after living with it for six months, my first thought upon waking would be: “What am I going to try today to escape this pain?” Escape was my driving thought, and it drove me to different doctors: to chiropracts, physiotherapists and biokineticists. I tried different exercises, stretches and medications; I was scanned, X-rayed, poked with needles, and shocked with electrodes. I prayed, had multiple others pray for me; I fasted, and I cried, a lot. The hardest part was knowing that pain, sickness, and disease was not God’s plan for my life. His will is never for suffering, yet He did not heal me. One day I was in the car with my nine-year-old daughter. Out of the blue she said; “Katy broke her back.” I knew she was referring to the book she was reading, What Katy Did, but her comment struck me as God wanting to get my attention. In response I asked: “What happened to her? Did she recover?”

I really needed to hear that she recovered.

“Oh yes, she was totally fine but for a long time she had to stay still. She didn’t mind though because she said it was ‘God school’.”

“God school? What does that mean?”

“Well, she couldn’t do anything, so she had lots of time to learn about God and stuff. She was a much better person when she was able to walk again.”

Right there in the car, my child offered a comfort that I hadn’t known for months. God wanted to teach me how to thrive in my challenging circumstances. It had never been His will for me to injure my back, but instead of pulling me out of my suffering, He chose to step into it, alongside me. There was nothing I could do to fix me; I was in God school. I won’t pretend it was easy after that. It wasn’t. I still cried a lot. But suffering is a whole lot easier to bear when you can glimpse the eternal purpose that will come forth through it. After 18 months, I started to experience a few pain-free hours that grew into pain-free days, months, and then years. I am completely recovered, just like Katy. I trust too, that the experience made me a better person – a little more like the One we are all growing up into. 

The Babylonian exile was God-ordained for the Jews. He had warned them, repeatedly, of the consequences for their wickedness and waywardness. But despite this, He still offered them a way out – a way to experience shalom amid their suffering.

As we head into 2024, I do not know what lies around the corner. It’s election year, and we cannot be certain of an outcome that will lead us out of the difficult place we are in as a nation. Of all the foolish things our government has done, the decision to stand against Israel, strikes my heart with a fear-of-God kind of fear. But I take courage from the story of our ancient Jewish family. As they sought God’s blessing on behalf of the godless nation they were in, they found healing and hope. As they stood true to their faith, Nebuchadnezzar’s heart was turned to the living God. 

Let us be ones who are willing to surrender our ideals and perspectives on what we think our future should look like, and to instead, be diligent to Inquire after His ways and purposes. Let us seek to serve within the courts of Babylon, to lay down our selfish desires and ambitions to pursue the peace of our cities, and our nation. And though it may look to us like a route contrary to our health and happiness, it is sure to be the better path because we know with certainty, that His plans are always for our good.   

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