Praying for Those Who Hurt Us (Thinking Through Jeremiah 29:1-7)

You’ve been hurt. Perhaps repeatedly, by the same person or people. You don’t think they deserve a relationship with you anymore. Perhaps they don’t. You don’t think they deserve God’s kindness in any way. Perhaps they don’t. You are done, finished, moving on. If there is a further move in the relationship, it will be you getting back at them. It will be them getting what they deserve.

Would it be really bad if God were to tap you on your shoulder and say “you know those who are experienced as a curse in your life? You need to bless them”?

We are going to be challenged by that time God tapped his people on the shoulder through the prophet Jeremiah. It happened at the beginning of what is called the Babylonian exile. God had promised to stick close to and protect his people who were dwelling in the promised land, if they stuck with him. They didn’t and the Babylonians came crashing in, looking to cash in. It happened in stages beginning with some of Jerusalem’s people being deported to Babylon and Jerusalem itself being subjugated to Babylon. There were kerfuffles along the way and about fifteen years after the first deportation there was one final deportation and Jerusalem was destroyed along with the temple. There is a Psalm that captures well the mood of the people at that time:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalms 137 (NIV)

We may be surprised by the desire for infants to be killed, but that was what the Babylonians did. From Psalm 137 we can feel the passionate desire to settle the score, to see Babylon get what it gave. It does not capture the right thing to do, but it does capture the mood, the way the people were feeling. Perhaps it captures your mood. O Lord, repay them for what they have done to me. Let them get what they gave.

While Psalm 137 captured the mood of the people, a letter sent from Jeremiah captured God’s direction:

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; 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.

Jeremiah 29:4-6 (NIV)

In other words, make yourselves at home among your worst enemy. Settle in for the long haul. Be willing to sit with those you can’t stand. But further:

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 29:7 (NIV)

God’s exiled people were to pray for the enemy. That might be easy enough if they could pray for their demise. Psalm 137 indicates that such is what they would feel like praying. But they are to pray for the “peace and prosperity” of Babylon.

“Peace and prosperity” is used here to translate the Hebrew word shalom, a word which means much more than simply “peace” as in “the absence of war.” It has the idea of things going well and being harmonious. My motorcycle is at peace when it sits quietly in the garage. It is in a state of shalom when it is on the road with all its parts working together in harmony so that it can fulfil its purpose.

Now imagine how hard that would have been to pray for shalom for those who attacked, besieged, and destroyed your home and homeland, killing many of your people.

This was not the first, and won’t be the last time we hear God’s call to bless an enemy. We hear it again on the lips of Jesus:

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbour’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.

Matthew 5:43-45 (NLT)

Is there someone in your life over whom you feel like praying “repay them for what they’ve done to me, let’s get ’em back”? Maybe they don’t deserve a relationship with you, Maybe they don’t deserve God’s favour. Nevertheless, we are called to pray for their peace, their shalom.

Let us thank God for setting the example, when he did not treat us as our sins deserved, but endured the cross. Let us thank God that when he taps us on the shoulder and tells us to love our enemies, he set the example, by loving us despite our enmity towards him:

For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:10-11 (NIV)

If we were raised in a Christian home, we might have trouble thinking of a time that we would have been comfortable with the title “enemy of God”. Even if we were once atheists, we might have trouble thinking of a time that would be an appropriate title. Perhaps we had apathy toward any notion of God’s existence, but not hatred. Here is another way to think of it; God came to us in Jesus, God the Son:

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.

John 1:14 (NLT)

John could indeed say that “we have seen his glory” for John, along with the other disciples experienced Jesus’ teaching, miracles, and good works. John could have added another fact: “The Word became human and made his home among us, and despite seeing his glory, we killed him.”

The point is, God would have done the right thing, the just thing, if he had said “I’m finished with humanity, I’m done with you. Look what you did to me. You are finished!” But instead on the cross he said “it is finished,” that is, “what is necessary for our reconciliation has been done for you.” Through Jesus the One who could have destroyed humanity, the One who perhaps should have destroyed humanity based on what humanity did to him, worked instead for our shalom. God set the example of love for the enemy.

Jeremiah’s letter was a tap on the shoulder of God’s people in exile, and it is a tap on ours. Settle in, make yourself at home among enemies, taking a seat with people you might not be able to stand. Pray for the shalom of your enemies. Pray for the peace of the people who disrupt yours.

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