Letter to the Exiles
Jeremiah 29 appears to fall in the same time frame as chapters 27-28—the fourth year of King Zedekiah (see Jeremiah 28:1). Though chapter 27 contained rumblings and plotting of rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar, it is evident that Zedekiah has not yet actually revolted—for we see him sending a delegation to the emperor in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:3). Later in his fourth year, Zedekiah himself travels with others to Babylon (see Jeremiah 51:59). The reason for these journeys is not given, "but it is altogether possible that they had to do with the annual presentation of tribute" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 463). Regarding the second journey, The HarperCollins Study Biblealternatively suggests, "It may be that Zedekiah made such a trip in order to explain his participation in the conspiracy mentioned in ch[apter] 27" (note on Jeremiah 51:59-64). The same could be true of this earlier delegation.
Jeremiah sent messages from God with key individuals in both delegations—the first message being a letter to the Jews in captivity. He entrusts the letter to Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah. They are clearly important dignitaries. Elasah was evidently the brother of Ahikam, who defended Jeremiah (Jeremiah 26:24), and brother of the Gemariah who allowed the use of his room at the temple for the proclamation of Jeremiah's prophecies (Jeremiah 36:10)—all three being sons of Shaphan, who reported the finding of the Book of the Law by the high priest Hilkiah to King Josiah (2 Kings 22:3-13). The Gemariah of Jeremiah 29 may have been the son of Hilkiah the high priest. "If so, Jeremiah was supported by two very powerful families in Judah who had been involved in Josiah's reform" (verse 3).
In the letter, God tells the exiles through Jeremiah that they will be there for a long time and that they should make the most of it by settling down, building houses, growing food, expanding their families and being good citizens of Babylon, even praying for it: "For in its peace you will have peace" (verse 7). This parallels the responsibility of God's Church today, which dwells in the "Babylon" of this world. Besides telling us to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7), the apostle Paul writes: "Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence" (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Indication of Judah's integration into Babylonian society is confirmed by archeology. Over the course of excavations in 1889, 1900 and 1948 at Nippur, southeast of Babylon, 700 inscribed tablets known as the Murashu Archives were uncovered. "These tablets record contracts, certificates and receipts for payments, in documents belonging to a Jewish family living in Babylon in the fifth century B.C. The names of the individuals mentioned there are both Hebrew and non-Hebrew names, perhaps indicating that the family was integrating into Babylonian society" (Walter Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?, 2001, p. 163 ).
In general, "the Jews experienced economic well-being, and some found opportunities to rise high in the government, just as Daniel did. There is evidence that they were able to form their own council of elders and to have the advantage of prophets and priests in their midst as well, for Jeremiah addressed all three groups when he wrote to the captives (Jeremiah 29:1)" (Kaiser, A History of Israel, 1998, p. 414). Yet Jeremiah warns the people against listening to the prophets among them (Jeremiah 29:8-9). For these prophets were preaching the same message the false prophets in Judah were propagating—that the captivity would be over shortly, with the people soon resettled in the Jewish homeland.
Yet Jeremiah reaffirms the time as 70 years, as in chapter 25 (see Jeremiah 29:10). He also reaffirms the wonderful fact that God's people actually would go free and return to Judah—but that they had to wait a while. Verses 11-14 "are undoubtedly among the most comforting in Scripture. The exiles in Babylon are to settle down and wait, for God knows the plans He has for them, plans to give them a hope and a future. In the O[ld] T[estament] 'hope,' either miqweh/tiqwah or yahalinvites us to look ahead in confident expectation. Each assumes a time of waiting. But the latter especially reminds us that our future is guaranteed by our personal relationship with God. Because He is our God, He has plans for us [too]. And those plans are good—both beautiful and beneficial. Like the exiles, we may have to wait for God's plans for us to bear fruit. But we can wait confidently, because our hope is in Him" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Jeremiah 29:11-14).
The point of verses 15-20 can be a little confusing. In essence, God seems to be saying: "Because you think these false prophets are telling you the truth—that you'll be going back to Judah soon—let me tell you what's going to happen to the land of Judah and the people who remain there...." "He informs them that their hopes of returning soon are fruitless, for Zedekiah, the present occupant of Judah's throne, will shortly be unseated and the last vestiges of the kingdom will be cruelly eroded away" (Merrill, p. 463). The imagery of cyclical punishment and rotten figs is again used (verses 17-18; compare Jeremiah 24). So the exiles just needed to wait it out—keeping their hopes and trust on God's true message.
In Jeremiah 29:21-23, two prophets were singled out for speaking lies in God's name. As punishment, Nebuchadnezzar would have them "roasted in the fire," a form of execution that was certainly used in Babylon (see Daniel 3).
Next Jeremiah sends instruction to proclaim a message to another false leader in the exile, Shemaiah (Jeremiah 29:24), who went on a letter-writing campaign to the people and priests of Jerusalem to have Jeremiah reprimanded or locked up for his prophecies. One important recipient was Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah (compare Jeremiah 21:1-2; Jeremiah 34:3-4; 2 Kings 25:18), who read aloud the letter he received to Jeremiah. The prophet then received God's judgment against Shemaiah. His treachery would be paid back in his having no descendants and being prevented from seeing the blessings God had promised to the exiles.