God wants his people to prosper. That hardly means that he will not allow them, or rather compel them to go through times of trial in which prosperity seems impossible. We have to put aside our human idea of prosperity and let God define it for us.
Jeremiah proclaimed the message of divine prosperity even in calamity in a letter to the Jews in Babylon, that is, to victims of a recent national catastrophe. The invading Babylonian army had taken King Jeconiah, his mother, all of his court officials, and all of the skilled craftsmen and artisans in Jerusalem as captives back to Babylon.
Who, then, was left in Jerusalem? The poor, the weak, the elderly, anyone who could not contribute much to the good of the community. Babylon installed another king to lead them, the weak and indecisive Zedekiah. Neither in Babylon nor in Jerusalem did the Jews lack false prophets who offered assurances that God would soon intervene and break the Babylonian yoke for the sake of his temple. Isn’t that what we all want to hear, that God will do away with our troubles and go back to life as usual?
Jeremiah, on the other hand, told the exiles to settle down in Babylon. They would be there for a while and might as well prosper. He had already prophesied that the captivity would last 70 years. The countdown for the 70 years would not begin as long as any king reigned in Jerusalem or much of anyone still lived there. Zedekiah dithered for another 11 years before he made the fatal decision to rebel against Babylon and trigger the final phase of the captivity. In the mean time, Jeremiah said, build houses, plant gardens, have lots of marriages and lots of children in order to increase in captivity, not decrease. Most important, he told them to pray for Babylon’s prosperity.
The false prophets, insisting that the captivity would last only two years, would not have counseled any of that. When we meet with calamity, we have two basic choices: we can struggle against it in our own strength, building up bitterness and hatred in the meantime, or we can turn to God to find out what to do.
We can’t just read any scripture that describes a catastrophe to determine how and when God gets his people out of it. He seldom repeats himself. His plan may entail a quick restoration, a restoration that takes a long time to happen, or no restoration at all. Quite frankly, since the 70 years of captivity would not begin for another decade, Jeremiah effectively told that generation of exiles that none of them would ever live to see Jerusalem again.
His commandment to pray, then, meant that they had to let calamity build up compassion for their captors instead of bitterness. They had to live by faith that God had not forsaken them. Jeremiah told the Babylonian Jews that God would fulfill his promise that Jews would return to Jerusalem after the 70 years. Meanwhile, their own prosperity in exile depended on Babylon prospering.
When we suffer calamity, we have the same choices they did. Will we turn to God or our own imagination and resources? Will we respond with compassion or bitterness? God has already made his plan. It clearly includes calamity. Calamity will happen as long as anyone lives on Earth. But God never intends calamity as the final outcome. After calamity, he intends prosperity and hope for the future.
Through the faith God gives by his grace, we have been promised salvation, a home in heaven, and an eternal reward. In the meantime, while we wait for that future, we might as well wait faithfully and hopefully for earthly prosperity after calamity. God has promised that, too, whether it means returning to some Jerusalem or finding prosperity in some Babylon.