Thursday, 05 January 2012
It doesn't take long after entering a Christian community to hear people use Jeremiah 29:11 to encourage themselves or others. It seems to be many Christian's go-to verse for encouragement during hard times or when looking forward to the future. This practice needs some examining. Let's start with the good stuff.
Jeremiah 29:11 reads, "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." That's great news. That is a beautiful promise from God for his people called Israel. I believe this is true for all God's people and not merely the specific audience it was delivered to.
At the same time, there is truth in this passage that we can apply to our lives. The original audience was being promised something that was dealing with their specific situation -- this will be discussed momentarily -- and even though the plans, hope, and future are different for us than for the specific original recipients the general truth still applies. The plan for people now is to be reconciled to God through Christ. The hope now is in Christ and for the future of eternal life with God. The prospering is an eternal prospering in which we live together with God as our All in All.
This is part of what many believers are thinking when they use this verse to encourage others. Other times believers use this verse because of the notion that God just wants to give us good gifts, which is also true. Yet, too often we read this as a good word to the individual reader of today as though it means God is going to take care of us and give us all the good things in life we think we need like a new car, a paid off home, and affordable private school for our kids.
That's not the case. God does have a plan for all people and they have a choice to live into it or not. Whatever we do, whatever happens, God has a plan for that reality. We will live into God's plans even if we're not living into his ideal plan for us -- that we be reconciled to him and do his work on earth as a faithful people. God will direct us according to his will and our choices (example: Pharaoh in Exodus). Encouraging one another with these truths is an excellent practice. However, when we use this verse to communicate these things we are forced to neglect the context of the verse which is far less encouraging (get ready to lose that new car and paid off home).
This verse represents and communicates theological truths if left alone, but the verse isn't alone in scripture, and we want to be careful to not misuse it. Just because this scripture wraps up several wonderful truths in a neat little bow (when out of context), that doesn't mean we ought to reference it to serve our purposes, even if those purposes are backed with righteous motivations. We can speak these truths without compromising our understanding of or future approach to Jeremiah 29:11. Let's approach the verse with context in mind and see what comes about.
What is the context? The opening verse of chapter 29 tells us that "This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon." Here we see a specific author (Jeremiah), a specific group of recipients (surviving elders, priests, prophets, and various people among them in exile), and a specific situation (exile from Jerusalem into Babylon). Later we will learn this exile is due to disobedience (we also learned this earlier in chapter 27). Verse 2 gives a little more context about the time and situation stating, "This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem."
Verse 4 states that God brought some (not all) of his people into Exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. The following verses are instructions from God to the exiles to set up a life in their exiled city and get settled, basically making it home. "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" (v. 7). All hope is not lost for these Israelites but they can plan on being exiled for a long time. Exile is now home. From here God begins his message that involves verse 11.
"When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place" (v. 10). The encouragement begins. Exile will last a long time (about 70 years it seems) but then the exiles will be returned. Then verse 11 shows up, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" God has plans for these Israelites, specific plans, and those plans involve a long exile and then a return to Jerusalem. Long exile then a return is the plan (or at least the foreseeable part of the plan). There is hope in the return to Jerusalem and future in Jerusalem but the immediate future is exile.
Verse 12 shows God saying, "Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." When will this happen? After the return to Jerusalem. After the exile and the return from captivity God will hear the prayers of his people and they will find him with their heart. For right now though, he has exiled them. God has exiled his people. God is disciplining his people and he does this because he loves them (Proverbs 3:11-12) and since he is just they must deserve it.
Verses 15-19 state, "You may say, 'The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,' but this is what the LORD says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile—yes, this is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them. For they have not listened to my words,' declares the LORD, 'words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either,' declares the LORD." All of this is a reference to Jeremiah 27.
With these verses we understand that those in power (nobles), those in Jerusalem, and those in exile have all not listened to God's words. All have worked against God, disobeying him by listening to the words of false prophets. Thus, God is disciplining his people and allowing his wrath (which derives from his love) to fall upon them just as he had promised, giving to them what results in disobedience against God. Even now, God disciplines those he loves. Jeremiah 29:11 is applicable to our lives, but so is the rest of the chapter (and book)! We're wayward! We sin! We don't listen to his words! We need a loving God! We need discipline! Because of all this, and because God is in relationship with us, we need the whole chapter.
We can also gather from this that God will not be thwarted. His plans will prevail, somehow, and it's best if we have faith in what God is doing, even if it seem strange. We are to follow God and none but him. If we do not do this we will find consequences which have already been explained to us. The consequences are a natural result of our choices and God is working his plans out in it all.
So yes, God has a future for us and desires to give us good gifts, but he also has discipline and exile for us. He has wrath. This passage is great for discussion on discipline and the results of rebelling against God but as far as talking about the overall future plans God has for our lives, it's not the most encouraging. It only fits our purposes when it is out of context and we shouldn't use scripture to fit our purposes. When Jeremiah 29:11 is out of context we can please our own ears and put money in our pockets by selling it to others (and plenty of Christians do it). Fortunately, God is just and, as they ought to know, he has plans for those who tickle ears and prefer profits over prophets. Those plans may not be exactly what those folks expect or want.
Let's approach scripture considering context and learning the lessons from it the author intended. Sure, the Spirit will speak truths to us that may not be the exact message the author intended but we have to be careful how we present scripture to others and ourselves. If we are reading Jeremiah 29 to people to say they're going to make it through hard times we're not giving them the full message of the passage. We have to be responsible with scripture, serving God with it and being transformed by it instead of using it for our own purposes. Many scriptures are encouraging and speak of God's love, promises, provision, faithfulness, and more. Let's use those scriptures which are most appropriate for those times.
What do you think? Should we use Jeremiah 29:11 to encourage others that "everything will be alright?" Do you see people doing this? Do you do this? What does this treatment of the passage say about our understanding of or approach to the passage?