What do theologians, Bible teachers and Carrie Underwood all have in common? They all love to rip a Bible verse out of context to support whatever they are trying to say. (To read what I said about Carrie, Soul Surfer and Jeremiah 29, click here.)
When I teach seminary students to teach the Bible, I brainwash them with the phrase, “Context, Context, Context.” To understand a verse, one needs to read and study the context.
Why quote texts out of context? At best, people are lazy. At worst, they are deceptive. Like I said a two posts ago, Jeremiah 29:11 may be the biblical verse most frequently taken out of context. (Don’t do it in my presence. I can’t be held responsible for my actions.)
Tragically, the context of Jeremiah 29 makes verse 11 more powerful. Ripping out of context makes it bland.
Jeremiah 29 is a letter where God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles living in Babylon, almost 600 years before Jesus’ birth. The recipients of the letter had just lived through a horror far worse than 9/11. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army just marched through Judah, killing and capturing tens of thousands of people, ripping them from their homes to deport them to Babylon where they’d be slaves. The recipients of Jeremiah’s letter were devastated, angry at Babylon and bitter at God for allowing it.
Into this context, the words, “I know the plans I have for you, says YHWH, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope” are outrageous, almost insensitive to the pain people are feeling. They feel like lamenting, and yet God tells them to hope.
We don’t need to be exiles living in Babylon to faithfully appropriate Jeremiah 29:11. But let’s remember at least two things about the whole chapter when we quote verse 11. First, it was written to people in incredible pain, more than most of us will ever experience. They were mourning death, a move, and a transition to enslavement all at once. And yet into that context, God can still speak words of hope. That’s amazing.
Second, they aren’t plans for “me” but plans for “us”. The “you” in 29:11 is plural (“you all”, or “youse guys” if you’re from Philly), which should be obvious since it was a letter written to a community. Yes, they’d lost almost everything, but they still had their community, which is how God often blesses us.
While Jeremiah 29:11 is a good verse, it’s not even the best verse in the chapter. That comes in part III.
How does understanding the context help us understand other verses frequently ripped out of their contexts? (Can you name the city in the image?)