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 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 (click here).
How does understanding the context help us understand other verses frequently ripped out of their contexts? (Can you name the city in the image?)
I would go even farther (further?) and say that entire chapters and even entire books need to be put in context.
For example, you can’t just cherry pick Romans 9 and make it about predestination when you factor in the rest of Romans.
I must say, I ralely appreciated this post. You’re completely right–God definitely uses young people. He’s not restrained by age. Even John was used as a sign before he was even born! Thank you so much for posting, this ralely blessed me.~simi
Ben, preach it, brother. Context. Course, you’re an IV person, so that’s not surprising. We love to study the Bible, because we know the effort is worth it. Understanding the context of chapters and books does take more work.
Great article! It’s so frustrating to see when people like prosperity preachers rip verses out of context and twist it into some self-serving way. you wouldn’t see Jeremiah 44:11 on a graduation card “Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will set my face against you for harm, to cut off all Judah. I will take the remnant of Judah who have bset their faces to come to the land of Egypt to live, and they shall all be consumed. In the land of Egypt they shall fall; by the sword and by famine they shall be consumed. From the least to the greatest, they shall die by the sword and by famine, eand they shall become an oath, a horror, a curse, and a taunt.” we shouldn’t ask the question what does this mean for me? but What was the intent of the writer, and who is the text directed toward. There is such a thing as multiple applications, but not multiple interpretations.
Emma, I like the graduation card idea. Keep reminding people about the importance of context.
Of course I agree with your message of “Context, context, context.” However, I must admit I find it quite amusing that people get so up in arms about how this Scripture is used.
Most people use this Scripture because it summarizes so beautifully and concisely God’s intent towards His people. It inspires hope. There are many Scriptures in the NT that speak of the same content of Jeremiah 29:11 towards followers of Christ.
Out of context… Okay, technically yes! You’re right… I can’t argue that point!
However, does it take away from the point that most people are trying to make by using this Scripture? Or are they trying to mislead people with false information or Biblical Truths? No!
There are so many other Scriptures being taken out of context that are challenging the Truth of God’s Word. Let’s spend a little more time and energy on some of them.
The only thing the misuse of this Scripture challenges is… What? If someone were to write those same words as a personal inspired quote and leave off the Jeremiah 29:11 there would be no issue!
So… I understand why people challenge the usage… But I want to just shout out… RELAX!!!
Timothy, yes, good point. We all take texts out of context and yet they can still speak to us. I was trying to make fun of myself a bit when I overreacted.
But as I go on to point out in the other posts on Jer. 29, I think we miss out on some profound truths that God is trying to say to us in the rest of the chapter–love your enemies, even Babylon, and personally I believe that when we’re down, depressed or discouraged, part of our healing isn’t merely to know that God has good plans for us, but that his plans include loving our neighbors, even in costly ways. It’s healthy and godly.
Thanks for engaging.
This verse is really popular and I’ve seen it a lot without giving a lot of thought what the context was. Thank you for a thoughtful piece on it!