The plans God has for me? (Jeremiah 29 Part III)

The Christmas holiday interrupted the 3-part series on Jeremiah 29.  I know you’ve been anxiously waiting for the final installment.  In the last post (to read what I said about Soul Surfer, Carrie Underwood and Jeremiah 29 previously, click here for post 1 and post 2), I ended by noting that Jeremiah 29:11 (everyone’s favorite verse in the whole Bible), isn’t even the best verse in Jeremiah 29.  But first a quick review of the context.

Jeremiah has been commissioned by YHWH to write a letter to the Judean exiles in Babylon.  They had just experienced a crisis far worse than 9/11, tens of thousands of people killed or exiled to a foreign land.  They were hoping and expecting to return to Israel soon.  God wanted to encourage them that he had plans for their welfare, for a future with hope (Jere. 29:11).  But he had told them that they would remain in that foreign land of Babylon for 70 years!  The juxtaposition of hope with remaining as exiles 70 more years would have been incomprehensible to Jeremiah’s audience.  Israel thought it was enough bad to have to do 40 years of “laps” in the wilderness (Numbers 14:33), now they have to remain as exiles for 70.

Now we can get to the best verse of the chapter.  A few verses before everyone’s favorite verse to take out of context, YHWH told Jeremiah to tell his audience:

Seek the welfare of the city where I sent you into exile, pray to YHWH on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer 29:7).

What?  Yes, those brutal, barbarian Babylonians who ravaged your land and enslaved you, you need to love them, bless them and pray for them.  That sounds like something Jesus would say (Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you: Matt. 5:44).

I think it’s wonderful that God has plans to bless me and give me a future and a hope, but according to Jeremiah 29:7 that promise is tied up with me seeking the welfare of my enemy-neighbors.  God wants to bless me, and part of the way that he does that is by calling me to be a blessing to others, even people who I could reasonably hate.

Who are the “Babylonians” that you need to seek the welfare of and to pray for?  Any other nominations for verse taken out of context the most? 

The plans God has for me? (Jeremiah 29 Part II)

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?)

The plans God has for me? (Jeremiah 29 Part 1)

We were watching Soul Surfer (2011) as a family recently.  We decided it would be good to watch a “Christian” movie occasionally.  It may be awhile before that happens again.  Spoiler: there’s a shark.  While we didn’t love the film, it gets a lot better post-shark and the story of Bethany Hamilton (played by AnnaSophia Robb) is amazing.

Early in the film, the character played by Carrie Underwood (Sarah) is teaching a lesson to the church youth group and she concludes her lesson by quoting one of her favorite verses, Jeremiah 29:11: “‘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.”  At this point I cannot contain myself and let out a primordial scream.  Then I pause the film and apologize to my family for my inappropriate behavior.

Before I launch into my diatribe, let me start with the positive.  A film is quoting the Bible. (Apparently, there was a controversy in the filming about whether to state that the quote came from the Bible; see the Wikipedia article).  Not just the Bible, but the Old Testament.  Not just the OT, but Jeremiah.   That’s good.

Now, the diatribe.

I’m tired of hearing Jeremiah 29:11 quoted out of context.  (I’m sure Carrie wanted to give the full context, but she was over-ruled.)  If you hear someone say, “I’m going to share with you a verse from Jeremiah” you should be able to finish the sentence for them.  If there were a competition for which verse in the Bible gets quoted out of context the most, it would have to be Jeremiah 29:11.  Since everyone quotes it out of context, if you were the first to quote it in context, you’d get to say something original.

I’ll blog about the context and how understanding the context makes the verse more powerful in a few days.  (Click here for Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.)

What other Bible verses are frequently taken out of context?