When inspirational quotes are shown in historical context.
Jeremiah 29.11 NIV
- “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the L
ORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Whenever English-speaking Christians quote this verse, I tend to hear the New International Version translation most often. Oddly, not the been-around-way-longer King James:
Jeremiah 29.11 KJV
- For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the L
ORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.
I suspect it’s ’cause the words “prosper” and “hope” and “future” are in the
’Cause we do. Like the evangelists told us, “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” and this verse brilliantly affirms it: God thinks warm, wonderful things about us. He has a good, fine plan, with a good future.
Some of us figure that future is heaven, and some of us figure it’s all the worldly success the American Dream can offer. But Christianized. That way we’re comfortably wealthy, but our comfort and wealth somehow hasn’t turned us into out-of-touch, self-entitled jerks. Instead we’re “good stewards” of that wealth… but I gotta tell ya, in practice stewardship tends to look a little out-of-touch, and a tends to hoard on the basis of “God gave these riches to me, not the needy, so I must deserve it more than they.” But I digress.
Like many out-of-context scriptures, this isn’t a mistranslation. My own translation isn’t far different from the
Jeremiah 29.11 KWL
- “Because I know the intentions I plan over you,” the L
- “Intentions of peace, not evil. To give you a happy ending, and hope.”
The verse is about what God has in store for his people. He plans good, not evil. (Especially not secret, behind-the-scenes evil stuff, like natural disasters and wars; whereas in public he maintains moral superiority. I know certain Christians claim otherwise, but God’s no hypocrite.) God wants his people to have good lives. Not bad.
Thing is: The people God addressed in this prophecy are the Hebrews of southern Israel, the separate tribes which the writers of the Old Testament call “Judah.” (Really the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon; plus Levites and various members of other tribes in the cities. Collectively, “Jews.”) Jeremiah prophesied it between the years 586 and 581
God doesn’t change, we figure.
Here’s what it’s really about.
The context of this verse is spelled out at the beginning of the chapter:
Jeremiah 29.1 KWL
- These words are from the scroll the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem
- to the remaining elders, captives, and priests:
- All the people Nebuchadnezzar sent from Jerusalem to Babylon, into exile.
It wasn’t a message for just anyone who grabs a bible and quotes it. It’s for these people: Displaced refugees who survived Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon’s conquest and destruction of their city, who lost their possessions and positions, who were dragged away to Iraq and never expected to see their homeland again. (What there was of it.)
These folks had incorrectly and blindly assumed God was on their side. The L
But none of these things should’ve happened to them. They were devout Jews, saved by God’s grace. Sure they sinned; everybody does. But after they finished exploiting the weak and needy, they just burned a few more cattle on the temple altar, and that took care of that.
Jeremiah’s rants aside, they were counting on the L
Got their mindset in your head? (Shouldn’t be hard. Lots of Christians already believe likewise.) Now imagine their utter shock and horror when the L
Depression, despair, denial, doubt, and various other emotions which don’t begin in D, were going through these folks’ minds. Why’d God permit this to happen? Even after some of them repented (but obviously not all); even after all the “promises” in the bible which “guaranteed” he’d come through for them in the end (obviously taken out of context). Was God powerless before the Babylonians and their gods? Were they worshiping a fake god or something? What happened?
And there were those in denial: Hebrews who put together a resistance to fight the Babylonian military governors. Hebrews who wanted to flee their exile and go home to Palestine. Hebrews who figured the L
So what was the L
Jeremiah 29.4-14 KWL
- 4 “The L
ORDof War, Israel’s God, says this
- to all the captives who were exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon.
- 5 “Build houses. Live there. Plant gardens. Eat their fruit.
- 6 Get women. Beget sons and daughters.
- Get your sons women. Give your daughters to men. They can beget sons and daughters.
- Be many there. You can’t be few.
- 7 Seek the peace of the city where I sent you into exile.
- Pray to the L
ORDfor it. Its peace is your peace.”
- 8 For the L
ORDof War, Israel’s God, says this:
- “Don’t let your prophets in your midst trick you.
- Don’t share the dreams you dream with your fortune-tellers
- 9 because they prophesy to you with lies in my name. I don’t send them,” the L
- 10 For the L
ORDsays this: “Within 70 years, Babylon is done. I’ll visit you.
- My good word will rise over you, to return you to this place.
- 11 Because I know the intentions I plan over you,” the L
- “Intentions of peace, not evil. To give you a happy ending, and hope.
- 12 You call me. You come and pray to me. I’ll listen to you.
- 13 You seek me. You’ll find, because you’re seeking me with all your heart.
- 14 I’ll be found by you,” the L
- “I return your captives. I gather you from all the nations, all the places I drove you,” the L
- “I return you to the place I removed you.”
The rest is about the horrible things that were gonna happen to those fake prophets who were telling the Jews otherwise.
We kept Jeremiah’s writings because that’s precisely what happened. In 539
God wouldn’t have sent this prophecy if the Jews hadn’t been thinking otherwise, or plotting otherwise: Putting off their lives, planning an insurgency, listening to any nut who told them, “God wills it!” and sent them into a crowd of Babylonians with a bomb vest… oh wait; wrong century. But though weapons may have changed, human nature sure hasn’t.
And God’s nature hasn’t changed either. He still wants peace. And our obedience. And to give people a happy ending, and hope.
Problem is, it’s for this reason Christians love to claim this verse applies to us too.
Here’s what it’s not about.
- God’s character doesn’t change.
- Human nature can absolutely change… but won’t till we turn to God.
- When it won’t, history repeats itself.
Jews weren’t the only people who’ve ever gone into exile. And the Babylonian exile wasn’t the only time they’ve gone into exile. Currently they’re back from exile… and they’ve since gone back to the very same attitude they had in Jeremiah’s day, and assume God would never let anyone drive them from their land again. I sure hope they’re right, but I sure don’t take that idea for granted.
Because history repeats itself, and because our history has a lot of parallels with this history, you’re gonna find a lot of Christians who figure historical context doesn’t matter: That verse sounds like it can apply to us, so that’s precisely how they’re gonna apply it. God knows the plans he has for them, right? He knows the plans he has for everyone. Why wouldn’t he plan to prosper us, and not harm us?
After all, doesn’t that jibe with what he said through Paul?
Romans 8.28-30 KWL
- 28 We know that for those who love God, for those who’re invited by his proclamation,
- everything works together into a good outcome:
- 29 Those whom God foreknew,
- whom he already decided would share the image, the likeness, of his Son
- —him being the firstborn of many sisters and brothers—
- 30 those whom God already decided, he also invited.
- Those invited, he also justified. Those justified, he also glorified.
Oh wait; the “all things” which work together for our good have to do with salvation, not success and comfort and material prosperity. Dammit, doesn’t anybody quote the bible in context?
Well no, no we don’t. Because we covet those things so very much. We want unchallenging, happy, peaceful lives. Jesus may have warned us tribulation is coming, but we wanna get raptured before that happens. We want money and stuff so much, we insist Jesus is building us mansions in heaven,
Jeremiah’s prophecy was written to captives in exile. Is that our condition? Are we living as refugees, without homes, waiting for our exile to end quickly? Are we destined to live in Babylon for the next seven decades, and then return to Jerusalem? Do we have fortunes for God to restore?
Well, if you treat all that history as if it’s allegory—our “exile” and “Babylon” is the sinful world we live in, our “Jerusalem” is New Jerusalem, our “fortunes” are our place in God’s kingdom—then we can sure make it sound like this passage suits us very well. But that’s not the literary context. Jeremiah’s prophecy is rooted in history. It’s not unrooted, free to wander hither and yon, with us free to pin it to our circumstances—after we stretch it to fit.
We can learn from this story, just like we can learn from everything in the bible. We can learn how God always has a plan, even after disaster knocks away everything we’ve ever known. We can learn God wants his people to live in hope, not despair. We can learn God keeps his promises, since we already know the outcome of this situation: God did bring his people back to rebuild Jerusalem. And we can also remember fake prophets and fortune-tellers are always gonna be around to capitalize on desperate people.
But if you wanna claim God has plans for you, and that they’re good plans, you have no business quoting Jeremiah. Quote Romans—but remember, that chapter 8 part is about your salvation, not your worldly successes. Quote John, where Jesus states he’s overcome the world,