I know we all do it. Christian greeting cards and motivational writers and speakers sell their materials based on the pleasant-sounding statements made by certain Bible verses when taken out of their original context. And we all buy into it as we quote these verses to one another. But what is the danger in that? The danger of trying to make the Bible say what we want it to say is that sometimes, what we want it to say might totally contradict what the Bible is really teaching. Many a cult leader or charlatan has gained a following from misquoting Scripture to unsuspecting audiences. True, some popular verses might not be so dangerous, but their deeper meaning is still lost if we forget where that particular verse comes from.
Over the next several issues of New Identity Magazine, I will be looking at some of the most misquoted bible verses. I will look at them when taken out of context, looking at the potential dangers of only seeing the out-of-context verse. Then, we will do the work of asking what that verse may have meant to the person who wrote it in order to give us the fuller meaning of what that part of scripture actually meant in its own context. Finally, we will ask what it would mean if we were to apply that verse with the original meaning in mind.
Let’s begin, shall we?
“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.” – Jeremiah 29:11 NIV
OUT OF CONTEXT MEANING
God wants to bless me in my life, and he has plans to help me and bring me prosperity and satisfaction in my relationships, my health, my finances, and in my career. Everything bad that happens in my life is not part of God’s plan, but I need to have enough faith in God to deliver me and bring me the promise of the hope and future of my dreams.
DANGERS OF READING OUT OF CONTEXT
While God does care for each of us individually (this theme can be found in other parts of the Bible), this verse probably isn’t the best place to look for proof of this. And while it may not be as dangerous to misinterpret this verse as some of the others we will be looking at, there are still some cautions that we need to consider, namely the self-centered tendency that we Westerners tend to bring to the text (especially us North Americans) and the problem presented when things don’t go according to our plans.
First of all, let’s be completely honest. You are not the center of the universe. Neither am I, and neither is the person sitting next to you. One of the problems of misreading this verse is that the focus seems to be on “my blessings” and what I can get out of faith – and it can potentially distort the nature of God’s relationship with each of us. God is not a cosmic vending machine or a genie in a lamp. He is the Creator of everything, and he doesn’t owe us anything.
But second to this, and I think this is probably the bigger problem, is when things don’t work out the way we planned them. Was it God’s fault? Was he unable to keep his promise to us to give us everything we desire, to prosper us and not bring us to harm and calamity? Then he would not be a god worthy of our worship. Or maybe the fault lies with us. Maybe we didn’t receive that healing or that promotion because we simply lacked the faith, or because we jinxed it because we didn’t believe hard enough, or maybe we don’t deserve it and maybe God doesn’t really like us. Or maybe… maybe that verse doesn’t mean what we think it means…
THE CONTEXT OF THE VERSE IN THE BIBLE
One of the first things that we should take notice of is the grammar that is used in this verse. Unlike English, which only has one word “you” that expresses both the single and plural pronoun (which might explain at least some of the confusion with this verse), many languages (including Hebrew, the language in which this verse was originally written) have separate words, and even separate grammar for whether you are speaking to a single person or to a group of people. In the case of this passage, the “you” listed here is plural, not singular, meaning that it was written to a group of people.
Second, if we look at the passage surrounding this verse, we see that this is actually part of a longer prophetic letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to a specific community (Jer. 29:4-28). Here is what it looks like in its original context:
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 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.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” –Jeremiah 29:4-14 NIV
To give some history, around 597 BCE, Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonian Empire and many of the people of Judah were carried off into captivity. A general feeling of despair came over the people. Many of them felt like either God had abandoned them, or God was powerless against the Babylonians. False prophets began declaring that God was soon going to deliver them from the Babylonians and enable them to return to Jerusalem.
The letter that Jeremiah wrote was meant both to be a stinging rebuke against the rival prophets, as well as an encouragement to the people not to give up hope. Rather than enable them to return to Jerusalem, God’s desire was for them to thrive in Babylon. After all, it was the God of Israel who had sent them into exile, not the gods of the Babylonians. (This was a strong statement to make. In those days, military successes or failures were thought to reflect the power or weakness of the respective nation’s gods!) Jeremiah’s letter was an encouragement to know that God had not forgotten them and would restore them if they would remain loyal, even in the midst of their tough situationHOW CAN WE APPLY THIS IN OUR OWN DAY?
While the people of God are made up of many individual persons, the biggest application that I could see is talking to the church, especially where the church might be finding itself on the periphery of society, where it once enjoyed a central platform.
In previous decades and centuries, it could be argued by many that our values in Western cultures have been shaped by the Bible. The church was seen as a central part of our communities, and the big assumption was that everybody attended a church of one type or another at least somewhat regularly. Whether this assumption is accurate or not, this can no longer really be said in our own day. If anything, the Western world could best be described as “post-Christian”, meaning that it no longer considers the church or the Bible as being a valid compass for our values as a society.
So, what would Jeremiah 29:11 have to say to the church in this context? Plenty. God has not abandoned his church, nor does he plan for evil to happen against his people (neither collectively, nor individually), but his will is to give us hope and a future. But there is also a part that we must play actively that comes with looking at the full context… We must acknowledge that we are no longer the center, and we must work to bring hope and healing to wherever we find ourselves, and we have to intentionally engage with the problems of the communities around us. For as we seek their blessing, God also blesses us.