We who study the Bible know that we’re supposed to read the books, chapters and verses in context – we need to understand what the words meant when they were written, for the people to whom they were written, regarding the situations to which they were written. We need to understand what it meant so that we can understand what it means.
However, if we are honest, we’ll all admit that we tolerate verses taken out of context and used for our own purposes. Sometimes it’s humorous, like the fellow contemplating retirement told me he was moving to Florida because the Lord spoke to him out of Zechariah 2:6, “Flee from the land of the north.” Or the Atlantic City gambler, a bald man nicknamed “Shine,” who testified that in a moment of desperate need, he was asking God for help and he flipped open his hotel room Bible. God miraculously had the Bible fall open to Isaiah 60:1 – “Arise, shine, for your light has come…” The verse led to his repentance, conversion, and a transformed.
Other out-of-contexts uses might include our use of Revelation 3:20 as an invitation to conversion – even though in context it’s clearly a call for the lukewarm Christians of Laodicea to repent before it’s too late. Or the Christian ministry whose publicity for their strategic plan to evangelize an unreached people used the Scripture from Habakkuk 1:5, “I am doing a new thing:” they said God was going to do something so amazing “you would not believe it if you were told.” It sounds exciting until you read Habakkuk 1 in context – the new, hard to believe thing that was coming was violent destruction by the vicious, ruthless hordes of the Babylonian army. It’s always good to read the context!
So – with apologies to the Christian graduation card industry – I decided to check out the context of the oft-quoted promise of 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 a hope and a future.” We use it a beautiful reminder of the hope-filled future we can have while following the Lord (all of which is biblically true) but we quote it like the fulfillment of the promise will be just around the corner.
The context (Jeremiah 29) of the promise is a letter from the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel who had been exiled from Jerusalem and were now living under the rule of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. As exiles, they had lost homes, wealth, heritage and security. They were strangers in a strange land, captives under a foreign king, and yearning for deliverance. And there were false prophets and diviners, the contemporary equivalent of prosperity preachers, telling the people that deliverance and restoration was soon at hand (see Jeremiah 29:8-9).
But Jeremiah says no. Exile will be two generations away (70 years – Jeremiah 29:9b-10). What are the people of God to do? Move in to the place of your captivity. Build houses. Plant gardens. Have kids and grandkids. And even more dramatic, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city into which I have carried you” (Jeremiah 29:7).
In other words, be the people of God in the hard place that you would never have chosen for yourself. And in your exile, let your lives bring peace and prosperity to the people around you. To use the Old Testament example of Joseph, it’s as if God is saying, “Don’t just begrudgingly serve in Potiphar’s house or the prison or Pharaoh’s court; instead be a blessing to your captors and prosper the people of Egypt.” Or like Paul and Silas in the New Testament, “Don’t just endure your imprisonment, start singing and welcome the Spirit of God into your dungeon.”
But how do we endure our imprisonment or exile or unanswered prayers for deliverance? By remembering God’s promises and hearing his voice: “I have a plan – a good plan – a plan to give you and your people a future and a hope.” And Jeremiah goes on to explain to the exiles that in all circumstances that can call on the Lord (29:12), come close to the Lord (29:13), and rest in the fact that the exile will end (29:14) and God, the judge of the nations, will conquer the Babylonians (29:15ff).
What exile might you find yourself in? Through Jeremiah, God says, “Have hope. I have plans for you. But don’t be impatient. The hope might be a long wait. And in the meantime, look for ways to bring peace and prosperity even in the midst of your captivity.