I haven’t blogged in a long time, but had been planning to start again soon. This is not how I planned to start, but sometimes my plans don’t align with God’s plans. I’ve found that it all goes better for me when I yield to his plans, rather than pressing on with my own, so humor me (and God) with a brief departure from my normal content, as I share a relatively obvious insight that had never caught my eye before:
Many Christians are familiar with, and can even quote verse 11 of Chapter 29 from the book Jeremiah. The verse is a source of encouragement to all of God’s followers: ” ‘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.’ ” Very uplifting words, that have been printed on coffee cups and desk placards, and quoted to countless others who are frustrated in their situation. How could you not be encouraged when the Creator of the universe tells you he has a plan to proper you?
I’m frustrated by our recent past in the Western Church, and one of those frustrations stems from the fact that we’ve often allowed our biblical teaching to become more a presentation of ethical principles than the telling of the Divine Story. While this is subject for more than one future discussion, I raise it this morning because the popularity of this verse is a prime example of the problem: We know maxims, comforting phrases, but we don’t know the whole story.
Jeremiah 29 isn’t a book of happy thoughts set in a prosperous time–to the contrary, the prophet Jeremiah is writing a letter to the king, the leaders, and the upper class of the nation of Judah, who had been captured by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and who were now living in Babylon under his rule (for more on the joys of being a captive of Nebuchadnezzar, read the book of Daniel, particularly chapter 3. See also 2 Kings 21:18, where the prophet Isaiah foretells these captives who are “lucky” enough to be chosen to be servants in Nebuchadnezzar’s household, will do so after they are castrated).
So, Jeremiah pens this letter to people who aren’t in a prosperous situation at all. What is his message? That they will soon be rescued? Nope. In fact, he quickly tells them to ignore the lies of the prophets who are telling them that they will be rescued quickly. Instead, Jeremiah tells them to get comfy, because they’re going to be there for a while-70 years, to be exact. And he doesn’t tell them to begin a guerilla campaign, or even to be derisive or uncooperative; instead, the Lord tells the exiles to “seek the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you.”
Jeremiah is not writing to a group of people in happy conditions–in fact, they’re in unimaginably horrid conditions. And he’s telling them to get comfortable, because it’s going to be a long haul. Immediately prior to the oft-quoted verse 11, we find the Lord telling the captives, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon*, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place (Jerusalem).”
The good news? God did exactly what he promised–he brought the Jews out of captivity, exactly 70 years later. When you read the whole story, you see that God is not a random, capricious judge who vacillates and contradicts himself, but a consistent, reliable, loving God who acts in our best interests, even when what we need is an extended time-out. God does have plans for you–plans to prosper you and not to harm you; great things for you now and in the future.
The bad news? If you want to cherry-pick Scripture to find phrases to support your own personal wants, needs, or beliefs, you can. But, when you lift them out of context, you may miss some important details. Jeremiah 29:11 can be a great encouragement to all who are struggling through trials in their lives, but they need to know the whole story–the trial may not be quick, easy, or painless.
*I highlight this because I find the phrase “seventy years are completed for Babylon” to be interesting–sometimes the duration of our trials and struggles aren’t because we need that much time to learn something, but because God needs that time to do a work through or in someone else. While the Jews in Babylonian captivity had the opportunity to learn and grow through the trials of captivity, at least from this verse it appears that God had an equally important objective of using the Babylonians to accomplish his purposes in the course of History. What better place to preserve the remnant of your treasured people than in the house of the king of the most powerful nation of the world?