Jeremiah 23-34…A text out of context is a pre-text for a proof text (D.A. Carson).
This quote, attributed to Carson’s father by Carson himself, is essentially saying that when you take a passage from the Bible out of its context it leads the reader to come to false conclusions. As we work through this bible reading plan, which takes us through all of scripture in one year, we see the context of all of scripture, which is helpful. Taking a single verse and using it as a theological sword is extremely unhelpful, but unfortunately wildly popular today. Jeremiah 29:11 is arguably the single verse most misused in the past few decades (interestingly it wasn’t misused prior to contemporary American prosperity). It is often used to support the thinking that God’s purpose for us individually is one of blessing and not hardship and suffering.
Jer 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
We need to interpret the Bible correctly. Some interpret this verse by taking it out of context and then universalizing it. This is both a faulty and harmful way of reading scripture. That is not to say that it has no application for our lives today, but just that we need to be careful how we understand and apply the verse.
The bottom line is that this verse is not to be used as a cliché that for the believer, that we can expect God to always bless our lives and keep us from suffering. That is certainly not the case. Many examples could of course be given of faithful, loving Christians who have had to undergo suffering. To think that God will keep us from all suffering is just a naïve viewpoint. God of course uses suffering in our lives to test our mettle, which is clear throughout scripture.
In Jeremiah, we have a word of hope to his exiled people. Jeremiah’s point was not that God keeps pain away from his children, but that in the midst of suffering, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Suffering is temporary. We may have hope, because our God is a God of hope. We need not sink into despair or cynicism.
One other important point to note was that they were to occupy the land they were in. They may have been in exile, but they were to marry, have children and to pray for the welfare of Babylon. That’s right! Here it is in black and white:
(Jer. 29:4-7) “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
The very city that God would later punish for its pride in conquering Israel and other nations, God said that they were to pray for its welfare. I think the lesson here is clear. Whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, we need to be praying for the welfare of others. Jesus said himself that we are to love our enemies. The exiles in praying for the welfare of Babylon, would certainly have been praying for its enemies. There is no doubt there. The hope of verse 11, says to God’s people, that their exile is not permanent. After 70 years, they were to be brought back. God was faithful to his covenant. They were to occupy the land again.