Context Matters

In reading through the book of Jeremiah this morning, I find myself reminded of the importance of keeping the context of a text in mind. Any good interpreter of the Bible understands that verses should not be applied to situations for which they were not intended. Of course, if another inspired writer uses those words to apply in another situation, that is totally different, as the author does so under God’s direction. But it is not appropriate for us to take hold of verses, oblivious to their context, and make them out to be promises for us.

I bring as an example Jeremiah 2911. I have seen this verse used by many in memory verse plans, as it tells of God having wonderful plans to prosper his people. Generally, the plans offer no hint of the context of the passage; the reader is simply to assume that God is telling him or her that he loves them and has a wonderful plan for their prosperity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning that God does love us or that he has a plan for us. I am, however, questioning whether Jeremiah 29:11 should be taken as a direct promise for the Christian of today.

Look at the verse in context, and judge for yourself:

Jeremiah 29:10-14

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear 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 I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

What is the context? To whom do these verses clearly apply? These verses were given by God to instruct the Jews who were about to be taken into Babylonian captivity. God told those men and women that he had a plan for them, a plan that would lead to their prosperity even in their foreign exile. That is the context and intent of Jeremiah 29:11.

One might ask, “Then can we learn nothing from such verses that are not intended for us?” Of course we can learn from these verses. We can learn of God’s character and faithfulness. We learn that God has been faithful in the past to his people. We can learn of Gods’ plan for his people. We can learn that God is good to his children. We can learn that God is in control, even when the world makes it look as though he is not.

A friend offered me a way to illustrate this point. Suppose a young man finds a letter from his father to his mother. In the letter, the young man reads these words, “I love you, and I will give of myself to protect and care for you until the day I die.” These words are written from the father to the mother about the father’s relationship to the mother. If the young man says that this was written for him, he is doing violence to the text. If, however, the young man is comforted by these words to his mother because he sees in these words his father’s genuine commitment, caring, and faithfulness, he is perfectly within proper bounds.

My warning to us is simple: be careful how you take verses for yourself. God has not said that you can grab Jeremiah 29:11 as a blanket promise that no harm will come to you in your lifetime. You should not run to this verse and say that you have a promise from God that you will prosper through an economic crisis. You indeed may prosper because of God’s grace, but do not assume that you are guaranteed total financial stability simply from the words of a promise that God gave to the Jews before their Babylonian captivity.

You might ask, “What’s the difference? You seem to be telling me that God has plans for me and will be faithful; so why can’t I apply this verse to myself?” My answer is that it is very different to trust in God’s character as it is revealed in the scripture than to trust in a promise that was not made to you. While you may come to the same conclusion, it matters how you get there. Since you are not about to be returned to Israel after 70 years of Babylonian captivity, it is better for you to trust in God’s character than for you to find rest in a promise taken out of context. Yes, this may seem like only a game of semantics, but it is important that we respect the Bible and its original intent enough that we learn from it as the authors intended rather than ripping verses out of their original meaning and making them say something we simply want to hear.

So, how do I deal with Jeremiah 29:11? I know that it is a verse written to the Jews who are going to Babylon. I learn from it that God is in control. I allow the fact that God is in control to give me comfort that, if he was in control when his people went captive, he most certainly is also in control in my life. I trust in God who has proven himself faithful time and time again, but I do not claim a verse that is out of context to proof-text my trust. I need not proof-text my trust in God, as my God has proven himself faithful over and over and over again.