Wednesday, September 24, 2014

WSPK 6: "I know the thoughts I have toward you" (Jer. 29:11)

I have been talking some basic hermeneutics that I hope would be at least a little familiar to a pastor. They have to do with realizing the nature of the real meaning the biblical texts had as well as some sense of how that meaning legitimately is expanded when we read it as Christian Scripture.

Today I want to do a case study on Jeremiah 29:11: "For I indeed know the thoughts that I myself am thinking about you, says YHWH, thoughts of peace and not for evil, to give to you an afterwards and a hope."

1. This is a memory verse of promise for many Christians. I'm sure different Christians take it differently. Some probably take it as a promise that God will get them out of some specific problem situation they are in. Of course God emphatically does not promise to get us out of every thorny situation. Sometimes God lets us suffer, even die. But it is certainly possible that the Spirit would make this verse come alive to a specific individual as a special word to them in a specific situation.

Probably most of us take it as a general statement of God's love and positive attitude toward us. God is not out to catch us out. He's not out to try to make us mess up (Jas. 1:13). He's not some trigger happy sadist hoping to have an excuse to shoot us. His thoughts toward us are one to help us and bring us through.

We also might read this verse within the framework of the Christian metanarrative I mentioned yesterday. As such we might read this verse not as a promise to us as individuals but as an expression of the fact that, at the end of history, God will set the world right and his people will be vindicated.

In my opinion, all these interpretations are legitimate extensions of the text of Jeremiah.

2. So what did this text mean originally?

First, let's go for the obvious. The Y-O-U of this text was obviously those Israelites exiled in Babylon around 590BC. See Jeremiah 29:4: "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon." These words were not originally addressed to anyone alive today but to people who lived 2400 years ago.

The kingdom of Judah and the city of Jerusalem had been sieged by the Babylonians and many of its people had been taken back to Babylon as slaves. In less than ten years, Babylon would completely destroy Jerusalem and its temple, but it had not quite happened yet.

Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles. "Build houses and settle down," he tells them (Jer. 29:5). God's will is to submit to Babylon, not to listen to those prophets saying to resist it. Then, in seventy years, God will allow his people to return (29:10).

So in context, here is what the verse was originally saying: "You exiles in Babylon, do not think that I have forgotten you. You are not going to be stuck in Babylon for ever. I have plans for the future restoration of Israel. I have thoughts of peace for your future, a hope. You will come back in seventy years."

3. Now you can see the questions we could ask about the conventional interpretation of Jeremiah 29:11. What makes any of us think that we can apply it to ourselves? It wasn't written to me or about me. God doesn't say anything about anyone but the exiles in Babylon. It didn't apply to Hitler when he invaded Poland. It didn't apply to "Christian" empires that eventually fell in the past. It is not a promise to the United States that it will never be destroyed permanently by its enemies.

There is nothing in the text of Jeremiah that suggests it applies to any other time or place, and the NT never quotes it. It is rather a Christian tradition to apply this verse to today and a function of reading the Bible in an extended sense. That doesn't make the application illegitimate. It simply is another indication that we are programmed to read the Bible out of context when we read it as Scripture.

As an aside, the historical context of this letter was prior to the form of Jeremiah we now read. The book of Jeremiah is an edited collection of the individual prophecies and stories about Jeremiah almost certainly compiled by someone else (perhaps Baruch, cf. Jer. 36:4, although note that since the current form of Jeremiah talks about Baruch writing down one prophecy, in context this verse is not talking about all of the current book of Jeremiah). Jeremiah did not sit down one day and write the whole book of Jeremiah and there are actually different versions of Jeremiah among the manuscripts in which the chapters are in significantly different order.

4. You can see what we are doing subconsciously, unthinkingly, but legitimately, when we read Jeremiah 29:11 the way we normally do, in keeping with yesterday's post:
  • We re-specifize it. We understand ourselves to be the "you" that that verse addresses. I may reapply it to me as an individual. To do this, most rip the verse from its obvious literary context. (We deselect the obvious context)
  • We generalize it. We make it into a general truth of God's attitude toward his people rather than a specific promise at a specific time and place. However, we do not universalize it because we only apply it to God's people, not to the wicked.
  • We may meta-narrativize. We may make it into an eschatological promise for the people of God at the end of the story.
When we extend the meaning in ways that fit with right Christian thinking and right Christian action, this out-of-context process is perfectly legitimate, in my opinion. I personally believe that the Spirit regularly speaks to people in this way. The problem is when Christians disagree over their "spiritual" readings. In that case it can be useful to know something about what the real meaning actually was.


Keith Drury said...

Let me see if I get this right. You say reading the Bible as Scripture is legitimate though should not be confused with the original meaning. But the problem you raise with such spiritual readings is when more than one reading competes. In these cases you thus say that knowing the original meaning can be "useful." I'm asking in what way the original meaning is then useful. Is the "spiritual reading" that is closest to the original meaning then the best reading? How does that work?

Ken Schenck said...

Useful in a number of ways. For one thing, there are a million whacky things said from the pulpit every Sunday whose only power is in the pretense that the Bible says them. Jeremiah 29:11 is different because it is deeply ingrained in a collective interpretation of American Christianity--it sticks like the 3 wise men because we've grown up with it. But the puffs of wind that are some momentary reading tend to blow away when context is brought into play.

But say a Wesleyan preaches that we must be faithful to God if we expect to make it to the kingdom. A Lutheran in the congregation protests--this is salvation by works, which the Reformation soundly rejected. The Wesleyan then introduces Paul in context, not someone so much talking about works in the abstract but primarily Jewish works of Law that were thought by some to be necessary to be saved. The Lutheran position is seen to be a by-product of one tradition and not truly supported by the original meaning. The Wesleyan is allowed to continue to preach the importance of faithfulness. :-)