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.