Rebuke and Restoration

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(This post is part of a series. For an introduction to the topic read, “How ought we read the Bible?” To see all posts in this topic, go to “Does the Bible really say that?”)

High-Speed History

After the Garden, the Flood, and the Tower, God made for himself a people that would bring forth the Messiah. As His chosen patriarchs, God made promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that hinted at what would come. In Jacob’s children, God’s promise began to be fulfilled and his offspring grew rapidly in number. While Jacob was still alive, his family was made slaves to the Egyptian pharaoh, and remained so for 400 years.

At the appointed time, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt to wander in the wilderness awaiting entry to the Promised Land. Once established in their own land, God set up a system of judges and later, kings to rule over them. The third king over the United Kingdom was Solomon, son of David. King Solomon built his kingdom on the backs of the northern tribes. As the opulence of his kingdom grew he also added countless wives. With the wives came their gods. With the gods came their temples. Due to this idolatry, God judged Solomon by declaring that his kingdom would not continue; there would be a schism.

After King Solomon died, the ten northern tribes had had enough. They refused to submit to the new king and revolted. So after roughly 500 years in the Promised Land, the people were divided into a Southern Kingdom called Judah and a Northern Kingdom called Israel. Two centuries later, Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and led into captivity. As far as we know, this was the end of Israel as a people group.

After the fall of Israel, Judah was concerned, and for good reason. The same could happen to them. They had barely survived against the Assyrian attack that took Israel. Still, the fate of Israel was not enough to keep Judah in God’s will.

Enter the Weeping Prophet

A prophet named Jeremiah entered the picture. He hated his job. He prophesied against Judah and Jerusalem, warning them of their imminent end if they did not return to God and reject the foreign gods. First he warns the kings. When they will not listen, he goes to the Jewish places of worship to warn them, but they will not hear it either. Jeremiah tells them that Judah will be overrun, Jerusalem destroyed, and the people of Judah scattered. He repeatedly admonishes them that if they do not turn, their land will be laid to waste and they will be taken to Nebuchadnezzar for seventy years.

And then it happened. Just as Jeremiah had prophesied, Judah was taken by the Babylonians. From amidst the ruins he wrote a letter ((Jeremiah 29:1-3)) to be delivered to the Jews in exile. It was a message from God: “I have not abandoned you.”

(Background note: When the north was taken, they were dispersed. When the south was taken, they remained a whole. The northern kingdom was spread so thin that their culture and faith were lost entirely. Not so for Judah. They continued their heritage and religious practices, though in a foreign land.)

A Message of Hope

The message from God continues:

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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. “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.” ((Jeremiah 29:4-10))

 

Pretty cool message, eh? Basic summary of God's message: “Yes I put you here. It was because of your refusal to submit. But this is not the end. After 70 years, you’ll return to Jerusalem.”

 

This is not the end of the message though. God continues….

“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. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 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.” ((Jeremiah 29:11-14))

The Verse

So if you haven’t figured it out yet, our focus is currently on Jeremiah 29:11. This verse is probably one of the best known. It probably graces more posters, bumper stickers, coffee mugs and mission statements than any other.

You see what happened here. God chose a people and they sometimes chose him back. Their history is one of repeatedly following God, then leaving Him. This is just one more example of that. The people of Judah left God. God told them they would be taken captive if they didn’t return. They refused, and it happened. Then God said “I haven’t abandoned you. I still have plans for you.” This is a very cool story of God’s love and faithfulness to his people.

THE QUESTION:  Is this verse for us?

This is a verse with a long history of use apart from its context, so we’ll work through it slowly.

Put bluntly, this verse is not a promise we can claim.

This verse is a prime example of proof-texting. Proof-texting is coming to the Bible with a position in mind and looking for verses that support our position, without regard to context. It’s premeditated Googling.

Our goal is to look at the text and see what it says about itself. Let it tell us what it means.

Question: Who is the “you” in the passage?

Answer: Clearly, this is addressed to the people of Judah in captivity. (See Ezra 1 to see the account of Cyrus releasing them to return to Jerusalem, “in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah”.)

So, Jeremiah 29:11 is part of a specific message to a specific group and it has been fulfilled. Furthermore, there is no reason explicit in the text to think that it should apply to us.

The nature of God’s plans for us

What are "the plans God has for a specific person or people group”? Can we say that God always has the same intention for all people? I don't think so.

Example:  If God promised his plan for one side in the battles we looked at last week was victory, doesn't that mean his plan for the other side was defeat?

It seems to me that it is inescapable that God’s plans for us are sometimes unpleasant.

Does God always have a plan for us?

I don’t think so.

This is a big topic, but for the purposes of this post here are some things to think about:

  • Sometimes God actively plans for things to happen to us.
  • Sometimes things happen to us as a result of our actions
  • Sometimes things happen to us as a result of other people’s actions
  • Sometimes things happen to us because of the fallen nature of our world

This is not an exhaustive list of causes, but it makes a point: Just because God knows what will happen, that does not mean he caused it to happen.

God knows what is going to happen, but that doesn’t mean it is always part of his plan.

There is no biblical reason that we ought to expect him to show us his plan, when he has one. God has spoken. He gave us his word. It contains all the direction we need to live a life pleasing to him. He may direct us with specific plans, but the Bible doesn't give us any reason to believe that we ought to expect this as the norm.

Who’s to say what God wants?

Based on the way we often talk, it sounds like we presume that God’s highest goal is our happiness. I don't think many actually believe that, but the way this verse is tossed around adds confusion. This is unhelpful. It presumes that we are the final judge over whether God made the right choice. Was God’s choice to send the Jews into captivity worse than his choice to bring them out?

Why ought we to automatically pick the promises/plans we like?

Is there biblical grounding for picking the plans we like? Why don't we pick plans like the following:

  • “This is what the Lord Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” ((Jeremiah 19:11))
  • “The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured.” ((Deuteronomy 28:27))

These are plans that God had - for the same groups of people, no less. Couldn’t we precede these plans by “For I know the plans I have for you”? What makes them any different, besides our choice?

Other examples of plans God had for people: Joseph's imprisonment, Hosea's prostitute, Paul's numerous troubles, John the Baptist's beheading…   On and on it goes.

We don’t get to pick the promises. If and when God makes promises, he picks what they are and who they are for. 

What does it mean that God’s plans are “for our good”?

Pulling from the 29:11 text again, what does it mean that something is for our good? … What does it mean that it is not to harm us, but rather to give us hope and a future?

Looking at the Bible holistically, we cannot say that God’s plans for us are always good - if by good we mean pleasant or enjoyable or aligning with our desires.

In addition to the examples mentioned above, we have Jesus’ promise that “in this world we ought to expect trouble” ((John 16:33)). But in that same passage he says we ought to have peace because he has overcome the world! Add to that passages like Romans 8:28 that says God uses things for our good.

Giving us things that are good and bringing good from that which happens are hugely different things.

About prospering…

The NIV’s rendering of the word “prosper” is unfortunate. It has led to an unwarranted use of the word in Christian circles.

There are Christian traditions that think we ought to all be incredibly rich because we are “children of the King”. There are others who believe that we ought to have no belongings at all because Jesus was broke and homeless.  I think both of these miss the point, but that’s another topic.

Looking at other versions we see this translated as well-being, welfare, peace, and good.

The sense I get is that God is talking here about restoration, not about riches.

Does God have specific plans for us?

Sometimes, this is clearly the case. Jeremiah 29:11 is an example of specific plans that God had for specific people. Hopefully it is clear that we are not those people, and those are not our plans. But does this example mean that God has specific plans for us and we need to figure them out? I don’t think so.

Some deep questions to ponder:

  • Is it possible that God doesn’t want us to be approved for that mortgage?
  • Is it possible that God doesn’t have an opinion about which career path we choose?
  • Is it possible that God doesn’t have a specific individual in mind for our spouse?
  • Can we ruin God’s plans?

We’ll probably cover this notion in future weeks when looking at other passages, so for now we'll move on.

Can we decide which promises are for us?

As we’ve covered today and in previous weeks, God makes promises to whom he desires and when he desires.

When a promise or principle is conveyed in a text, we need to do our homework to decide to whom it was originally directed and whether that includes us.

The bottom line – we don’t pick.

The idea that we can select phrases from the Bible at will and declare them to be ours is an incredibly common practice, but it has no Biblical basis.

"Claiming" is a notion that is completely foreign to the Bible.

Why presume that we can pluck this verse from the bible by itself anyway?

For instance, let's say this verse did apply to us. Wouldn't that mean that we also ought to expect 70 years of captivity before we are 'prospered and not harmed'? Why do we get to pick what we want and forego all the rest? This seems awfully self-serving.

So what’s the point of Jeremiah 29:11?

Should we ignore it completely? Of course not!

As we've seen in other examples, this was a message to a specific people at a particular time. This shows us how God dealt with them, then. Is it an indication of how he will deal with us? I don't think so. It's a case-by-case thing. Certainly there will be situations that seem to line up with this and many others that don't. Imposing this verse on all of Christian life will only lead to confusion and disappointment. This is not to be read as a promise for us, but rather an example of God's faithfulness and a reminder that he is in control by showing an example of his dealings with others.

There are plenty of places to look for examples of how God will deal with us. Anything that speaks to God’s nature is unchanging. God is good. God is faithful. God is just. These are well-established principles. In addition, we have promises that Jesus gave to Christians that we can cling to because we too are Christians.

  • “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” ((Matthew 11:28))
  • “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” ((Matthew 28:20))
  • “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” ((John 14:3))

 

 

Postscript:

This is a big topic. Below are a number of links on related topics if you are interested in reading more.