The Misapplication of Jeremiah 29:11

bible

Yesterday, I saw some people posting a link to an article written by Dr. Russell Moore: Does Jeremiah 29:11 Apply to You?

I think Moore hits on some very good points. One point he emphasizes is how this verse is situated within the context of Jeremiah 29, as well as the whole book of Jeremiah. As Moore says himself:

“The Book of Jeremiah is all about God disrupting his people’s plans and upending his people’s dreams. This verse comes in the context of a shocking message from the prophet.”

As I learned from one Bible scholar: The Bible was not written to us. It was written that we might benefit from it. But it was not written to us.

Particularly, Jeremiah has a message for two groups of people:

1) Those who have been taken into Babylonian exile: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon…” (vs4).

2) Those who have stayed in the land of Judah: “…but this is what the Lord says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city [Jerusalem], your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile…” (vs16).

There is good news for those walking through the actual peril of Babylonian exile; the bad news is for those who wanted to stay in the comfort of their homeland.

Read ch.29. It’s interesting.

What Russell Moore goes on to consider how this passage applies to those “in Christ” (this is a phrase that Paul uses a lot in his writings). It’s a good step, one that is appreciated and one that we need to take. For, as Moore reminds us, “All the promises of God ‘find their yes in him’ (2 Cor. 1:20).”

However, I think Dr. Moore may have rushed too quickly to this application of “in Christ,” therefore missing a vital element of hermeneutics (understanding and applying Scripture).

What we need to first realize is that Jeremiah 29:11, and most of the corpus of Scripture, is not written to individuals. One of the greatest insights we can gain in understanding Scripture is to know that, 9 out 10 times, the word you in the Bible is plural, not singular. It’s hard to note this with the English language. However, it is a simple, yet important, fact to keep in mind.

In the modern, western world, we think through the lens of the individual. Hence, with the Bible, we primarily ask, “What does this mean for me?” However, the ancient world asked another question: “What does this mean for us?” Big difference!

That’s the problem with Jeremiah 29:11 – and Scripture as a whole. Not that we read it out of context, though we do, which Moore points us to. But that we read it with me, myself, and I in mind. The Israelites of old would have read it with we, us, and our in mind.

A resource that may help with this issue is Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes. In chapter 4 of the book, the authors consider the issue of individualism vs. collectivism. I posted an article about this chapter and issue.

Consider this: Have you ever noticed how most of our preaching application is centered in what I can do or how I can apply a passage? Have you ever noticed how most of our worship songs utilize the pronouns I, me, and my? We rarely ask how to apply Scripture collectively; we rarely sing songs with the collective people of God in mind.

Sure, we gather with 100, 200, 500, 1,000 or more other Christians. But we still center on what this is going to mean for me and my worship of God, me and my engagement with Scripture. Of course, personal application will flow out of the collective. But I would argue we may need to start at the collective first.

And, even when we read a “personalized” passage in Scripture – I’m thinking of the Psalms – we need to remember that it was still written with the collective in mind. Thus, someone like David, as Israel’s anointed (messianic) leader of the day, would have penned his words knowing the Israelite people were going to be reading this (singing this) together.

Back to Jeremiah 29:11.

This verse falls within a larger context and cultural setting where the word of God was being spoken to the people of God collectively. That was their launching point. And it wasn’t really trying to touch into the level of therapeutic application that we have been caught up with in the modern west. “God has good plans for me to prosper and to succeed.” That’s not a terrible message, per se (still guarding against a Joel Osteen-type focus). But God had the goal of his people collectively having a future, even in the midst of terrible destruction and exile.

And that’s exactly what happened: about 70 years later, the Jews landed back in Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the city (this is accounted in Ezra-Nehemiah). God brought them back to their home.

Don’t get me wrong. Dr. Moore’s article is great, providing some very good insights on how to engage with Jeremiah 29. But I wanted to add one thing that I think we regularly miss out on. When we open our Bibles, more and more, let’s consider first what the text meant for them, as a people (since it was spoken to them). And then let’s move on to ask what this means for us, as a people.

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