Context, Context, Context

September 13, 2019

The disc jockey on the Christian radio station had a verse to read — the word of God for us. He read Jeremiah 29:11.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV)

He went on about how comforting these words were for us. And he is not alone. The verse appears on posters, wall hangings, and Internet memes.

But there is a problem. It ignores the context of these words. Look at the verses before and after.

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 29:10, ESV)

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 29:12–14, ESV)

Jeremiah wasn’t even promising this to the people of his day. It was a future message of hope for Israel after the Babylonian Captivity. I certainly cannot apply this directly to my situation. I do believe that the people of God have a bright future. I can read Revelation 21-22, which is more directly related to the Christian life, and realize that. However, I don’t know what we may have to pass through on our way to there. Revelation was predicting persecution and economic hardship for those first century Christians who first read Revelation.

I cannot know that the future has prosperity and no harm for me personally or for my country on the basis of Jeremiah 29:11. I know that it will be well for the people of God if we are faithful, but I don’t know the circumstances we may face. I’m not a prophet, and Jeremiah 29:11 is not addressing us.

The Bible is not meant to be read as a series of isolated verses. It is intended to be read as a book with us asking basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? The old adage for Bible interpretation (and for that matter, any interpretation of a text) is true: context, context, context.

— Russ Holden