Text Out of Context

For about ten years, I sang and played in the horn line of the band of a rather large congregation of believers in Bellingham, WA. One of the more popular tunes we played was a song drawn from Jeremiah 29:11, quoted directly from the modern NIV translation. The song had something of a Caribbean beat, so much so that I always believed it needed a steel drum as part of the instrumentation. The chorus of the song was very upbeat, hopeful, and smile-inducing. “‘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.'”

What an uplifting concept! It is no wonder this is such a popular verse to set to song, to place on a wall-plaque, or to meme a motivational poster. Here is a verse that seems to say, “Hey don’t worry about your circumstance. I have plans for you. No matter how bleak it looks today, you’re going to come out the other side smelling like a rose!” Lost your job? No problem. I have plans for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Bad accident left you unable to walk? Don’t worry about that. I have plans for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.

I do not mean to make light of any bad situation you may find yourself in. Neither do I intend to make anyone feel badly about believing God is for us and not against us; that God is on our side. What I do intend with this article is to stress that, as followers of Christ, we must treat scripture with the respect it deserves, not wrenching a passage or verse from its context to emphasize a point that makes us feel good, even if the point itself is a valid one. The context of Jeremiah 29 has nothing to do with me losing my job, or spending the remainder of my days sitting on wheels. Jeremiah 29 was not even spoken/written to us or for us!

It is very important for us to understand that scripture was written to specific people in a specific context. Failure to accept that truth results in us reading into scripture what is not there. In doing so, we potentially wind up with some very wild interpretations of passages that God never intended we have. One of my seminary professors often said, “Text out of context is pretext.” Context is vital to a proper understanding of what we see, hear, or read, whether that be scripture, a speech, or one side of a phone conversation. Consider a man saying, “I love you.” What does he mean? We cannot know without context. If he is lightly dragging his fingers across the hood of his car, he means something quite different than if he is looking into his wife’s eyes, or if he is patting his horse on the neck.

The context of Jeremiah 29 is one of captivity. The people of God were carried off into captivity in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar when Judean King Jehoiakim stopped paying tribute to him. Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, and transplanted some 10,000 Jews to Babylon. Their lives were completely uprooted. They were vulnerable, destitute, and bewildered, not knowing what to do with themselves. God’s message to them, through Jeremiah, was to live their lives in their circumstance. Build homes, plant gardens, marry, have children. God told them they were going to be in Babylon for a very long time (70 yrs.), and it is in that context that God says,

“For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart”

This passage is speaking directly to a group of people in a specific circumstance, not to you or to me in 2015. It is not written to a singular Christian individual, or to any individual at all. It is written to a nation that had been dragged from its homeland. It is not a passage guaranteeing personal prosperity, and it is a mistake to attempt to use it in that way.

What we can do, and should do as we read passages written to our spiritual ancestors, is to look for the truths those passages contain as they apply to the original context, and then consider those truths in light of our own reality. With that control in place, what can we learn from Jeremiah 29? We can see how God is astonishingly in love with and faithful to his people, despite their/our unfaithfulness to him. God’s faithfulness, mercy, and patience are themes and truths we find throughout the prophetic writings. With a little more effort, we can learn profound and deep truths that extend well beyond the tripe we find on overpriced trinkets, plaques, and posters at our local Christian bookstores.

My encouragement to you today is to not allow yourself to be satisfied with the candy bar offerings of contemporary religious vendors when we have the substantive source of nutrition contained in the pages of scripture. If Bible study (distinct from just reading) is something that sounds intimidating, I encourage you to read through the three lessons in Bible Study Basics found here.

Victoriously in Christ!

– damon

Twitter – @DamonJGray
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Damon J. Gray

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