Should You Personalize Bible Verses That Aren’t Personal?

29450-cm-Jeremiah-29-11-social.pngMy wife is mad at me because I took away one of her favorite verses. Well, not me, actually, but Shannon McWilliams. Shannon’s teaching is usually derivative of my own, which is good because it keeps him from error. When he goes off on his own he tends toward heresy.

On this one occasion, however, he went off on his own, and when Pam told me what he said I made the mistake of agreeing with him.

So now she is mad at me.

The verse in question is Jeremiah 29:11—”For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Great verse. You find it on Christian cards and all over the stuff they sell at Christian bookstores.

(Have you ever noticed that most Christian bookstores have more other stuff than actual books? That’s why Zondervan now calls its retail outlets “Family Christian Stores” rather than “Christian Bookstores,” though that does make it seem as if what they are selling are Christian families. It’s not. I’ve asked. The woman behind the counter just gave me a blank stare. Then took me over to the one shelf of books they had tucked away in the back of the store and showed me one on how to have a Christian family. Which made me wonder why, if they don’t sell Christian families but only books on Christian families, they shouldn’t call themselves “Stores with Books on Christian Families.” But I didn’t say that out loud. I just thanked her for being ever so helpful, and bought a Precious Moments figurine that said, “We All Needle Little Love” to give to Pam so that she wouldn’t be mad at me. Although I can’t remember why she was mad at me. Oh yeah, the verse. Aaaand we’re back.)

Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse that comforts and encourages a lot of people, my wife included. It says that no matter what is going on in your life, no matter how difficult things may be, God has good things planned for you.

Then Shannon went and pointed out that it wasn’t written to individuals who were personally going through tough times, it was written to a group of people, not an individual, specifically Jews who were in exiled in Babylon because they had refused to listen to God and heed his warnings.

It wasn’t even written to all Hebrews; Jews were those Hebrews who were from Judah. But not all Jews were exiled, only those Jews who lived in and around the power center of Jerusalem. The Babylonians weren’t concerned about and had no use for some goat herder in the southern arid regions of Judah.

And the promise of restoration wasn’t even for the people carried off in exile but for their children and grandchildren. The promise actually states that only after seventy years God would restore Judah. In other words, only after the generation that caused the exile had died out, much like the generation that left Egypt had to die out in the desert and only their children and grandchildren would make it to the Promised Land.

So the promise is really saying, “Settle down in Babylon, folks, because none of you will live to see the restoration of Judah.”

Not very encouraging, is it?

So what now? Am I saying that you should take down every picture or refrigerator magnet that has this verse ripped out of context and find your encouragement somewhere else?

Does Jeremiah 29:11 have nothing to say to Pam and other modern Christians trying to make it through times of difficulty?

What should you do?

Two things. First, understand the verse in its original context—it has something to say to you that you will miss if you only individualize it.

In it’s original context the verse says to the nations and everyone living in them that God pursues his plan of a world of justice, equality, peace, and righteousness and he will not be will not be dissuaded. Either join him and live, or pursue your greedy plans that pit people against each other, impoverish many and spread injustice—and live in exile.

That’s an important message to hear and to heed.

But the full sweep of the Bible says that the plans God has for his creation and everyone in it are good plans, plans that prosper not just some but all, plans that will allow you and everyone else to live in peace and righteousness and justice.

That’s what the kingdom of God is all about, and there is a place for you, as an individual, in it. God wants good things for you. He loves you and cares for you and your future.

So don’t be pessimistic about the future, but live in confident hope.

Jeremiah 29:11, isolated from its context, gives voice to that truth. Is it what Jeremiah was trying to say to his original audience? No. But would he agree that it’s true, and that in some sense it underlies the judgment he was pronouncing?

Yes, absolutely.

So keep the pictures. And be encouraged.

Photo by http://www.crosscards.com/cards/facebook-ecards/cm-jeremiah-29-11-social.html?utm_content=buffer2ad79&utm_medium=fbpage&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=ccupdate

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2 Responsesto “Should You Personalize Bible Verses That Aren’t Personal?”

  1. Jennifer says:

    This is awesome because I’m always concerned if it is correct to personalize a verse intended for a specific person or persons. Then I remember that it is a living bible so it absolutely is speaking to me in my walk through mortality.

    • It’s not always correct, and more often than not can be terribly wrong. That’s why us preacher-types keep warning everyone about taking verses out of context.

      But it’s not always wrong, and the biblical writers themselves often did it, as anyone reading Matthew’s birth narrative and looking up the Old Testament verses he quotes will find.

      What’s necessary is to understand the full sweep of Scripture, what I call the trajectory–where it’s coming from, where it’s headed–and make sure the individualized verses are in keeping with that. If a person, as many do, use Jeremiah 29:11 to support an unfettered pursuit of wealth and extravagance–it does say he plans to “prosper” you–that person clearly doesn’t understand the full sweep of Scripture. But to use the verse to say that God is good and loving and the future he desires for us is good, I’ve got no problem with that.

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