I was reminded again last week of the fact that indeed, context matters when we are quoting scripture.
Sitting in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, I was watching the television which was tuned into the local NBC affiliate. It turned out to be the occasion of Kathie Lee Gifford’s final day as co-host of the third hour of the Today Show. As the show went off the air, the entire “Today Show Family” gathered with Kathie Lee and co-host, Hoda Kotbe on the stage to wish her well with a farewell toast. When she was told she had 20 seconds, Kathie Lee said, “I want to share a thought that I have been trying to share for many years. With tears in her eyes, Gifford quoted Jeremiah 29:11 ‘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.’ (esv) This promise is not just for me” she said, “but for all of you who are watching”. to see the video click here
Knowing that Kathie Lee publicly professes faith in Christ, I was not surprised that she quoted scripture, but having known and loved this verse for a long time, myself, I slightly cringed when I thought of the context of this verse. You see, context does matter. This verse is a wonderful promise for God’s people, but this is not a verse that should just be used in a “feel good” capacity. This is the promise of a faithful God, to an unfaithful people.
Looking at the verse in the context of this 29th chapter of Jeremiah’s prophecy, we see that God is telling His people in the Kingdom of Judah, that they would be coming under judgement for 70 years for their unfaithfulness to God and their penchant for idolatry. Many of the residents of Jerusalem (including King Jeconiah and many of the noblemen, and officials) had already been carried away by the armies of King Nebuchadezzar into exile in Babylon. God directs His message here to those who were already in exile in Babylon. This was a terrible time of discipline He was bringing upon His erring people. Things were dark and they were now strangers in a strange land. They were now in a pagan nation that worshiped false gods. The consequences for their unfaithfulness are spelled out in this passage beginning with verse 4. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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. 8 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, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.
God paints a picture here that would appear to be a permanent one. Basically He tells them to “settle in” to the new circumstances. They are told to build houses, plant gardens, and continue life, reproducing and multiplying there. They were told to pray for the pagan government and hope for peace of that Empire – that the Jewish exiles might also enjoy that peace. But God also tells them not to listen to those who claim to be prophets – because HE has not sent them to His people. Their “prophesies” would be lies.
Kind of a bleak picture, wouldn’t your think? On the surface, it looks that God has forsaken His people and that their relationship with Him had come to a crashing end. But here is where we see a picture of the faithfulness of our God to His people. Look at verses 10 and 11.
“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. 11 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.
God is not finished with His people. He has not cast them away – but they are going to feel the sting of His loving discipline to them. As a result, God knows that this will bring about a repentance on their part. Look at verses 12-14
Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 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 is a wonderful and powerful promise – but it is not a promise to “all people” as Kathie Lee said. It is a statement of His faithfulness with an understanding that it comes to a fickle people who are undergoing His judgment and correction, and who are willing to repent and return to their covenant with a Holy God.
It is still a wonderful message of hope. But it comes after a time of difficult lessons learned and is not just a touchy feely promise from God to everybody!
Speaking as a Preacher’s Kid who was raised in church – and as one who has been in pastoral ministry for nearly five decades – I have learned a lot of scripture. It’s pretty easy for me to come up with a familiar verse for just about any situation. But I have to remind myself from time to time to think, does this REALLY apply to this situation?