Let’s talk about one of the most famous verses in the Bible. There are some verses that have taken on a life of their own completely separate from their original context. The one that always comes to my mind first is Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” That one’s never going back into context, sadly. Then there’s Philippians 4:13, life verse of athletes everywhere.
But my favorite on this list of least favorite culturally hijacked verses has to be Psalm 45:11, “The king will admire your beauty.” This is peak American Evangelicalism. I remember the cultural discovery of this verse in college. The social media posts, the tattoos, the excruciating repetition in group prayers... The trend isn’t dead. You can get a vinyl wall decal of this one on Amazon for $9.99. Of course, if you stray even 2 or 3 words out into the context on this one, it’s a pretty rude awakening. The ESV reads, “Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear: forget your people and your father's house, and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him.” How’s that for a head fake?
Jeremiah 29:11 is different. The major problem with lifting any Old Testament promise out of its place is application. How do we know this verse has anything to do with us? When it comes to the major prophets, especially Jeremiah, we’d rather not have most of what he says applied to us. Take Jeremiah 19:11, for example, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended.” Who’s to say that verse is any less applicable to us than 29:11? What’s cool about Jeremiah 29:11 is it’s even better news in context than it is out of context.
Jeremiah 29:11 was written to Israelites who had been taken to Babylon.
Commentators typically group chapters 21-29 together as a series of confrontations between Jeremiah and the leaders of Israel and Judah, false prophets, and false beliefs. In chapter 29, Jeremiah is engaged in a confrontation with the latter two. When God called Jeremiah as a very young man, he showed him that his life would be one of confrontation. His mission as God’s prophet was “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” And it wasn’t easy. Maybe even more than the Psalms, the book of Jeremiah exposes the very deepest parts of one of the biblical characters. Next time you read through it, look for the places where Jeremiah reflects on his calling, (13:1-15:21; 19:1-20:18). Jeremiah is actually the longest book in the Bible, and its main character is one of the most transparently human.
After the fall of Jerusalem in 597 B.C., large groups of Israelites were taken off to Babylon. Daniel and his three friends would have been there by this point followed by the prophet Ezekiel several years later. Jeremiah was still in Jerusalem; he had seen the decline of the kingdom and the destruction of the city. Sometime in the aftermath, Jeremiah sent a letter to the court of King Nebuchadnezzar with a word from the Lord for the people in exile.
Jeremiah tells the people to sit tight in Babylon.
The letter itself is short and powerful. It runs from 29:4-23 and contains some important information. First, the exile will not end until they have spent 70 years in Babylon. Jeremiah tells them to get comfortable, to pray for the shalom of the city, and to seek its welfare. The word shalom, which is translated as welfare in these verses and sometimes as “good” or “plans to prosper you” in 29:11 is a huge OT word. It appears 237x in the OT, 31x in Jeremiah, 3x in 29:7 and 1x in 29:11. Welfare is not a bad translation, but it’s hard to capture that Hebrew word in English. It means wholeness, health, peace, prosperity, and contentment. The word shalom encapsulates the sum of humanity’s restoration before God. Isaiah 54:10 gives a glimpse of the peace and completeness we have in the shalom of God, ‘For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of shalom shall not be removed,’ says the LORD, who has compassion on you.” Shalom is a descriptor of what God is going to provide for humanity as he redeems the world.
Why does God say to seek the good of Babylon? Part of the reason this sounds so weird to us is that Israel so quickly forgot their calling when they were in the promised land. From the beginning, God chose Israel so that through them all of the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:2-3). When you read through the pages of the Old Testament, you realize quickly that Israel wasn’t doing very much spillover blessing. Being in Babylon provided them that opportunity, and the Lord adds in 29:7 that they will share in the success of the city.
Jeremiah isn’t talking about just any kind of blessing.
This isn’t just any kind of blessing, though, as if the end goal of the Israelites being in Babylon could be summarized by a growing GDP. When God brings his shalom it affects every part of life and society. It disrupts and calms, it’s rough and smooth, it is a table-turning kind of restoration and a bruised-reed-he-will-not-break restoration.
This passage has been turned into a proof-text to tell Christians to keep their heads down and not cause a stir in the culture, but God is not telling his people to begin compromising with pagans. And any interpretation of this passage that calls for Christians to accommodate to the culture is severely mistaken. Engage, yes; accommodate, no. Mark Sayers gives a careful reading of this passage in Strange Days. The belief that Christianity and secularism are playing a zero-sum game for human flourishing is incomplete. Although there are cases where this is true, there are also many cases where Christians can cause all of society to thrive.
The equal and opposite problem is consuming the culture whole. Many pastors are realizing they have more of the world in their pews than they do the kingdom of God. In these cases, the path of least resistance is a banal nonthreatening gospel that not only comes with guilt-inducing compromise but also lacks the very substance able to transform the fundamental architecture of the secular world. As Sayers puts it, “The grandeur of Christ’s kingship and glorious kingdom reduced to less conspicuous consumption, physical and emotional well-being, community engagement and simple pleasures. A faith to flourish in exile, but minus Jesus’ call to repentance and relinquishment.” That can’t be what God was calling for, either then or now.
Jeremiah is confronting false prophets.
Jeremiah spent a lot of his prophetic career sorting out and confronting false prophecy. In the years before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, there were many claiming to speak the word of the Lord, and many of them were wrong. The book of Jeremiah is a regular battle of the prophets. God sends Jeremiah to prophet school in the first chapter to ensure that he will be able to rightly discern the word of God, and he uses that ability for the next 40 years. The majority of chapter 29 is a directive against the false prophecy.
A few chapters earlier, Jeremiah unleashes a scathing critique on the self-proclaimed prophets of the day; “Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (23:15-17). Imagine what he would say today, not the least to those who think 29:11 means God will make all their pagan dreams come true.
Jeremiah promises something better than you think.
In this context, Jeremiah delivers one of the most amazing promises in the Bible. The wonderful thing about this verse, though, is it’s even more amazing than you think when you hear it of context. Whereas the way we use Philippians 4:13 is far more extensive than that verse is in its original intent, the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is even better than we usually give it credit for. God is committed to securing and providing the shalom of his people. God does not just settle for giving his people their immediate desires, he transforms culture, desire, and flourishing to align with the exact nature of the gifts he gives to his people. When he says he has a plan to prosper you he means it.
In fact, his plan to prosper you goes above and beyond the stunted vision of giving you what you want right now. The problem is two-fold. What God has is something more satisfying than you can imagine, but it’s also something more life-giving than you can actually receive in your current state. Think about it like you have joy receptors. Because of the power of sin and the flesh, the receptors that come stock in human beings are very low grade. They’re unable to have joy in things like suffering, self-denial, humility, and loving others. They also register very low levels of joy from seeing the glory of God. But God doesn’t just overload our joy receptors, he actually upgrades their sensitivity to detect any small trace of his presence. As Christians, we can have joy in absolutely anything.
So what God does is he changes you and molds you to become the kind of person who has the capacity for His own fullness of joy - then he gives more of it than you could ever want. One of the reasons he gives us new bodies in the age to come is that the ones we have now don’t have the ability to experience the glory of God in the way we were designed to experience it. So he’ll fix the capacity problem and then show us his glory Those are the plans he has for you.
The results are hard to grasp. The implications of these plans he has for us are listed in 29:12-14. We will find him when we seek him. He will give us hearts that respond to him. He will bring us back from the far reaches of the earth where our sin has taken us. How do we know that all of this applies to us? It’s exactly what he’s done for us in Jesus Christ. Now that’s an amazing promise.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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