Cutting the Context

“Why did I do that?”

What does this question mean? It’s hard to tell reading it without any context, right? We don’t know who wrote it and why. It could be written by a student who made a mistake on a test. An Alzheimer’s patient may not recollect why she went outside. A teenage girl may be regretting her decision to take her anger out on a best friend. There are endless possibilities of meaning, but without the context we can’t fully understand what someone is trying to communicate.

Without context there is no story. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a book or an e-mail, you’re going to provide the necessary details so that your message is properly communicated. Otherwise you’ll leave people scratching their heads in bewilderment. No one wants that (well, not most people).

With that being said, why do we cut the context of Scripture, taking a verse here and a verse there for our own purposes? We may be searching for encouragement. Maybe we’re debating a hot topic and need Scriptural support.  It could be we’re promoting a particular verse for a new series in church. Whether our intentions are for good or ill, cutting the context leaves out important details.

Alright, here’s an example that might make people shake their fists, but give me a chance to explain. Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse I’ve heard quoted countless times:

“‘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.’” (NASB)

Does the Lord know the plans He has for our lives? Yes. But who is the original subject of these words from God? Jeremiah 29:1-4 explains that these words are part of a letter written by the prophet Jeremiah, from the Lord, to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. In vv. 5-9 the Lord instructs His people to settle down in Babylon, to be fruitful and multiply (so to speak), and to beware of false prophets. What were these false prophets saying? Jeremiah 28:1-4 gives us a clue. Hananiah, the son of a prophet, spoke to the priests and the people remaining in Jerusalem that the Lord was going to break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar and everything and everyone will return in two years’ time. If you continue to read the rest of that chapter you will find that Hananiah was not sent by the Lord (Read Jer. 27 for more insight).

Rather, in Jeremiah 29:10-14 the Lord sends a different message to the exiles:

10 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 place11 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. 12 Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’” (Bold print added for emphasis)

The Lord is telling the exiles, whom He sent to Babylon, that He will fulfill His promise of bringing them back to Jerusalem…in seventy years, not two. It was God’s will for Israel to go there and for the nations to place themselves under Babylon’s yoke for a time (Jer. 27:6-8). The rest of Jeremiah 29 communicates the Lord’s severe punishment on the false prophets who have lied to the exiles and were not sent by God.

A good question to ask in all of this is why were the Israelites sent to Babylon in the first place? The entire OT, especially the monarchy period, demonstrates that Israel repeatedly committed adultery (metaphorically) against God. They sought after other gods, and even though they repented at times, they kept reverting to their sinful ways. They became a disobedient people, and God could not let it go any longer.

However, what is interesting is that the Lord tells the exiles in Jer. 29:7 to “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 have welfare.” Even though they are in the enemy’s camp, the Lord tells them to ask for blessings. If Babylon is blessed, the Israelites will be blessed. This seems strange until we read that the Lord is going to keep the Israelites there for seventy years. This is a time for their families to grow and return to the Lord in their hearts so that when God calls them back to Jerusalem (Cyrus’ decree in the future) they will be ready. Even though everything seems to be going wrong for Israel, the Lord assures them that He has a plan, and it’s not the plan that the false prophets are spewing. It might be awhile before the Israelites return home, but they WILL return, and the Lord WILL prosper them.

Why? After all the disobedience, why? Because the Lord is faithful to keep His promises. Recall His promise to Abraham. Not only will his descendants multiply and be blessed, but all the families of the earth will be blessed because of him (Gen. 12:1-3). This includes the Gentiles. Also, remember God’s promise to David: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16). How are these promises eventually fulfilled? Through the Messiah! But in order for the Messiah to come, there needs to be an Israel. Therefore, as promised in Jer. 29, the Lord will bless the Israelites as He promised Abraham, and He will bless all the families of the earth by sending His Son, the final and eternal descendant on David’s throne.

How marvelous! How much we have gained even through Israel’s disobedience! In Jer. 29:11, the Lord is giving His people hope so that they will turn to Him and seek Him. I believe this is what we can learn from this passage. Maybe some of us have turned from the Lord or haven’t been walking the way we should be. Maybe we find ourselves in an awful place with no hope. But we should remember that there is always hope. Christ is our eternal hope. Everything has been paid. The Lord does not reward disobedience, and there are consequences for such actions, but if we humble ourselves, pray, ask for forgiveness, trust that He is a God who sees and hears our supplications, and seek Him with all of our hearts, He will show us where to go. That path may not make sense. It may not seem prosperous according to the world’s understanding of prosperity, but we can have hope that He is by our side if we choose to keep walking with Him. There also may be false prophets or teachers in our lives telling us opposite of what the Lord says. It might sound really good, too. But we must be on guard and test everything. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. The Lord did not take the prophets’ lies lightly (Jer. 29:17-19), and we shouldn’t either (Matt. 7:15-23).

While I do not think it is wrong to cling to the hope of Jer. 29:11, it is necessary to understand the context. It is also important for each one of us to ask, “Lord, am I following You or my own plans?” Are we willing to follow the Lord no matter what, or do we have to face an exile of our own? As 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 instructs, let us learn from the Israelites’ decisions and choose to follow the Lord wholeheartedly with a firm foundation of His truth (in context).

© Lauren Heiligenthal