This time of year Christians send and receive a variety of graduation gifts that feature Jeremiah 29:11 –“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” (NIV).
It’s a wonderful biblical promise. The problem is … it’s not for graduates.
As Christians in the U.S., we have a tendency to Westernize, personalize, and lift out of context many passages of scripture so that they lose their original meaning – and worse, lose their intended application for modern readers.
Using this verse, let’s look at three ways we sometimes misuse biblical promises. E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien identify these common errors in their book, “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.”
Ignoring the context
In Jeremiah 29, Jerusalem is captured, looted, and burned. The Babylonians kill King Zedekiah’s sons, then gouge out his eyes, shackle him and lead him into captivity. The kingdom of Judah is about to spend 70 years in exile.
We are tempted to ignore the context because it doesn’t apply to us. It’s ancient history, and we want to fast forward to the promise of prosperity.
So we cling to verse 11 as a “theme verse” and claim what we think is God’s promise to provide excellent career prospects, a trophy spouse, and a worry-free life.
This may be one reason so many 20-somethings drift away from the church. They become disillusioned when they swim in an ocean of college-loan debt and find themselves working minimum-wage jobs. This isn’t the biblical “promise” they claimed as graduates.
Making it about me
A second way we misread this passage is to take it personally. When the Lord says “you,” He is speaking about His people – Israel. Certainly Zedekiah couldn’t take the promise personally. Nor could the grieving families whose sons and daughters were slaughtered in the battle for Jerusalem.
“We must teach every new student that the ‘plans to prosper you’ involved the killing and enslavement of thousands of individual Israelites (2 Kings 24-25), who might dispute the promise ‘not to harm you,’” write Richards and O’Brien. “Moreover, Jeremiah 29:4-7 indicates that God’s blessing extended to Israel’s enemies, the nations in which the Israelites were living as exiles…. Certainly many individuals languished without prospering, without the prospect of a bright future. Enslavement and suffering were their plight. The promise may not apply to me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to us.”
Finally, we are inclined to fast-forward the outcome. For the Jewish exiles, God returns them to their land after 70 years. There is suffering and uncertainty throughout the two generations that feel the full force of God’s wrath on the southern kingdom. Nevertheless, He keeps His promise.
Richards and O’Brien offer a good summary of Jeremiah 29: “Even though Israel is in the condition of exile, God will prosper them by prospering those who enslave them (Jer. 29:7). Someday he will deliver them from exile, but that will happen well in the future. Until then, Israel is to rest assured that God is at work for their deliverance, even when he does not appear to be.”
So, how can we encourage graduates in a more biblically accurate way?
Perhaps a better “theme verse” is Ephesians 2:10, which tells us that we – New Testament believers – are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
God may shower us with wealth and wisdom as Solomon enjoyed, or a double portion of His spirit as Elisha received. Or He may blaze our path to eternal reward through the dark valleys of persecution and premature death as the heroes of Hebrews 11 experienced.
The measure of our lives is not how long we live or how prosperous we become. It’s how faithfully we manage the time, talents, spiritual gifts and other resources God has entrusted to us.
This column first appeared May 21, 2013, in The Pathway, the newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.