Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A Deeper Hope

One of the things I’ve emphasized here at Quest Forums has been the necessity of understanding the context of biblical passages. It can be very easy to take a verse or phrase and put it to use for our own purposes rather than grasping the meaning that is actually intended. That is a quick path to bad theology. If we read something into a quote, ignore the rest of its text, and then allow our opinions to ossify, then error will be inevitable and it can be costly.

That’s a general warning, but I want to illustrate it with a concrete example. One of the most popular verses in the Bible is Jer. 29:11, which says,

“For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

Read on its own, it seems very difficult to miss the point being made here. It is a message of hope. God desires for His people to know that He has not forgotten them, that He is watching over them and that He will deliver them.

All of that is certainly true, but we miss out on the full impact of the promise if we do not familiarize ourselves with how it came about. Jeremiah 29 records messages that the prophet sent around 597 BC. The recipients of his letters were mostly priests and nobles who had been deported to Babylon after one of the conquests of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. While Nebuchadnezzar had led away many of the most influential people in the city, this was before he destroyed it and exiled the rest of the population in 586 BC.

After their first defeat, many of the people living in Judah clung to the hope that they could weather the Babylonian storm. Likewise, those already sent to Babylon hoped that the time would soon come when they would return to Jerusalem. They were encouraged in their desire by many prophets and priests who promised that the Lord would not turn His back on them and would soon set them free. Jerusalem, they said, was His sacred city and therefore could never utterly fall.

The Lord directed Jeremiah to prophesy in order to disabuse the people of their notions and in order to condemn the false prophets for speaking words God had never told them to say. That’s true for a lot of this book, with chapter 29 being a prime example. God was not, in fact, going to reward their hope. The problem with it was that it rested in the wrong thing. They took it for granted that He had to protect them. At the same time, they sought no relationship with Him. Instead of pursuing the Lord and His goodness according to His word, they sought money, power, and idols to worship.

For generations by this point, God had called the people of Judah to return to faithfulness. Their refusal finally meant that they were going to be punished with the loss of everything they had ever known. Their rebelliousness and their hardheadedness meant that there were going to be no more reprieves. Jerusalem would be destroyed so that the world could look at its ruins and marvel at the justice of God who allowed it rather than continuing to have His name profaned.

It is only at this time that the comfort of Jer. 29:11 comes into play. It is not a promise that God’s people have nothing to fear. They do, and the worst of it is their own doing. Instead, it is the promise that God will not abandon them. Even in His anger, His eyes will still be on them and He will restore them when they are ready to turn to Him. Their pain does not mean He has thrown them away. He still has plans for them, plans that will require patience and humility, but plans that will eventually bless them.

That is the lesson we can miss if we focus on the verse alone without its context. We can turn it into a trite guarantee that God is never going to let anything bad happen to us. Truth is, bad things do happen. Sometimes we cause them ourselves. But when they do, we do not have to be afraid that God has stopped loving us. Instead, we can look for the ways He is refining us and drawing us closer to Him. Then we will experience a hope born of true faith rather than mere warm feelings. That’s not an easy road. It is the one God asks us to walk down, though. If we want something deep and lasting, this is the way to find it.

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