Like many in the early 2000’s, I got infected with the Jeremiah 29:11 bug. It was strange. It was as if all Christians had just discovered a Bible verse they had never heard of before, even though it was just sitting there staring us in the face the whole time. Pastors and congregants alike immediately latched right onto it and it became the new John 3:16.
I was deeply moved by the verse in many awful conceited ways as a teenager. Everyone was talking about it so much that it went right to my head and I began to think that I was something special—like, really special. God had plans for me. Plans to prosper me. At its height was this sickening idea that God would even protect me from car wrecks and bad health until I fulfilled his great grand purpose. I was invincible because I was crucial to his plan.
I eventually caught on to how I had perverted this verse and my college education made me even more aware. While studying for ministry you have to write what are known as “exegetical papers.” The purpose of these papers is to give a critical interpretation of a Bible passage. You have to take that passage and scrutinize every last detail so that when you’re done looking at it, you understand what it’s communicating in fullness. Why did Jesus use that specific word and what did that specific word mean in the Greek language he originally said it in? Was the phrase Jesus used found anywhere else in the Bible? If so, was it an intentional allusion to another passage? And if it was, what is the symbolism he was trying to get us to think about? These kinds of questions go on for hours.
On one hand, this really helps us dig into the deeper points of the passage we’re working with, but on the other, we can sometimes dig so deep that we miss the point. Dr. Ronn Johnson, a lecturer in biblical studies, recalls doing a little experiment to prove that.
I took a letter from my mother—an actual letter—and it was about going to a garage sale, and just a nice paragraph of what moms talk about. I did an exegetical exposé of my mom’s letter, down to the level…. that I didn’t know what in the world she meant…. All the meaning is lost once you dig enough. “Garage sale” now becomes about garages and sales and you lose the sense of what it is. (Naked Bible Podcast, Ep 188.)
I didn’t really enjoy writing these papers at first, because I didn’t understand the significance. But once I saw how badly passages could be misconstrued in meaning and even twisted for personal gain, I started to enjoy the exegetical process and realized how essential this work would be for the rest of my time in ministry.
Eventually, Jeremiah’s words were tamed in me. Within context, Jeremiah was not speaking to me, but to those who were exiled from their home in Jerusalem and taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar. And that stuff about God wanting to prosper me? In context, God was telling Israel to make the city of their captors prosper and to pray for them. If they did that, then they would prosper from the city’s prospering (Jer 29:7). From a critical standpoint, I was now aware that I had sucked a prophetic word out of the middle of a prophetic word and applied it to a time, place, and person that it didn’t belong.
But this is where things get really tricky. Is this word exegetically correct for me? No. But is it possible God had illuminated it in a new way for our generation to catch onto it? As much as I want to say we’ve abused it, I can’t fully agree. The problem is with how the New Testament uses the Old Testament. We have to be honest: the early Christians were not exegetes. At times they seem to have little concern whatsoever in using the Old Testament exegetically. To quote the research of pastor/theologian Greg Boyd, for example,
consider the manner in which Matthew interprets the wailing of mothers in Bethlehem after Herod’s massacre to be the “fulfillment” of parents wailing as they journeyed through Ramah in the process of being deported to Babylon (Matt 2:17; cf. Jeu 31:15). It is evident that Matthew is not suggesting that Jeremiah predicted the Bethlehem massacre, for there is, in fact, nothing predictive about Jeremiah 31:15. Rather, reflecting his intensely Christocentric focus, Matthew understands the wailing that surrounds Herod’s evil deed to be the quintessential expression of the sort of wailing Jewish mothers have succumbed to at the hands of various rulers, as expressed in Jeremiah 31:15.
While Matthew’s use of this passage undoubtedly strikes most contemporary readers as forced, Matthew’s original Jewish audience would not have viewed it this way. And while this hermeneutic lacks plausibility in our day, we nevertheless need to appreciate the manner in which it reflects the intensity of Matthew’s conviction that all Scripture must somehow bear witness to Christ. (Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Vol 1. p101-102)
Interesting, isn’t it? Our own exegetical work on the Bible shows that the Bible is not always exegetical itself. This confounds us as slaves of the enlightenment, but it shouldn’t. As Bible scholar Michael Heiser points out, “While God’s Word was written for us, it wasn’t written to us” (I Dare You Not to Bore Me With the Bible, p. ix). Therefore, we shouldn’t expect a culture from 2000 years ago to write and process things the same way we do.
So then what do we do with today’s information? Can people just do whatever they want with the Bible? Bible scholar and theologian Peter Enns addresses this question in his book, Inspiration and Incarnation. While admitting that he “would feel extremely uncomfortable to see our pastors, exegetes, or Bible study leaders change, omit or add words and phrases to make their point, even though this is what NT authors do,” he still can’t say it’s entirely unacceptable either. He wonders,
What if [the NT author’s] biblical interpretation was not guided so much as method, but by an intuitive, Spirit-led engagement of Scripture, with the anchor being not what the OT author intended, but how Christ gives the OT its final coherence? We may think that properly employing the right methods will yield the proper results, but perhaps, like the NT authors, we should think of the goal first and recognize that methods exist to serve that goal. What drives apostolic hermeneutics is not adherence to a method, rather the coming of Christ is so climatic that it required the NT writers to look at the OT in a whole new light. (Inspiration and Incarnation, 2nd ed. Audiobook, 7:50:00)
So in the end, perhaps God wanted Jeremiah 29:11 to catch the attention of our generation (though not to the extent that I took it as a young teenager). While the prophetic word had a completely different context in its time, we do know that God loves us and takes care of us, and in that light Jeremiah 29:11 is a heartfelt word from a loving Father (though like all passages, its fullness is found when it is submitted to Jesus and the cross). So unless the whole world was using the same megachurch curriculum that year, maybe God did want us to catch onto this verse.
Sometimes the Spirit just takes off with a passage. I can note a few times that people have told me about a passage making a difference in their life where they sound spiritually correct but exegetically wrong. But how am I to say that God is not in that? Who am I to say that God cannot use his inspired word in ways I’m uncomfortable with? If their interpretation of a verse goes against Jesus’ ultimate revelation and what we know of God, I must enter the conversation. But if not, I try to remain open to the Spirit and what He’s doing in their lives.
For more thoughts on this topic see Peter Enns’ book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, or chapter 3 of volume 1 of Greg Boyd’s book, The Crucifixion of the Warior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross.
Also, today the Kindle version of Greg Boyd’s book is $2.99. This is a terrific new book that you should add to your library. How can you say no to 1,400 pages at that price?
Photo Credit: Ben White