Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Jeremiah 29:11 and some thoughts on Studying a Passage

On Studying a Passage of the Bible?

Jeremiah 29:11 - I do not think this verse means what you think it means.

Someone mentioned my blog today. I forgot I even had one. It got me thinking that I should probably post something as it has been a while.

Here are a couple of thoughts on studying a passage of the bible. They are kind of based on a document I got as a part of a recent course I was on at Fuller Seminary. 

I more or less use the process for most texts I'm navigating and below give an example of how the process helped frame a sermon on Jeremiah 29:11. You can find that sermon (Famous Verses; Jeremiah 29:11) here or on iTunes. 

1.      Spend a moment in prayer. I believe that the writing, recording, compilation and canonization of the biblical text was ultimately inspired by the Holy Spirit. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you in your reading and studying of the text.

2.      Read a couple of different translations of the text to get a feel for what you are reading. Translations vary from word for word, to thought for thought, and right through to a paraphrase translation. Try the NKJV, then NIV, then NLT and then The Message.

3.      Write down your first thoughts about the text. What stands out to you? What questions does it raise? What parts don’t make sense? What seems most applicable in the text? What seems to be the main point of the passage?

4.      Look at the passages that come before and after your particular text. Do they add any insight to the passage you are reading? What the pressures, needs, issues etc facing those that the passage is addressed to?

5.      If you could write down the main point of the passage in one sentence what would it be?

6.      See if you can in one sentence explain what you feel the passage is trying to do in the lives of the recipients?

7.      If the passage is narrative have a think about the larger plot of the story. Who are the characters in this passage? At what place in the story is this passage situated? How does what came earlier, or what you know comes later impact on your understanding of this passage?

8.      Read the passage in a more word for word translation like the Lexham Bible (online), are there reoccurring words in the passage or contrasting words? Do they impact your understanding of the passage?

9.      Does the passage mention a location or refer to a biblical character or story from another time? If yes, in what way might this influence the recipients understanding of the text?

10.  Refer to a couple of biblical commentaries on the passage. What insights, answers, and explanations do these commentaries offer you? Especially in light of questions and comments you have already noted down.

11.   In light of your work above, in what way might the passage be significant for your life, or a church community today? What does the passage teach you about God? About Jesus? About what it means to be a disciple? Does the passage challenge contemporary culture in some way?

Here is my attempt to do the following for Jeremiah 29:1-14

Certain things come up in the passage that are significant that I do not attempt to address in the sermon that follows because you can only cover so much in 35 minutes.

After prayer and after reading a couple of different translations of the text, here are my first thoughts on the passage.

First thoughts:

Verse 1: What follows seems likely to be a fairly significant passage in the text of Jeremiah given the occasion and the recipients of the “letter.”

Verse 2: The occasion indicates that indeed this is a significant time in the history of Judah and Jerusalem; all have been overcome and all are now in exile, a desperate and despondent people.

Verse 4: Even desperate and despondent, they are not abandoned by God, God still desires to speak.  

Verse 5-6: Jeremiah writes that God’s instruction is to build houses, settle down, plant, produce food, marry, and have children. Perhaps you could say, make yourself at home even though you are in exile, this is how things will be for an extended time so settle that in your hearts and get on with living.  

Verse 7: Rather than rebel against the system that dominates them, that is over them in their exile, God’s instruction is to seek the peace of the empire and to pray, and in doing so find that things will go well for them even though they are displaced people.

Verse 8-9: They are not to listen to other supposed “prophetic words.” These words are not from God, rather that which Jeremiah speaks is the word from the Lord for them.  

Verse 10: The long and short of it is that they will find themselves in exile for 70 years (a lifetime) and should thus carry in with life in the situation they find themselves in.

Verse 11: They are not forgotten, God has plans and a purpose for them that is ultimately in their best interest.

Verse 12: Then, after 70 years (?), you will call on me and God will listen and will rescue them.  

Verse 13: It will take 70 years before those in exile are really ready to seek God with all their heart (?).  

Verse 14: At that time God will rescue them and bring them back into their own land.  

Initial Questions:

There are a couple of questions that immediately spring to mind when looking at this passage. 1) Is the seventy years in exile kind of like a time of purgatory designed to cleanse Israel and Judah of their propensity towards unfaithfulness, i.e. will it take seventy years before they are ready to be God’s faithful people again? 2) What does it mean to seek the peace and prosperity of the city one finds oneself in exile to? To what degree might this require either collusion with the empire or at least accommodation into the empire?

Proceeding passage and following passage:

The proceeding passage tells of the prophecy of Hananiah, that the oppression of Babylon will be short lived with Israel and Judah being restored within two years and the conflict of Hananiah and Jeremiah over this. Jeremiah declares this a false prophesy and not at all a word from God. Jeremiah predicts Hananiah’s death within the next year. This indeed comes about and one is left to conclude that Jeremiah is the true prophet and that seventy years in captivity rather than two years is God’s word. The next passage concerns the false prophecy of Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his false prophecy and serves as a book end (along with the false prophecy of Hananiah) that sandwiches Jeremiah’s prophecy in the middle as the true word from God. 

Jeremiah 29:1-14 is God’s true word that the captivity of Israel and Judah in Babylon will be a seventy year experience. Thus they should settle down and make peace with this fact, and peace with the city they find themselves in, but hold on to hope that God will restore them in due course even though this will not be experienced for another generation.   

The main point of the passage in a summary form:

The main point of the passage is that Israel will be in captivity for seventy years and should make peace with this rather than seek to fight against the empire. Their hope should be in what God will do in the future, in seventy years.


Commentators seem to indicate that indeed the seventy years in captivity was in order that those in exile would genuinely return to the faithful following of Yahweh. God had ordained and commanded the captivity of Judah as a punishment upon the rebellious, apostate nation; it was God's intention to humble and discipline his people, and bring them at last to an acceptable relationship to Himself.” In terms of a collusion with the empire or at least accommodation, the reality here seems not to be that of compromise. In “seeking the peace of the city” one is not required to shift one’s allegiance away from Yahweh and to the worship of false gods, nor is a compromise of values, such as Sabbath keeping, required. Rather there is simply a submission to the authorities in power even as promoted in the New Testament rather than rebellion and disquiet. “The wholehearted cooperation with the governmental powers under which one may chance to live is spoken as a cardinal principle of the gospel of Christ in Romans 13:1-12. Praying for authorities is specifically commanded in 1 Timothy 2:1-3.”

Significance of the passage:

The significance of this passage for a congregation today is not that God has great and wonderful plans for people, though God may. The significance is that ultimately God’s plans will be realized, though this may not be on a time scale that we appreciate. And that at times, the less than ideal situations one finds oneself in, may in fact be a season in which great fruit can be produced and true life found. In those sorts of seasons and places there are great lessons to be learnt. Though we might appreciate an encouraging “word from the Lord” telling us that everything will turn around quickly; in reality some situations may last a life time. However: hope remains.

Sermon Outline – Famous Verses – Jeremiah
The Princes Bride: In the movie The Princes Bride, Vizzini (the short bald headed leader of the baddies), runs around declaring everything to be “inconceivable!” After a while Inigo Montoya quips one of his famous lines from the movie, “You keep on using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Famous Verses: I think there are some Bible verses that people famously use, but, “they keep on using those verses, I do not think it means what they think it means.” In the early days of St Luke’s talked about tackling some of those famous verses.
Philippians 4:13
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Luke 6:38
Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.
2 Corinthians 2:14
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.
Seems we’ve the time and space to tackle one of these kinds of verses today.
Does anyone know off by heart any of the verses from Jeremiah 29? Yes verse 11.
Does anyone know off by heart any of the other verses in Jeremiah 29, other than verse 11?

Nope? Funny that.

People keep on using this verse, I do not think it means what they think it means.

Take a verse out of context and it can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean. Leave the verse in its context and you’d be amazed at how context shapes meaning.
Let’s start in Jeremiah 28. Israel is in exile. King Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom of Babylon, has come and taken over. Israel has been dispersed throughout the kingdom of Babylon. It is a reasonably hopeless and bleak time in the history of Israel.
But the prophets are still prophesying and they speak of hope.
Jeremiah 28:1-17
In the fifth month of that same year, the fourth year, early in the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, who was from Gibeon, said to me in the house of the Lord in the presence of the priests and all the people:
 “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and all the other exiles from Judah who went to Babylon,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’” This is a good prophecy. This is the kind of prophecy you want to hear. Within two years everything is going to be sorted!
Then the prophet Jeremiah replied to the prophet Hananiah before the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord. But please appreciate here, Jeremiah’s response is kind of a slow clap response from the side of the room. He said, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfil the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”
10 Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah and broke it, 11 and he said before all the people, “This is what the Lord says: ‘In the same way I will break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon off the neck of all the nations within two years.’” Prophetic theatrics. Common in Old Testament prophecy. Hananiah is doing a good job.
At this, the prophet Jeremiah went on his way. 12 After the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke off the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “Go and tell Hananiah, ‘This is what the Lord says: You have broken a wooden yoke, but in its place you will get a yoke of iron. 14 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I will put an iron yoke on the necks of all these nations to make them serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they will serve him. I will even give him control over the wild animals.’” In other words, Hananiah, you think Nebuchadnezzar is a wooden yoke that will be broken in two years, ha, he is an iron yoke that will not be broken so easily.
15 Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies.16 Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.’” 17 In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died. Hallelujah, blessed be the name of the Lord.
So this prophet Hananiah is prophesying good news, the overthrow of Babylon, in two years everything is going to be sorted. Jeremiah, no way, you’re a false prophet and you’re going to die soon. This isn’t a word from the Lord.
In chapter 29, Jeremiah then prophecies what is the true word of the Lord. He writes it down and sends it to the elders, priests and prophets of Israel that have been carried into exile…
Jeremiah 29:4-14
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  And now, in exile, in this state of overthrow that you find yourself in… “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.
They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. Lies that the situation for Israel will soon be turned around.  10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. Not two years of captivity. Seventy years! 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.12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
When we read Jeremiah 29:11 within the wider context of Jeremiah there are number of important truths to appreciate. Truths for Israel and truths as well that I think we can appropriate for our lives as well.
God’s time frame isn’t always the same as our timeframe.
The most significant thing about Jeremiah 29 is not that God has plans to prosper his people, to give them a hope and a future. That’s always God’s plan; eventually. It’s the fact that there is 70 years of exile ahead for Israel. A life time.
We’re two year type people not seventy year type people. We’re instant type people not delayed gratification type people.
God’s end game is always a hope and a future.
Restoration, wholeness, relationship with God, being found by God, coming out of exile and into freedom. Prosperity for sure, though we’re to define prosperity and blessing in 21st Century Western materialistic terms rather than biblical terms.
A hope and a future can be found in the circumstances of now, not only the “Promised Land” of tomorrow.
Perhaps you could put it like this; they were to make peace with their less than ideal circumstances.
And in doing so, discover great blessing in this less than ideal place and space of exile.
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 a hope and a future… For some people I think this stirs up thoughts of God, in due course, giving them their lucky break, their big opportunity, their breakthrough moment, win lotto, get promoted, receive an inheritance, you’re ship is going to come in.
Nope. Make peace with your less than ideal circumstances and discover God’s blessing even in those circumstances.
Do you have some less than ideal circumstances that perhaps you need to make peace with?
Not the right job, not enough money, not the right house, too busy, to tired, kids are too young, kids are too old, don’t have kids, have too many kids, health issues or challenges, relational issues or challenges.
Feel like your living in exile. Waiting to be delivered. Could be waiting a long time.
Perhaps you’re spending so much of your time and resource and energy, protesting against and wrestling against and fighting against something that is less than ideal, that you’ve no strength left over to get stuck into actually living. Could be fighting and wresting for a long time.
Perhaps you need to make peace with the life you find yourself living, even if it isn’t the life you always dreamed you would be living.
But I know the plans the Lord has for me, plans to prosper me and not to harm me, plans to give me a hope and a future. I have that verse written out on the back of the toilet door.
Sure thing. It’s a good verse. A really good verse. A verse ultimately directed at Israel in exile, but still, one I think we can appropriate for our lives. Absolutely. It’s just we need to take the other verses in chapter 29 as well and the bigger context to chapter 28 too.
Isn’t that a bit fatalistic?
Well it depends, whose got the true word of God? Who is the true prophet? Hananiah – 2 more years and the yoke of oppression will be broken. That’s what people wanted to hear. Clap, clap, clap from Jeremiah. Good stuff but sorry. 70 more years? Who’s the true prophet.
Summarizing Kierkegaard on faith… “Faith is the total acceptance of the way things are and the total belief that things can be different.”
I think that’s perfect. I think that’s what we have happening in Jeremiah 29.
What you discover is when you have the faith to accept things as they are, when you’ve the faith to make peace with your circumstances, as well as faith to belief that things can be different, you discover you’ve got energy and passion for the now of life.
You discover that life is in front of you now and that you should live it. That God is present with you, even in less than ideal circumstances. And you get stuck in. Planting, harvesting, marrying. You discover that blessing is possible even in the middle of that which is less than ideal.

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