Scripture: Handle with Care
When I accepted the invitation to speak at my parents’ church, I immediately started thinking about what message I would deliver. I decided to give a message on something that is very important to me after my four years at Cedarville and something I am very passionate about. I hope it will be engaging; I hope it will make you think; and I hope it will bring glory to God. If I can accomplish those three things, I will be satisfied.
The Scripture I chose is Jeremiah 29:11 and I’m guessing that most Christians could recite the verse from memory. If not, once you read it, you’ll probably remember or recognize it.
“’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.’”
This is a familiar verse for a lot of Christians. My question today is whether it should be.
This might seem like a strange question, but I think you’ll understand what I mean soon.
So why is this verse so familiar to us? Well, it’s used a lot. Are you nervous about future uncertainties? Jeremiah 29:11. Are you starting a new job? Jeremiah 29:11. Graduating from high school or college? Jeremiah 29:11. That teenage girl had her boyfriend break up with her? Jeremiah 29:11. Car trouble that makes you late to work? Jeremiah 29:11. Lost your lucky pencil? Jeremiah 29:11.
I hope you’re catching my sarcasm.
And maybe you think I’m exaggerating. But I did a Google search for Jeremiah 29:11 and you can buy folders, clocks, plaques, keychains, mugs, pictures, bumper stickers, aprons, tote bags, iPhone cases, tshirts, pillows, bracelets, and even playing cards that have this verse on them. It might be rivaling the 23rd Psalm after all that. And I know for a fact that it can be found on countless greeting cards whether they be sympathy, graduation, engagement, or congratulatory cards.
I saw a meme on the internet the other day. It was an image of the Bible, and the text said: “This is not a bag of trail mix. You can’t just pick out the pieces you like and ignore the rest.” I’m afraid that the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 demonstrates a bigger problem: we really are guilty of treating the Bible like a bag of trail mix. Jeremiah 29:11 is an M&M that we pull out time and time again while we ignore all the peanuts and raisins and cashews and granola all around it.
Christians claim to have a high view of Scripture—that is, we say that the Bible is the authoritative, divinely inspired Word of God. We are quick to use it to tell the world what they’re doing wrong whether that be gay marriage or murder or how to raise children. We say that we live by what the Bible says, but I’m afraid that we’re often guilty of not even knowing what the Bible says. For me, the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 proves this.
To demonstrate, does anyone know what Jeremiah 29:10 says? No, because it’s a peanut. Jeremiah 29:12? Sorry, I don’t like raisins. But I am feeling uncertain about this new job/relationship/house/baby/friend/responsibility/accomplishment/etc., so I like to be told that God has good plans for me. I like to imagine him saying, “I know the plans I have for you…”
Okay, not to be harsh, but the Bible isn’t supposed to be about us. It’s actually not about us at all and it’s high time we quit acting like it’s a self-help book or a book full of timeless, ready-to-be-applied principles. It takes study—actual study—and hard work to read and understand the Bible and what God is saying to us. And if any book in the world is worthy of our time and energy and study, it’s got to be the Bible. But we so often pretend like it’s not.
Now, let me stop real quick and make sure you’re not hearing me say something I’m not. I’m not saying that the Bible isn’t applicable to you and your life. It is. But most of the Bible is not written to be timelessly applied to anyone, anywhere. The book of Romans was written to people who lived in Rome during the 1st century, not to people in America in 2013. Genesis was written for the Jewish people wandering in the desert and then entering the Holy Land during the time of Moses and Joshua, not for the people of your church. And Jeremiah, where this particular verse comes from? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute.
Now there are two doctrines that I want to highlight before I go any farther to make sure I express fully how Scripture should be applied to our lives. One is the doctrine of inspiration and the other is the doctrine of perspicuity.
First, the doctrine of inspiration means that the Bible is a divine product: it is inspired by God. God worked through the process of the composition and preservation of the books of the Bible. Therefore, yes, they were kind of written for us, but that’s different than them being written to us. God knew we would be reading Genesis someday, but Moses didn’t. And so the words that Moses wrote, although inspired by God, are not written to believers in the 21st century. When Paul wrote Romans, it never crossed his mind that Amy Chase from Ohio would be reading and studying them in 2013. So even though God inspired Paul to write and to write things that would remain applicable to people in 2013, Paul wasn’t intending to do that.
The next doctrine is that of the perspicuity of Scripture. Perspicuity is just a fancy word for “clear.” (Biblical scholars love fancy words for things.) Basically, the biblical text can be clearly understood by the ordinary reader. Someone can pick up the Bible and read it and understand it. It’s not gibberish. Anyone who can read can read the gospel accounts and understand that the story is about Jesus the Messiah, coming to earth, dying on a cross, and rising from the dead.
So, yes, you can pick up the Bible and “just read it.” And you do have, as a believer, the Holy Spirit helping you and guiding you. But the Holy Spirit is not, I believe, a big fan of laziness. He’s ready to help and guide you, but there are some things, like the geographic position of Jerusalem or the historic situation that caused Paul to write to the Romans, that he’s not going to be able to inspire in you. Well, he could, but that would be strange. Imagine if you just woke up tomorrow and could draw a detailed map of Israel, having never studied it. It’d be kind of like cheating, especially since that’s an assignment I had to do a lot of studying to be able to do. It’s a little like a parent helping a child with homework. If my mom had done my math homework for me, it wouldn’t have done me any good. But she did help me connect the dots and understand what I was supposed to be doing to get the right answer. The Holy Spirit will help you understand the Bible, but he’s not going to just read it for you and then inspire in your some kind of otherworldly, enlightened understanding. You will have to exert some effort. The knowledge is there for you, but you have to learn it.
At Cedarville, I majored in Bible and one of the very first things we were taught to do was to interpret Scripture well and then to be aware of when someone wasn’t. And, at Cedarville, when a chapel speaker or someone else mentions Jeremiah 29:11, all the Bible majors groan. It’s because Jeremiah 29:11 was the go-to verse that professors used to show us how the Bible is mishandled. Like I joked above, we decide that the “you” in “I know the plans I have for you” is the person starting the new job or the person who has lost their lucky pencil. Does God have good plans for your life? Yes, absolutely. But this isn’t the verse to prove it. And it certainly isn’t the verse to put on a graduation card. Let me explain why.
But first, let me say a couple things about the process I’ll be using. At Cedarville, everyone takes certain classes and in one such class we were taught Bible study method, in particular, the inductive Bible study. It’s a process by which anyone—and I mean anyone—can come to an educated understanding of what a passage is saying. I can do it, my grandma can do it, pastors can do it, and my 5th grade cousin can do it.
Step One: Survey Reading and Historical Background.
Want to know what Jeremiah 29:11 means? Read Jeremiah. Okay, that’s a really long book. Sorry. Take that up with Jeremiah or God, I guess. Want to understand 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter? Read 1 Corinthians. Want to understand John 3:16? Read John. Now, I’m not saying to study the whole thing to every minute detail, just read it. You can read it quickly even. Hey, college students know: a lot of assignments that are assigned to be “read” can be “skimmed.” I’m not suggesting we slack when reading the Bible, but you as long as you’re getting an idea of the book and what is being said, then you’re doing fine. Take a couple notes while you read: Who wrote the book? To whom? When? Why? What is the tone? What seems to be the big idea? What is each chapter about?
Step Two: Unaided Observations.
Read the passage you want to study and understand. Take notes. When I did inductive studies for class, I had to do upwards of 10 observations per verse. To start, just aim for 3 or 4 per verse. They can be as simple as “Paul is making a statement here,” or “Jesus gives a command,” or “This verse switches from third person to first person.” They are called unaided because it’s just things you can come up with on your own. Things like repeated words and cause and effect statements are important to point out in your observations.
Step Three: Interpretive Questions.
After you make your observations, you’ll probably have some questions like, “Why did Paul say it that way?” or “What does this word mean?” If they’re questions you can’t answer on your own about your passage, that’s an interpretive question. Moving forward, it will be your goal to find an answer to your interpretive questions. Try to come up with about five, but you can have as many as you want.
Step Four: Word Studies.
All right, this is where it might seem to get complicated, but remember: I said that everyone could do this method. When we read the Bible, what we read is a translation. Although these translations are wonderful gifts for which we should be immensely grateful, they are also, unfortunately, a bit removed from the original. This means that some of the depth or nuance of the original might be lost without additional study.
Your Bible isn’t wrong, it’s just that the word in the original language might have more meaning than it’s possible for one English word to communicate. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. So with word studies, we take an English word that is crucial in the verse and figure out what Hebrew or Greek word is was translated from.
Step Five: Commentaries. Say we’re working with John 3:16. What words might be counted as crucial? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” There are lots of possibilities. It’s up to you to decide. Once you do that, there is a plethora of resources to help you see what the original word was and what meanings went along with it, and those resources are as close as your computer. The original word may encompass more or less than the English word. For example, using online resources, we see that the Greek word for “world” in John 3:16 is κοσμος with the meanings “the world, the universe, worldly affairs, the inhabitants of the world.” Sure, it might not be earth-shattering, but it’s an insight into the original language. And sometimes your findings may very well change how you read and understand a verse.
It’s just reading what the experts have to say. Commentaries will be the place where you’ll find answers to most of your interpretive questions. There are some very affordable commentaries out there and if you’re really looking to dig into a book of the Bible, buying one of two of them would be a great choice. Otherwise, there are a few online, but not the best ones. Libraries, Christian bookstores, and your church library would be good places to look. Not all commentaries are big, scary, technical books, and there are some that are very helpful and easy to read.
Step Six: Synthesize.
Look at everything you’ve done and figure out what it all means together. We were taught to come up with a “Big Idea” which basically says what the passage is about and what it says about what it is about. And, we stay away from any here and now language (talking about what it means for me and you) and use only then and there language (what it meant back then). So what is John 3:16 about? God sending his Son. What does it say about God sending his Son? That he did it because he loved the world and that believing in the Son is the way to everlasting life.
Step Seven: Application.
All right, until this point, we’ve avoided talking about ourselves. We’ve focused on what the author was saying to his intended audience. And, because of that, we should be able to figure out what the passage meant to the people it was written to originally. Now, to apply it, we need to figure out what we have in common with that original audience. If we are very similar, then we can apply it pretty directly, but if we are not, then the application will take a little more work and probably be a little more abstract.
Now, let’s go back to my beef with Jeremiah 29:11.
Having done a study like I outlined for you, I’d like to explain why this is the verse my professors use to talk about misuse of the Bible. However, you don’t really have to go very far into the process. Let’s read Jeremiah 29:1-14:
“The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles Nebuchadnezzar had carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon. It was addressed to the elders who were left among the exiles, to the priests, to the prophets, and to all the other people who were exiled in Babylon. He sent it after King Jeconiah, the queen mother, the palace officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had been exiled from Jerusalem. He sent it with Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah. King Zedekiah of Judah had sent these men to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The letter said:
‘The Lord God of Israel who rules over all says to all those he sent into exile to Babylon from Jerusalem, “Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and allow your daughters get married so that they too can have sons and daughters. Grow in number; do not dwindle away. Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.”
‘For the Lord God of Israel who rules over all says, “Do not let the prophets or those among you who claim to be able to predict the future by divination deceive you. And do not pay any attention to the dreams that you are encouraging them to dream. They are prophesying lies to you and claiming my authority to do so. But I did not send them. I, the Lord, affirm it!”
‘For the Lord says, “Only when the seventy years of Babylonian rule are over will I again take up consideration for you. Then I will fulfill my gracious promise to you and restore you to your homeland. For I know what I have planned for you,” says the Lord. “I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers. When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, I will make myself available to you,” says the Lord. “Then I will reverse your plight and will regather you from all the nations and all the places where I have exiled you,” says the Lord. “I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you.”’”
These people weren’t graduating from high school or starting a new job. Their country had been violently conquered by an outside force, the Temple destroyed, and they were carried off to a foreign country. They were questioning the faithfulness of God, feeling forsaken. Forsaken by God who had promised them the land they had been taken from, the land they had watched being destroyed. And now Jeremiah writes them a letter telling them that God wants them to know that they’ll be there a while.
But, because he loves them, God gives them a glimmer of hope: this is just a pause in the plans. He still plans to do good to them. But this is a punishment for their disobedience and they will pay the full cost. It’s hope in the midst of one of—if not the—darkest times in Israel’s history. So when we put Jeremiah 29:11 on a wedding card… Well, something just seems a little off to me.
Now, if you are a position where you are suffering, where you are questioning the faithfulness of God, where you are in a situation comparable to the exile of the Jewish people, then this verse can be applied more directly to your life (though we still have to deal with the fact that you are not a member of the Jewish nation).
But we really need to stop using it lightly. Because when Jeremiah wrote these words to the Jewish people in Babylon, he was not writing them lightly but probably with tears in his eyes. God did not speak them lightly but rather as the eternal Yahweh who will keep his word even in light of the faithlessness of his people.
And if we are going to be the light of the world, then we need to make sure we are treating the Bible the way it deserves to be treated so that we can truly tell the world what God wants them to hear, and not just read them some verse that we don’t fully understand ourselves.
Let’s be wary of treating the Bible like trail mix because the world doesn’t need trail mix, it needs to see the God of the Bible in all his power and love and hope.