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Jeremiah 29:11 and Good Hermeneutics

October 18, 2013

One of my posts that has received the most views is the one about Jeremiah 29:11. Due to the fact that there were so many people interested in this and the fact that many people have concerns and questions about my post, I thought it would be good to make another argument for my position as well as answering some of the objections people had. If you haven’t already, it will probably help if you read the first post here.

My argument is simply this; good hermeneutics demand that we read the bible (or any literature for that matter) in a very particular way. Simply put, we must have rules (and obey them) in order to be able to communicate to others through the use of language. If everyone who reads this blog has a different set of rules that they use to understand what I am saying, then this was just one gigantic waste of my time; and you wouldn’t even be able to understand that I feel that way…

Let me give you an example. Let us suppose that you have children at home and you are planning on being gone all day long. In order to insure that they complete their chores and homework prior to sitting down and watching a movie, you write them a note in which you leave explicit instructions about what their day should look like. In this note you make very sure that they know what you expect out of them but you come home to find out that they didn’t follow any of your instructions.

Of course you then ask them why they didn’t listen to what you had told them. They in turn tell you that when they read your note that they saw that you told them that they could watch a movie. While it is technically true, what you had tried to communicate was lost simply because your kids refused to follow simple grammatical rules.

So we must ask ourselves, what was the Holy Spirit trying to communicate to us when He had Jeremiah write chapter 29 and verse 11? The passage can’t mean what it never meant so it is important to understand what it meant when he wrote it (pretty simple concept I think). In order to understand what is being said, we need to use basic rules of language and ask some basic questions about the text.

What do I see?  The first thing that you must do is simple observation. This is where a lot of people go wrong because they read a text and immediately try to figure out how it applies to them. What we need to do before anything else is to simply gather the “data” together and see how a passage fits into its immediate context.

What does it mean? This is simple Interpretation. In this step, we seek to understand what the author was trying to say. In other words, what did the author intend his hearers to understand in light of what he wrote.

How does it relate? In this step, we seek to understand the implications and principles in the text. This cannot be done apart from a correct understanding (or interpretation) of the text and the purpose of this step is to see how it relates to us since we are not the original audience.

What do I do? This is the step that people often jump to first rather than waiting until last. You cannot know how the text applies to you until you have an understanding of what the text actually says.

So how does this relate to Jeremiah 29:11 and what I said in my first post? Simply put, if you read this passage from a standpoint that the author was trying to convey a particular message and that we can understand what that message is, you will not come to the conclusion that this promise is about you.

“For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Jeremiah 29:10-11

What was God trying to communicate? He was trying to tell His people that after a period of seventy years in exile that He will come for them. He claims that He can make this promise because He knows what plans He has for them. God planned to give the Israelites a future by bringing them back to Jerusalem and establishing them as a nation.

So how does this relate to us? First you must understand the nature of what is being said. This is a promise made to a certain people for a very specific time and from history we see that God has perfectly fulfilled this promise to His people.

So if this promise was fulfilled then it would be logical to say that it could not be a promise made to us… that is assuming that we can read the bible with the presupposition that it actually has the ability to convey meaning…

Because we can see that the promise itself doesn’t directly apply to us, we must dig a little deeper in order to see how it applies to us. We must look for the “Timeless Truth” that this passage conveys to us. Here are five that I used before but that people seemed to ignore….

  1. God is Just. We see in Jeremiah 29 that the Israelites were sent into exile because they committed idolatry. God said of Himself, “I am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5) and the judgment seen in Jeremiah 29 is the display of God’s Just judgment. We can learn from Jeremiah 29 that God Does not take sin lightly and He will punish sinners.

    Jeremiah 22:8-9 “And many nations will pass by this city, and every man will say to his neighbor, “Why has the LORD dealt thus with this great city?” And they will answer, “Because they have forsaken the covenant of the LORD their God and worshiped other gods and served them.”

  2. God is merciful and full of grace. In spite of the fact that the Israelites sinned grievously against God, He still gave them hope by promising to bring them back to Jerusalem. He promised that in spite of their rebellion, He would still prosper them in Babylon.
  3. God is Sovereign over Kings, and Nations. We see that God used the King and the army of Babylon as a means of punishing His people for their sin. Proverbs 16:9 The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.
  4. God is Sovereign over History. The fact that God did not simply wipe out the Jews for their idolatry is a gracious in and of itself but we also see an ulterior motive. God, throughout history, is preserving the line that leads to Christ. He promised Adam and Eve that a seed would come who would crush the head of the serpent and he chose to bring the seed through the Israelites.
  5. God keeps His promises. We see from history that God fulfilled His promise to the Israelites by bringing them out of Babylon. We can trust that God will keep the promises that he makes to us. What promise has he made to us? That we can receive the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of eternal life through the work of Christ on the cross.

Common Objections

Here are some common objections that people have given that I just don’t think hold any water and I will try to explain why…

“This is the purpose of Scripture, to reveal the heart of God to his children and to the world. Are we not God’s children? Are we not in his care? Are we not to declare to the world by way of the Gospel that God will keep his promises?”

All I would ask is that if people are going to use this hermeneutic that they be consistent with it. So many people who use this argument are quick to create a double standard with other passages that exist even in the same book.

“For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bore them and the fathers who fathered them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried. They shall be as dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth.”
Jeremiah 16:3-4

So here we read a promise that God made to His children, the Israelites. Are we not God’s children? Will God not keep the promises that He made to His children? If we are consistent with that hermeneutic, shouldn’t we expect that God will cause us to perish by the sword and famine?

This type of hermeneutic sounds good and pious as long as it isn’t applied consistently to the bible. This simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny…

The Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites and therefore (using your hermeneutic) those commands only apply to the Jews who were given the Law.

Again, this is a misunderstanding of the argument that I am trying to make. This is a category error because we are talking about the difference between a promise that God has already fulfilled and the moral Law that applies to all of humanity because of God’s very nature. To say that one is like the other is simply a straw man argument that really doesn’t address the argument that I was making.

“If the bible is not applicable to us today then you can as well tear off all its pages.”

This is a common argument that I get all the time but really doesn’t make any sense because I have never made the argument that the bible isn’t applicable to us today. Just because I have said that Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t about us and isn’t for us doesn’t mean that we can’t draw application from it. In fact, if you carefully read what I have written, you will see that I in fact did make application.

Our Christian walk isn’t helped when we misuse scripture. We grow and are changed by the Truth when the Word of God is rightly divided. We do not have the freedom to make the bible say whatever we would wish but rather we are to submit ourselves to the scripture and seek to rightly understand what God would reveal to us.

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