In the word of God there are a lot of promises. Christians see them as a great source of comfort in difficult times. God indeed cares for his people and he has made provision for them. The promises of God are there not just because he likes us very much, which he most certainly does. There are consistent themes these promises adhere to in scripture which are all a part of the Lord’s great agenda for his creation.
Paul says that all the promises are God are fulfilled in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20.) For instance God said he will answer his people’s prayers even before they open their mouths (Isaiah 65:25.) Does that mean God has green lit every single thing we want. Most people would argue these promises have conditions but aren’t promises by definition non-negotiable. Imagine if you had a father or a friend who promised you things with always a “but” attached. The promises of God in the Bible are certainly not that way and the Isaiah reference was something completely based on God’s initiative.
Going back to the promise in Isaiah raises an important issue when it comes to understanding the promises of God: most people read them completely out of context. That particular passage in Isaiah belonged to the final part of the book which dealt with the restoration of the people of Israel. The Lord hearing them before they called was not about private supplications and personal day to day needs. It meant God had already started his plan to rescue them even before the people collectively turned to the Lord for help. It was about the end of exile by God dramatically intervening for his people.
The reason why God was keen on doing this was because of his promise to Abraham. This promise, like all others that are found in the Old Testament, only makes sense in the context of the story of Israel. I explained in a previous post that scripture being fulfilled means various plot points in the grand narrative of Israel being enacted and brought to a climax. The great story of Israel was heading towards a definitive conclusion. It was not just rote predictions being fulfilled. It was something more complicated which requires an intertextual “backwards” reading of the Bible. When Paul said all the promises of God had been fulfilled in Jesus it meant as God’s Messiah he brought the narrative that began with the patriarchs to a definitive climax, and in him we find a resolution to the story of humanity. The Isaianic promise was regarding exile. Jesus brought an end to the greater exile of humanity from relationship with God that was caused by sin, which was exemplified by Israel’s own rejection due to sin. Now in God dwells among his people by the spirit ending the human exile. The return from exile in the Old Testament was often described as a new exodus. In the New Testament we find new exodus language and references scattered throughout the text with the most peculiar and unexpected twist of a dying and rising Messiah.
Unless you can recognize the controlling narrative you will never find the proper context to read and understand the promises of God. Though it is true the promises are God for us they were not given to us. They were addressed to a special group of people called the Israelites who were chosen by God’s grace to rescue humanity (Romans 3:1-2, 9:4-5; John 4:22.) God being faithful to his word doesn’t mean an overtly literal understanding of the text in narrative isolation.
The reason why the people were in exile in the first place, as I already mentioned, is because they broke the commandments of God, breaching the covenant relationship they had. In fact in Deuteronomy they were precisely told what would happen. God said he had chosen a stubborn people, they would sin and break the covenant, he would punish them, they would change for a short while, and then quickly return to their old ways when everything was better. Finally, after repeating this cycle of chastisement and brief repentance many times, he would finally send them into exile. After a while God will have compassion on them, he would cause true repentance in them and rescue them forever. All of Israel’s history is basically summed up in the book, particularly in Deuteronomy 27-30. Bible scholars call it Deuteronomic history. It is the blue print for the rest of the Old Testament. All the later prophets like Ezekiel or Zechariah followed this general format in their oracles. The promise in Isaiah we mentioned also followed that tradition along with the rest of the book. Again there is a metanarrative at work in the text.
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 29:11 ESV
Jeremiah 29:11 is another beloved memory verse and promise of God. At this stage in the post you know I am about to burst your bubble. It does not mean what people usually think it does. It is not God’s solemn promise to insure our personal prosperity in this world no matter what. In 413, not about me I discuss the Christian penchant for being self-absorbed when reading the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is about, in fact hardly any of it directly addresses us. I am not saying the Bible is irrelevant but we should always have the author and his target audience in mind. This is one of the simple rules behind sound exegesis.
Like Isaiah, Jeremiah was speaking to a people in exile. This is in fact a pivotal chapter in the book and in the rest of the latter prophets as we will soon see. Jeremiah had written a letter to the captives telling them God says they should settle down in Babylon because they weren’t leaving there any time soon. He even told them to start families. The message was in response to false prophets who claimed God said he would immediately rescue them. It was quite understandable why these pretenders preached such a message. Their nation was in its most dire crisis and they thought God loved them too much to totally reject them in that manner. Jeremiah’s prophecy however was consistent with the deuteronomic covenant and it was because God loved them so much that he punished them most severely (Amos 3:1-2.) The chapter is pivotal because it marked a significant change in national self-understanding and aspirations. Jeremiah predicted a seventy year exile (Jeremiah 20:10) which was a reference to the Sabbath cycles in Leviticus.
And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it. – Leviticus 26:33-35 ESV
This is the same 70 years that Daniel referred to when he was praying for his people and received those fantastic revelations (Daniel 9:2.) Every prophecy had to be consistent with the Torah and the covenant relationship found in it. Remember that to those in Jeremiah’s time the Law was the only certain Holy Scriptures they had. The others were still in development. They understood the promises of good had to be interpreted consistently within the biblical macro-narrative.
Jeremiah 29:11 for the dejected exiles was a bitter-sweet message that they really did not want to hear. God was going to prosper them but only in a foreign land so they had to pray for the prosperity of their captors and oppressors. Imagine God is openly helping your enemies and he specifically wants you to submit to them, wish them well and pray for them on top of that. There was no way they were going to overpower the might of Babylon so he told them to sit tight and he would keep and prosper them. If they listened to the false they would be incited to revolt and take military action which would be terribly crushed by the ruthless Babylonian military. This was in fact all part of God’s plan and those who know the story are aware of how it eventually unfolds.
The Israelites did return to their land but by the time of Jesus many of them still did not think their exile was over. Except for a brief period in the Hasmonean dynasty they had been dominated for centuries by foreign powers. Jesus in keeping with the prophet Jeremiah, did not preach in his ministry military revolt against the power of Rome. He said those who live by the sword, die by the sword. He in fact gave vivid warnings of what Rome would do to them if they should revolt (Matthew 24.) As Jesus predicted they did mount a military challenge and in the First Jewish-Roman War from about 66-73 A.D., the temple was ransacked and destroyed by the Emperor Titus, the city of Jerusalem was sacked and millions of Jews by some accounts were slaughtered.
Even being fully aware of the historical and political setting for Jeremiah 29:11, it is still very relevant for the New Testament church. The apostle Peter re-echoes sentiments found in Jeremiah 29 in 1 Peter. The apostle addresses believers in 1:1 and 1:17 as exiles. He continues this theme of suffering in a foreign land by unbelievers until God finally vindicates his people (1 Peter 2:12, 5:8-10.) This parallels the story of Israel being under heathen Gentile persecution until God saves them. Peter conceives of Christian suffering as part of Christs own suffering. This is not isolated from the story of Israel because he quotes Isaiah 53 envisioning Jesus as the suffering servant of God on behalf of Israel. The larger narrative is actively at work in Peter’s mind. Christians having no earthly kingdom meant Jeremiah’s political theology applied to the Church as spiritual exiles. Peter explained that it meant being a good citizen and fulfilling your civic responsibilities, completely submitting to the law of the land. Paul also resonates with that understanding where he says we should pray for political leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2.) In verse three Paul links this with God’s plan for salvation since political power is something that is also redeemed by the power of the cross. We are the ones to implement this new understanding and practice of power in the world.
Jeremiah 29:11 has something far more significant to offer us than confidence in securing the next promotion at work. It means God is the originator of all order whether it is political or societal, even if the leadership is bad. He is not the author of confusion. Even in these tough situations God is faithful and will not abandon us. God does of course bless and provide for his children but it is within these power structures he has ordained. This does not mean we do nothing when things are going wrong. It means we have to work through the system to redeem it just as God partook in our sufferings in Christ to save us.