Last week in class, I realized that I take a sinister, gleeful delight in ruining Bible verses for my students.
Before you let me have it in the comments (“What sort of Bible professor are you?!”), let me clarify: I love to read a Bible verse that is commonly taken out of context as a prooftext/proverb/life-verse/slogan, explain the literary and historical context, and help the students see so much more in the verse. If knowing the context “ruins” the verse for the student, then the student probably had a misconception of the meaning, anyway. “If this be treason, make the most of it!”
For example, I have three students in one of my courses who are study-abroads from the same Christian university in North America. The motto of this institution is Jeremiah 29:11-12, verses that are well-known from graduation cards at LifeWay Stores and commencement speeches at Christian high schools: “‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.'”
These verses on their own express a pleasant sentiment: God has nice things in store for you and me–kinda like Santa Claus. But they become quite remarkable, politically explosive, spiritually rich and emotionally poignant when considered in their larger context, which I will quote at length (this is a blog–we’re not hurting for space):
Now these are the words of the letter which Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the rest of the elders of the exile, the priests, the prophets and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the court officials, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem.) 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan, and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, saying, 4 “Thus says YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, 5 ‘Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 ‘Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. 7 ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to YHWH on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’ 8 “For thus says YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams which they dream. 9 ‘For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them,’ declares YHWH. 10 “For thus says YHWH, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. 11 ‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares YHWH, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. 12 ‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 ‘You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 ‘I will be found by you,’ declares YHWH, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares YHWH, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’
Now, let’s consider how these verses in the context of the larger passage could be applied to the seniors at an expensive private university in North America:
Instead of graduating with honors, you’ve just been taken off to prison, where you will be mistreated, violated, and horribly stigmatized for the rest of your life. After you are let out on parole, everything you work for will belong to someone else; and if you marry and have kids, they will be completely at the mercy of a society that considers them to be inferior at best and sub-human at worst. This situation will continue long after your lifetime and probably your kids’ lifetimes. It will happen because your society is completely corrupt and you, the elites and the children of elites, are primarily to blame for its evils.
But you are not permitted to rebel against this wicked power under whose thumb you squirm. Instead, do your best to serve your captors, and work for the good of a society that hates you. Don’t listen to those who tell you to stand up for yourselves; they are giving you false hope, and their way leads to death.
I myself will offer you hope with this promise: long after you are dead, your grandchildren will cry out to me for mercy, and I will remember how much I used to love you and your ancestors, despite how filthy you were and are. Even though I allowed them to do it, I will punish those who punished you–because you are my special people. You are awful children–but you’re my awful children, and I will always love you. [drops mic, exits stage left]
I opened class by reading this passage as we were discussing Ezra-Nehemiah and the returns from Babylonian exile. I hope that those students will never be able to hear Jeremiah 29:11-12 the same way again.