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Of Contexts, Communities, and Individuals

Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context is the headline in RELEVANT magazine. Thomas Turner is writing vigorously about the apparently shameful misuse of this passage of scripture. He points out that it’s used on graduation cards and often quoted in words of encouragement to individuals. He summarizes:

Sure, it might make a person feel better, but this verse as we often prescribe it is being taken completely out of context. It doesn’t mean what people think it means. It’s time to back up and see what the author of Jeremiah is actually saying.

Really? Totally out of context? Read his article first, and you may see just how much of what we say about the passage is very close to the same thing. Yet I’m coming to a different conclusion on the usage of the text on a graduation card or as a matter of encouragement.

Jeremiah is not talking to each of us personally. Jeremiah is speaking to Israel. Quite true! Further, Jeremiah is talking about our high school graduations, or our difficulties in finding a job or a spouse. Just so. Jeremiah is not talking about those things. But the fact is that scripture does not generally talk to us quite that directly.

I’m a great fan of context. One has to be in order to study scripture. But I’m not a fan of the excessive or indiscriminate application of rules. Almost any rule can be misapplied or stretched. A compact, memorable rule is very much like Jeremiah 29:11—when you use it, you will tend to bypass a great deal of logic and background.

Take, for example, the etymological fallacy. This is a very real and quite pernicious fallacy. I encounter it regularly in reading. Someone lays out the root(s) of a word, and derives a meaning from them. “‘Church’ in Greek is ekklesia,” says the confident but careless preacher, “and that comes from ek, ‘out of’ and klesia which comes from the word for ‘called’, so the church is the ‘called out ones’.”

But there are some uses for etymology. One is for fun, where a speaker might help us remember a point by pointing out etymology. Provided one doesn’t claim that the etymology has the last word about the meaning of the passage, there’s no problem with this. It’s fun. It helps one remember things. In addition, it can help one with spelling. And did I mention that it’s fun?

The second is when studying obscure words which one has available in only a limited number of contexts. It’s easy to announce that a word’s meaning is determined by usage, and that we discover that meaning by observing it in various contexts. But some words might occur only once, or even just a very few times in the literature we have available. What then? Well, etymology can provide pointers. I observed this in studying Ugaritic. My knowledge of Hebrew regularly suggested possibilities for words I encountered in Ugaritic, then context would help narrow down my choices. As a student, of course, I had recourse to the available literature on the topic to check my work.

Ugaritic, in turn, suggested some possible options for understanding rare words in Hebrew. At which point the etymological fallacy would often come into play again. Ugaritic could be helpful, but it could also send the unwary off into flights of fancy.

I take that detour to point out that we can apply rules, even good rules, improperly. Rules themselves require context. That’s true of the use of context as well. I learned before I was in High School (most of which I skipped anyhow) that one should always take texts in context. But there was a fallacy hidden in there too. The type of context I learned about was the literary context, i.e. discovering what the author said before and after, and placing the text into that context.

That’s good. We want to do that. We’ve already pointed out how Jeremiah isn’t talking about us personally. He’s looking at a community. Not only that, he’s looking at a specific community, Israel. He’s looking at that community at a specific time and in specific circumstances. What he says will be fulfilled in specific ways to those people.

And with that last sentence I blast my way right out of literary context and start looking at historical context. (Jeremiah lays out the historical circumstances of his statement in the context. I’m talking about the broader history of the fulfilment of his statement.) Now we realize that there is much more to context than just the literary context. Notice here that we also get away from a “one meaning” fallacy, the idea that a text means only one, limited thing. (And that rule could be badly misapplied as well!)

And this context can lead us to a canonical context. How do the words of Jeremiah tie in with scripture as a whole? (I will pass over the issue of whose scripture. I write as a Christian, reading as a Christian.) The exile, regarding which Jeremiah writes, becomes a historical watershed for Israel, and comes to define, along with the exodus, must of the Christian understanding of redemption. There’s a reason so many prophecies of 2nd Isaiah (40-55) are later applied to Jesus, even though in context, they have more immediate applicability. The entire event—exile and restoration—takes on new meaning in this theological context.

We might argue that this is improper usage. If Jeremiah didn’t mean it or Isaiah didn’t mean it (an assumption on our part), then how can we use it in that way? First, if we don’t accept a theological context, we’re pretty much out of business as a community with a shared theology, i.e. a shared understanding of God. Second, we do this kind of reshaping of events and stories all the time with other literature. While I believe what the author intended needs to be an anchor, a guide, even a limitation, preventing flights of fancy with the text, words do take on a power of their own in a community. (I would suggest the example of how Melchizedek is used in Hebrews, but this post would grow to long if I discussed that further.)

I’m not, however, suggested that we can just grab the text and do what we want with it because there are such things as canonical and even theological contexts. As with literary context, we have to look at what these contexts actually are and make sure that we haven’t just yelled “context” and declared victory, whichever side we’re on.

How does the theological context apply?

Well, first, we have the issue of individual versus community application. The church in America tends to be very individualistic. It’s fashionable in certain circles, to lay heavy emphasis on the community in order to counter that trend. I’m in those circles. I think we need to revive the idea of community in the church. It’s not about me, it’s about the body of Christ as a whole.

But there’s a tension in scripture and in theology on this very point. The church is a community, but the community is made up of individuals. So you have things that apply to individuals somehow. As I study Hebrews with my Sunday School class right now it’s interesting to see the tension between remembering the leaders (13:7), and everyone having boldness going before God, between the examples of faith, all individuals (11), and the great cloud of witnesses (12:1ff).

When someone today says to remember the leaders of my church, I can point out that I can move down the street and find other leaders. That’s actually a sad thing, that disunity in the church, yet it’s true, and unless you’re prepared to argue that every church’s leaders are truly following God, then there is room for me, as an individual to make a choice. In fact, I must make a choice.

So there is a tension here as well. It’s good to realize that Jeremiah 29:11 was first spoken to a specific community and that there was a specific fulfilment of this text to that community. That is important. As Thomas Turner points out, it’s a promise of the kingdom of God as well, and that’s important too.

But for the individual looking at a major life choice, the most important thing to get out of this verse may well be that God has a plan for him or her at that moment. The choice of the right college, the right job, or the right spouse may be the most important kingdom thing right then for that individual who is a member of the community of believers.

And in that very community that we want to celebrate, for which God has great plans, this text has come to mean more than just the good of the big group in the by and by. It has come to mean that, as “Abraham’s seed” I can now hear God speaking to me (Galatians 3:29), and that this individual application may be precisely what I need to hear.

We often act as though God has to pay more attention to the big things (like the triumph of the Kingdom at the end) than to the little things (where will I go to college?). But God doesn’t have limited attention so that he needs to prioritize. He can give full attention to both issues, along with billions more.

Just like those boiled down, compact rules of hermeneutics, the community has boiled down Jeremiah 29:11 and presented it as a compact promise. It’s a usage I find entirely appropriate.

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