“A text without a context is nothing but a pretext.”
I learned that phrase in a Bible Interpretation class during my first year of Bible school. Therefore, I am very sensitive whenever I hear Old Testament Scripture quoted and applied with no thought given to its original audience.
Most often, the primary recipients of the words contained in the Old Testament were Jewish. The words applied to a specific situation they were facing as the people of God.
One of the universal dangers I see in interpreting and applying Scripture is in the use of the Old Testament for modern-day understanding. While still true that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful…”, one must always be cautious in making Old Testament connections to contemporary life without first passing it through the lens of the original recipients. Not doing so can lead, at best, to claiming promises never intended for today’s audience, or at worst, to flagrant mangling of the meaning of Scripture.
One example I hear most often is this:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
I cringe every time I hear a follower of Messiah today use this passage as a kind of security blanket that promises comforting situations ahead. This is one of the most popular verses in the Bible. However, if we’ve ever quoted this verse to ourselves and to others, and do not understand the context from which it comes, it can have surprising – even disappointing – consequences.
The passage does give a promise for a future and a hope, but the whole story is far more compelling for our lives than we might realize. In context, Jerusalem has been conquered and the inhabitants are being deported to a foreign land they have never known. The Jewish people had endured crushing destruction to all they had ever known as their life. Families had been torn apart. Those exiled to captivity longed for home and restoration.
Jeremiah is writing to those who had already arrived in Babylon. We find this text within that letter. Had this just been a one-sentence note, that’s all there would have been to say. But this was a letter, and this promise was not the whole story.
“Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters. Increase in number there. Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile. Pray to the Lord for it.” That was the larger message of God to His people in captivity.
There WAS a future hope, but in all likelihood the recipients of this promise would never experience it themselves. They would die in captivity before it was realized by the next generation.
Jeremiah prophesied further, “When seventy years are completed, I will come to you and fulfill My promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord….”
God told the people of God it was going to take some time. Seventy years, to be exact. So rather than being bitter for the next 70 years, they were to establish roots. They were to thrive where they were. God was in control.
However, this was not the quick accomplishment of His objective. Instead, the message was to thrive where they were, while they waited. God’s promise of hope and a future is a solid foundation.
How does this passage apply to us?
God certainly has plans for us today. They are indeed plans for good and not disaster. Yes, they are plans to give us a future and a hope. It just might look different than what we were anticipating, both in substance and timing.
It is our part, with gratitude, to be thankful for what God is providing as we lean into the life He has given us this day. Rather than waiting for things to change so life can begin again, perhaps you are being encouraged to thrive where you are while you wait.
Let’s be careful as we interpret and apply God’s word for ourselves and teach it to others. The maxim is still true: a text without a context is nothing but a pretext.