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God's Plans for Us in a Sinful World

God makes us many promises, but we can often misunderstand exactly what is being said. God's promise for blessings are often misunderstood for temporal blessings in this world, rather than eternal blessings. In Jeremiah 29, God, through Jeremiah promises blessing to the people in exile, a promise that often is misunderstood without the context.

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During the Summer, I brought up a verse during a sermon that is usually listed on any top lists of “mis-applied” verses. Afterward, I got into a nice conversation with Gordon Douglas, Pastor Ron’s old comedian friend, who was visiting with us and had recently spoken on how often he sees this verse mis-applied. So being Lent, I thought it would be an appropriate time to revisit it, because the context that this verse was written to God’s people was very similar to the context of Jesus time.

If you were interested, the top verse whenever you look up verses constantly taken out of context is usually “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Jesus says that in the Sermon on the Mount, and we had the opportunity to do a 3-week deep dive into it in Sunday School last year.

Today, our Old Testament lesson brings us to one of the darkest places in history for God’s people. Certainly, as dark as anything that happened in Egypt, but not nearly as well remembered. The Babylonian Exile and Captivity. And the verse is one that probably jumped out at a few of you as we were reading it, verse 11 of chapter 29:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

You see it used a lot. It’s popular among Heretics and Hucksters who try to use the Bible to bring themselves fame & wealth. And I totally understand why this verse is so popular. It’s encouraging. It promises protection from enemies and prosperity right here, right now.

But as always, context is key, and in most cases, not just the chapter, but the whole context of the Book is important. And Jeremiah was written in one of the darkest times for God’s people.

Jerusalem had just been destroyed, and all the valuable articles had been taken out of the temple as loot, and taken to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon (Arc?). Jeremiah was told to proclaim that though God loves his people, he cannot abide their sin and God was sending them away into Exile for 70 years, as punishment for worshiping pagan gods.

But…as the people go into exile, in Jeremiah 28 we read that a false prophet emerges named Hananiah, who starts preaching a softer message of positivity and prosperity. A message that was focused on making himself popular with the people.

He falsely prophecies that their judgement would be over fast. As that chapter began, Hananiah says: “The Lord Almighty, …will (free us from) the king of Babylon. 3 Within TWO years I will bring back to (Jerusalem) all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed (as well as) all the other exiles…’”

This was a very popular message. Who would not want to hear this message? A promise of prosperity. A promise of health and wealth.

The problem with this is that it was a direct contradiction what God told Jeremiah to preach, both ignoring the people’s need to repent, and the consequences of their idolatry. Later in the chapter, in what was left of the temple, Jeremiah confronts Hananiah face-to-face and told him:

 “Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have made your people trust in a lie. 16 Therefore … the Lord says: ‘I will remove you from the face of the earth… The chapter ends… 17 In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died. 

Jeremiah’s prophecy prevails and Hananiah’s ‘prosperity gospel’ is proven false. This just leads us back to Jeremiah’s original prophecy, that God’s people would live a life of hardship and exile for the next seventy years. These words would even be harder to those who trusted in the lies of a false message. It is easy to come to Jeremiah 29 like it is all good news. But you have to understand the state which God’s people were in.

They had to suffered terribly. They had lost their land, and Jerusalem was burned down. Most able-bodied men who survived were force-marched 550 miles and paraded as new slaves through a pagan city. And Jeremiah has told them they will be there 70 years, basically for life.

It’s in this despair chapter 29 begins. Jeremiah is moved by the depression of God’s people, so he decides to write a letter to those who survived the trip into exile. How does he prepare them??? He encourages them to settle in, build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children.

In other words, bloom where God has planted you, rather than complain about it. They’re instructed to pray on behalf of their captors, for those in political authority over them. Pray for the Shalom, the peace of Babylon, so that they will prosper. It’s one place we get the biblical mandate to pray for our leaders no matter what we feel about them.

It’s a rule of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament where Paul says the same thing in 2 Timothy.

Here is the thing which I can’t overstate, God’s people were looking at seventy years of hard labor, slavery, and humiliation; and death in exile. It is into this horrible situation, that Jeremiah gives the people the good news of God’s plan for them in 29:11.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to (Jerusalem).11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.

So, in the horrible situation, Jeremiah promised the Israelites that God had a plan for His People as a whole. But, and this is important, this plan would not unfold on the people’s timetable.  In this world, we suffer the effects of our sin, we suffer for other people’s sin. It is not until the next world where all that will be gone. God says He would not undo Israel’s current hardship, but rather He gives them a promise of a future redemption. This is why it is so wrong to use this verse to preach prosperity in this life like many false preachers do.

God was speaking to the entire nation of His People here. It was not a personal promise to any one person within the nation. It is a corporate promise that God will ultimately take care of His People in His way.

In other words, life was going to continue being tough, BUT there was going to be a glorious future redemption for God’s People in the future. The gospel is not that we get stuff, the gospel is that we get God. Or, more accurately, He gets us. Not taking us out of tragedy, as much as we wish he did, but that he is enough in the midst of tragedy.

Just like the Israelites were in slavery in a foreign land, the Bible tells us that we should consider ourselves strangers and exiles on this earth. This world is not our home. Just like the Israelites were seeking a homeland, so should we. When we will be with God forever.

I hope that this promise can be a true encouragement to us, when we are frustrated that this world of sin is, well,… so full of sin. 

Paul says this best in 2 Cor 4, 16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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