For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me.  — Jeremiah 29:11-13

For many years, I’ve considered this my “life verse.” The passage of scripture that is at the core of who I am, who I strive to be. The passage that I refer back to when I go through rough times, that I revel in when I go through easy times. I’ve been thinking about that passage of scripture the last few days, and in context with the whole book of Jeremiah.

One of the biggest travesties about our modern cultural Christianity is that we often fail to look at scripture contextually – both in how it relates to the world that it was written in, and for the audience it was intended, as well as how it ties into the passage of scripture that it is actually a part of. In other words, our culture has a really bad tendency to pluck a piece of scripture out and use it to fit their whims or justify their points, ignoring the real purpose and intent for which it was written.

This is especially the case with this passage of scripture. People often translate and quote it as simply “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.” Sounds pretty awesome, huh? We like positive pieces of scripture like that, so we pluck it out and paint it on a plaque that we stick on our living room wall. (I know, I have one too :P) But we lose SO MUCH when we ignore the context around scripture like that! In reality, Jeremiah wrote this to the Jews who had been literally kidnapped and carted off to another country to live in exile, while their family and friends remained back home. When we look at this piece of scripture in context, we see that the exiled Jews were really struggling, and so Jeremiah was writing for a couple of reasons – to encourage them and lift their spirits, to remind them that God knew what was going on and why, and to encourage them that He has plans for their lives and that He will be watching over them even while they’re off in this foreign land.

We also lose a lot of detail because what we read has been translated from the original Greek and Hebrew text into English. And as we all know from reading funny commercials and translation failure lists on the internet, there is so much that can be lost in translation from one language to another. The word at the core of the passage is the Hebrew word shalom. It is a word with multiple connotations, and is often used as a greeting –  peace, prosperity, wholeness, wellness, restoration. In other words, what Jeremiah is writing to the Jews in captivity is meant to encourage them – God is reminding His people that even though their situation seems dire, and they are distressed and depressed, God is in essence saying – Hey! I know what’s going on, and even though things seem hopeless, I have plans for your lives. And they’re not just any plans, but to bring you peace, and wholeness, and prosperity, and restoration!

Broadening the scope of this passage to look at the scripture around it, God is telling the Jews in exile – Your family and friends back home are being really stupid, and STILL ignoring me. So things are going to be really tough for them because I’m going to respect their wishes for me to leave them alone (including protecting them from the people around them by the way.) But for you – yes, you’re in exile a long way from home. But it’s only for 70 years, and then I’m going to take you home. In the mean time, I want you to build houses, and plant gardens, and have kids, and let them get married, and thrive where you are. While the folks back home are walking away from Me, I’m here with you. When you pray, I’ll hear you. When you look for Me, you’ll find Me.

It’s really interesting the perspective we see from this. While the Jews in exile in Babylon saw it as a terrible thing (being torn away from home, sent somewhere that was unfamiliar to them,) in reality God was moving the people who were faithful to Him away from the people who were being self-destructive, so that when the really bad times were about to come on the folks back home, the Jews in Babylon were going to be protected from those hardships! Not only that, but He tells His people through Jeremiah that they are to invest in the area that He’s taken them, that the folks around them will be blessed through them. They aren’t supposed to plan to just exist there, twiddling their thumbs and waiting things out. But they’re supposed to live their lives as if they’re going to be there forever, and then when the time is right, God will take them back home.