Sometimes it seems like Scripture makes promises we can’t count on.
I’ve had a lot of conversations over the years with disappointed Christians. I’ve actually been a disappointed Christian at times. (It’s easy to think that when you are a full-time “paid” Christian that there should be a few added promise-perks. There aren’t.)
But, most of the time, our disappointment can be overcome with a better understanding of those promises.
Bible promises that aren’t
One example: Proverbs aren’t promises; they are statements of general wisdom.
A good example of that is Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
That Proverb can’t be a promise because it would mean that your child didn’t have free will choices. What Solomon was really saying was, “Raise your child now with a biblical knowledge of right and wrong, and chances are good that he or she will make biblical choices as an adult too.” The general wisdom: it’s wise to raise kids with godly values, morals, and behaviors if you want them to be godly adults.
Another example: psalms are usually words of praise for what God is able to do or has done in the past rather than what God has promised to do every time.
A new look at a familiar promise
I wanted to correct another “promise” that a lot of people think is a personal truth for their lives.
I was reading my son’s First15 devotional last Saturday and had a few new thoughts about a familiar verse. I often quote Jeremiah 29:11, but Craig wisely used verse 11 through 14 for his devotional. I was reminded that verse 11, on its own, doesn’t really tell the whole truth and might set us up to misunderstand the promise.
Jeremiah preached, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (29:11). This is a great thought about God’s intentions for his people. But, all of us know that disappointment and evil can happen in our lives. Several of my readers are dealing with financial loss resulting from a devastating tornado that came through Dallas. How, then, are Jeremiah’s words a promise to them?
What did Jeremiah mean when he preached that message? Can we think of Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise for our lives and the lives of other Christians?
Yes and no. Understanding the promise in verse 11 requires a little more information.
What was the original promise?
Jeremiah preached this message to the Jewish people who had already been captured and enslaved by the Babylonian empire. They or their parents had been marched from Jerusalem to Babylon. It would have taken about two weeks for them to get there, and it is doubtful that they were provided much food or water along the way. Many of those people died.
Verse 11 wouldn’t have been a promise for them.
By the time Jeremiah wrote chapter 29, it is likely that he was preaching, almost entirely, to the children of the people who had been captured. God had already told the Israelites that they would be in exile for seventy years. The average life span was about thirty years during this time and probably less for people who were slaves.
In other words, Jeremiah’s words wouldn’t have seemed like much of a promise to the people he preached them to. But they were.
The rest of the passage provides the truth of the promise.
What does the passage tell you about the promise?
Jeremiah 29:10–14 says, “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.’”
What did God promise?
- The Jewish people would be captives for seventy years. For most of the people, the promise was hope for their children and grandchildren, not themselves.
- God always had a plan and has a plan. God knew the nation would be taken captive, and he knew he would restore the nation.
- God would bring the Jewish people back to their land, restore their fortunes, and gather them back. The promise was their return to Israel, but it would never be entirely the same place or the same prosperity God had originally provided them. It would be Israel, but a different Israel.
- The actual promise was a restored relationship with God. “Then you will call upon me, and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.” God’s promise for welfare and hope was the promised blessing of a restored relationship with himself.
And, the earthly blessings promised were almost entirely for their descendants, the Israelites who hadn’t even been born yet.
What does 29:11 mean to Christians today?
After this blog post, how many of your Christian plaques, pictures, dish towels, and coffee mugs will look a little less promising than they did before?
Don’t worry though. His word is always true and always relevant.
Jeremiah 29:11 doesn’t promise us that we will be rich and free from evil. God would never make that promise to people who live on planet earth, surrounded by people who have free wills and the freedom to use them.
Someone can steal your riches, and people are capable of evil. The prophet did promise that God will always have a plan to restore our relationship with him and provide us with his blessings. We misunderstand his promise and often feel disappointed when we define what those blessings should be.
There is more to say, but I will say it in next week’s blog post. For now, stand on the promises of God’s word, knowing that the promise can’t be understood except in its context—and, most of the time, won’t fit on a coffee mug!
Then again, if you could get the whole truth in a few words, those of us who blog about and teach the Bible might be out of a job.
One of my favorite promises is found in 1 Corinthians 2:9: “But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.’”
One day, Christians will go to heaven and realize that our best promises were unimaginable to us on earth.
In other words, our greatest blessings are yet to come.
And that is God’s promise.