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I will prosper you! Really?

August 18, 2012

There is a verse in Jeremiah 29 that we love to quote. I have seen any number of cards that have quoted it, had it quoted to me and even used it myself. It is a wonderful promise that we can cling to when times are hard, and/or the situation that we are facing seems hopeless! It is “For I know the plans i have for you, declares the lord, plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer 29:11)

When I came across this verse today I discovered it in context and, to be honest, I was really shocked at how I (and the rest of the church?) have torn it out of context to make it mean something quite different than it says.

What we mean it to say is that God will bring you through whatever difficulties you are facing. God is and will the the answer for you, and one day (sooner or later) you will be able to look back and see that God has made you comfortable once again.

But is this really what it means?

The passage actually starts in verse 4 “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’

God is talking to a people who have been ripped out of their homes and are refugees in the nation that kicked them out. That is oppressive! They had no familiar places, routines, language, anything. So no doubt they were pretty hacked off with the Babylonian empire, and would have wanted God to kick them into touch and allow them to go back to the familiar, comfortable life that they knew.

But what the text says is that it is God who has brought this misfortune on them: “I carried into exile”. Wow. The same God who they are relying on to get them out of the mess actually got them into it! What does that say about the `future and the hope`?

It goes on to say “build houses”. While I have never built a house i have sometimes dreamed of doing so, and consequently love the Grand Designs programme on TV. So I know that building a house is a serious commitment, it will take all your money, time and emotional strength and, at best, a year or two of your life. So God is not waiting around the corner to rescue you from a difficult situation in the next couple of years…

It says “plant gardens”. This is something I have tried, and I can tell you that it takes at least one year to get on top of the weeds, another couple of years to enrich the soil enough so that something can grow – and finally after a year or two more there may be some fruit on your bushes. `Planting the garden`is the easy bit, but eating the produce takes time. God is not in the business of a short term rescue from your troubles!

It then says “marry and settle down”. How long does it take to settle down to married life? Then it talks about raising children and seeing them married, so that at least 18 years then. Finally it talks about being around for the grandchildren – So in anyone’s book this is a life commitment not a temporary crises!

So I was struck that these “plans to prosper you… plans to give you hope” are not looking to a time when God steps in and somehow makes the difficulties we face better, rather it is the promise that God will be with you while you live in exile. That God is there even when there are no certainties or routines to cling to.

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