My post yesterday about how Jeremiah 29:11 is not a promise to us and needs to understood within its original context raised some good questions relating to the Old Testament and how we are to navigate which promises in the Bible are for us, and what to do with the ones that aren’t.
I went ahead and added this into yesterday’s post after hearing the questions raised, but I thought it would be better served for more readers to include it in a fresh post as well:
Applying Jeremiah 29:11 like God was promising it to you as an individual would be like if your friend was on the phone with the cable company and you’re upstairs, unaware of the conversation. The cable company has gone over the details of the contract with your friend and the words come out of your friend’s mouth, “I will pay you $50 per month.” Your then walk in the room, not having heard the rest of the conversation or even realizing that your friend is on the phone, but you hear them say “I will pay you $50 per month.” You then cross-stitch this quote from your friend and now expect your friend to pay you $50 each month. They did say this after all.
This is the importance of context! And the thing is, the Bible doesn’t hide this context from us. It’s right there, we just tend to have selective hearing. We also need to remember that the chapter and verse numbers in our Bible were not in the original manuscripts and thus are not divinely inspired. We’d actually do much better without them, because of exact instances as this one. So really we should never read verse 11 without reading verse 10 and 12-14. If we do, we’re doing exactly what we did with the cable company phone call, interrupting a fluid thought that has a certain meaning when kept intact and splicing out a section from it, giving it a very different meaning.
My point in my post yesterday was not to ruin Jeremiah 29:11 for the multitudes of Christians that have held onto it as a life verse and as a hope through many tough times. As I mentioned, there is much to be learned about God’s attributes from an interaction with the Israelites such as this one. Just like walking into the room hearing your friend talk to the cable company, you can learn that your friend is a faithful and reliable person, as well as someone who has the resources necessary to deliver on the commitments he makes. These are truths about your friend you can take to the bank, but that’s very different than thinking his quote of “I will pay you $50 per month” applies directly to you.
So what does apply directly to you?
Well, the short answer is the New Covenant applies directly to you. (This does not mean the Old Testament does not apply to us as God’s Word still, it just means the commands, promises, and stipulations within do not apply to our current agreement with God…read on for more on what we glean from it and how this works) Jeremiah himself tells us this only two short chapters after the famous 29:11 quotation. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, God tells us he will be making a new covenant that will not be like the old one (the old one consisting of a peaceful and bountiful promised land referred to in Jeremiah 29:11). In this new covenant (which Hebrews 8:6 says is a better and superior covenant & Hebrews 8:13 calls the old one obsolete and outdated by comparison), land or tangible health and wealth is never mentioned, but a personal connection with God is, where our wickedness is forgiveness and our sins are remembered no more.
The difference between the old covenant and the new covenant is as different as the contract your roommate has with the cable company and the rent contract you signed with him to be his roommate. It’s one person with two very different contracts with two very different parties. The similarity in the Bible’s case is that the first covenant led toward the second one, and always was intended to.
Here are some guidelines to navigating and applying the Old Testament today:
- If it’s a promise that relates directly to the old covenant agreement (contract) between the Ancient Israelites’ land and God, don’t apply it directly to your situation. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is another great example of this–very similar to Jeremiah 29:11–it’s about their land not our land so don’t apply it to America (or your front lawn).
- On the flipside, a story like Daniel and the lions’ den (Daniel 6) has a lot of general faith principles at play, none of which have to do with the old covenant promise of land for Israel. We can glean lots of faith principles from Daniel and God’s interaction with each other. Even in this story, we all know to apply hermeneutics (hermeneutics are the tools we use to interpret a text–what I’m saying we need with Jeremiah 29:11 and 2 Chronicles 7:14). We learn that God is faithful and that he responds when we remain faithful to him, but none of us would practice or preach that the Bible is saying we too should go jump in a pit full of hungry lions!
- In all of the Old Testament, whether it’s Daniel in a den of lions, or God telling his people he hasn’t forgotten about them after they sinned against him for centuries (Jeremiah 29:11), we can learn who God is and how he interacts with his people. There is a great verse in Joshua 1:9, Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” This verse tells us who God is and how he interacts with his people. This isn’t bound by the old covenant (contract) itself. God is faithful. He loves his people. He gives them strength and courage–which we see over and over in the old and new testaments and we can apply this principle directly to us and our situations. ***What would be incorrect would be to back up to the previous verses of Joshua 1:7-8, Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. –and to apply that “prosperous and successful” means tangibly the same thing to us as it did to the Israelites, because now we are talking about very specific old covenant (contract) language. The “law my servant Moses gave you” is the flashing red light indicator there. The law of Moses is the old covenant, and in that old covenant prosperity and success meant big crops, peace, health, wealth and fertility (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 tell us this). God hasn’t turned his back on an infertile woman in 2014 because she’s been too disobedient as it would have been in the old covenant–this just simply isn’t the agreement he has with his people anymore. Will we still be successful and prosper if we hold to God’s Word and meditate on it day and night? Absolutely. But the prosperity and success will be of a new covenant nature, not an old covenant nature. A spiritual and eternal nature, not a temporal and physical nature. Can God still bless us physically and temporally? Of course. But these things aren’t promised to us like they were in the old covenant.
- The big distinction that needs to be made is that the “land” or the “future” or the “hope” or the “promise” or “prosperity” to the old covenant people are all different than the future and the promise and the hope God has for us. So when we read those words in the Old Testament, we can’t apply them in the same way that were applied to their original audience. And here’s why: we are the Old Testament’s future! The “hope” and a “future” spoke of in Jeremiah 29:11 was Jesus coming to remove all sin! The “hope” and “future” of the old covenant is the new covenant! Jeremiah 31:31-34 tells us this!
- In summary, when applying the Old Testament: Think principles, not promises or particulars.
So if you’re unemployed or underemployed, you can’t look to Jeremiah 29:11 or 2 Chronicles 7:14 and tell yourself if you repent of sins and stay faithful to God, he will give you a job in your field. But what we can definitely say from these texts is that God is faithful and cares for his children and is with you and is in control and is using you as a part of his bigger plan to redeem the world. We can also say that obedience to God brings blessing, but it’s blessing according to the New Covenant (spiritual and eternal blessing), not according to the old covenant (land, health, wealth). And that disobedience will bring destruction and/or a lack of blessing, but that also will not be the old covenant kind where God kills all your crops or brings an earthquake to wreck your nation. It will be a spiritual and eternal destruction. Can sin bring physical destruction, absolutely–that’s the nature of what sin does. Can obedience bring tangible blessing? Of course. But again, these aren’t promises of God that work in a formulaic way they did in the old covenant.
I hope this helps. Let’s learn how amazing our God is through how faithful He was to the Old Testament people, in spite of how much they betrayed him and sinned against him–knowing He will be faithful to us as well–but without the expectations of an old covenant agreement He never actually made with us.