Isn’t the Bible so wonderful? Day after day, we are presented on Facebook with the many inspiring and heart-warming promises and truths from the Good Book. We all know them. We can be confident in all our pursuits since “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Never do we need to worry about the future, because Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you—this is the Lord’s declaration—plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
Yes indeed, we have many sweet hopes to cling to in the Bible. But not everything is quite like you’d think. Truthfully, most of the pretty little quotes we pull out of the Bible—especially the Old Testament—and put on pillows are arbitrarily ripped out of context. They sound nice, so we use them without paying any attention to the who, what, when, where, and why behind them. This, however, isn’t an entirely appropriate way to handle God’s written word.
To see what I mean, think about verses like these:
Let his children wander as beggars, searching for food far from their demolished homes. Let a creditor seize all he has; let strangers plunder what he has worked for.
Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.
I will bring distress on mankind, and they will walk like the blind because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung.
Indeed, I am about to send snakes among you, poisonous vipers that cannot be charmed. They will bite you. This is the Lord’s declaration.
You will eat your children, the flesh of your sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you during the siege and hardship your enemy imposes on you. The most sensitive and refined man among you will look grudgingly at his brother, the wife he embraces, and the rest of his children, refusing to share with any of them his children’s flesh that he will eat because he has nothing left during the siege and hardship your enemy imposes on you in all your towns.
None of these have quite the same inspirational quality, do they? They’re actually a bit scary and difficult. But without context, there’s no less reason to think that these apply to us than that the happy stuff does. What, after all, makes Jeremiah 8:17 different from Jeremiah 29:11?
So what? Are we, again especially with the Old Testament, forbidden from quoting anything to encourage? Clearly not. Paul does this himself on multiple occasions. But if we can do encouraging quotes rightly, how do we do so?
Basically, the key word is context. We have to pay attention to the who, what, when, where, and why. To make my point simple, I’ll just dive into two examples.
First, an example of my scary verses. Deuteronomy 28:53-55 speaks of God sending such a harsh judgment that people in their distress will resort to eating their own children, and even then not sharing any with others. So what’s the context? Can this be applied to us? In the passage’s original place in Deuteronomy, God is declaring the blessings and curses of the Old Covenant to Israel. If they obeyed His laws, they would receive many blessings. If they disobeyed, they would receive many curses, including this one. Of course, we modern Gentile believers are not under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant in Christ (Heb. 9:15). There are no curses in the New Covenant (Rom. 8:1, Gal. 3:13). This means this passage clearly is not about us.
There is, however, a twist. Even though this passage does not directly apply to us, such a harsh judgment does reveal the intensity and severity of God’s condemnation against sin. How serious must disobedience be if God even punished Israel by letting their enemies terrorize them so much that they ate their children? And if God would provide such a punishment to those who received only types and shadows, how much greater will those who refuse the fully revealed salvation of God’s only Son be punished (cf. Heb. 2:2-3)? Moreover, if Jesus bore the full wrath of God for our sin, how much of a sacrifice must that have been! So even though this passage isn’t directly about us, there are applications which affect us.
Now for an example of thinking context through for the happy verses. I’ll take Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you…” What was the original context of this verse? Jeremiah was writing a letter to the Jews who were exiled in Babylon. In verse 10, he told them that God promised to bring them back to Israel after 70 years. The good plans involved Israel’s return to the promised land. God’s judgment, the Exile, was not His last word, because His plans were for their good. Again, then, we run into a verse which is not directly about us. Jeremiah 29:11 was written to and for exiled Jews in Babylon to reassure them of God’s promise to bring them back to Israel. We are obviously not in the same situation, so this verse is not about us.
Even still, there is clearly a way that this verse can be applied to us. We who are the Church are the true Israel, according to the New Testament. We are not at home in this broken age; we are exiles waiting for our restoration when God makes the New Heavens and New Earth. And God has promised to do this, to bring us safely home to the recreation of the new age. He will indeed resurrect us just as He did His beloved Son, who brought the beginning of the kingdom to the world. Like the exiled Jews, God is promising to bring us safely home. For “we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Therefore Jeremiah 29:11 can actually be applied to us as well, just in a secondary way.
Hopefully these two examples are helpful. The Bible is filled with texts which were written neither to us nor about us, but all of them were still written for our benefit (2 Tim. 3:16-17). When we look at the Scriptures, we must be discerning, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Many verses are not directly to us, but they do have wider applications which affect us. This is especially the case when looking at the Old Testament. Only context (both the immediate context and the context within the whole story of the Bible) can tell us exactly what is for, about, or to us. So let’s keep that in mind, that we may be approved by God.