I read a really interesting article recently and wanted to share my thoughts. The article gives data from YouVersion’s bible app on the favourite verses of 88 countries which they have been tracking.1 Accordingly, the world’s favourite verse was Romans 8:28, receiving over 550,000 shares and coming top in 9 out of the 88 nations included.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
I’ve got nothing exciting to say about this verse, though I’m sure plenty of qualified scholars and theologians have done so! It’s really lovely and fluffy and quite rightly makes the reader feel wonderful.
However, Jeremiah 29:11 was the top verse in 29 of the 88 countries and territories, i.e. just under a third of countries, including the UK. I do have things to say about this one! The text is grossly misunderstood by most people, yet the passage, when read in context, remains (largely) beautiful. Here it is:
11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Below, I offer three of my thoughts about the verse: one positive, one negative, and one about how we read the Bible.
1. A Positive Thought About the Verse:
Searching for ‘Jeremiah 29 11’ produces c. 239,000 YouTube results, with the most viewed result – somewhat amusingly – being ‘The Most Misinterpreted Verse In The Bible (Jeremiah 29:11)‘.2 (It’s worth watching!)
Jefferson Bethke, the video’s author, quite rightly points out that the constant trend among modern Christians to make this verse about ‘my plans’.3 It is actually a verse about Yahweh’s plans. It cannot (and should not) be seen as a blanket approval for whatever you think might be good for you. In fact, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with those who lived during the Babylonian Exile (c. 598-538 BCE), a period which is fundamental to understanding the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the OT).4
Bethke also makes a rather pleasing contextual observation about 29:7, which more Christians should know and care about, in both his opinion and mine.
7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
The idea here is that the miserable and oppressed Jewish exiles should not seek their own welfare, but the welfare of their oppressors. This parallels Jesus’s teaching in Luke 6:27-28, as well as the OT commandment not to oppress “aliens” in Exodus 22:21, ‘for you were aliens in the land of Egypt’. A challenge to all my readers (and myself) – am I kind to those who are unkind to me? If not, how could I be kind to them in the next few days and beyond?
2. A Negative Thought About the Verse:
Having said that, Exodus 22 has its violent side. We must avoid cherry-picking for our own ends. The following verses read:
22 You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. 23 If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; 24 my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Similarly, this much-loved verse can be seen to have a negative flavour too, but this is missed just as much as the positive point above, if not more so. The following verses in Jeremiah 29 read:
15 Because you have said, ‘The Lord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon’— 16 thus says the Lord concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who live in this city, your kinsfolk who did not go out with you into exile: 17 Thus says the Lord of hosts, I am going to let loose on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like rotten figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be an object of cursing, and horror, and hissing, and a derision among all the nations where I have driven them.
Those ‘plans for your welfare and not for harm’ were not for everyone. (Unless perhaps ‘harm’ excludes ‘sword, famine and pestilence’? That would be a strange definition.) For those who don’t listen to Yahweh‘s prophets, repugnant death awaits you! Sorry for killing the party mood folks – this blog is about primarily about thinking carefully about religion and faith, including acknowledging the bits we are uncomfortable with.
The preceding verse is also worth consideration. It says:
10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place.
Jeremiah 29:10, then, is about the restoration of Israel as a nation from the captivity of Babylon. It sets a 70-year timescale between initial capture and eventual freedom. The eagle-eyed among you may have already spotted a problem; we know with strong certainty that the Exilic period was between 598/597 to 538/537 BCE. That means that the prophecy is c. 10 years off if taken literally. This should not worry us – the number 70 was symbolic to the ancient Israelites in the way that 60 was to the ancient Babylonians.5
Given that, one might be led to think that this is a surprisingly accurate prophecy. This could, some have argued to me, be not only an indication of the Bible’s historical reliability but also of its inspiration and inerrancy. Unfortunately, the vast majority of scholars argue that Jeremiah, like many biblical books, is a composite work, with the authentic oracles of the historical prophet Jeremiah being those found in ch. 1-26.6
Both the Greek Septuagint and the Masoretic Text, which is an eighth shorter than the Greek, show strong signs of editing and interpolation, with the two textual strands differing markedly after ch. 25.7 According to Cambridge don Aaron Hornkohl and the overwhelming majority of qualified scholars, it is quite clear from the language, grammar and themes that Jeremiah 29 is not only written by a different person to Jeremiah 1-26, but also that it was written in a different time – in the Restoration period.8 Consequently, we have a post hoc prophecy, which is as good as no prophecy at all.
3. A Thought About Bible Reading
It is completely psychologically unsurprising that every country’s favourite verse, according to the article, is a really feel-good one. Everyone ‘cherry-picks’ from the bible and different verses appeal to different socially-constructed ‘national psyches’. Yet if you believe that the Bible is the infinitely perfect ‘word of God’, then why should this be the case?
A maximally perfect book, to my mind at least, would be one in which every part was of maximum value. There should not be any parts of the Bible which are boring, repetitive, overly verbose, immoral, inaccurate, changeable, and so on. Yet, it is more than likely that we have found at least one of those characteristics in at least one passage we have read in the Bible. If not, then I would suggest one is reading with blinkers on. (If you’re racing to find a way to refute things I write on this blog to maintain biblical inerrancy, you may be suffering confirmation bias!)
When Natasha and I were 5:20 leaders at the University of Warwick Christian Union, we remember the UCCF Staff Worker for the region telling us that ‘you can read any part of the Bible with a stranger and end up preaching the Gospel to someone’ and that ‘you are not reading the Bible properly if you’re not seeing Jesus on every page’.9
Not only was this hurtful and condemnatory towards most normal Christians, who deeply struggle to see Jesus in the massacres of the Hebrew Bible, or the endless genealogies, but it’s also quite offensive to Jewish people. I used to presume that it was unusual that Jewish people didn’t immediately convert. The prophecies of the Old Testament were so clear and Jesus is undeniably the perfect Messiah! But the reality is far more nuanced than is often appreciated when you are absorbing an endless stream of Christian apologetics.
At the very least, please don’t use Jeremiah 29 to tell yourself that God is going to give you a perfect boyfriend, or your dream job, or your ideal house. He might do. He might not.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Amos – to comment, subscribe and like the Facebook page! Please?
- The website link to YouVersion’s end-of-year review infographic is here. Their methodology for measuring ‘popularity’ was by the number of bookmarks, highlights and shares. This seems reasonable – the number of searches is likely to include confusing, controversial or frequently referenced verses in popular culture, rather than people’s actual favourites. ↩
- For some bizarre reason, when I searched for a whole host of other random bible verses, they all appeared to have higher results than ‘Jeremiah 29 11’. The same happened when I tried with Google search. If anyone who understands SEO, or just the internet more generally, can help me understand why, please let me know. ↩
- Jefferson Bethke is the guy behind the viral ‘Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus‘ video, which received around 31 million views. ↩
- For understanding the immediate impact of the Babylonian Exile on the Hebrew Bible, I really recommend Christine Haye‘s very layman-friendly Yale lecture series, especially for my auditory learner friends! Lecture 19 is on ‘Literary Prophecy: Perspectives on the Exile (Jeremiah, Ezekiel and 2nd Isaiah)’. However, the whole course quite rightly brings up the historical period time after time: (i) it is critical in the final redaction, editing and formation of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), (ii) it is the key event for all the Major Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel) plus Lamentations, who all attempt to interpret it; and (iii) it forms a part of the story of Jesus, as it sets the context of the world in which he lived. See: Happy Hanukkah (And Why it Matters for Christmas). ↩
- If you have ever wondered why time and geometric angles are measured in units of 60, it is because Greek mathematicians approved highly of their older Babylonian counterparts, who considered six and its multiples to be an expression of perfection and completeness and counted thus. Be suspicious of a literal reading if you spot any biblical date range or number which features 3, 4, 6, 7, 12, 40, 60, 70, 120, and so on. ↩
- Sweeney, Marvin A. (2010). The Prophetic Literature. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. p. 94; Coogan, Michael D. (2009). A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 300. If one believes in inerrancy, this then raises the question of which version of the biblical texts, e.g. Jeremiah, are said to be ‘without error’? ↩
- Sweeney, Marvin A. (2010). The Prophetic Literature. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. pp. 88-89; Blenkinsopp, Joseph (1996). A History of Prophecy in Israel. London: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 130. ↩
- Hornkohl, Aaron. (2014). Ancient Hebrew Periodization and the Language of the Book of Jeremiah: The Case for a Sixth-Century Date of Composition. Boston: Brill. p. 65-68. This extremely thorough scholarly book uses ‘diachronic linguistics’ to date Jeremiah, both as a whole and according to the constituent layers of which it is apparently composed, to various parts of the sixth century. ↩
- Clearly, these are paraphrased, since this took place around 3 years ago, but honestly done. We weren’t reading anything into what was said; the person in question spoke words to that very obvious effect. ↩