Over the course of the last several weeks, I have been talking about how we often mis-read Scripture. Early on, I talked about the concept of prooftexting, or using one small piece of the Bible to prove a point. But I realize now that I never explained to you in simple terms how to do that. So, here this morning, long overdue: Three Easy Steps to Prooftext the Bible.
- Read it as little as possible. By this, I mean two things. One, read it as rarely as possible. Only go to the Bible when you need to prove a point. Or alternately if you have a difficult question in your life and you need a simple and magical answer, as if the Bible were your own personal Holy Gumball Machine. Ideally, close your eyes and flip through the Bible until you stop at a random place. Then, two, literally read as little as possible – read as few verses as possible, ignoring the context, only looking for what you think ought to be there. Read as little of the Bible as possible.
- Don’t ask questions. Don’t ask where the author was coming from. Don’t ask how the translation impacts how we hear it. Don’t ask who the original audience was and what they might have needed to hear. Don’t ask how your own personal context impacts the way that you read this passage. If you want to be a good proof-texter, none of that matters. Assume that this Scripture verse was written for you and you alone in this moment. Don’t ask questions.
- Don’t talk to anyone else about the Bible, unless of course you are telling them that they are wrong about something and the Bible helps prove your point. Do not listen to other interpretations. Do not consider that opening the Bible together in community might be a way for the Holy Spirit to increase the wisdom bestowed by the Scriptures. Read it only in individualistic terms, assuming that no one else has a valid interpretation. Don’t talk to anyone else about the Bible.
Let’s use an example. Jeremiah 29.11. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.” Let’s use our three rules for prooftexting this verse.
- Read it as little as possible. Only reference this verse if you are giving a high school graduate a card and want to encourage them that they have picked the right college and that they will pick the right major and get a great job. That was clearly what Jeremiah had in mind. Or perhaps reference it if you have already made a decision and you want some Biblical ammunition to show that God approves of what you wanted to do anyway.
- Don’t ask questions. Don’t ask who Jeremiah was. Or who he was writing to. Or what they needed to hear in the moment. None of that matters. This verse was clearly written for you…and whatever high school graduate invited you to their party – because they will clearly be reading what Bible verse you wrote and not looking for how much money you put in the card.
- Don’t talk to other people about this verse. Don’t ask them how they understand it, or about their experiences about God’s leading or guiding them. Don’t listen to any other interpretation of this passage. It may cause you to have a doubt about your own decisions or life choices or college majors, and that is the last thing that we need. We don’t want doubt. We want simplicity and clarity. Three easy steps!
Of course, none of this is true. Hopefully you have caught onto the fact that this is not how to read the Bible. In fact, I believe that the opposite is true. The more we read the Bible, the better. The more we explore and delve and ask questions of the Bible, the better. The more we listen together, explore together, hear what the Holy Spirit of God is saying in community, the better.
Context matters. The way we read the Bible matters. As much as we hate to admit it, the Bible was not written for you and you alone in this moment. Author Rick Warren gets it right when he opens his best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life with these words: “It’s not about you.” The Bible was written between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago, and the oral tradition is much older than that. And so, as much as we’d like to simplify the Bible as our own personal Holy Gumball Machine that is for us and us alone, it simply isn’t. And as much as we would like to think that Jeremiah 29.11 was written about what college major we will pick, it simply wasn’t.
Instead, when we actually read the rest of the chapter of Jeremiah 29, we find it is not individualistic or simplistic at all. Jeremiah was a prophet. If you were here a few weeks ago, you know that we read together a passage from the first chapter – Jeremiah’s call. God called Jeremiah to speak to the people of God in the midst of an incredibly traumatic time in their life. The Babylonian army was knocking on their doorstep, ready to defeat and exile them like they had every other culture on their way to world domination. Jeremiah’s prophetic voice thundered on the edge of Exile. And he told them that the Babylonians would win.
Now, fast-forward to chapter 29. Jeremiah was right: the Babylonians defeated God’s people, and the best and the brightest were physically taken from their homes and relocated in the capital city of Babylon. It was an aggressive form of assimilation. For the Star Trek fans out there…think the Borg. Their plan was not just to defeat an enemy, but after defeating them, assimilate them. Take their leaders back to Babylon and brainwash them to believing that the Babylonian way was the right and good and acceptable way. It is what Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were being forced to do in the book of Daniel: “don’t pray to your God; pray to the Babylonian god.” Using this program of assimilation, the Babylonians believed that their empire would last longer. Instead of simply beating their enemy and leaving them to smolder with revenge, they hoped to create a new leadership class of evangelists that could spread the gospel of Babylon.
Chapter 29 is a letter from Jeremiah, sitting in the ashes of Jerusalem, to those leaders in Exile, undergoing the assimilation process in Babylon. He is writing to folks like Daniel. Read the context in vs. 1-4:
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
So, Jeremiah writes to the leadership class in exile in Babylon. You could imagine their state of mind. They have been taken from their homes. The Temple where their God resided had been destroyed. Family members and friends had been killed. And now they are living as strangers in a strange land. The Psalms record a song written by these Exiles. In Psalm 137, the author says “Our captors told us to play a song of our people, but we were too heart-broken. We laid down our harps by the rivers of Babylon and we wept.” These are the people to whom Jeremiah is writing.
But listen to his message to them. It wasn’t “Fight back.” Or “Run away.” Or “I told you so” (which would be my inclination.) Listen to what he said instead, in vs.. 5-10:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.
Jeremiah tells them to settle down. To make a life for themselves. To build houses. To grow and eat food from gardens. Marry their kids off to each other. Pray for their captors. A very Jesus-like command here to pray for those who persecute you; pray for your enemies. In short, Jeremiah tells them “Don’t worry. Sit tight and wait it out.”
It sounds he’s telling them to give up, to accept defeat. But Huett Gloer writes that this is actually a huge paradigm shift in the way that God’s people talk about God. Instead of God being a localized, Temple-dwelling, national God, Jeremiah’s message preaches that God is universal. God is present with them, even by the waters of Babylon. God rules over all of the nations of the world! Jeremiah writes to the Exiles that this universal God can hear you, even in captivity, even in oppression. Pray to God. Obey God’s commandments. Follow the covenant. Don’t lay down your harps and weep, says Jeremiah, but rejoice because God is still there with you, even in the depths of your darkest day. As Gloer puts it, God is with you as much in Babylon as Jerusalem, and that is a huge paradigm shift for God’s people who were used to seeing God in rather provincial and limited ways.
And so, from this context, come these familiar words, which I believe now shine even brighter:
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. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
God has not been defeated. God is not gone. God is still there with you, even if you blew it by not obeying God.
Which, for me, is even better news than if we had prooftexted Jeremiah 29.11 into a graduation card.
Because, when I read that passage when I was graduating from high school, or college, or seminary, or at any point in my life where I had big decisions to make, the prooftexted reading of this verse suggested that God had one specific plan in mind for me, one narrow tunnel to travel through. That plan was labeled The One Correct Plan in Life That Will Make You Happy. And as long as I prayed hard enough then I would find the entrance to that tunnel. I would find that path that God had in mind for me, that I would pick the right school, major, job, wife, number of children, and everything would be perfect. The prooftexted reading of this passage was pretty simplistic and specific.
But the contextual reading of Jeremiah 29.11 is even better! It says that if you pick the wrong major, and the wrong job, and the wrong wife and completely blow it, like the Israelites did, God is still going to be right by your side. The Exiles were the biggest failures in the history of the Israelite people. They lost the land, the Temple, the army, the king. At least they felt that way. Until Jeremiah wrote them a letter that reminded them that God hasn’t gone anywhere. God’s plans (note that it is plural and not singular) are all about relationship. It is about God’s never-ending presence and our trust in that Presence. “When you pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me. When you seek me, I will let you find me.” God isn’t going anywhere, even if we completely blow it!
That letter was not written to you and me. It was written in a very specific context 2500 years ago. But it still speaks to us.
The Bible wasn’t written just for you. But it was written for you.
The Bible isn’t just about you and your own individual concerns. But the Holy Spirit enlivens it and preaches to your heart, your individual life and pain. When you pick it up and read it through the context of how God was present in the Celebrations and Exiles of God’s people thousands of years ago, you will have your eyes opened to the fact that God is doing the same thing in your life right now, in the midst of your Celebrations and Exiles.
And, yes, I’m giving folks a hard time for writing the verse on graduation cards, because it is much more complex than what we often make of it. But it is absolutely relevant to every high school graduate who wonders if God is still going to hear her when she is in a lonely dorm room in a new place with no friends and no parents and no church. It is absolutely relevant to every church member grieving over the changes in our nation and our world who wonders if God even hears the prayers of a righteous believer anymore. It is absolutely relevant to every child of God who lives in the Exile of divorce or forced termination or the painful loneliness of losing a spouse. It is absolutely relevant because of this simple fact: God is not going anywhere.
People of God, pick up your harps! It’s time to sing again.