If you’ve been a Christian for more than a couple of years, I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve memorised Jeremiah 29:11. It’s one of those verses that we love, and it appears everywhere – in Christian colouring books, on posters on bedroom walls, and in the graphic designs that float around Facebook.
There’s a good reason for the popularity of this verse. It’s a warm and reassuring statement of God’s great love for his people:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
We all want welfare (or prosperity, as the NIV has it) rather than evil. We all relish the idea that God has planned a future that we can look forward to with hope. And it’s all true, and Scriptural (never mind that it may be taken a little out of context).
But God speaks many words through the prophet Jeremiah, and most of them don’t appear on wall hangings or on Christians’ Facebook pages and twitter feeds. When last did you hear someone quote Jeremiah 44:27? It says:
“Behold, I am watching over them for disaster and not for good. All the men of Judah who are in the land of Egypt shall be consumed by the sword and by famine, until there is an end of them.”
Hang on a minute, is this the same God speaking? Yes, it is. Where Jeremiah 29:11 was addressed to the Jews who were taken into exile in Babylon for their sin, (so you’d expect it to be bad), Jeremiah 44:27 is addressed to the “remnant,” the Jews who escaped exile and were left in Jerusalem (so you’d expect it to be good, perhaps commending them for their faithfulness to God which preserved them from the Babylonians).
This is not the word from God that the people were expecting! Yet, in context, it is the word they deserved. God had told these people clearly and unequivocally through Jeremiah, that if they remained in Jerusalem he would look after them very generously—but if they moved to Egypt they would all perish (see Jer 42:7-22). And they chose Egypt. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that God was “watching over them for disaster.”
Fast forward a couple of thousand years from Jeremiah’s time, and I have some questions about the responses of today’s believers to the message of Jeremiah. Why do we make a banner of Jeremiah 29:11, but skim blithely past Jeremiah 44:27 (if we read it at all)? Why are we quick to align ourselves with the exiles who are promised God’s blessing, but we don’t consider that we might bear some similarity to the remnant who are hiding out in Egypt?
When Christians Flee to Egypt
Which leads to another question. What does it look like for believers today to “go to the land of Egypt?”
The Jews in Jeremiah’s time raced to Egypt to escape the Babylonians. They were motivated by fears of war, of starvation, and of death (Jer 42:11, 16). They asked for God’s guidance for their decision-making about their future, but when they were given a clear answer through God’s prophet Jeremiah, it didn’t agree with their own opinions and desires so they rejected it as lies (Jer 43:1-4). Dissatisfied with God, they turned to “the queen of heaven” (Jer 44:17-18) and worshiped her instead.
Is it possible that we could do the same? Most of us are not refugees from war, but we can still be motivated by fears. Fear of conflict in relationships that prevents us addressing issues or challenging ungodly behaviours in people we love. Fear of loneliness that pushes us to pursue a relationship with an unbeliever rather than face a lifetime of singleness. Fear of (relative) poverty if we speak out on an issue of integrity at work and find ourselves overlooked for a promotion or, worse, unemployed.
Like the Jews in this passage, we might want God’s guidance on a decision we’re facing, but when we hear it (from his word, or a sermon, or the advice of a friend or mentor) it disagrees with what we were thinking, so we disregard it. Or maybe we don’t hear it for a time, so we tire of waiting and proceed with our own plan.
Dissatisfied with God, we might turn to alternative saviours: Self-help groups or books; or maybe a really great psychiatrist or counsellor; Retail therapy or the comfort of chocolate or booze; spiritual retreats based on Buddhist meditation rituals, rather than the word of God; losing ourselves for hours in chick-lit or Netflix; a new healthy exercise or eating plan. We might still warm a seat in church on Sunday, but in reality we are finding our hope and meaning in something other than our Lord.
The Jews in Jeremiah’s time were looking for peace, safety and prosperity, and they were willing to ignore God’s warnings and give their devotion to anyone who promised them what they desired. But Jeremiah warns them—and us—that we won't enjoy God’s Jeremiah 29:11 favour that way. He calls us to examine our hearts, test our allegiances, see where our fears and desires are drawing us into sin, and repent of our rebellion against the God who loves us.
Photos: Christopher Michel (head), KrisNM (body); flickr