Comforting Context

In reading the Bible, as with reading anything, context is important. I don’t like to rain on people’s parades, but it disturbs me sometimes when I see people take a comforting passage and apply it to themselves or others as some sort of universal promise, but completely ignoring the actual context of the passage. Because of that, those sorts of verses don’t do a whole lot for me, not anymore. For instance, this passage from Jeremiah is a favorite:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)

While this passage is rarely invoked:

I will punish you as your deeds deserve,
declares the Lord.
I will kindle a fire in your forests
that will consume everything around you. (Jeremiah 21:14)

But the context of both is the same: God’s judgment on Judah at the hands of the Babylonians.

And of course it is easy to see why: Jeremiah 29:11 promises comfort and the idea that God has only good things in store for us. However, in context, the passage was given to the people of Israel as they were being carted off to captivity, assuring them that God would take care of them and bring them back. It is in the context of the contract God has with Israel, which promises punishment for disobedience because they are his people—and that they are his people, regardless of their actions.

Certainly it is in keeping with such New Testament passages as Romans 8:28:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

But even that is not a blanket promise that everything will be peaches and cream for us here. One should consider such passages as Hebrews 11:35-40:

There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

The promises of God are long term in both the passage in Jeremiah 29:11 and the one in Romans 8:28. We will prosper not because God will grant us jobs, houses, health and comfort here on Earth. Even if we have such things, it is certain that someday we will lose them all: we will grow old, we will grow sick, and we will die. The reason we will prosper is because we are part of God’s family and will live with him forever. It is in the kingdom—both the kingdom we experience now within us (Luke 17:20-21)—as well as in the future kingdom that prosperity is ours. Our hope is in God, not in now. Our comfort is in the fact that God is with us always, no matter what we face. We are never alone. And certainly it is the case that God has our best interests in mind. He loves us, and that’s what love is all about. So in that way, the passages in Jeremiah make sense as comfort: that God’s actions are always for our best.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:9-12)

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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