In a previous post and podcast I made an effort to establish a couple things. One is that as Christians we live in a Babylonian type exile. Two Old Testament books and two in the New devote huge chunks of material on this not nearly obscure theme (Jeremiah, Daniel, 1 Peter, and Revelation). The other point I tried to make is that a popular mantra Jeremiah 29:11 is, in my opinion, quite often misunderstood and misapplied.
It’s not like I’m running for chief of the “Theology Police” or expect to be voted most likely to interpret the Bible correctly. I have no axe to grind and spend very little time and energy critiquing the biblical interpretations of other people. I don’t have enough time to teach what I believe let alone to debunk the teachings of other sincere Bible teachers. So I’m not trying to make myself sound like a smarter Christian than anyone else. But when it comes to this passage and a bunch of others on which people base an entitled brand of Christianity, I do have some strong feelings and a bunch of Bible to back it up.
In its most poisonous form preachers promise health and wealth for every good Christian while others, more commonly ascribe to a subtler error have reduced this and the rest of the Bible to a success manual. They imply, if not right out claim, that if we have enough of the right kind of faith we can achieve relentless victory, a pass on suffering, land guaranteed economic abundance.
Anyway, enough of what Jeremiah 29:11 doesn’t mean. What it does mean and how can we legitimately apply it? I propose that it means something much much better than how it is traditionally interpreted and applied. Give me a few posts, if you will, to unpack how I see it.
Let’s start with taking into consideration the backstory…
A brief backstory
For centuries God told the Jews if they didn’t get back to doing what he said he’d deport them to Babylon. They didn’t and he did. After their exile he sent them a letter in which he told them how to conduct themselves while there.
Settle down, build houses, have families, and pray for Babylon. In seventy years I’ll bring you home a better people who made a positive impact on the people among whom I exiled you.
(Regrettably, their personal improvement and positive influence were quite negligible.)
In order to live as excellent exiles he didn’t want them to hide in their own little religious enclaves, declare war against Babylon, or compromise with the Babylonian lifestyle. He sent then there for their own improvement and for the improvement of the culture there. Babylon was meant to make them better and they were meant to make it better.
The purpose of their deportation was to rehabilitate them and reorient them to see their place in the world as missionaries. He wasn’t trying to “harm” them but help them become the uninfected, yet infectious people he intended them to be.
Doesn’t this sound a lot like what Jesus taught his disciples, that they were not “of” this world but are sent “into” it? The world, though godless, can, by opposing us, make us better disciples and we in turn stand to make the world a better place. The message of Jeremiah and Jesus is the same – as “aliens and strangers” in a foreign land, live responsibly and redemptively.
This is where the “hope” and “future” enter. Some of the future at our disposal arrives in this life, while the rest and the best of it will materializes in the next life, when our exile is over and we’re returned to our heavenly homeland.
“… plans to prosper you…”
So, what is this promised “prosperity”?
I’ll admit that I’m no Hebrew scholar, but it doesn’t take one to know that “prosperity” is a terrible translation of the term “shalom.” In fact, besides the NIV, there are a couple of obscure Bible versions that translate this “prosperity.” In most people’s minds, “prosperity” usually connotes health and wealth, neither of which explain this rich Old Testament word. It’s most commonly translated in the Bible as “peace,” but even that is woefully inadequate in the vernacular of the 21st Century Westerner. To us, peace is lack of conflict, good inner feelings, and while shalom might very well include those, it means something far more profound than that.
It’s true meaning is not less but more than this. Shalom is better than economic prosperity. It might or might not include it, but it goes way beyond having all the money you want to do everything you want to do. While it might include an inner calm or the cessation of hostility, it’s even better than those.
Shalom could be thought of as comprehensive peace. One Hebrew scholar translated it “order, health, safety, harmony, well-being, wholeness, and completeness.” Shalom is when nothing is broken and nothing is missing. It’s when all the pieces are there.
You say, “Well if I had more money everything would fall into place and there would be nothing missing.” I beg to differ. You can have tons of money and stuff and still have lots missing and lots that’s still very broken. Shalom is when everything is as it ought to be, a state of full flourishing in every dimension – physical, emotional, social, and spiritual.
Woven cloth consists of innumerable threads interlaced with one another . . . If you throw thousands of pieces of thread onto a table, no fabric results. The threads must be rightly and intimately related to one another in literally a million ways. Each thread must go over, under, around, and through the others at thousands of points. Only then do you get a fabric that is beautiful and strong, that covers, fits, holds, shelters, and delights.
God created all things to be in a beautiful, harmonious, interdependent, knitted, webbed relationship to one another. Just as rightly related physical elements form a cosmos or a tapestry, so rightly related human beings form a community. This interwovenness is what the Bible calls shalom, or harmonious peace. Tim Keller
We have shalom when things are rightly related inside us (spiritually and psychologically) and among us (socially). It’s not an either/or thing, but includes all of those relationships. Spiritual and psychological shalom is when you’re whole, when all your parts work in harmony with all the other parts, when we’re not all tangled up on the inside. Social shalom is when we’re interwoven in all the other human race threads. It’s not only that we get along, but when we help each other along. Shalom includes racial harmony, the tapestry of many colors and economic justice where our work serves not just for our own monetary benefit but to raise the economic advantage of others in our interrelated world.
Now compare this shalom notion with the image that usually comes to your mind when “prosperity” is mentioned.
Next time we’ll examine how we arrive at this kind of “prosperity” (shalom). Until then…