I've heard Jeremiah 29:11 about a million times. In fact, a fairly cheesy version of blared out of my car speakers today, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD...." I've heard it at graduation commencements, seen it in sympathy cards, spotted it on inspirational posters. And I have read it many, many times on the pages of the Bible. This time, however, I was struck by the context. I spotted the blaring "p.s" for the very first time: "I have plans to prosper you! Plans for hope, for a future! (p.s. first you are going to be in exile for a very, very long time.)"
Ok God, that's a little like saying to the hopeless, unemployed person, "I have a job for you! (p.s. first you will be financially destitute for at least three decades)"
Great. Thanks. Can't wait to start.
It sounds so backward, doesn't it? And yet as I read Jeremiah a month or so ago, I realized how much of his message calls us to interpret events in an upside down sort of way. It calls us to reconsider what good plans are. Case in point: a huge portion of the nation of Judah is dragged off into exile by the Babylonians. Those left behind are probably thinking, "Well, the punishment has come and we came out on top! God took the guilty ones and removed them from the land, and it's all smooth sailing from here." On the other hand, those trudging off across the desert, their backs to the land promised to their Fathers, their steps taking them toward the land of their oppressor, must be thinking, "The punishment for the sin of Judah has fallen on us. We are the cursed ones, and our brothers will be happy in the land again."
And God says, "Nope. Flip it upside down."
Through a vision of figs (because figs always make me think of people groups, you?), God speaks to Jeremiah about this. In the vision, there are two baskets of figgy goodness. One basket actually is figgy goodness. The other is figgy badness; the fruit is rotten. About these baskets, God says to Jeremiah,
"Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart." (24:5-7)
It's good to be a good fig, no? As for the rotten fruit, God says,
"But like the poor figs, which are so bad that they cannot be eaten...so will I deal with Zedekiah king of Judah, his officials, and the survivors from Jerusalem, whether they remain in this land or live in Egypt. I will make them abhorrent and an offense to all the kingdoms of the earth, a reproach and a byword, an object of riducule and cursing, wherever I banish them. I will send the sword, famine and plague against them until they are destroyed from the land I gave to them and their fathers." (24:8-10)
Suddenly Babylon sounds like Candy Land, right? Suddenly there's no place like anywhere-but-home.
It seems that those who escaped being captured by the Babylonians and remain in Jerusalem are not, in fact, the lucky ones. Not even the king. They were not spared because they are awesome. In fact, the scene in Jerusalem is about to make exile look like an evening with Mr. Rogers. Yes folks, those who think they have come out on top will soon be dead. And those who think they have been forever rejected? They will soon be planting vineyards in Babylon, far from home but safe and well.
Now I can't paint a dichotomy of good and evil kind of image here. I mean, the ones who are stuck checking out the Babylonian real estate market for a 70 year investment aren't all innocent cherubs. They have a long way to go in mending their ways, and the prophet Ezekiel is on his way to lay down the divine smack. But they are the figs with a future. Their story doesn't end in sword and famine and plague. It ends in prosperity and hope. In between now and the end, though, there is a long walk to Babylon and a lot of years away from home.
In the end, I guess the whole thing has me wondering how limited our interpretations of "good" and "prosperous" plans are. Do we quote Jeremiah 29:11 with the underlying assumption that it can serve as a sort of talisman against such "bad" things as, oh, I don't know....exile? Would we consider the verse a dud if God's plans led us to a slave market in the middle east, with our own lives up for the bidding? (Makes me think of a guy I once read about named Joseph....) Maybe it all means that when we look around at the situations of our lives, when we begin to interpret who ended up with the good plans and who got the rotten fig...when we look at those things, we need to listen long enough to let the Father say,
"Nope. Flip it upside down."