Despite some excellent one-liners (Jeremiah 29:11), Jeremiah presents major challenges to those who would seek to apply its teaching.
“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
Jeremiah spoke words from God to the ancient Israelite community (2:1). He spoke to kings (22:1), to those going in and out of the Temple (7:1-2), to those engaged in commerce (17:19), to false prophets (23:9), to exiles living in Babylon (29:1), and to the nations (46:1ff). More than anything, Jeremiah warned of impending judgment and, given the inevitability of judgment, the promise of future restoration.
Specifically, Jeremiah warns that if Israel will not repent, God send in a nation from the north to destroy Jerusalem (1:14-16). Many will die from famine, plague, or the sword (14:12). God will send the rest into exile (13:19). God brings about this judgment because Israel has broken their covenant with God – they worshipped idols (2:5), sacrificed children (32:35), and oppressed the poor (2:34). His judgment is the “natural result” of their sin, an active just punishment against wrong-doing (4:18), and a disciplinary measure intended (30:11) to bring about repentance.
But judgment is not the end of the story. God promises that he will bring Israel back into the land (31:8). He will heal them of their incurable wound (30:17). He will restore their fortunes (30:18). Some of this is fulfilled after 70 years of exile (25:12-14). Some of it finds its final fulfillment in Jesus (New Covenant: 31:31ff).
The Individualistic Approach
Here is the challenge: Because we live in a highly individualistic culture we instinctively apply Jeremiah’s message individualistically. This is natural and, to some degree, right. But it also presents challenges. Consider Jeremiah 29:11. Jeremiah wrote this to a community and, in fact, a subset of the community. The “you” in that verse is a community of exiles, the first wave of exiles, the “good figs” of Jerusalem (ch 24). The “future” is 70 years away. Most of those going into exile will not experience this future first-hand.
We want to read this verse as saying that God will prosper us individually. Instead, it means that for a small subset of Israel, their children and grandchildren will return to the land. What about the rest of Israel? Most of the residents of Jerusalem and Judah will be killed in the upcoming conflict or will die in exile.
For the community judgment is temporary. But for many individuals, judgment is final. God promises that he will not forsake his people but most of the individuals within that community will not experience (at least in this life) restoration, though the faithful will be blessed in exile (29:5-7).
This is complicated further by the fact that a distinction between God’s judgment of Israel and his judgment of the nations. For Israel (and some of the nations) God’s judgment is corrective and temporary and followed by restoration. For others, especially Babylon, God’s judgment is explicitly punitive and final (51:59-64).
All this adds up to say that we cannot woodenly apply God’s promises of restoration to individuals, at least not through Jeremiah alone. When you bring in New Testament writings, you can then make important distinctions between different kinds of judgment. For those who are in Christ, God’s judgment is corrective, intended to bring about repentance and maturity (Heb 12:11). However, for the enemies of Christ, God’s judgment is final. Furthermore, New Testament teaching shows us that while restoration may come in this life, our final hope is for the New Creation.
The Nationalist Approach
Some, recognizing that Jeremiah is not primarily speaking to a nation, have sought to apply his message to an individual nation. So, America is subject to judgment because we have worshipped idols (wealth, status, sex, self), sacrificed our children (abortion), and oppressed the poor and powerless (slavery). God judges the nation through disaster and warfare.
Just as God’s judgments apply, so do his promises. If we as a nation repent, God will restore America to her former glory. We will see peace, justice, and material prosperity.
The problem with this approach is that it ignores key differences between Israel and America (or any other nation). Israel was God’s chosen people, the embodiment of His kingdom, the people with whom God had forged his covenant, a theocratic nation that lived under his law. America is none of those things.
If we are to find ourselves as a nation in Jeremiah, it is more likely to be in chapters 46-51 where God addresses the nations surrounding Israel (such as Egypt and Babylon). Here, the nations are subject to judgment, but do not have the same promise of restoration.
Israel and the Church
Some make the case that all of Jeremiah’s promises only apply to national Israel, either fulfilled 70 years after the initial exile, or to be fulfilled in a millennial kingdom after Christ returns. Depending on your views of the End Times, you may find this convincing. However, even those with a premillennial view of the End Times, should see that many of the promises are fulfilled in Jesus.
For instance, Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of the New Covenant described in Jeremiah (Luke 22:20). Paul (2 Cor 3:6) and the writer of Hebrews (Heb 8) comes to the same conclusion. That means that there is a correspondence between the warnings/promises to Israel and similar warnings/promises to followers of Jesus: The Church. Peter also drew a connection between the Israelites experience as exiles (Jer 29) and that of the early church (1 Pet 2:11-12).
What, then, is the best way to make sense of God’s warnings and promises in Jeremiah?
First, concerning Jeremiah’s warnings of judgments, draw a distinction between his warnings to the nations and to Israel. When God judges the nations, his judgments are final. When God judges his people (the church) it is corrective and temporary. The Church may very well be under God’s judgment right now. If it is, God calls us to repent. In the meantime, the church will face dangers from without and within connected to our sin. Many will fall away from faith. Many more will compromise their faith. Yet, God will protect a remnant. The Church will never go extinct. The gates of Hell will not overcome her (Mt 16:18).
Second, God will restore his people, the Church. We do not know how long or in what form. The final restoration will have to wait until Jesus returns. At different times and at different places the cycle of judgment and restoration will take different forms.
Third, as we wait for final restoration, the church is called to faithful exile. That means loyalty to God that works itself out in love for neighbor. Faithful exile brings glory to God as God reveals his rescue and blessing to and through his people.
Fourth, we can now see more clearly how Jeremiah applies to individuals. Are you a member of the people of God? If not, your judgment is final. If so, you are part of a community whose judgment is temporary. You enter this community through repentance and faith in Jesus.
As a member of that community are you doing things which lead to God’s corrective discipline? Idolatry or injustice. When you do, are you practicing true repentance or are you taking refuge in mere religious ritual? Are you contributing to a faithful witness to your neighbors or are you compromising your faith to avoid potential conflict?
Are you a person with authority, either in a religious, commercial, or civil environment? Are you using that power for the good of all or to enrich yourself? Are you pursuing justice or tolerating oppression?
These questions and more help us faithfully apply individual/communal calls of Jeremiah.