In the Old Testament reading for Mass yesterday for the feast of the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist, the Lectionary (NAB) translates Jeremiah 1:17 as follows:
But do you gird your loins; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Be not crushed on their account, as though I would leave you crushed before them;
But if you take a look at most other Bible translations, you’ll see something different. Here I’ll use the ESV as an example:
But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them.
The second line in the NAB sounds kind of nice–that God is encouraging Jeremiah positively and assuring him of his divine benevolence: “I wouldn’t leave you crushed! So don’t be discouraged.” is the message. However, the ESV (along with most other translations) reads the opposite. Here God is saying to the prophet: “Don’t let them discourage you! If you do, then I’ll personally discourage you.” It reads more as a stick than a carrot. God is basically threatening the prophet to do his duty courageously or there will be consequences. So…this brings us to the revised NAB or the NABRE, which was put out in 2011. It reads:
But you, prepare yourself; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Do not be terrified on account of them, or I will terrify you before them;
Here the NABRE reverts to a traditional translation and even emphasizes the severity of the threatened divine action: “I will terrify you.” This is a dramatic turnaround from the previous NAB translation which softened the message. Here the NABRE translators get it right. The message is that God doesn’t want his prophet to be spooked by the powerful people who will oppose his divine message and that if he cowers down and lets them intimidate him into silence, then God himself will step in and “terrify” the prophet in front of his opponents. It’s a kind of encouragement, a tough kind that we don’t like to give or receive, but a kind that is sometimes necessary to get us headed in the right direction.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future full of hope.” (Jer 29:11 ESV)
Many times, especially in the spring, when we encounter graduation cards and happy wishes for newly married couples, we find this verse. It is one of my favorite scripture passages and it is very comforting in times of transition and doubt. Yet it is almost always quoted without a context. Now, I don’t think that passages need to be always and every time read in context. But I do think that they should be understood in their contexts first and then applied outside of that context. They should initially be encountered where they stand in the text of the Bible. Only secondarily can they be made useful as moral teachings, personal messages or comforting words in times of difficulty. If we don’t take the initial step of trying to understand them in context then we easily get lost in the shuffle.
The context of Jeremiah 29:11 is very unique. The verse is in the midst of a prophetic letter which Jeremiah sent from Israel to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. It is a first person prophecy wherein Jeremiah speaks on behalf of the LORD. The LORD is telling the exiles to build houses and have children and pray. They are to be faithful to him in exile and then he promises to bring them back to Israel. The verse comes in the midst of his promise to bring them back to the Holy Land, where they will seek and find him and pray to him and call upon him. He will gather them back into the land.
If we understand the verse with its context, the application is a little bit different. It is not about future plans for something completely new, but future plans for the restoration of something lost. It is about bringing the people back to the the Land. God promises his faithfulness to his people who seek him “with all their hearts” (29:13). It is about God restoring his relationship with his people and them coming back to him in faithful love. It not only calls for trust, but for prayer, love and worship. God not only promises to love his people and be faithful to them, but he asks them to be faithful to him, to love him to draw near to him. God does have plans for us–plans to restore and heal and prosper our relationships with him, to bring us back from a land of sin and evil to a land of his bountiful goodness, his blessing, his life. Jeremiah 29:11 is not just about assuaging our anxieties about the future, but about the growth and restoration of our own relationships with God.