During my lunch hour today, I opened biblegateway.com (I use online Scriptures more and more these days rather than a printed version). I didn’t have a particular passage in mind to read, so when I saw a recent blog entry about the 100 most-read Bible verses, I took a look at the list.
The list is based on “a (relatively) small sample of 25 million Bible passage searches from March and April.” I’ve no idea how it compares with what verses people read offline, but it probably corresponds reasonably well with verses that are considered favorites and/or most important. Certainly the vast majority of the 100 verses listed were among those I had to memorize in Bible school.
The majority are also from the New Testament, which is hardly surprising. Most Christian books and sermons quote far more extensively from the New Testament than the Old. Those that are from the Old Testament are mostly well-known verses from Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah. A few others come from Genesis 1 and Joshua 1, and one of my father’s favorites (he inscribed it in the front of the Bible he gave me), Micah 6:8.
The one that surprised me was Jeremiah 29:11. Not just because it was a verse I hadn’t memorized, but because it is number two in the list – behind the immensely popular John 3:16 (which by strict count of times searched could have been almost the entire top 100 list) but ahead of Romans 8:28. Many Christians could easily tell you the context of John 3:16 (Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus), and perhaps some of the context of Romans 8:28 (seeing current sufferings in light of the glory to be revealed). But I doubt many know what Jeremiah 29 is about.
I don’t recall ever having Jer. 29:11 quoted to me until about fifteen years ago. (I wonder if at that time someone wrote a popular book that brought it to people’s attention.) Having been trained to always view verses in context, I sat down and read Jeremiah 29. I did the same thing again today. And again I found myself wondering, to what extent can I rightly apply that promise to myself?
Jeremiah is writing to Jewish exiles in Babylon. He mentioned false prophets, and based on what else he says it appears the false prophets had been promising that the people would return soon to their homeland. On the contrary, God says through Jeremiah, the people will stay in Babylon for quite a while, and they are to settle in, buy houses, marry, get jobs, and do their best for the communities they live in. God hasn’t abandoned them, He still has plans for them, those plans are good, and those plans include eventually returning to the land of Israel. What those plans don’t include is returning anytime soon.
So can I say that God plans to prosper me and not to harm me, plans to give me hope and a future? I’m sure I can, based on verses such as Romans 8:28, so long as I understand that “prosper” means spiritually and not materially (whereas it appears that His message to the exiles included some measure of material prosperity if they did as He commanded). But I would rather use those other verses, rather than Jeremiah 29:11, to support the idea.
I suppose it’s better to joyfully receive and trust God’s promise based on a verse pulled out of context than to excel at interpreting verses in context but fail to trust. Of course, my worry is not that God doesn’t have those plans for me, but that I will somehow mess them up by my failure to trust and obey. And I’m not sure what verses best speak to that concern.