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Ecclesiastes 7:10 says something important for us to hear: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” This verse speaks to the Christian temptation to live in the past and to dwell on the superiority of the past to the present.
Say you had a time machine and could go back and live in any time in history. Where would YOU go? Whatever time you go back to (with the exception of the garden of Eden before the fall), I can tell you one thing you’ll find: you will find people saying, “The old days were better than these.” If we could listen in to conversations from thousands of years ago, you know what we would hear? We would hear them talking about the good old days and how much better they were.
The fact is, the world changes. Ps.102:25-27 talks about how the creation is like clothing which God changes, while He remains the same. So, everything else changes; God stays the same.
A lot of times we don’t like things changing. We often get attached to a specific time and wish it could always be so.
Even in the Bible we find the people of God looking back longingly on the days of the past.
• Psalm 44:1-3 O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old: you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free; for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them.
• Judges 6:13 And Gideon said to him, “Please, sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
There is certainly an appropriate time to ponder the past. Repentance involves this. Learning lessons from our experiences involves this (e.g. Deut.8:2-5, 11-16). Testimonies of God’s faithfulness involve this (e.g. Ps.78:3-4). Sometimes petitioning God involves this (e.g. Psalm 68:28). Remembering the past is an important discipline. God wants us to remember what He has done. He wants us to remember our mistakes so we don’t repeat them.
And yet, Ecclesiastes 7:10 makes it clear that it is tempting to have an unhealthy bond with the past. In other words, nostalgia can be a sin. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29 is a good example of this. The Jews in Babylon were having this problem of not being able to move on in the place God had placed them because of their fond memories of the past. The bitterness of these exiles can be seen in Psalm 137:1-6 “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”
And so God spoke to them through a letter of Jeremiah in 29:4–7 “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
This is the context in which, a few verses later, God says the famous words of Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” In other words, when we are not content with our lives as they are, when we don’t like where we are or what’s happening around us or who we’re with, God says to us, “Trust Me. I have plans for you here, good plans, plans for your welfare and not for your harm, plans to lead into a good and hopeful future.”