Twisted Scripture - Jeremiah 29:11 Plans for Who?
“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
If you do a quick google search for verses most commonly misused or misquoted from the Bible, Jeremiah 29:11 will be on just about every list you find. That’s part of why I’ve left it to the end of this particular series. I also want to acknowledge as we start out this post how popular and pervasive the misuse of this verse is in American Christianity. It would not surprise me in the slightest if at least ½ of my readers have this verse posted someplace in their home and/or have given something as a gift with this verse on it.
As I said at the start of this series, my purpose isn’t to make people feel bad in any way about how they may have been using a particular verse but to deepen our understanding of some of the most popularly quoted verses. And in the process of becoming more aware of the true meaning and context of those verses, my hope is that we realize a deeper truth and power behind their words when used correctly. The same holds true for Jeremiah 19:11. At the end of this, I hope the next time you come across this verse you will appreciate just how powerful its words of hope and promise really are meant to be.
The most common misuse of this verse is that of encouragement to those trying to figure out direction in their lives. It’s incredibly popular during graduation season as friends and family seek to reassure recent high school and college graduates that their future is bright. It is often a way of saying, “Just follow God and everything will be great. As long as you follow God, nothing could possibly go wrong.” It’s a way of reassuring ourselves that, as long as I stay on the straight and narrow, live the good Christian life, read my Bible, and go to church, then surely nothing really bad will happen to me.
So what happens then when something really bad does happen to you or to someone close to you? What happens when the job lose leads to missed mortgage payments? Or the tests come back positive for advanced cancer? Or a random accident kills an innocent bystander? If nothing bad can possibly happen as long as we are following God, then what does it mean when something bad does happen?
I don’t know about you, but for me it doesn’t take long for me to create a rather sizeable list of people I’ve known personally who are faithful followers of Christ who have also been through incredible tragedy and loss in their lives. Parents who have buried children. Young children who have lost parents due to cancer or other illnesses. Friends who have found themselves deeply betrayed by a spouse who had promised to love and cherish them. People who have legitimate reasons to wonder if God has forsaken them. Ironically enough, it is to those who are in the midst of tragedy and despair that Jeremiah 29:11 is most applicable.
Let’s take a moment to consider the context of the book of Jeremiah as a whole. Jeremiah is a prophet speaking the nation of Israel, many of whom were living in exile in Babylon. They were living as slaves and, understandably, longed to be free to return to their homeland. There were many false prophets who were telling the people that they would be freed soon and so should resist any attempts to make peace with their current circumstances. They were telling the people to resist, to fight back if given the opportunity, to look for ways to escape and flee back to Judah and Jerusalem. In chapter 29 we see that God has a different plan for those in exile.
Starting in verse 5, we see God telling them to settle in. To build houses and plant gardens, to marry and have children, to help the city of Babylon, the city of their enemies, to prosper so that they too many prosper. Why? As we see in verse 10, they are going to be there for seventy years.
That’s not good news. Seventy years means that two if not three generations will pass before they return to their homeland. For those hearing Jeremiah’s words, it means that, if they are lucky and live a longer than average life, their grandchildren MIGHT spend their last days free from the Babylonians. It means that their greatest hope and dream for the future won’t be realized during their lifetime. It is a harsh reminder that God’s timing isn’t always our timing.
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.[b] I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
In the midst of adjusting to a life they didn’t ask for or plan for, a life of captivity and slavery, a life in a foreign land with unfamiliar customs, language, and food, the Lord promises them that there will be a happy ending to their story AS A PEOPLE, not necessarily as individuals. That while they personally, as the people who originally hear Jeremiah speak this message from God, will not return from exile, they can be assured that their descendants will one day see the fulfillment of God’s promise and return to the Promised Land once again.
So how does the message of Jeremiah 29:11 apply to us today? First of all, we must remember that it isn’t meant to be promise to an individual but to a people. It is a promise to the people of God as a whole that they, again as a whole, have been promised by God to have a future which includes freedom from captivity. And so the promise of Jeremiah today holds true for the people of God as a whole. While it is hard for us as American Christians to truly understand captivity and persecution, many of our brothers in and sisters in Christ around the world face this reality, or the imminent threat of this reality, on a daily basis. In a very real way, they are living as the Jews in exile of Jeremiah’s time lived. Just as God promised to deliver his people from captivity in Babylon, so does he promise to deliver his people who live in captivity today.
We must also remember that it is a long term promise. Not next week, month, or even year, but a promise for multiple generations. It is a promise to be trusted and believed regardless of we see its fulfillment during our time on this earth. It is a promise to be passed down from one generation to the next. It is a promise which asks us to trust that, in the midst of the hard times, in the midst of exile, we continue to trust and believe in God, in His plan, and in His timing. That’s not an easy thing to do when we just want the hard stuff to be over and done with. It’s even harder to hold onto such promises when we are being told that trials and suffering are visited on those who aren’t following God closely enough.
Finally, when we consider Jeremiah 29:11, we need to remember that this is a promise to those who are committed to following God, not to all of humanity. Jeremiah speaks to a very specific audience, the children of Abraham, God’s chosen people, who are in exile in Babylon. It is not an accident that this specific audience was preserved in the text which has become part of our Christian Bible. Today, as God’s children, there is a still a promise to be found in Jeremiah’s words for us specifically.
The words of Jeremiah 29:11 (and 29:12-14) are a powerful promise. But not to us as individuals trying to figure out if we should major in education or psychology, or pursue a job in finance vs ministry. They are a powerful promise that, no matter what may happen in this life, God has a plan for his PEOPLE as a whole. Those who first heard this promise still had to face 70 years of captivity and all that implied. They still had to build a life for themselves and their families in the midst of a hostile people who had enslaved them.
And so do we, as people who are called to view heaven as our home, as people who are longing for a day when we will see the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to return and establish God’s kingdom on the earth and who pass along that promise to the next generation, have to build a life which is faithful to God in the midst of exile. So when you next see Jeremiah posted on a wall decoration, embroidered on a Bible cover, printed on a graduation card, or shared on social media, remember the people to whom Jeremiah originally spoke those words and ask yourself how they can be your example in living a life faithful to God knowing that it will be the future generations, not necessarily yourself, who benefit from your faithfulness.
- When facing an uncertain, immediate future, how can remembering God has a much bigger, longer term picture of the future in mind help you?
- What promises of God for the future are you called to pass along to the next generation?
Helpful Resources Used:
- The True Meaning of Jeremiah 29:11 Might Surprise You by Jeffery Curtis Poor posted on rethinknow.org
- Does Jeremiah 29:11 Apply to You? by Russell Moore posted on thegospelcolition.org