This week’s Considering Context looks at popular verse often quoted as proof that God has a wonderful plan for every believer’s life. Jeremiah 29:11 says,
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 (NIV).
(Note: I purposely quoted from the NIV because this is the version I have heard quoted the most.)
The Perceived Meaning & Actual Context
“God has a wonderful plan for your life, and this verse tells us that!”
This is the interpretation I’ve heard most. People read into this text because of words like ‘plan,’ ‘hope,’ & ‘future,’ and automatically assume that it must be talking about their own individual, personal lives. This false assumption only leads to disappointment as they cling to it, waiting for God to bring them their “breakthrough.” But what does this text actually teach? Let’s look at the full context and unpack it a little bit. The full context of Jeremiah 29:11 is below. Read carefully and pay attention to some key elements, which we will discuss.
Jeremiah 29:1–14 (NIV)
1 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said: 4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. 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. 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.”
There are some general things to be noted about this text:
- This is a letter from Jeremiah sent by Elasah to the already exiled Israelites (vv. 1-3). Why is this important? Because it means that this portion of Jeremiah was written to a specific group, (the exiles) at a specific time, (after Nebuchadnezzar came in and conquered Jerusalem), for a specific reason (discussed in v. 4, ff). Context needs to always take precedence when interpreting a passage.
- The letter’s contents are concerning the Israelites’ expectations during their captivity (vv. 4-7). Through Jeremiah God was telling His people to basically get comfortable in their new conditions because it would be 70 years before they would be going anywhere. They were told to “seek the welfare” of the nation of their captors because they would benefit from it, as well. In essence, this promise was NOT individualistic prosperity but nationalistic peace.
- The lying prophets would declare peace & prosperity (vv. 8-10). Just as we deal with false teachers, so the Israelites dealt with their false teachers. God had warned His people for hundreds of years that judgment was coming. Instead of repenting, false teachers came along saying, “Peace, Peace!” Yet God tells them that He did not send them and that they were lying by saying that they had had dreams and visions (v. 9). This is an important part of the overall context because these false prophets were still declaring God’s favor even after judgment had been rendered. Jeremiah’s letter ensured his hearers that they were in Babylon for their sins. God’s favor was still on His people but it would not be experienced until the time of the exiled had come to its fruition (v. 10).
- The promise of verse 11 is actually a causal condition of verse 10. What does that mean? Simply speaking the word ‘for’ at the beginning of verse 11 is actually the reason or support for God’s statement in verse 10. In other words, the promise that everyone seems to think that verse 11 is based upon is actually dependent upon the seventy years of exile.
- The “Ater-promise” is the real promise of this text (vv. 12-14). Verse 11 is not even the centrality of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles. It is the promise of God once again being their God, dwelling with them, and bringing them back into His presence. We know this because God tells the people at that time they will begin to seek Yahweh once again. Every Israelite’s pride was being part of Yahweh’s covenant people and Jerusalem was Yahweh’s dwelling place. The reason they had been exiled was because they had failed to keep the covenant. Now they would have to endure God’s chastisement for seventy years before true fellowship could be restored. But in all their discipline God would not forsake them because He “knows the plans [He] has for them, declares the LORD…”
Just like interpretation, application must be kept in its original context. Today, we cannot claim that we have been exiled from the land because of our sins. However, as a church we can recognize that (1) the Church is God’s covenant people (2) God uses his preachers to exhort us to repentance and faith in His Son, (3) He may discipline the Church if we do not heed His word, (4) even if we, the Church, experience His discipline it is not to harm us but to bring us back into fellowship with the Triune God.
What a blessed thought, Christians, that God still loves and honors His promises to His covenant people, even in the midst of our sin. Let us confess and forsake our false views of God and let us return with our whole heart to Him, seeking Him while He may be found.