Jeremiah 29:11 is recited all the time, and for good reason.
‘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.’
It’s a comforting verse and a beautiful line. But as I’ve been reading through Jeremiah, his most famous verse struck me anew.
It’s possible that I’d heard this verse and seen it written in cards and inside book covers more times than any other, except maybe John 3:16. I think I had become too familiar with it. (The danger of becoming too familiar with a verse is forgetting what it means, or failing to see that we never knew.) But, this time, when I read it, the context stuck out, and it wasn’t exactly the way it had been formulated in my head.
The verse comes in the middle of a letter. The prophet Jeremiah is writing to the Israelites who are in exile in Babylon. False prophets had been telling them they would only be in captivity for a couple of years before they would be freed, but Jeremiah is writing to, once again, warn against the lies. Specifically, Jeremiah prophesies that Israel will live under the Babylonians for 70 years: “This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.'” (Jer: 29:10).
Scholars disagree on the exact dates of the 70 years, or if 70 might even be a symbolic number (you know God and his sevens!), but what is clear is that God knew his people would be in Babylon for a long time. He told them to build houses and plant crops, get married and have children in Babylon. He knew that many of the people would die in captivity.
So, that’s the context. How does that change the way we understand the verse?
Here are three takeaways.
1. Jeremiah is writing to the whole Israelite community, not any specific person. This means that the prosperity God is planning applies to the group. It doesn’t mean individuals won’t also prosper, but individuals aren’t the focus. So, when we give this verse to graduates or newlyweds or friends looking for jobs, we’re sort of taking a promise God made to a whole bunch of people and cutting it down to a single person. Again, I think scripture makes it clear that God does have a plan for every individual, plans about the nitty-gritty details of our lives, but that doesn’t seem to be what Jeremiah 29:11 is talking about.
2. Interestingly, most of the Israelites who first read this letter probably wouldn’t escape captivity. Seventy years is a long time, especially in the sixth century BC, so the exiles Jeremiah was writing to likely never returned to their homeland. Again, this doesn’t mean God didn’t prosper them while they were in Babylon — in fact, he encouraged their prosperity when he told them to start families and plant gardens and make lives in their home-away-from-home — but it does mean his “plans to give you hope and a future” don’t necessarily refer to rescue from your captors or freedom from your struggles.
3. We know instinctively that no Christian (and no one else, either) ever finds perfect happiness and comfort on earth. Just as the Israelites of Jeremiah’s time were suffering deportation, persecution, division and the whole host of personal problems that make life hard, Christians today find themselves beset by dangers, fears, illnesses, temptations and injustice. So, how can God promise us prosperity? How can he promise not to harm us? How can he promise us hope and a future?
The reason God could make this promise to the Israelites and to us is Jesus. The prosperity, safety, hope and future promised in God’s plan applies to good things that happen in our lives, but more than that they refer to the promise of his Son. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah 29:11. In 2 Corinthians 1:20, scripture tells us, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God.” That means our hope and future are in Jesus, in his redemptive work, in the eternity we’ll spend with him.
Ultimately, we need to recognize the thing we sense internally: God wants to bless us, but that doesn’t mean he’s promised us earthly riches or health or security. God definitely blesses us in the here and now, but the greatest blessing — and the one at the heart of Jeremiah 29:11 — is Jesus Christ and the infinite grace of eternal life with him.