I wrote a blog post about four years ago regarding the believing community’s tendency to wrench Jeremiah 29:11 from its context, and how we need to give greater care, and show greater respect when working with passages of scripture. We will revisit that concept today.
Jeremiah 29:11 is ubiquitous, easily found in memes, on Tee Shirts, bumper stickers, and posters. It can be heard in sermons and is sung in praise choruses. It is the ultimate feel-good passage – one with which you are undoubtedly familiar.
‘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, NIV-1978
How can we read, sing, or hear that without smiling and feeling warm inside. It is a verse promising hope, surety, prosperity. We want to do a fist-pump and shout, “YES!”
So, why write about this again? It is because I have heard, or read this verse three times in the last two days, and in each case (as is almost always the case with this verse) it was dislodged from its context and used in a way that suggests that God was/is speaking these words to us. He was not, and is not.
The context of Jeremiah 29 is a context of captivity. As punishment for the sins of Judah, God allowed his people to be carried off into Babylonian captivity by King Nebuchadnezzar. From a worldly standpoint, Nebuchadnezzar did this as a retaliation when Judean King Jehoiakim stopped paying tribute to him.
Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed the city, including the temple, and transplanted some 10,000 Jews from Judea to Babylon. Their lives were completely uprooted. They were vulnerable, destitute, and bewildered, not knowing what to do with themselves.
God’s message to the captives, through Jeremiah, was to live their lives in that circumstance. Build homes, plant gardens, marry, have children. God told them they were going to be in Babylon for a very long time, and it is in that context that God says, “I know the plans I have for you…”
Expanding our focal context by backing up one verse to Jeremiah 29:10, Jeremiah assures God’s people that the captivity is temporary, and that they will return home after seventy years. Bear in mind, however, this assurance was spoken to them as a nation, a culture. Given a seventy-year captivity, many, if not most of them died in Babylon.
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.’ – Jeremiah 29:11, NIV-1978
This is God’s assurance to his people that though they are in captivity, they are not forsaken. They will not be in captivity forever, but rather, they will be restored. God has plans for them as a people, a nation.
Afterward, God said, “‘Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and will bring you back from captivity'” (Jeremiah 29:12-14a, NIV-1978).
As with verse eleven, this latter passage was not written or spoken to us, yet you likely recognize it as another meme, tee-shirt, bumper-sticker verse. It was written for a nation of people who were enslaved six centuries before Jesus was even born.
Does that mean, then, that the passage is of no value to me? Is there anything I can glean from it?
Yes, there is.
Jeremiah 29:10-14 teaches us about the heart of God for his people, and how he extends grace and mercy toward those he loves. We know he is YHWH, and that he changes not. As God, within his own nature, acts on behalf of those he has chosen and loves, though the specific promises of Jeremiah 29 were not spoken to us, or about us, we can extend the concepts of Jeremiah 29 to the church today.
The explicit promises of Jeremiah 29 were made to the Babylonian exiles, and we have similar promises God has made to the Christ-followers of today, promises of deliverance from our enslavement to sin, promises of righteousness and justification, promises of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Just as God had plans for a hope and a future for the Babylonian exiles, he has plans for hope in Christ, and a future in his presence for us. Those are awe-inspiring realities.
While it is true that Jeremiah 29:11 was never intended to apply to the Christ follower, if we consider our secure blessing in Christ, the sentiment expressed to the exiles by God through Jeremiah is appropriate and applicable. Jesus will never abandon us. The Holy Spirit works within us. We will fully realize our inheritance in Christ when this life is completed.