Off-Topic Thursday: Does Jeremiah 29:11 Say What You Think It Does?
“‘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.’” Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
It isn’t. I encourage you to read Jeremiah 28-29. You need the full context to really understand what is being said here.
In chapter 28, Israel is in captivity in Babylon, and the prophet Hananiah came along and prophesied that God would free the people if Israel from captivity and return them home in 2 years. That’s exactly what they wanted to hear! But it wasn’t true. Jeremiah new it and told him, “The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore, this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.” Sure enough, within a year, Hananiah died.
Then Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiled Jews, and we have that letter in Jeremiah 29. Here is just a part of it,
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:”Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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.” 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.” They are prophesying liesto you in my name. I have not sentthem,” declares the Lord.
“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will callupon me and come and prayto me, and I will listento you. You will seekme and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you backfrom 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.”
Do you get the picture of what Jeremiah is telling them? It’s not going to be two or three years until you’re saved, it’s 70 years. This isn’t going to change quickly. Learn to live where you are. Make a living. Raise a family. Yes, your situation will change. Your captivity will end, but it’s going to be a while. So live. Do your part to make the place where you live better. When the time comes, He will rescue you, but don’t just sit around and wait for it.
The problem with pulling Scripture out of context is two-fold.
First, we are misusing God’s own words. Even if He expresses the idea somewhere else, to pull a verse out of context is essentially saying, “God, what I want Your Word to say is more important than what You want it to say, so I’ll just use the parts I want.”
Second, as in this case, pulling this single verse out and claiming it as a promise robs us of the much richer, more valuable, and even more encouraging lesson. But that requires more time and effort.
So what are we missing here by misusing this verse? Let’s look at this entire story.
The people of Israel are captive in Babylon. They know where their home is, but they can’t get there. They are in unfamiliar and difficult surroundings. But God has them there for a purpose.
Some of the so-called prophets around them promise a quick and easy resolution. Just wait a little while and their problems will be solved. Don’t try to live in their new “home” or be productive because God will come and save them so soon that it won’t matter.
But then Jeremiah tells them that’s not true. Their stuck there and will be for a long time, so they’d better get about the business of living, of being the people of God in this foreign land. It will be difficult, and they’ll be tempted to forget about God or think He doesn’t care.
So the Lord reassures them that even though it’s going to take a while, He does remember them, and He does love them. He has plans for them, good plans, but they will happen on His timetable, not theirs. Waiting on restoration, help, and rescue doesn’t mean they have been abandoned.
A More Complete Application
Does any of this ring a bell?
As Christians, we live in this world as “aliens and strangers”, a people for whom this world is not our home. As long as we are here, there will be trials and suffering. we wait and long for our home in Heaven, but we are not there yet. In the meantime, we look for comfort here on earth. And we may get it, but it is not guaranteed, nor is it permanent. yet that doesn’t mean God has forsaken us, or that His designs are against us.
For as long as we are here, this is our temporary home. We never forget where we’re going, but while we’re here, we live. We engage with the people and culture around us. We do our part to make both better. While all of that is happening, God is planning for our future.
It may not be material prosperity. The word here is “shalom”, and is much broader than that. At the same time, as He blesses us, our community is blessed (the same word, shalom, is used earlier in reference to the land and people they now live among: “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.” This prosperity—in whatever form it takes—is not for our own benefit alone, but for those around us. We are blessed so we can be a blessing. To get a better feel for what this verse is really saying, check out these parallel translations of it.
Jeremiah 29:11 seems to say that any minute now things will go great and we’ll be healthy, wealthy, and with everything going our way. The full context tells us something different, but much more encouraging and more of a blessing. We must live away from our eternal home for a long while, and during that time we can and should make a life for ourselves—one that honors God. As we do, He plans for our care, and as we experience it we share it so that those around us may see and be blessed.
Even during times of darkness and feeling that God has abandoned us, He hasn’t. When we pray and don’t get the answer we want right away, we don’t have to try to make up excuses for God and why He doesn’t answer. We are reminded by what happened to the people of Israel that “the Lord is not slow in keeping His promise”, but that we may have to wait, maybe our entire lives, to see the ultimate answer to our prayers—our return home.
Question: Have you used Jeremiah 29:11 out of context? How does it change things for you to understand the full context? Talk about it in the comments below, or on our Facebook page.