Reading the Old Testament is challenging, but verses like Jeremiah 29:11 make it more bearable, ya know? You’re probably familiar:
Jeremiah 29:11 writes, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘Plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.’”
That verse on its own is easy to understand (God has good plans for me!), speaks to an idea that sounds good to modern ears (prosperity!), and allows us to walk away from our time in the Word with an inspiring message to face the challenges of the day.
So you can imagine my confusion when my high school Bible teacher assured me that this verse doesn’t actually mean what I thought it meant.
“Jeremiah 29:11 is completely taken out of context,” he said. “It’s by far one of the most misapplied verses we have.”
You’ve probably seen the verse all over—on Christian journals and wall decor. You’ve heard it claimed by many as their “life verse.” But my Bible teacher caused me to step back and consider… Maybe there’s more to Jeremiah 29:11. Maybe it isn’t actually promising an entirely happy, easy, pain-free life. And maybe instead this verse is meant to help us through the unhappy, difficult, painful times we know all too well.
All that to say, I recently dove into Jeremiah 29:11 and its context. And what I’ve found has been pretty amazing. Behind the beautiful words of this feel-good, inspiring verse, the Israelites’ situation is nothing short of grim. Let me explain…
GOD’S GOOD PLANS HAVE A BACKSTORY
In Jeremiah 29, the prophet Jeremiah records the Lord’s message. He then sends this message via letter to the Israelites who have been exiled out of their land and are living as prisoners in Babylon.
Earlier chapters in Jeremiah show us that they’re not in exile “by accident.” The Israelites had the opportunity to relent, turn from their sins, and avoid exile (Jer 7:5-7). But they didn’t. They were in “perpetual backsliding,” (Jer 8:5) with “no man [relenting] of his evil” (Jer 8:6).
Potentially even worse—they were hypocrites. At one point the Lord questioned, “Will you [Israelites] steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house [the temple], which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” (Jer 7:9-10, emphasis added).
Brief side note: While that verse is obviously directed toward the Israelites, the underlying principle hits way too close to home. How often am I like these Israelites? How often do I go on living my life, with my allegiance set on anything but the Lord? I show up at church on Sunday to reap the “benefits” of my faith—only to leave that building and continue my “abominations.” Oof.
It’s that kind of lifestyle that led the Israelites to exile, and they could’ve avoided it with a simple act of repentance. This is the background we have to Jeremiah 29:11…
Are you confused yet?
If that’s the backstory, why is God telling his people (who have been sinning relentlessly and avoiding repentance at all costs): I have good plans for you, to prosper you and not harm you. You have a future and a hope.
That’s INSANE from our perspective. They deserve none of God’s good plans, but God is a God of his word and he will follow through on his promise (Jer 24:4-7). Even more, he longs to bring the Israelites home so they will “return to [him] with their whole heart” (Jer 24:7b).
That is love.
WAS EXILE REALLY NECESSARY?
It’s easy to say that when something uncomfortable or painful happens, it’s outside the will of God. The Israelites questioned that very thing: How could God be for his people and want what’s best for his people, yet allow them to experience something as difficult and painful as exile?
It was easy for the people to believe the lies of the false prophets who assured them that their time in Babylon would quickly come to an end (Jer 28, 29:8-9). Because again—how could a good God allow such a bad thing to happen to the people he loves?
But the issue here is the people’s understanding of good and bad.
To them, good meant easy and painless. Bad meant painful and difficult.
But there’s a key difference between God’s understanding of what was going on here, and the Israelites’ understanding. The Israelites (like any human beings) were focused on how they felt in that particular moment. And in that moment—separated from their land and the temple, living as prisoners—they weren’t feeling all that great.
But God, able to see the greater picture of reality, understood why they were in exile (as a consequence for their covenant unfaithfulness), and he knew how things would play out (out of love, he was going to bring them back). Many books in the Old Testament carry on the story we read of in Jeremiah. The people do return to Jerusalem, they rebuild their temple, they rebuild their walls.
IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT THE MONEY 🙂
Exile revealed the Israelites’ sins in brutally obvious ways, but it also revealed the Lord’s far-reaching grace and everlasting love. He didn’t leave them in exile; he brought them home.
And while the Israelites learned many things in this process, there’s one point that I’d like to highlight.
God’s goal in bringing them home was not so much about restoring their wealth as it was about giving them Himself.
It’s easy to read into Jeremiah 29:11 as if it’s all about physical prosperity. It is true that an important part of God’s will was to restore the Israelites’ wealth. The Lord says plain and simple, “I will restore your fortunes…and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile” (Jer 29:14).
BUT the emphasis is elsewhere. After promising good plans for the Israelites and ensuring that he will bring them back to their land in verse 11, the Lord declares: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you” (Jer 29:12-13). Do you see the focus on God’s relationship with his people?
And it’s worth noting, even the restoration of fortunes mentioned earlier would ultimately point people to the giver behind such a gift: God himself (Jer 33:7-9).
Israel’s punishment may have seemed harsh, but it wasn’t until their lives were literally uprooted that they understood their total dependence on the Lord—that even their wealth was a gift from him. God cared about the Israelites’ land and prosperity, but ultimately, none of that mattered if they didn’t know him, or if they chose to ignore their dependence on him. He wanted them to seek him, know him, and love him.
And the same goes for you and I. God likes to give us good things like abundance and wealth. But he would rather take from us our wealth (like he did for the Israelites in exile) if that’s what it takes to reveal our need for him.
Now, we should NOT assume that God is punishing us every single time that something bad or challenging happens in our lives. I want to be clear on that! Sometimes, life is so extremely hard simply because we live in a fallen world and share the planet with a whole bunch of sinners.
But regardless of whether something good is taken from us as punishment or simply as a result of the world we live in, God is able to use that situation to help us see him as the ultimate gift, the ultimate source of our satisfaction.
THE ACTUAL PROMISES OF JEREMIAH 29:11
Let’s zoom out a bit, and talk about how this applies to you and I.
There might be a difference between what you think God is promising you vs. what God is actually promising you in Jeremiah 29:11.
In this verse, we read that the Lord has plans for our welfare, to give us a future and a hope. We assume this means He will give us stable jobs, steady marriages, a sense of belonging in our communities, or [you fill in the blank].
But…a couple things.
1 – God’s promises were directed to the Israelites, not us. The Israelites went into exile as a punishment for covenant unfaithfulness, a situation very unique to them. When interpreting Scripture, the original audience matters!
2 – Even though we are not the original audience, there IS something for us to learn and apply from this verse. Remember God’s desire for the Israelites? Above all, he wanted to give them Himself. That underlying principle applies to you and l, too.
But we have to keep in mind that you and I are New Covenant believers because we live after the time of Christ. This covenant was promised in advance in Jeremiah 31. God wanted his people to know that a new covenant was coming that would drastically affect the way in which he would interact with his people—it would only increase his closeness with them.
So the question is, what does it mean for the Lord to give Himself to believers like you and me, believers living under the New Covenant?
- This means that the Holy Spirit now lives inside of us, to convict and comfort and guide. We do not have to walk blindly through this thing called life, hoping we guess correctly the path that is most honoring to God (Jer 31:33b). He speaks to us—through His Word, through prayer, through internal conviction of the Spirit. The question then is: Are we approaching him through his Word and in prayer? Are we sensitive to the promptings of his Spirit? Sometimes God speaks and we’re not listening, but it is possible to start listening.
- This means that God identifies as ours, and we are His. About us, he says, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33c).
- This means that when we repent our sins are forgiven and forgotten. Christ came down to die for you and me, so that God could look at us, see Christ, and honestly say, “I [remember] their sin no more” (Jer 31:34b).
When I think of Jeremiah 29:11, and I think about words like welfare and future and hope, I tend to get this idea of my “ideal life” — as if that were the promise of this verse. I think of living happily to an old age. I think of belonging to a strong community, with a family to call my own.
But none of that is guaranteed, and honestly, none of that lasts.
But the three things mentioned above? Those things last. God desires to give us Himself because he knows that that is what will ultimately fulfill us and sustain us.
So often he gives good gifts (like a long, happy life or a community or a family), just like he restored the Israelites’ wealth as he brought them home from exile. But he wanted the Israelites to see—just like he wants you and I to see—that even if those good gifts were stripped from them, they’d still have hope because they still had Him.