I’ve had 2 recent posts that looked at Bible verses that are often taken out of context and misused. This post is about another such verse:
“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
I’ve seen this verse used in an encouraging way in a variety of life situations – such as a graduation, a birth, or just as a general reassurance that God is for us. He wants us to prosper and have a great future without harm. I recently taught about these misused verses as a Sunday school lesson, and someone mentioned that Jeremiah 29:11 was the theme at a graduation party they recently attended.
Once again, we need to look at this verse in context.
Jeremiah was a prophet both before exile and as exile began to take place – as Judah (the Southern Kingdom) was conquered by Babylon. Jeremiah’s message was one of judgement about the pending Babylonian exile because of sin and idolatry. It did not make him popular! The fall of Jerusalem is recorded in chapter 39, and it is tragic. But Jeremiah also had a message of hope and restoration despite the judgment of exile.
We also need to put 29:11 into its immediate context. In chapter 28, a false prophet challenged Jeremiah’s prediction of 70 years in captivity. This false prophet said it would be less than 2 years. Chapter 29 records a letter Jeremiah wrote to those who had already been taken away to Babylon. (There were 3 separate deportations: 605 BC, 597 BC, and 588-586 BC.) In this letter, Jeremiah tells them to take up life in Babylon – settle there – because it is going to be 70 years. But Jeremiah also gives them a message of hope.
Take a moment to read Jeremiah 29:1-14.
While this is an encouraging word, it is in the context of them spending 70 years in exile. This is NOT at all what the Israelites wanted to hear! They wanted to be told that they were going home soon – in only 2 years, per the false prophet. With 70 years of exile, most of them would die in Babylon, never seeing their homeland again.
Jeremiah tells them to start living there – build houses, plant gardens, have children. Note that verse 7 says: “seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” – That is even more of a challenge! Try to put yourself in their shoes. They were conquered, taken away captive, and now they are told to pray for the place that took them captive.
So…popular verse 11 about God prospering us?
The heart of this verse is not that they would escape the punishment of exile, but that they would learn to thrive in the midst of exile, and eventually – after 70 years – they would be able to return home.
This sheds a lot of light on this verse, doesn’t it?
It is hopeful, but not in the way it is often taken out of context, where it can sadly be turned into a self-centered, prosperity gospel type of mantra where everything is about our success in life.
I see a connection with Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” – learning to be content and persevere and even have joy – despite living in exile or other less-than-ideal circumstances.