I see many Christians, young and old, discussing plans for the future or changes in their life using Jeremiah 29:11 as a verse of comfort that God has plans for a bright future for them. In one sense I am not surprised. The denominational world has emblazoned this verse on coffee mugs, shirts, motivational posters, and it is used by the positive psychology and health and wealth prosperity preachers in the popular religious culture. But I am also perplexed because we are supposed to be careful in our handling of the scriptures and reading from the scriptures instead of reading our beliefs into the scriptures. Consider the verse:
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. (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV)
Standing alone it does appear to be quite comforting. Though I may not know what life holds it appears that God has planned a bright future for me in which I can rejoice. Not only that, it appears that God has a personal plan for my life–different from His plans for others. I am no insignificant person; God has plans for me! But is this the message of this verse?
What Is The Message of Jeremiah 29?
The first indicator that this might not have application to the Christian is the location in scripture: the book of Jeremiah is in the Old Testament and he was a prophet to the Jews. There are some prophecies, such as Joel 2, that speak to the Christian age and many prophesies of the Messiah so further examination is needed to determine if this is for the Christians or the Jews. Let’s look at the broader context. I’ve included the text of Jeremiah 29:1-4 divided with notations (text from the English Standard Version):
These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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.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, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
To whom was it written? Jeremiah is writing to the Jews taken by Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonian Empire, from the land of Judah to live in the region of Babylon, verses 1 and 4. Nebuchadnezzar took Jews to Babylon in a series of captivities. Jeremiah was part of a group that was left in Jerusalem before it’s eventual destruction and the final deportation. This is not written to those in “the latter days” or other ways that Christians are referenced in the prophets.
What was the message? From Jerusalem, the prophet instructs the early captives to settle in the land because they would not be delivered and returned to Judea for seventy years (According to Jeremiah 25 and 29:10). He urges them to build houses, plant produce, grow families, and be a blessing to their new communities. He tells them to ignore the false prophets who are preaching an early return to the Promised Land. Finally, he promises that at the end of the seventy years God would return them from the scattering of captivity to the Promised Land.
Plans for whom? So we return to our key passage: Jeremiah 29:11. The captivity and return were not unfortunate circumstances but were part of the plan of God for them. He planned destruction for Jerusalem, seventy years of exile for His people, and a glorious return to the land of Judah where they would rebuild their lives, the temple, and the nation. Thought they were suffering, God had plans for which they could hope if they sought Him with their whole heart.
Doesn’t make sense for the Christian! The immediate verse says that these plans will follow seventy years of Babylonian exile under which no Christian is suffering. The promise was already fulfilled when God visited the Jews, fulfilled His promise, and brought them back to this place (Jerusalem) as recorded in 2 Chronicles 36:17-23. God had specific plans for the captive Jews: care for them in exile and return to the Promised Land. Even the phrase “you will call upon me and pray to me” alludes to Daniel 9 where Daniel prays for deliverance knowing the seventy years are at an end and God answers with the comfort that the plan for their return to Jerusalem has been set in motion. [If you take the time to read 2 Chronicles 36 and Daniel 9 you will notice specific overlapping language with the text in Jeremiah 29]. It is illogical to take one thought out of a broader thought to apply to oneself and ignore the rest.
What about other verses? Strange that people do not take other prophets where God declared he had plans for their destruction and apply it to themselves. God told Israel of His plans for their punishment and destruction in many places but no one seems eager to take them out of context and apply them to their current situation. It is foolish to do it just because the verse says something we like.
The Christian cannot take this promise from the Jews for a specific outcome and apply it to their lives. Let us be careful when we quote passages thrown about in the religious world. The Christian has many promises of God’s care but this isn’t one of them.