Jeremiah 29:11 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.
You’ll find Jeremiah 29:11 in many places. I once wore it on a bracelet as a teenager. It was on a poster on our children’s ministry door at church. My wife had it on our fridge for years, written on an index card. It’s one of the most memorized and cross-stiched verses of all time!
It’s also one of the most taken out of context verses of all time…
Taken out of context, Jeremiah 29:11 is usually pretty harmless. Typically people are holding on to it for a sense of hope that God is for them and is in control, two concepts that are biblical, based on other parts of the Bible. But the verse can also stand for much more dangerous meanings for some who cling to it as a life verse. Whatever the intended application a person has, taking a verse out of context is never a good idea as it takes God’s word and turns it into man’s word, something that is very dangerous indeed!
Why is context important?
The simple answer is: context dictates meaning. And isn’t meaning what we’re really after when we call the Bible “God’s word?” If it’s in the wrong context, we are going to get the wrong meaning. And if we get the wrong meaning, we aren’t getting God’s meaning. This of course doesn’t only apply to Jeremiah 29:11, it applies to every word of the Bible. Jeremiah 29:11 serves as a helpful case study though because it’s such a popular text and also has a fairly simple answer to how to read it correctly.
The Bible is one big story. And within that big story, it is made up of many smaller stories–all hooking together as one. Think of it like watching a movie. A movie is one big story. If you popped in a DVD and randomly watched one chapter in the middle and then turned it off, would you have gathered the meaning of the movie? Or if you watched one scene within one chapter and turned it off? Or course not, on both accounts. In fact, you are quite likely to get a very opposite meaning of the movie itself. You might walk away thinking Superman is a bad guy or that the world actually gets taken over by aliens. To understand the meaning of a movie, you need to watch the entire thing, then understand each scene and chapter within the context of the rest of the story.
Does this mean you need to read the Bible cover to cover to uncover the meaning of Jeremiah 29:11? Not necessarily.
Does it mean the Bible is a hieroglyphic mystery riddle that only academic brainiacs can unlock? Thankfully this isn’t the case either.
Even if you’d never picked up a Bible before and you opened it to Jeremiah 29:11, the first thing you should do is read the verses immediately before it and after it.
Verse 10 says, This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. Now, have you ever seen this verse cross-stitched next to verse 11?! Well of course not, because it ruins everything. Verse 10 takes away the mushy gushy feeling I get that God wrote verse 11 just for me and my life.
And that’s the point.
Has God sentenced you to 70 years of banishment in Babylon?
Did God ever promise you that you and your people would live in the land of Israel, so long as you followed the commandments he laid out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy?
If you can’t answer “Yes” to both of the above questions, then the promise of verse 11 does not apply to you.
Jeremiah 29:11 is not God’s promise to you. It was his promise to the Ancient Israelites, the people of the Old Testament, who had recently lost the land they had been promised due to their disobedience. And what’s even more ironic (I’m really a downer I know…) is God was telling them, “You’re going to endure 70 years of the pain of exile before I allow you back into your homeland. Oh yeah, and even then, it will never be like it was before…” So even if you were applying this verse as a promise to your life, you’d need to wait 70 years for God to give you what you were praying for!
Applying Jeremiah 29:11 like God was promising it to you as an individual would be like if your friend was on the phone with the cable company and you’re upstairs, unaware of the conversation. The cable company has gone over the details of the contract with your friend and the words come out of your friend’s mouth, “I will pay you $50 per month.” Your then walk in the room, not having heard the rest of the conversation or even realizing that your friend is on the phone, but you hear them say “I will pay you $50 per month.” You then cross-stitch this quote from your friend and now expect your friend to pay you $50 each month. They did say this after all.
This is the importance of context! And the thing is, the Bible doesn’t hide this context from us. It’s right there, we just tend to have selective hearing. We also need to remember that the chapter and verse numbers in our Bible were not in the original manuscripts and thus are not divinely inspired. So really we should never read verse 11 without reading verse 10 and 12-14. If we do, we’re doing exactly what we did with the cable company phone call, interrupting a fluid thought that has a certain meaning when kept intact and splicing out a section from it, giving it a very different meaning.
Here is a “Choose your chapter” DVD menu directory of the story up to this point:
*Exodus 19:5-8 – God agrees to give the Hebrews the Promised Land (of Israel) if they stay faithful to him as God, obeying his commands and not worshiping idols. They agree! This is called the old covenant. It was like a rent contract between God the landlord and the Hebrews, the tenant, with the ultimate purpose being that the people would shine God’s light to the world.
*Leviticus 26 & Deuteronomy 28 – If the Israelites fulfill their end of the covenant, their land will be physically blessed and kept in peace. If they worship idols and disobey God, their land will be brutally taken away from them. (Which, see Exodus 19:5-8, they fully agree to)
*Most of the rest of the Old Testament – The Israelites disobey, worship idols, and don’t heed the warnings of the prophets to repent.
*Jeremiah & Lamentations – The land is finally taken away from the Israelites and they are exiled to Babylon! (Remember ol’ Daniel and the lions den? That happens in Babylon)
*Enter Jeremiah 29:11!
At this point, God’s people had no idea if He would ever give them a second chance. They had cheated on God so bad they finally lost all he had promised them in the old covenant. They wondered if God still loved them, if they could still have a relationship with him, if they’d ever live at home again, and how long they’ve be in captivity in Babylon.
God answers with Jeremiah 29:10-14.
Don’t get me wrong, these are awesome verses in the Bible, but they aren’t God’s promise for you.
So if it’s not God’s promise to me, then what is it and why is it in the Bible?
We can still learn a ton about who God is and how he treats his people, but in this case we have to learn those things by observing the promises he made with other people and the interactions he had with them.
These verses show God is faithful, is in control, loving, patient, compassionate and full of mercy. And we can take those attributes to the bank, knowing God is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). And these verses are a key cog in God’s bigger story to save the world: the story that was bigger than this generation of Israelites’ lifetime, and a story that is bigger than your lifetime and mine. But to quote Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise to someone going through a tough time can really do some damage. If someone thinks this verse is a promise for them, here are a variety of ways it can take them very far from the biblical rails:
- God will prosper me. Cash money baby. God is going to give me cash, cars and mansions, like he does them fandangled preachers on the television.
- God will not harm me. I won’t be sick. I won’t go through pain. Nothing bad will happen to me.
- God will give me hope and a future (that is cemented along side of the promise of wealth and health for me and my family and loved ones)
Now what happens when you have a miscarriage? Or can’t get pregnant at all? When you or your spouse is diagnosed with cancer? When your child drowns? When an earthquake kills hundreds of thousands in your country? When you lose your job? Or can’t find one? When you’ve been dumped? Or have been single for ages and don’t want to be? When you’re just having a downright depressing day? Or depressing year?
What happens is God becomes a huge liar.
A huge liar because you are holding him to promises he never made to you. Or worse, you’ve taught others to hold him to promises he never made to them.
Promises that directly contradict Jesus telling us, “In this world you will have trouble…” (John 16:33)
I write this blog to Bible teachers who are leading many away from God with man’s word in your honest-to-goodness attempt to lead them toward Him with his.
And I write it to those who thought God would never allow pain to enter your life. To those who have turned your backs on Him as a result. I want to encourage you that He is faithful. And He loves you more than words can say. And the pain will end. Though it may not be until we are with him in eternity. For that is the promise he has given to us (John 14:1-4, Revelation 21:1-5). And honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
It might be time to take down the Jeremiah 29:11 cross-stitch and replace with it the fullness of Jesus’ words in John 16:33:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
(Though we could probably do without the cross-stitching in general…)
Click here for Part 2 of this post…
Some other blog posts I’ve done on navigating the sometimes murky waters of the Old Testament:
- Understanding Weird Parts of the Old Testament: Old vs. New Covenant
- Where the old covenant came from and why it doesn’t apply to us.
- Why the old covenant is still God’s Word to us and why it is still useful for teaching, rebuking, and correcting (i.e. 1 Timothy 3:16)
- Richard Dawkins: God commanding Old Testament Wars, Genocides, Infant Killings???
- Why the entire Bible matters, even if Rob Bell says it doesn’t
- Why the Weird Old Testament Laws Ever Existed
- The Flip Side Podcast Feedback Survey - March 20, 2023
- Why Christians meet for church on Sundays instead of a Saturday Sabbath - February 22, 2023
- Ep. 78: The Flip Side Goes On Sabbatical - February 21, 2023
Jim Decke says
It’s one thing to take a verse out of context and bend it for selfish purposes, but entirely another to identify with a passage that reflects and is consistent with the entire theme of the Bible, that is, God’s abounding goodness, love and care for us. Jeremiah 29:11 is a fundamental truth for every Christian’s life. For me, the bottom line is that no man can tell another what God has or has not spoken to him. If God wants to use a verse from the Old Testament to encourage, convict, etc. or to show it to someone as their “life verse”, it is His choice, not ours.
Noah Filipiak says
Great points Jim, I did a follow-up based on your comments and some others I received and I hope it helps a bit further: http://www.atacrossroads.net/jeremiah-2911-rest-old-testament/ #Bible #UnderstandingtheBible
Jim Decke says
Thanks Noah, I will check it out.
The point is that the bible is so vague and confusing that people reading the same bible with the same holy spirit disagree with what it means. Lots of space taken up with useless information as well. If someone had the cure for cancer and described it the same way God explains himself it would be pretty useless for most cancer victims.
Noah Filipiak says
I definitely think God can use verses like Jeremiah 29:11 to speak to us and encourage us, like you said and precisely because it shows his abounding goodness, love and care for us. What gets dangerous is when someone imagines the specific outcome for themselves and then thinks this verse allows them to hold God to that. The general principle about God is true, the promise of earthly prosperity is not (as it was in the Old Testament).
Jim Decke says
It’s been almost 20 years ago that I believe God showed me Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise to me. When He says, “…Plans to prosper you…”, I have never taken that to mean anything specific, such as money or success, because it doesn’t say that. I think the Bible talks about the greatest prosperity being our relationship with God, our character, growing in wisdom, having our needs met–these are the things I think of when I think of the prosperity in Jeremiah 29:11. Sure, people can take it the wrong way, but any verse can be taken the wrong way. I don’t think that someone else’s mistaken interpretation of a verse means that we should say Jeremiah 29:11, or any other verse, is not for us.
Noah Filipiak says
All of the Bible is for us, that is for sure. And it’s all God’s Word. But as we read it, we do need to remember it literally wasn’t written TO us. So when we look at who each book was written to, it changes how we apply that Scripture, which is often different than the application for the original audience. It doesn’t change the divine meaning / principle, but the way that meaning / principle was applied in 600 BC old covenant Babylon (or in 1st century Ephesus with the New Testament, for example) will many times be different than it should be applied in 2014 Michigan. And the way something is applied in 2014 Michigan can be different than it should be applied in 2014 China or 2014 Saudi Arabia. But the meaning / principle never changes and is always for all of us.
Jim Decke says
I recently saw a similar post that was on Jeremiah 29:11 only being for the Israelites at a certain time in their history. I began wondering if maybe you, and the author of the other post, were viewing the Bible more as a historical document than as a supernatural book. I simply don’t see anything in Jeremiah 29:11, or in the surrounding context that somehow negates this verse as something God could use as a promise to me, or to anyone else. For me, the context actually adds more meaning because I understand what it is like to be in bondage and captivity to sin. Whether or not Jeremiah 29:11 was written to me or not, it is still a verse that I believe God showed me as a verse to hold onto for my life, and yes, as a promise to me. I have seen that promise being fulfilled. God can use any verse in the Bible, any sentence in any magazine, any comment from a friend…anything…as a message to us and as a promise to us. He’s the One doing the talking, we’re just the listeners.
Noah Filipiak says
God can use a sentence in a magazine by His Spirit to make a promise to you, yes. But that’s different than saying a verse of the Bible is a promise to you. God can make a promise to you by His Spirit by using a verse of the Bible that isn’t a promise to you, yes. But that’s different than that verse being a promise to you.
It’s not that I see the Bible as only historical and not supernatural, it’s that I am trying to show how we are to receive the Bible on its terms, not on ours. For example, a promise in the Bible that is to you would be: 2 Corinthians 1:21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
or: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
That God has promised us 1. His Holy Spirit and 2. eternal life, which the Holy Spirit will see us into
This is only one example, but I’m trying to show this is a direct promise to us, it’s the exact meaning of that text, to promise to believers of Jesus that we’ll get the Holy Spirit and eternal life. God literally said “I’m going to make a very specific promise to Jim Decke and here it is…” and boom those verses were written on paper.
That’s different than saying these verses are promises for us: Deut 28:1 If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth…7 The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven…11 The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.12 The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands.
And Leviticus 26:
3 “‘If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, 4 I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. 5 Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land….7 You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. 8 Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.9 “‘I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. 10 You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new.
These are promises God made NOT TO US though. They just simply aren’t. In these cases, God did not say “I’m going to make a specific promise to Jim Decke” and boom here it is on paper, instead he said “I’m going to make a specific promise to the Israelites…” and boom here it is on paper. You or anyone else is simply misreading them if you read them and think that if you obey, God will make your nation’s army always win or that it will always rain when it’s supposed to, or that you will be fruitful and get pregnant because you obeyed. That’s just a straightforward misreading of the text. God isn’t promising those specific things to any of us. That was for Moses and his people, and ended with the new covenant.
Can God use that part of the Bible to still speak to you specifically? To use his Spirit to make personal promises to you like he would a magazine article or an inspiration quote you heard? Yes, but those Scriptures, along with Jeremiah 29:11 which is the exact same promise referred to in the Scriptures I just pasted, are not promises to you. That’s not being non-supernatural, it’s just fact. It’s taking the Bible on it’s terms, on what it is. It’s an old covenant promise. It was a specific promise to Israel, that’s the point I”m trying to make. It’s just a truer understanding of what the text is and isn’t. And trust me, you don’t want the old covenant! If those specific promises of land, victory in war, etc belonged to us, we’d have to faithfully follow the entire Levitical law (no eating shellfish or pork, no wearing mixed fibers, stoning people for adultery, etc.) in order to get those promised results to come about.
Jim Decke says
Generally speaking, I would agree with you. Bible verses have a specific context, a specific meaning, and were meant for a specific people in a specific time. However, God is not bound by those rules. Could the God of the universe have had me in mind, as well as the Israelites, when He prompted Jeremiah to write? Of course. Thousands of years after the writing of Jeremiah, could God have showed me that verse as one of His many promises TO me? Of course. I’m not saying that all of the OT promises are for me. I’m not interested in Deuteronomy or Leviticus because God has not made promises to me from those books. To be honest, what I think is most dangerous here, is not the potential to take something out of context, but any person, and especially a pastor who is a spiritual leader, definitively saying that God has not used ANY verse in the Bible as a promise to me, or to anyone else. Very simply, you do not, and can not know that. You can speak in generalities, but you cannot tell me what God has promised to me, because you don’t know. This is especially dangerous to a new believer who has received a promise from God, and then hears their pastor, who they trust, telling them that it’s not a promise to them. If God has made a promise to them, who are you to tell them otherwise?
Had thought you were really off on this. When reading was tracking more with Jim. . . that God’s character is to do good, not harm to his people always. Just take ‘prosper’ not to be OT material blessings and good circumstances anymore. . . that all the blessings now are spiritual in Christ. Taking up the cross and following, expect tribulation, sufferings and the fight of faith. . . and the good that comes from that. Hate the prosperity gospel.
But thinking of OT promises like this, can’t remember many mentioned/remembered in the NT. Hadn’t really thought about it before but words my heart lays hold of are NT. . . faith laying hold of Christ. Remember learning OT promises like, “Fear not, for I am with you, be not afraid, for I am your God, I will strength you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Still believe it’s true, that God is like that, but thinking that NT promises are better promises. . . that God dwelling within us is better than just with us.
Noah Filipiak says
Great comments Alan, thanks. I did a follow-up based on your comments and some others I received like Jim’s and I hope it helps a bit further: http://www.atacrossroads.net/jeremiah-2911-rest-old-testament/ #Bible #UnderstandingtheBible
Not for nothing but aren’t you guys doing a two sides to the same coin thing. With OT God can give his words then to mean life now but apart from that we can’t take them. Thinking you guys are saying the same thing in different ways.
Jim Decke says
Yes, I think it is similar.
Roman Starr says
Great post. I believe that we should never read a bible verse. In other words, you don’t read a bible verse if you want to know what a bible verse means. We should always read at least a paragraph to help avoid misinterpretation and misuse. It seems to me to be very straightforward in who this letter is addressed to, and who this promise is for.
I believe verse four to make it clear: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, whom I have sent into the exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” After this God gives them some instructions of how to carry themselves throughout this captivity. He also gets even more specific with the promise and says this exile will last for 70 years. As a side note, the people in Jeremiah’s day wouldn’t have been walking around quoting this verse or stitching it on pillows and snuggies, because the plans to prosper them in the way that the Lord is talking about weren’t going to come for another 70 years. Another side note, if anyone is interested in when this promise was fulfilled then I suggest looking up Daniel 9. Daniel was one of the Israelites in captivity in Babylon during that time and a recipient of this letter. He realizes after the 70 years has passed that the time has come and he then prays a prayer at the start of chapter 9 claiming the Jeremiah 29 promise.
On the other hand, I can relate to anyone who clings to this verse, it was once my life verse too. I liked it so much I even bought my wife a purse with that verse stitched onto it. So I can understand the draw and I can even understand the reasoning I have seen and heard. I do have a question for those who hold on to this promise though. Would someone be willing to explain why this promise applies to them but not the promise the Lord gave just six verses down (Jeremiah 29:17 and following)? I am interested to hear the rationale behind accepting one promise and rejecting another, especially one so close in proximity, the same letter even.
I have other things I’d like to add to this conversation that took place 2 months ago but unfortunately it’s really late, I have probably said too much already, and because I arrived late to the conversation I am afraid no one is listening. So, good night and God bless.
Noah Filipiak says
Thanks for the insight Roman. Especially helpful coming from someone who used to have this as a life verse and can relate with the emotion behind those who continue to do the same. Your comment reminded me to reiterate that we aren’t trying to ruin God’s character for people, but only to instruct on how to read the Bible with accuracy. Like I’ve said in other comments, this text shows great things about God’s character and his faithfulness, they just aren’t things we can tag to one single solitary verse and one specific solitary promise, making that promise infinite rather than time and person bound.
Used to bug me when I’d go into my local bookstore and see this all over everything from tee shirts to coffee cups especially after reading and knowing the context. Glad to see someone else recognizes the problem too.
Noah Filipiak says
lol, so true! There’s been a lot of Christian products sold by this verse!!
Jim Purvis says
Enjoyed the blog post, enjoyed the comments. “Context shapes meaning” is an important point that is too often ignored and can lead to confusion and heartache if a young Christian misunderstands or misapplies a verse and then gets the idea that God lied to him and can’t be trusted …
Noah Filipiak says
Thanks a lot Jim, that’s well said. We often fault God for not living up to things he never actually said 🙁
When you say we must not take the bible verses and apply them to our own situation then we must n’t read the bible at all.The mistakes committed then are also applicable to us.This verse can be used in instances where people find themselves in a difficult situation to console them that after the incident there will be peace , harmony and happiness.Yes the verse was specifically intended for the The Israelites but can refer to life in general. If we cannot apply bible verses to our own context then we might as well throw it away.
Noah Filipiak says
Hi Judah, What I was saying is that we can’t take a promise God made to someone else and make it apply to us. You can’t take God’s promise to Abraham that he’d have descendants as many as the stars in the sky (Genesis 26:4) and make that promise apply to your life. It was a promise to Abraham about how many kids his kids would have, not a promise to you. It’s the same with Jeremiah 29:11. That doesn’t mean we should throw the Bible out! It just means we can’t make it mean what we want it to mean, but we need to apply the meaning that it intended. (And it doesn’t need us to add to it, even if we feel it makes it sound even better)
I support U. They r misleading the people of God. Worse part they r pastors
Nawan M. Partin says
Was reading through Jeremiah recently, through woe, disaster, misery and peril, and BAM! Jeremiah 29:11. I was like WHAAAT? That’s the context of that verse? Amazing!
Subsequent research: Yes, it is one of the most “favorited” and “used out of context” verses, and as many have noted. It was written as a specific letter, to survivors, exiles, prisoners, captives that had been banished. The promise in verse 11 was for 70 years in the future. Reading the entire chapter illuminates this.
I appreciate what you’ve written about chapters and verses, that do seem to lead to this sort of parsing and misinterpreting of the text.
It’s unfortunate that this little snippet has had a part in leading so many down a troublesome path, when that usage is intended to be the opposite.
Noah Filipiak says
Thanks Nawan! I think the passage becomes even more powerful and helpful when we understand the true meaning of it.
Pastor Filipiak, Thank You so much for this article. I have been a Christian for decades and recently had an accident that took me out of work and put in doubt whether I would return. I would say the constant barrage of what I called Modern Christianity that questions a persons Christian Faith if bad things happen to them and continue to happen. The inference turns into God is mad at you if you don’t prosper. That is such a terrible misinterpretation in our “modern Christianity.” I so appreciate your message of TRUTH—our Faith in these terrible and continuing terrible circumstances are STILL proof that God is with us. Thank You for the TRUTH.
I have seen this verse used over and over by ‘prosperity’ teachers. What I see is that Hananiah was one of those, saying sort of that if they believe, God will rescue them in 2 years. So Jeremiah rebukes him and in this verse is saying, no, you have to walk out the whole 70 years, but it’s all good in the long run. Hananiah then gets punished for his presumption and false prophesies.
Noah Filipiak says
Good point Connie. It’s like Jeremiah was saying, “No it’s going to take a very long time…some of you will be dead by the time it happens in fact,” which was extremely unpopular. What people wanted to hear was, “God will fix everything today!” so they crafted that message on their own, which is the irony of what you’re saying — that people today are using Jeremiah’s words of long/painful/waiting to create the message his antithesis Hananiah had spoken of quick/now/comfort.