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…)
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