What we’ve got wrong about Jeremiah 29:11
This familiar verse is often misunderstood... find out why.
‘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. It’s one of the most famous verses in the Bible. And for good reason. More often than not it’s been interpreted as proclaiming God’s prosperous, beneficial plans for his people.
However, there is a flaw in this, as suffering often appears to outweigh the good things that happen in our world. This doesn’t mean that the Bible’s wrong - it just means that this verse has been interpreted without consideration of its theological and historical context. Consider these factors and the verses’ true meaning arises. Yes, it does speak of God’s sovereignty, but it is in specific relation to Israel as God’s people and the state of their relationship late in the Old Testament.
Context: Jeremiah’s Pen Pals
The NIV Bible titles Jeremiah 29 as “a letter to the exiles” and records dialogue from God. It was written by the prophet Jeremiah from Jerusalem (at this point in the southern kingdom of Judah) to the Israelites recently exiled by King Nebuchadnezzar in Baylon (vs.1).
Around this time, Jeremiah was fighting against false prophets in Baylon who were claiming that God would bring the Israelites instant freedom (eg. chapter 28 and 29:24-32). This was not God’s intention, as he had exiled his people from the Promised Land as punishment for not following the conditions of their covenant relationship. The “plans” that God refers to actually detail how he will bring the Israelites out of Babylon after 70 years (vs.10). Not what you’d call instant freedom, or good plans.
Jeremiah 29 is also situated in the middle section of the book, in what the Bible Project calls “Judgement and Hope For Israel”. While chapters 26-29 and 34-45 narrate God’s judgement of Israel, chapters 30-33 detail explicit hope. Most notably, God creates a new covenant with Israel and vows to “forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more,” (Jer 31:34). Chapter 29 sits on the cusp of this, addressing both judgement and hope issued in perfect balance by a just God.
Idea of the Passage: God Does Not Break His Pinky Promises
In light of this context, Jeremiah 29 actually centres on covenant faithfulness. Despite the fact that God appears to have abandoned his people, he will keep the promises he made to Abraham; he will continue the line of David to bring about Jesus and global salvation.
This is evident in the three key aspects of both Abrahamaic covenants (see Gen 15:9-21; 17:1-27): land (vs. 10,14) in the return to the Promised Land; offspring (vs. 6) in the command to multiply (although, it should be noted that this is to be obeyed in Babylon); and blessing, both in the immediate rescue from exile and Jesus’ later sacrifice.
While this “plan to give you a hope and a future” seems appealing, it does not necessarily promote prosperity. When the Israelites returned from exile, they were faced with rebuilding a second, less magnificent temple (Ez 1:3) and some of their community rebelling against God...again (Neh 13). Jesus’ coming to Earth was also obviously not without difficulties - he was executed by those he had come to save (Jn 1:10-11).
What’s It To Us?
Considering we’re in the post-exile, post-Jesus era of civilisation, does this Old Testament verse actually hold any relevance? Well, as it literally is God’s word (2 Tim 3:16), I’d say it does.
From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, we can see that God’s numerous covenants from Genesis 15 onwards have been fulfilled in Jesus. Not only did the Son fulfill the Father’s promises to the Patriarchs and to Israel (2 Cor 1:20), but he also fulfilled the Law laid down in the Torah (Matt 5:17). Therefore, the “plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future” indicate God’s faithfulness to his promises and to his people.
While Jeremiah 29:11 has been falsely interpreted, it still speaks of plans for God’s people. In retrospect, we can see God’s faithfulness at work, both in the wider biblical narrative and in the stories of our lives. For it is through reflection on the past can we see God at work, using both suffering and prosperity, to refine us and craft us into beings who bring him glory.