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Jeremiah 29:11 in Its Context

In my experience, Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most cited and quoted Bible verses among Christians. The reference alone might cause the words to enter into your mind, but in case you are not familiar with it, here it is in the English Standard Version (ESV) translation: “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.” The New International Version (NIV) translation, which I memorized as a youth, puts it a little differently: “‘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.’” It is often used in settings like graduations or other occasions where we need encouragement about the future, telling us that God has a plan and that His plan for us is good. When we dig into its context, both the historical context and the literary context, I think it shows us even more truths than we might realize at first glance.

The first thing to remember about this verse is that it is found in the book of Jeremiah, one of the prophets of the Old Testament. Jeremiah is often known as “the weeping prophet,” as the book highlights that the city of Jerusalem (the capital city of the nation of Judah, where the temple of God was) will be destroyed by the Babylonians and also the opposition that Jeremiah encounters among his own people as he delivers the news. A major reason for opposition to Jerusalem, as well as the judgment on the people, is the complacency of God’s people as they believed that simply because they had the temple, nothing bad would happen to them (forgetting God’s promises in the covenant with the people of Israel that if they obeyed, they would stay in the land and prosper, but if they disobeyed, they would be scattered among the nations). They liked prophets who said everything was always going to be awesome and that there would be peace in the land; they did not like Jeremiah’s message that the end could be coming or pointing to their shortcomings.

These words in chapter 29 came in a letter sent to the Jewish people from Jeremiah saying that Babylon had been taken out of the land of Judah and into their own cities. These people were discouraged and thought that God had forgotten them, that there was no hope for them. These words, however, show that there is hope. Yes, they are going into exile, but this plan of God for them (the “you” in 29:11 is plural, not singular; it is not to a person but to a people) is actually for good and not for harm; they have a hope and a future, as God is not done. Verse 11 comes after verse 10, which speaks about the fact that God would bring them back after 70 years in exile; this was for a season, not forever. God told the people through Jeremiah that destruction would come, but also that the people would be restored and that God would make a new covenant, one that is not like the old covenant as the law would be written on their hearts. This covenant is fulfilled in Jesus, who at the Last Supper talked about the new covenant in his blood.

This context means that these words should point us to the future that we have that is made possible through Christ. In addition, these words tell us that even when things in this world do not look so good for us or for God’s people, we know that God has a plan for His glory and ultimately for our good. “Our” is a key element here; it is not just about you but about all of God’s people. In some ways, this reminds us of Jesus’s words in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (ESV). Of course, as God’s people we can trust that God is doing good things for us, but the idea of “prospering” us and not “harming” us might not be through a great paying job, the white picket fence, or whatever else might be associated with the “American Dream”. (This is why I prefer the ESV translation of “welfare” rather than “prosper” - prosper can make it seem like it is money, while welfare shows for our wellbeing; the Hebrew word is Shalom, normally translated “peace” and refers to life as it was meant to be.) God’s plan might involve something that looks like exile for a time, but this is for our good and His glory.

The other thing to remember about this verse is that it comes in midst of this letter.  Verses 10 and 11 begin with “for,” which means that it is providing explanations or support for what came before. In verses 4-9, God tells the people to settle into their land of exile, to build houses and have families and to seek the “welfare” of the city: “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” (29:7, ESV). Rather than complain about exile or try to start some sort of uprising, they should live normal lives and bless their neighbors. Because they know that God has a plan and that this plan is good, they should seek to be blessings where God has placed them. Similarly, because we know that God has a plan and is good, we can be a blessing to others. In fact, God’s plan of welfare for others is through us; because God is blessing me, I can bless others. Again, I like the ESV use of the word welfare as it makes a link in the text - God has a plan for our welfare and good (v. 11), so we should seek the welfare/well being of others (v.7).

My hope is  that you don’t become someone who says that people should not cite or talk about Jeremiah 29:11, but rather that when we do so, we look at the greater promises found in it by understanding its context and also the result that it should have in our lives now.

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