“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.”
We all recognize Jeremiah 29:11. We use it to cheer those going through a difficult time. We offer it to new graduates as a sign that their future is bright. When our own circumstances seem bleak, we repeat it to ourselves. God wants me to prosper. This is just a temporary setback.
The problem is, we take this oh-so-encouraging verse out of context and apply it incorrectly. I don’t want to rain on your parade, but misapplying Scripture is never a good idea. When things don’t pan out the way we think they should, we blame God. I know people who have even abandoned their faith altogether because they had expectations that God failed to meet.
First let’s look at the context:
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) (Jeremiah 29:1-2)
Our first clue is “surviving elders”—implying that some did not survive. A war had been fought, and casualties were high. Even worse, they lost. We read that Nebuchadnezzar had carried all the “important” people off to Babylon, a hated, sinful city. It would have seemed as if God had abandoned them.
It was to address this fear, that they were no longer God’s chosen, blessed people, that God tells them:
“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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.
We love to read verse 11, the one I quoted at the top of the page. But what about verse 10? “When seventy years are completed….”
Seventy years is a lifetime. Try telling a graduating student that God has wonderful plans for them, but they’ll have to wait seventy years. They’ll be in their nineties!
As I read this, I was reminded of Moses and company wandering in the wilderness for forty years—until that sinful generation had all died off. The reason the Israelites were in Babylon in the first place was because they had abandoned God and turned to idols. Could He be waiting until a new generation had risen before bringing them back home?
The remainder of the passage supports this idea:
Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to 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 will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
The second major error we make is to think that this promise applies individually, when in fact the “you” here is plural. Yes, God will rescue His people—as a people—but we can’t assume that each and every person will have a glorious, prosperous future.
Our culture looks at things from an individualistic perspective. But Israel was a “collectivist” culture. They thought of themselves as part of a group. That’s why individuals such as Ahab son of Kolaiah, Zedekiah son of Maaseiah, and Shemaiah the Nehelamite were told to expect a fate far different from the promise in verse 11. (v. 21, 31-32)
Yes, God has wonderful plans for His people—as a whole. We shouldn’t apply this verse to a specific person (such as myself). And if we think about it, it’s obvious. What about those Christians who live miserable lives and then die? Some people die young. Others struggle with painful illnesses. Many believers are poor. And what about those who are martyred? Did they prosper? Did they have a future?
The only way we can claim that this promise applies to each of us is to take God’s perspective. Our future and hope are for an eternity with Him. That hope will never disappoint.