“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 NIV).
It is a great Bible verse. But when I see it on bumper stickers, and friends tell me it is their “life verse,” I often wonder: Do those friends even know what Jeremiah had in mind when he wrote that verse, so many years ago?
If you study the context of Jeremiah 29:11, the message is quite sobering. During the time of the prophet Jeremiah, the nation of Judah was under God’s judgment. God had raised up the Babylonian nation, a brutal, pagan people to be instruments of God’s wrath against a disobedient people of God. Jeremiah prophesied that the Babylonians would take the Jewish people, and march them hundreds of miles on foot into Babylon, in modern day Iraq, as punishment for their sins.
But Jeremiah would have to deal with the false Jewish prophets, who promised the people that the exile to Babylon would be but a brief episode, a temporary setback before God would once again shower blessings upon His people. One such false prophet, Hananiah, announced that within two years, the king of Babylon would be humbled, and the Jews would return back from their forced exile into a foreign, hostile land (Jeremiah 28:1-4). Essentially, the Jewish troubles with the Babylonians were “no big deal.” God had great things in store for His people!
Jeremiah, God’s true prophet, was not impressed. Sure, it would be great if the Babylonians would allow the Jews to quickly return to their homeland (Jeremiah 28:5-6). But Jeremiah knew better. Hananiah offered some slick talk, a “feel good” message, with plenty of theatrics to convince the people that he was right, and Jeremiah was wrong (Jeremiah 28:7-11).
Jeremiah was not amused. He declared to Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie.” Jeremiah predicted that Hananiah would die for uttering rebellion against the plans and purposes of God.
Sure enough, before the year was over, Hananiah was dead (Jeremiah 28:12-17).
Jeremiah sets the record straight in the next chapter, where we find our famous Jeremiah 29:11 verse. Jeremiah writes a letter from Jerusalem, to the Jews that had already made their way over the arduous journey into exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:1-4). Jeremiah tells the people that they will be in for a long stay in Babylon.
- Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 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 (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
In other words, do not expect a quick turn around in your fortunes. Do not listen to the lying prophets with their “dreams that they dream” (Jeremiah 29:8-9). Instead of Hananiah’s deceptive prediction of a two-year stayover, Jeremiah gives them the truth: it would be a full seventy (70) years before the people would return back to Jerusalem.
That meant that most of the people who were led into Babylon will end up dying there (Jeremiah 29:10). It is only here, at this moment, that Jeremiah utters his famous promise, that a lot of Christians hold onto today, as a promise given to themselves (Jeremiah 29:11-14). So, for the original hearers of Jeremiah’s promise, it would be mainly their descendants, and not the Jewish listeners themselves, who would receive the promised blessings.
To those that buy into the message of the false prophets, with their empty promises of quick fixes, Jeremiah says that God will deal harshly with them:
- I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, because they did not pay attention to my words, declares the Lord, that I persistently sent to you by my servants the prophets, but you would not listen, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 29:18-19).
So when people today listen to the Hananiahs, in our midst, this is what is called the “prosperity gospel.” And sadly, this is NO gospel at all.
Yes, Jeremiah 29:11 is a great, wonderful promise to hold onto: “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” But the original context for Jeremiah 29:11 is quite sobering, written to the Jews of Jeremiah’s day. So when Christians lift this verse, out of its historical context, and apply it directly to themselves, they risk distorting God’s Word.
A lot of Christians go through extremely hard times, and Jeremiah 29:11 can provide great comfort and hope. In times of trial, Jeremiah 29:11 can be a really “positive thinking,” pick-me-up verse. But the temptation to provide a shortcut to those promised blessings can be hard to resist. There are plenty of Hananiahs today that will prey upon such wishful thinking, promising that God will soon give you that new car, that new house, that better, more fulfilling job, with greater benefits, and that improved marriage.
Hey, if God provides such blessings in our lives, then let us be thankful to the Lord. What an awesome thing! What a great God we serve!
But we need to heed the FULL message of Jeremiah, that we should not fixate on the hope of quick, material blessings to come our way, cherry picking the parts of Jeremiah we like, and ignoring the rest. Instead, we need to think “big picture,” and long term, like Jeremiah did. God’s greatest blessings are spiritual, and not material.
Jeremiah’s message, despite the hopefulness given to us in Jeremiah 29:11, was not well-received in his day, just as it probably would not be well-received in ours. We have no definitive record of Jeremiah’s death, but we know he ended up in Egypt (Jeremiah 43), and his preaching disturbed the Jews there. Some say that the Jews there stoned Jeremiah to death, for his fiery preaching. Others say that the Jews impaled Jeremiah on a stake, to silence him.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a great Bible verse, but there is more to the story. Once we get the full picture of the context of Jeremiah, and his story, I wonder if it might give a Christian pause before quickly declaring that “Jeremiah 29:11 is my life verse.”
Understanding to whom and why Jeremiah 29:11 was written to originally, helps us to properly frame how this promise might apply to the Christian today. It is not an excuse to justify our own wishful thinking. The promised hope does not reflect our own personal “dreams that [we] dream,” that are delusional, but rather, that promise and hope reflects the very plans and purposes of God.