Jeremiah 29:11 contains a precious promise held dear by Christians the world over. It is also likely one of the most misapplied verses in all of Scripture. In this verse, Jeremiah affirms that God is in control, and moreover, He has good things in store: “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.”
Comforting words, to be sure. But what does Jeremiah mean? Some have taken this verse and applied it to themselves and others in an unqualified way. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” they say. “He has mapped out the course of your life, and you only have to be obedient to Him to step into His blessing.”
Some go further and say that this verse promises earthly prosperity. Health and wealth are the lot of Christians. We are not to settle for second best, for we are children of the King. In this view, suffering and deprivation signal a lack of faith.
The context of Jeremiah 29:11 indicates that it is not meant as a blanket promise of worldly blessing.
They say that the three most important factors when it comes to buying real estate are “location, location, location.” Similarly, the three most important factors when it comes to understanding a given passage in the Bible are “context, context, context.” When texts are isolated, they can be made to mean almost anything. But when they are read in context, their intended meaning becomes clear.
The context of Jeremiah 29:11 indicates that it is not meant as a blanket promise of worldly blessing. Jeremiah the prophet ministered before and during the Babylonian exile, when the southern kingdom of Judah suffered the covenant curse of expulsion from the promised land for its continued unfaithfulness to the Lord (Deut. 28:36; 2 Chron. 36:15–21). Jeremiah had warned the Judahites that punishment was coming, and he pleaded with them to repent of their idolatry and evildoing. When they did not, he prophesied that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, would conquer Judah and Jerusalem and carry off the people into exile (Jer. 25:1–11).
Even in the midst of this prophecy of punishment, there was a sliver of hope: the exile would be long, but it would not be permanent. God purposed to chasten His people, but He would not destroy them utterly. He would in fact bring them back to their land—after seventy years (v. 11).
Moreover, the Lord promised to bless the people during their exile. This promised blessing is the subject matter of chapter 29, which conveys the contents of a letter that the prophet sent to the people in exile (29:1). God encourages the people to build houses, to marry and give their children in marriage, to plant vineyards, and to “seek the welfare of the city” (vv. 5–7). These blessings are a reversal or suspension of the covenant curses in Deuteronomy 28:30–34.
The Lord promised that after a time, He would bring them back (Jer. 29:10). This is the context for Jeremiah 29:11. The Lord was not done with His covenant people. He called them to faithfulness and obedience in their suffering. There was an element of obedience to the promise; the Judahites were to wait on the Lord, to trust in Him and follow Him while away from the temple and apart from the priesthood and sacrifices. When they learned patience and obedience, He would bring them back. He assured them that He was near and able to restore them (vv. 12–14; see 24:4–7).
We simply cannot apply this verse directly to ourselves. It was not originally written to us; it was written to a particular group of people living in a particular place at a particular time. Does that mean that this verse has no application at all to us as Christians? No, it does not. In fact, the application to us is glorious but indirect.
Paul says of Jesus Christ that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20). Jesus is the true Israel, the inheritor of all the promises made to the old covenant people, the righteous remnant (Ps. 2:7; Acts 2:16–21; 15:16–17; Gal. 3:16). Ultimately, the promise of blessing during and after exile in Jeremiah 29:11 was made to Christ, and it was fulfilled in His earthly sojourn and His restoration to His heavenly dwelling—that is, His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Christians inherit that promise, too, by virtue of our being united to Christ by faith. He has suffered the covenant curse and fulfilled the law of obedience on our behalf, and all that is His becomes ours according to the grace of God (Eph. 1:11–14). So, while we will likewise suffer during our earthly sojourn, we are blessed through the work of the Holy Spirit, and we will be raised with Christ and enjoy unspeakable blessings in the presence of our Lord. This is ultimately what is meant by God’s promise of “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” And it is so much better than any promise of worldly prosperity.
Rev. Kevin D. Gardner is associate editor of Tabletalk magazine and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.