Jeremiah 29:11, we need to talk about it….
Anyone who walks around in any church knows this text:
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.
Sounds hopeful! You see it on tiles, bumper stickers, it is given at baptisms, marriages, you name it. Very famous. But…. There’s just something about it…
A while ago I spoke with a lady who had two weeks to live. She had cancer and was ANGRY at God. And not just a bit angry, but VERY ANGRY. You get the idea. Because in church someone had given her that verse from Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise that God would ensure that she would survive this and that God had a hopeful future in store for her. Because that’s what it said in the Bible! But now… she was in a lot of pain and dying. God did not keep His promise He made so clearly in Jeremiah 29:11 to her. Not only was God a fool, but if that is God, then I don’t believe in that God… she said on her deathbed….
And here is the problem… Jeremiah 29:11 was not generally intended for her, you and me to begin with. Never. Oops. What? Why not? Well… luckily that verse isn’t for you. And that is good news. Let’s first look at the context. (for whom, when and why)
Jeremiah spoke these words to Israel, who had lived under the rule of the Egyptian and then Babylonian empires before eventually being taken into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. You can only imagine that that time must have been terrible for them.
In the previous chapter, we see that Jeremiah has just pronounced judgment on the false prophet Hananiah. Hananiah, who had told the people that God would break the yoke of Babylon, freeing Israel to return home within two years. Although his message undoubtedly sounded appealing to the people, it was a lie and resulted in God removing Hananiah from the face of the earth (Jeremiah 28:15-17).
Instead, Jeremiah tells them that they would live in Babylon for at least seventy years. Therefore, they must settle down, build houses, marry, and even pray for the peace and prosperity of the city they are now in (Jeremiah 29:4-10). That doesn’t sound like a good future… on the contrary. Another 70 years of (humanly speaking) misery awaited before Jeramiah 29:11 became true for them….
And one other thing: do you think everyone who heard this from Jeremiah survived those 70 years? No. So, even for the people who received this promise back then, it was not “God promises you something, and you get it in this life”. No, God promised something for His people and not for the individuals who play a role in this story. God’s promise went further than you initially thought. Even those people had to be very careful when explaining that text. If they, then too, thought it was for them individually, then that would also be a huge disillusionment for them… If that was already the case for them, why do many people today think that they can suddenly translate this verse to us universally? And that it would be applicable to us “in this life”??? That would have gone wrong back then, and even more so now, since this verse isn’t even meant for us to begin with.
When we understand it in context, we discover that the words of Jeremiah 29:11 were spoken to Israel in the midst of hardship and suffering; people who probably wanted immediate salvation, which Hananiah lied about. But God’s response is not to immediately let them escape from the difficult situation. Instead, God promises Israel that He has a plan to prosper them in the midst of their current situation after those 70 years that need to come.
If we read the verse from Jeremiah out of context and think that it is also universally applicable to us, it gives false hope: “We will receive peace and a hopeful future while we live here on earth, and that will happen immediately.” And let’s be honest… that’s not going to happen. Not even after 70 years of misery. We all get sick, we all die because we must bear the punishment for the sin we have already committed in Genesis 3 (God has promised that for all of us) until our last breath:
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your browGenesis 3:16-19
you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
So this verse in Jeremiah was very specifically intended for Israel in that place, at that time. Very specific. And that verse cannot simply be applied to us generically. Because we are not walking in a desert, we are not the people of Israel, and we are not literally, as Jeremiah says, promised the promised land.
And that is good news. Why? Because this verse is about something, that specific group of people was promised on earth. And although that seems excellent, it is very(!) temporary. Everything on earth is temporary. Because how long did the peace that came last? How are things going in Israel right now? Not good. That’s right because that promise was for Israel, in Jeremiah’s time, and not for us. They were promised peace and a hopeful future, and they received it. So God fulfilled that specific promise to them.
But what about us?
There is another promise for us. This does not apply forever!
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.John 3:16
A bright future awaits us despite all the pain today. A future that is eternal and not temporary. A future that is much brighter than a verse from Jeremiah 29:11 that has been taken out of context way too often, and we need to stop doing that right now. If we do so, those kinds of difficult conversations with this lady on her deathbed would not have been necessary and could have been avoided…
God keeps his promise, always. Hold on to that when things are difficult today and in your current life. Jeremiah 29:11 was not for you and me. John 3:16 does… and that is wonderful news.
And the next time you hear someone use Jeremiah 29:11 out of context? Beware… don’t believe in false hope…false hope ends, if you are unlucky, in a terrible deathbed…. or way worse… Believe in the real hope God gives you in John 3:16, in an eternal future without cancer, pain and agony…