Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context

It's one of our favorite verses—but we've gotten it all wrong.

It’s written on graduation cards, quoted to encourage a person who can’t seem to find God’s well and doled out like a doctor explaining a prescription: Take Jeremiah 29:11 a few times, with a full glass of water, and call me in the morning. I think you’ll feel better.

“‘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 tells us—possibly one of our most beloved, yet most misunderstood, verses in the entire Bible.

Sure, it might make a person feel better, but this verse as we often prescribe it is being taken completely out of context. It doesn’t mean what people think it means. It’s time to back up and see what the author of Jeremiah is actually saying.

We misinterpret Scripture when we are too familiar with the passage to look at it with fresh eyes.

When it comes to reading the Bible, we can sometimes be so familiar with the words on the page that we read them, but we don’t really understand them. We see the words and hear the words, but we don’t make any sense out of them. Familiarity can breed laziness, and so many of our misunderstandings about the scriptures happen because we are too familiar with the passage to look it with fresh eyes. If we would come to the Word of God with fresh eyes more often, we would realize that some of our most common interpretations of Scripture passed down to us don’t make much sense when viewed within the context of the passage.

Like any author worth his salt, the writer in Jeremiah begins by stating the subject of the passage: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon ... “ (Jeremiah 29:4).

This verse, quoted to countless individuals who are struggling with vocation or discerning God’s will, is not written to individuals at all. This passage is written to a whole group of people—an entire nation. For all the grammarians out there, the “you” in Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t singular, it’s plural. And you don’t have to be a Hebrew scholar to realize that “one” versus “many” is a big difference.

And the verse just before it is perhaps even scarier. For in Jeremiah 29:10, God lays down the specifics on this promise: that He will fulfill it “after seventy years are completed for Babylon.” In other words, yes, God says, I will redeem you—after 70 years in exile. This is certainly a far cry from our expectation of this verse in what God’s plans to prosper us really mean. He did have a future and a hope for them—but it would look far different than the Israelites ever expected.

So what? Some of you may be thinking. Even when the verse is taken out of context, it still offers value, right? God does know the plans of individual people, so it’s just as well to keep prescribing Jeremiah 29 for those seeking God’s plan for their life, right? Well, yes and no.

We need to let the Bible speak to us, not allow our own personal bent to speak into the Scriptures. If Jeremiah 29 is speaking to the nation of Israel, and not just one person, then we should start with the truth in the Scriptures. Context matters—God speaks at a particular moment in time, to a particular people group, for a reason.

We need to let the Bible speak to us, not allow our own personal bent to speak into the Scriptures.

What this means is that God has plans for a whole group of people, namely the nation of Israel. And if we read on in the Scriptures we find that this promise was fulfilled: those in exile returned, and the nation of Israel was restored for a time. God made a promise through the prophets, and that promise came true.

But that’s not the end of the story, either. There is something to the out-of-context prescriptions that so many make using this verse. God is a God of redemption, after all, and He wants to redeem people and put them on a path of wholeness, just as He wanted the nation of Israel to be redeemed and whole again.

As John Calvin says about this passage, the prophet is speaking not just of historical redemption, for that period in time, but also of “future redemption.” For the Israelites, God listened to their prayers when they sought Him with all their heart, and in His time, He brought them out of exile.
But how does any of this apply to us today? Can we still take heart in such a beautiful promise—even though it was spoken to people long ago, people in a far different situation than ours?

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First and foremost, we are all in this together. This verse does not apply to isolated individuals or to a broad community. It applies to both, together, functioning as one. The image painted here is one of individuals in community, like the Body of Christ which Paul talks about. Here are a bunch of people, worshiping God together, hoping for a future redemption.

The theologians Stanley Grenz and John Franke explain in their book Beyond Foundationalism just how a community “turns the gaze of its members toward the future.” The future in Jeremiah is one that is bright—one that everyone in the community through prayer and worship seeks as their collective future hope. Many of us want to desperately know the plan that God has for each one of us as individuals, but let the prophet Jeremiah remind us that it’s not all about us, and it might not look like what we think.

Even more important than our decision about which college to attend, which city to move to or what job offer to take is the future hope of the Kingdom of God foretold by the prophets and fulfilled in the reign of our now and coming King. In this way, the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is bigger than any one of us—and far better.

Top Comments

Ashleigh Dowden


Ashleigh Dowden commented…

I want to thank you so much! All of this time I was thinking, "Not only does this passage have powerful spiritual meaning for my husband and myself but it is also an especially poetic sounding verse! I feel full of God's love!" But, now I can let that go because you have shown me the "truth." I can't just read love into the bible when it pleases me. I may only feel God's love through the Bible when a scholar approves.
(ok i admit sarcasm is a weak tactic but you have rufffled my britches)
Look, I spent my time in grad school, I learned to deconstruct, re-contextualize and argue both sides of the theoretical arguments concerning the relationship between author, text, and reader. I was only studying criticism and theory of theatre but I did my fair share of time with texts of faith. You need to seperate your academic side from your how to interpret spiritual text side. Seriously-this is the actual word of the Lord-you have to be a little less smug when pointing out "errors in interpretation." I am allowed to seek and hear God's love wherever I seek it. It is ok if I feel like He is speaking directly to me. You are obviously a super sharp guy who likely sports an impressive CV, you HAVE TO BE AWARE of the damage we have done through the millenia when we begin to tell people the Bible must be understood in "a certain way." I could understand if you were pointing out passage that people used to justify hate, prejudice or subjagation of another. But in this case you are bursting people's God love bubble and it comes across as offensive and kind of mean spirited. Sir, go forth and share the light! Use your blessings of intellect, knowledge and skill to correct the misuse of God's word to validate evil-it's EVERYWHERE! Just leave the stuff alone that makes people feel good and have reason to mess with that. In the end it's about Love....there is nothing else.



Jeff commented…

This is a very interesting article and some good points of truth in it. We really do need to understand the scriptures in context to what the original authors, ie Jeremiah, was saying to his people when he addressed them. HOWEVER, I also like very much what Nate Fox (commenter her) said so eloquently in his reply, which is just as true.

With this being said, I think that we can take old or new testament scriptures, ie Jerm 29:11, which was meant to be a comforting prophesy to the nation of Israel at that particular time period and later fulfilled, in context with God's will for each individual believer IN CHRIST. For instance; does God want each one of us who reside IN CHRIST, to have a future and a hope? Does God have plans for each of us who make Him Lord of our lives? Why, sure He does! The new testament is full of scriptures that confirm our hope and future in Christ. So, if this is true, then God would still honor this beloved old verse of Scripture in Jeremiah that people stand on. He wants for us to stand on the scriptures for hope! Otherwise, he would not have had the Apostle Paul write:

2 Tim 3:16-17

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

The key is living your life IN CHRIST on a daily basis in order for God to honor these promises in our lives. You cannot live your life like a non believer living in sin (Mon-Sat) and expect for God to honor Jerm 29:11 in your life on Sunday? Thus, as Nate quotes:

2 Corinthians 1:20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.

As for the prosperity message and standing on those scriptures; you have to do this in context with the rest of God's Word too. For instance, if you want to prosper, are you giving a tenth of your income to the storehouse? Are you being honest and keeping your word to your customers and associates? Is integrity the most important virtue in your business affairs or are you deceptive with others because of your lust for money ? God's blessings will never reside with a lying two faced thief, no matter how many scriptures he is standing on until he truly repents and turns his life around!

God honors His principles as stated in NT and well as OT above all things and He will honor every scripture if you are honoring Him with your life! He wants our lives to overflow with abundance to make a point to those who don't believe. What He doesn't want is for us to covet wealth above His will for our individual lives. For this would violate the Ex 20:1-5.

So, if you are IN CHRIST (obeying the scriptures), you can say "yes!" and "amen!" to ALL His promises as stated in the Word for your life and stand on them!




saddity commented…

Very nice article...However, I need some clarity....So basically, you are saying the same things that Pastors are saying...When Pastors preach/teach on this, it is to a group of people and we as the people receive it in a whole, although being connected in that whole it is given to me....I get what you are saying regarding author, time and condition, but I guess what I don't get is that: Are you saying that I cannot use the Word of Yahweh for inspiration in my life using Jeremiah 29:11...Or are you saying that this only apply to the people (as a group) and not singular as, Jews and Gentiles...Maybe my perception of taking out of content is off....Because if Yahweh said this to a group of people, am I not in that group as an individual?
I've re-read this article a few times and the only argument/point I see is that it is not just for one person but for a group of people and that we take this as a personal word from Yahweh and should not...Hmmmm...
No argument please, just explain without taking offence to what I am asking.



saddity commented…

Also, Please understand me when I say this: Yes it is sooooo true that Leaders take scriptures out of context for their own purpose...However, Jeremiah 29:11 is not one of them...I believe to take this out of context and don't get me wrong, my perception of the word context could be off from your perception...Nevertheless, I would review it in a manner to say that it can be taken out of context (Jeremiah 29:11): Example: For I know the thoughts that I think towards you but if you don't pay your tithes, God will not have good thoughts for you..



Kyle commented…

It is so exciting to see healthy exegesis explained in Relevant Magazine! This is doing more than feeding people a fish - it's teaching them to fish. Well done!

Kris Langstaff


Kris Langstaff commented…

I appreciate the information you present. However, I have a question. I do not disagree with you that the passage was written to the nation of Israel as they were being held in Babylon. But are there principles that we can take and apply to our lives today? Using the logic you presented, that the passage was written to another group of people and not us, basically renders the gospel of Luke and all the letters of Paul useless since they were written to others.


Michael Kearney


Michael Kearney commented…

Oh man your one sorry case. Try search and doing a study on the word heart in the bible and see that to try and use intellectualism to completely understand and define a God that lives and meets us in our hearts not our heads is too miss the point. How wrong u r.

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