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?

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

Jeff

1

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!

Ashleigh Dowden

1

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 hope....no reason to mess with that. In the end it's about Love....there is nothing else.

70 Comments

Steven Paterson

4

Steven Paterson commented…

The real problem here is people deliberately take scripture out of context to support their theology. This is a serious business and it's how cults form. Poor doctrine and misunderstanding and misapplying Scripture is key to things like the prosperity gospel.

Alejandro Roberto Gonzaga

1

Alejandro Roberto Gonzaga commented…

so i guess my question is, does God have an individual plan for us or not? And I also don't think you can unilaterally say that my future is less important to God than His plan for the redemption of His people? Isn't my future a part of His redemptive plan? Am I not called to go forth and proclaim the Gospel? How can you so easily dismiss what is important to me, individually? Am I not important to God?

Ashleigh Dowden

1

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 hope....no reason to mess with that. In the end it's about Love....there is nothing else.

Michael

1

Michael commented…

To me there are 2 issues here:

CONTEXT: I completely agree we should definitely always take Scripture in context. There are dangers galore, and divisions in His Church all over from this practice. (especially regarding prophesy for Israel vs. His Church now, etc.) Moreover, there really is no need to expand our context when God so beautifully makes the same promises to us later, i.e. Romans 8:28 (or even 1 Cor 10:13). God's Word is beautiful and perfectly written as His bio to us for understanding Him, for Him to speak to us and guide us, and for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training (of course, no one particularly likes the rebuking and correcting part! :-) If "in context" keeps you grounded in His complete Word, and "out of context" has potential for confusion and harm ... why would you even consider it?

OUR EXPECTATIONS OF GOD: There is another sneaky danger lurking in the misapplication of scriptures like these though. They can seriously mess with and interfere with our expectations of God, and thus knowing Him more. Few people use Jer. 29:11 or Romans 8:28 without at least subconsciously defining what "prosper" or "good" mean. We use them for hope with very good intentions. But often we are setting ourselves (or others) up for a fall as well. We generally benefit from these scriptures (and 1 Cor. 10:13) when we are wanting deliverance from something, or hope in a severe trial. The problem is that we don't like to think of those verses when we read Fox's Book of Martyrs, or read bout missionaries slaughtered somewhere in the world, or even September 11 here in the U.S.. Those promises still held true for believers in the midst of those crisis, but few of us are willing to reconcile that. We must define "prosper" and "good" by HIS definitions, and we rarely do (me included) when we pray and use these verses in the midst of our personal trials. Are we trusting God to deliver us from pain? He doesn't promise that, in fact He promises suffering. Are we counting on financial deliverance or a windfall or prosperity? He doesn't promise or show that anywhere in His Word. Are we trusting God to deliver us from suffering? His version of deliverance may even be death. Are we ready to know THAT God? We need to. He loves us but has and always will have our ETERNAL best in mind, not the temporary and temporal we all tend to focus on. As Erwin McManus said in one of his books (paraphrased) "We all sign up for this Christian journey and want the John Plan (long healthy life of service to God) and not the Peter Package (tumultuous life of service with inverted crucifixion as our end), but the truth is we don't get to pick. Misuse of these scriptures in our own lives, to comfort others or for witnessing can set people up for a fall, and in fact distance them from God.

Michael Shinosky

1

Michael Shinosky commented…

Here's what I got out of this article: The future is our children. We must protect, guide, and nuture them in God's likeness.

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