Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context
March 22, 2013
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.