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

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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.

Jeff

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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!

95 Comments

Tomás González

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Tomás González commented…

Jeremiah 29:11 talks about the love of God to certain people in certain period of time. However: 1) That's the same love God has for me and you; 2) You and I are also the same people: the people of God, and 3) we are currently living times not too different than the people in Jeremiah: under a foreign kingdom, with hopes of the kingdom to come.
Therefore --although it is always useful to look at the context-- anyone who is in Christ can be sure that this text is speaking directly to them.
That doesn't mean God is eager to give you everything you expect to have, even if it may be harmful for you. But it must fill our hearts with joy over the things to come --in this life and the next.

Paige Robillard

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Paige Robillard commented…

... So basically it still means what we think it does then. In my experiences and conversations with friends and scholars alike where this verse is mentioned, we've been speaking of trusting in God for the long-term and unknown future, and we are discussing things communally and in regards to God's plans for "us" as a whole. So, yep.

Aside from that, I think it is important to note that God refreshes promises throughout various circumstances as well. Have you ever read a verse/chapter/passage and had God speak to you through it, then read it again a year later and heard something totally different from it? That's because God's word is LIVING and BREATHING. He teaches us actively through it TODAY. That means no matter the context, it can mean something different to us/me any given day depending on what the Lord feels I should be taught that day. Obviously it is good and important to educate yourself on the context and original message of the writing always, but if you believe God has something to tell you today, be open to his moving, living, pulsing voice.

Joshua Morgan

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Joshua Morgan commented…

This verse is certainly one that is taken out of context, but its certainly beautiful. If you put it in context it actually is a lot more beautiful than even you are giving it credit for. In Jeremiah 29:10-14 God confirms for Israel that they will be in exile for 70 years like you pointed out, and that at the end of that 70 years he will gather them, again like you said. However in Daniel 9 Daniel realizes that the 70 years are almost up so he begins to pray for his people. And Gabriel appears to him and gives him a message from the Lord, announcing that another period of 70 weeks, or 70 "sevens" is at hand until God completes what he said he would do in Jeremiah 29:11. 70 "sevens is 490, and about 470 years later Gabriel again showed up with something to say, to a young girl named Marry telling her she will give birth to a boy. 490 years later that boy was crucified on a Roman cross, came back from the dead and started to gather his people from all over the world. All of that said if we take this back to Jeremiah 29:11 we can see that God did have a plan for his people to prosper, and his name is Jesus.

James Lu

1

James Lu commented…

I do not see how taking in the full context of the text (Jeremiah 29, but I'll focus on vs 1-23) diminishes or changes the intent of Jeremiah 29:11 on a personal level. When God speaks to a nation, He isn't just speaking AT a group of people, He is speaking to all the individuals that make up the nation. A nation cannot move forwards if there is no buy in from the individuals that make up the nation.

When I read this, I read the following (in short form)

1) God is carrying out His discipline over Israel for being a disobedient nation by handing them over to Babylon.

Personal take away - when we grieve our Lord, we will eventually be disciplined

2) During Israel's time of discipline (those that subjected themselves to God's discipline, knowing they had done wrong in God's eyes), God still expects them to be obedient, and He still loves them. Telling them to live and grow in Babylon is both a command and a blessing.

Personal Takeaway - when we are not right with God, and are in a time of discipline, God still loves us, and still blesses us in the situation we are in. God is our Loving Father. Of COURSE He will discipline us if we fall out of line. Of course we are still expected to adhere to His will at this time.

3) Despite being in an undesirable situation, Israel is expected be a peacekeeper of the Lord, and pray for the prosperity of the city, because if the city prospers, they prosper.

Personal Takeaway - I live in a broken and non-ideal world. But I am a part of this world, and I should continue to try to live out the Kingdom of Heaven on this world, and pray for our nations' leaders and influencers.

4) God warns Israel to beware of the false prophets and diviners that would lead them away from God's will/purpose/path (not exactly sure which) for them.

Personal Takeaway - I need to be diligent and actively seek to discern God's voice amidst all the media voices, truth twisters, both in and out of church so that I do not fall into the trap of living apart from God. How? Read scripture, pray, fellowship, etc. etc.

5) After 70 yrs in Babylon (of discipline), God will fulfill His promise to His people. He already has plans for them that will prosper them and protect them and give them hope for the future.

Personal Takeaway - Just as God had grand plans for His people as a nation, God has a plan for me personally in the same manner. The disciplinary measures I was put though will shape me to be a more obedient follower of Christ. We may not see what the plans He has for us are, but they are there, and God ultimately blesses those He loves. Taken in light of all the findings above, this verse becomes even more significant to me

6)Those that remained in Israel, who are not obedient to God's disciplinary action (exile), who wallow in debauchery, lies, etc, will be face the full wrath of God.

Personal Takeaway - I can only nod in agreement. How often have I disobeyed my parents, run away from responsibility and accountability, and faced even more severe consequences of my actions?

7)To those people/false prophets/false teachers who would seek to lead the people of Israel away from God, a heavy, vengeful curse is placed on them.

Personal Takeaway - Don't do it. Strive to live in a Christ-like manner. Don't knowingly lead people astray, or my punishment will be even more severe.

See? I agree that everything we read from the Bible needs context, but in this case, I feel that it enhances Jeremiah 29:11 for me on a personal level even more than if it were read alone, as not only do I have the encouragement of God's promise/plans for me in the future, but I have glimpsed at a little bit about the character of God. What's more personal than having God's character revealed to us?

Nathan Rosane

1

Nathan Rosane commented…

You say that this has to do with the "body of Christ" that Paul talks about. Then why in acts Paul speaks about the "Church the body of Christ" is the fulfillment of a secret that was hidden since the beginning of time.
I agree full heartedly that the context is absolutely needed when reading and studying the bible however, Jeremiah was talking to the Jews as were every promise given until Paul was introduced to the picture to "long suffering" the kingdom gospel and insert the age of gentile grace.

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