Often times, people tend to look at a Scriptural text without having any interest in the context of the passage. Instead, the passage is used to reflect one’s own view or to teach something that is not the intended meaning for the text. I call these specific texts that are associated with improper exegesis “misread texts”, for most of the time they are indeed misread. This will be a recurring series on the blog as there are far too many verses to deal with in one post.
Jeremiah 29:11 is typically referred to as a “life verse” for many Christians. As a social media user I have seen more posts with this verse on Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and Instagram profiles than I could possibly count. Indeed the verse contains an encouraging message of hope in God’s future plans. The passage shows a great significance of God’s involvement with the intended audience. Not only that, the passage indicates a specific hope to the people Jeremiah was writing to, a hope of a prosperous future.
The problem is not necessarily in how people feel encouraged by the text. The Bible is full of encouraging passages that strengthen a believer’s faith and assures him or her of the promises that God has made. However, the problem is that many people believe that Jeremiah 29:11 is talking directly to them. They believe that the verse is a unique promise to anyone who reads the verse. So then, the view is held that God has a specific plan that contains prosperity and wonderful things for people who believe in God. The idea is that we are to trust in God’s plan, as He seems to assure anyone who reads the verse that God does not will for bad, but only good things to happen to us.
This expectation is strange considering the things that many of the children of God endure. In Hebrews 11:35-38, we are introduced to the history of suffering that great men and women of the faith suffered through. Among some of these hardships were torture, imprisonment, flogging, stoning, slain by the sword, being sawn into two, and (the most ironic suffering above all) poverty. Where was God’s promise mentioned in Jeremiah 29:11 when His apostles and prophets were fearful for their lives because of their dedication to the Gospel?
Even today, millions of Christians all around the world suffer from persecution for the faith they hold dear. The name of Jesus never ceases to be proclaimed from their lips, but neither do the counter attacks of Satan against the church. As Christians still suffer, sometimes in the same ways as the apostles and prophets did, we tend to wonder what God is doing. Worst of all, we can have the temptation of questioning Him and demanding His explanation.
Maybe it’s a good idea to rethink what many people’s life verse actually means. What if the cliché Bible verse that is prominently featured on so many tea cups and coffee mugs is trying to communicate something in a much larger context? Could it be that we have been misusing a text to try and justify ambition and idolatry of money, self, and comfort? In context of the message in Jeremiah 29, it sure seems that way. I strongly believe Evangelicalism has been so caught up with the idea of wealth, health, and prosperity that we have forgotten the significance of Jeremiah 29:11. Not even intending to study the given text, we have directed all of our attention to our own esteem rather than to use the text to glorify God.
To understand clearly the intention that God had for the misread text, we must look at it in context to the whole message. Beginning from Jeremiah 29:8-9 (ESV) it says, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them,’ declares the Lord.” The first thing that is mentioned is that there are false prophets that are present. At the time, the Israelites couldn’t believe that God could banish them from the land He promised to give them. The false prophets would advise the children of Israel not to settle as they taught that soon God would defeat the Babylonians and everything would go back to normal.
Just as in today’s day, people are very much worried about their own prosperity. Just as in the same way we become deceived by flattering talk to our itching ears, the Israelites believed that God would work exactly as the Israelites expected Him to work. They saw God as a genie who would fulfill their every wish. They believed God’s plans revolved around His people. God then rebukes these messages of false assurance and tells them to not even begin to listen to man-made tales and fables.
Contrary to the message of a short captivity that the false prophets brought, God says in Jeremiah 29:10 (ESV), “‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.'” Notice how God begins to assure the people that it would be a great deal of time before He would fulfill His promise. Nevertheless, God makes it clear that He will fulfill His promise, but only through His direct involvement with Israel. He wants to communicate to Israel that it is not by their works that anything will granted, but only by His grace and His sovereign will.
This then brings us to the famous Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV): “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.'” God makes it clear that it is not by the word of the false prophets, or by the expectation of the people. He sovereignly declares everything that is to happen, and He is now bestowing mercy. This is not because He is a God that is influenced by man’s commands, but because He is merciful and wants to glorify His name while fulfilling a great purpose.
The question that must now be asked is this: what is the hope that God speaks of? What does that future, which God describes as being a prosperous one, exactly look like? This is answered in Jeremiah 29:12-14 (ESV), “‘Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.'”
The message of Jeremiah 29:11 is not that God works so that we may be pleased, but that God will do everything according to His purpose. As one can imagine, Israel didn’t expect, let alone want, for God to send them to exile. Notice how God tells the Israelites that He orchestrated their exile into Babylon, that He had driven them away from their beloved nation, and that He took away their riches. Now God is trying to preach a message that is constantly reminded in Scripture: the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.
So, we are being taught not to seek prosperity, but rather to look to Christ’s all sufficient word. God advises us to look to Him so that He would be the sole person who shall receive all praise, glory, and honor for all that He does. It is by His word that He creates and destroys. I am saddened about how the majority of Christians have come to the belief that Jeremiah 29:11 speaks about God’s desire to bring prosperity and a hope that we desire.
I believe that rather than taking that kind of view, maybe we should believe in what the passage as a whole implies: God is in control and we are to obey Him, even when it is difficult to understand. Though He may slay us and lead us through dark paths, our lips must praise the Lord forevermore as we hold to the hope of a better life that is in store. We are exiles in a strange land, but one day Christ will return to take us back home after God’s plan has been fulfilled for the world.
Soli Deo Gloria.