A passage from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah is a favorite meme among believers. The verse can be seen on plaques, t-shirts, and Instagram posts. One person even has this verse as a tattoo. Many Christians take this verse as a promise meant just for them. Whenever we approach the Bible, we are responsible to “accurately handle the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15, NASB). Therefore, we have to ask two important questions. Is this verse a promise for Christians today? What can we learn from this prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures and the people to whom he spoke?
The verse in question is Jeremiah 29:11.
“For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, HCSB).
At first glance, this seems like a wonderful promise from God Himself. But, is it?
One principle that we should remember when approaching the Bible comes to us from Greg Koukl of the apologetics ministry Stand To Reason. Koukl reminds us to “Never Read a Bible Verse.” He explains, “Read a paragraph, at least. Always, check the context. Observe the flow of thought. Then focus on the verse.” This can give us a framework for exploring the meaning of Jeremiah 29:11.
The context of this favorite verse is a letter written by Jeremiah to those who were deported from Jerusalem to Babylon after the fall of King Jeconiah. The letter is itself interesting in the fact that Jeremiah is sending those people the Lord’s declaration in a written document. The context of the passage is, therefore, prophetic in both senses of the word, forth telling and foretelling. Jeremiah was sending God’s word to the people in exile.
The flow of thought in the passage contains several admonitions to those people in Babylon. First, God told the people to make homes for themselves in Babylon (v. 5-7). They were to be a benefit to the city in which they had been sent. God did say that He was the one who had sent deported them to that place. The deportees had been sent to Babylon because of a recurring pattern of sin and disobedience, but, they could still serve God in a place of exile. The second admonition from God was not to listen to false prophets who purported to speak for God. In a time of exile, there would be a great temptation to listen to false hope of a quick return to Jerusalem. This would not happen. There was hope, though. The exiles would stay in the land of Babylon for seventy years (v. 10). The return to Jerusalem would occur in God’s timing and according to His promise.
This brings us to the passage itself. The knowledge that God had a time for their return meant that that return would fit into His ultimate plan. In contrast to the limited view of the people in exile, God took the long view. His plan was for the ultimate welfare of the people which would give them hope. Taken in context, the people who left Jerusalem in disgrace and in exile would be chastened by their exile and punishment from God, but they would seek God. After prayer and repentance, God would restore the people to Jerusalem. Even though God had deported them, He would restore their place and their fortunes (v. 14).
What conclusions can we draw from Jeremiah 29:11 after viewing the verse in its context? The passage and verse was written to a specific group of people, the exiles in Babylon. This verse was not written to us. However, there are insights for us in Jeremiah’s prophetic letter. God does discipline His people for their sins. His discipline is meant for our benefit when we return to Him in repentance and faith. God does not leave His people alone, He always has our best interest at heart. Also, God takes a longer view rather than our limited temporal view (Is. 55:8-9).
Jeremiah 29:11 cannot be taken in isolation. There was a specific message written for those immediate recipients. Learning from those recipients can teach us as well. But we must do more work than simply reading a single verse. As Greg Koukl says, “Only when you are properly informed by God’s Word the way it is written in its context can you be transformed by it.”