For I Know the Plans I Have for… Steve?
Jeremiah 29:11 is undoubtedly one of the most misused verses in the Bible; likely second only to Matthew 7:1. You can find this verse plastered on virtually anything where you can fit print:
“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.”
It’s on graduation cards, office art, posters, keychains, rings, bookmarks, paperweights, etc. It’s always there as a standalone verse and always there with no context whatsoever. The idea behind it is that the Lord has a plan for every person at all times in all places and he wants to give you hope despite whatever difficult circumstance you find yourself facing.
It’s most definitely a nice thing to be assured of in times of difficulty, and it’s most certainly good to be able to tell people these things when they’re going through a tough time, but is this the intended meaning of this text? I don’t believe that it is and I believe that we, as Christians who claim to seek biblical fidelity, ought to stop using it in this way. If this was not how Jeremiah meant the text to be applied in his day, Christians shouldn’t apply it in this way either.
The prophet Jeremiah was called to prophesy to a people who were going to be exiled out of the land God had promised Abraham he would give to his descendants. This land was theirs according to the irrevocable promises of God. Israel had been living in this land for a significant amount of time and had lived there in whatever manner they pleased for most of that time. Having long forsaken the law that God had given them, Deuteronomy 28 could not have possibly been further from the minds of the people or the minds of the prophets who prophesied nothing but good things.
In Deuteronomy 28, Yahweh made the promise that if the Israelites were obedient to the covenant he made with them, they would remain in the land given to them and they would prosper there. The converse was also true – that if they were disobedient to the covenant, their enemies would conquer them and Israel would be driven from the land. Over the course of the next 800 years, leaders in Israel would rise and fall, some doing wicked and some doing good. But once Jeremiah appears, the southern kingdom of Israel, known as Judah, had had a series of kings who had forsaken the Lord. And thus, the promise of exile was the message that Jeremiah had for the king.
In order to understand Jeremiah 29:11, there are several bits of historical context we must keep in mind.
In Jeremiah 21, King Zedekiah requests that Jeremiah intercede on behalf of the nation and inquire of the Lord whether or not he will deliver Israel from the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah then informs Zedekiah that the Lord will give Jerusalem into the hands of the Babylonians. By chapter 24, Jeremiah’s prophecy had come true and the exile had commenced. Nebuchadnezzar had defeated Jerusalem and the people were being carried away to Babylon. Jeremiah then prophesies in chapter 25 that the Jews will remain in captivity for seventy years but that the Lord would bring them back home to their land afterwards.
In chapter 28, a false prophet named Hananiah arises and states that God will actually deliver the Jews after only two years of captivity and then they will come back into their land. At first, even Jeremiah hopes that Hananiah’s prophecy will return true but by the end of chapter 28, Jeremiah prophesies the death of Hananiah stating that “The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies” and “this very year, I am going to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year, you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.”
Once the reader finally gets to Jeremiah 29, Jeremiah sends a command from God to the Jews. A command that assured them that Hananiah was wrong about how long they’d be in Babylon. God says,
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.
The Lord commands the Israelites to increase their number while they are in exile. He commands these things because they are, in fact, going to be in Babylon for a very long time. And then the Lord gives an astonishing command for them while they’re living there:
Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. Yes this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them.”
This is the absolute last thing that the people of Israel wanted to hear. They liked the prophecy that Hananiah had given. The people and kings and priests had encouraged Hananiah to have that sort of prophecy. They wanted God to overthrow the Babylonians in short order and bring them back into their homeland. They wanted to come back in two years. They wanted their own nation and they certainly didn’t want to be ruled by the Babylonians. Far be it from them to encourage the prosperity of their enemies! The Israelites did not want to seek out the welfare of such a barbarous nation who was God’s instrument of executing judgment upon them. The people wanted Hananiah’s prophecy to be true – not Jeremiah’s. They did not want God’s commands. They did not want God’s plans. And they certainly didn’t want God’s future.
And then we have our text. The Lord continues to come to Jeremiah’s defense against Hananiah, saying,
When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to 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 will bring you back from captivity.
When Jeremiah gave this bit of information for the first time – that God has a plan for them – it was news of God’s faithfulness to fulfill the covenant promises that he made to Abraham and to the promise he made to bring them back into their land. This, in and of itself, cannot be applied to us at all. America is not Israel. The hope and future was for Israel. Not for us nationally as Americans.
Further, this news was good news for Israel as a nation but it was not the news that the faithless nation wanted to hear. When Jeremiah said this, it was actually the opposite of what they wanted to hear. What they wanted to hear was that the plan of Hananiah would come to fruition – not that they would be carried off and remain in exile for the next 70 years and “prosper” in a foreign land!
Think of what this meant for the people hearing it.
It meant that the promised future would come about 70 years later. It would come about once this generation was dead. God’s plan and future for these people was that they would continue on into exile and that they would die there. This was not a comfort to them. The promise to come back into the land was for the generations who would follow. This text did not mean that everything was working out for their benefit.
And after 70 years, Jeremiah’s prophesy does come true. Daniel 9 fulfills Jeremiah 29. Daniel prays to the Lord, the Lord listens, and Ezra and Nehemiah recount the faithfulness of God in bringing the Jews back into the land and allowing them to reconstruct Jerusalem. (Interestingly enough, at this point, most of the Jews don’t actually want to come back.)
Today, when someone quotes Jeremiah 29:11, they undoubtedly have good intentions. Knowing that God has our benefit in mind is most assuredly good news. And God indeed knows the plans that he has for us. This is a comforting and reassuring thought.
But the faulty interpretation promoted on graduation cards cannot and should not be applied to us as individuals. First, the promise was for God’s people Israel when it was given and second, Israel didn’t even want that promise. This faulty interpretation is actually more along the lines of Hananiah’s prophecy – that God has a plan for us but we can reject his command and his word given to us. This couldn’t be further from what it meant to those who originally heard it. Before the promise would be true in Daniel’s day, the people would have to seek the Lord with all their hearts.
Am I saying that God does not have a plan for us? Far from it. Am I saying that God doesn’t work all things for the good of those who love him? Absolutely not.
What I am saying is that we, as Christians, should not use texts where the original audience rejected God’s plans, future, and commands as the confirmation text that our plan for our lives is God’s plan for our lives. I am saying that the promise for Israel (who had rejected Yahweh) should not be applied to Christians living in America (or anywhere else for that matter) because that promise simply doesn’t apply. God indeed has a plan for our lives – but let’s use the appropriate texts to support it.
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