“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
This verse doesn’t mean what most people think it means. The reason it takes on this “everything is great and only getting better” feel is because we read it thinking only of ourselves and our needs and what we want to hear. But we’re not thinking about who it was written to, what it was really about or what it meant to them.
So let me give you some backstory to this verse. Jeremiah was a prophet courageously speaking the message God had given him about impending judgment on the people of God. The people refused to listen. As a result the Babylonians entered Jerusalem, captured the inhabitants and burned the city to the ground.
Then another prophet by the name of Hananiah came along. Hananiah made a bold promise, “God is going to restore Israel in two years. Everything will be better and back to normal in just two short years.”
It was a lie - an empty promise. But it sure sounded good. The truth is, God had no plans to make everything better in two years. Speaking through Jeremiah, God says to Hananiah, “You’ve made these people trust in a lie.”
It was against this backdrop of false promises about prosperity in the immediate future that the promise of Jeremiah 29.11 is made. The people carried away into captivity will be in exile for 70 years. Most all of them will die in Babylon. And even when release eventually does happen, many will remain in Babylon and never see home again.
So just before Jeremiah makes this promise, he tells the people what God desires for them to do…
This is what the LORD Almighty…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.” Jeremiah 29.4-6
In other words, "You are going to be in Babylon for a very long time so you might as well get used to it and make the best of the situation.” He then added…
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. Jeremiah 29.7
Pray for their enemy? Pray for the prosperity of Babylon? God knew that during their time away, how they would fair would be tied to how the Empire that surrounded them faired. If things went well for Babylon, His people, though removed from their land, would prosper, too. By the way, this is precisely why Daniel and Nehemiah both gained such favor in exile. They looked for ways to seek and promote the welfare of the city.
This is when we read Jeremiah 29.11, I know the plans I have for you to prosper you, we assume God is going to work out everything for me in the immediate future in ways that make sense to me. We will be going home soon. These problems will be a distant memory.
But we have to be careful to avoid assuming that every promise in the Bible is about me. This verse was not written to a me but to a we. It’s not a promise by God to prosper the individuals in the audience but to prosper the community over the course of history. God did have a plan for them as a people - one that would unfold over time. But that generation would not see the ultimate unfolding happen in their lifetime.
The Bible is an amazing book – a treasure trove of truth that has the power to change your life. But it’s first and foremost REAL. It always addresses life as it actually is not as we hoped it would be.
The truth of Jeremiah 29.11 is way more comforting and practical than pretending that God always promises everyone will get a quick turn around or an easy path through life. God is always at work in every circumstance and He will provide for us no matter what the difficulty.
It’s like the Biblical definition of the word “hope.” Hope in the Bible is not a wish. It’s a certainty. But the certainty is not that my circumstances will be favorable or turn out as I expect. Hope is the confidence that God is intimately involved in our future no matter what happens. It's not a wish that things will turn out well. But the certainty that God does all things well.