“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.
Such a comforting verse. We trot out Jeremiah 29:11 like a “break glass in case of fear” extinguisher. When our lives seem to devolve into chaos, when we’re confronted with a fork in a murky road, or when we just need reminding that God’s in control, we turn to this verse. And why not? What could be more reassuring that our God is both completely in control and completely for us?
A friend was deciding what college to attend. The choice before her was either a state university or a trendy private Christian one. Being the ambitious and spiritual type, she wanted the Christian one. I probably would, too. As so many high school graduates do, when the choice seemed to swell and get too big in her mind, she would invoke Jeremiah 29:11 (amongst other verses) in order to find peace as she sought God’s will.
Although she was not demanding one choice from God, she – and I watching her, and many others before and since – was about to glean the true lesson of Jeremiah 29:11.
It’s not what you think.
I’d hate to have Jeremiah’s prophetic assignment. He got to minister to Judah as she was exiled by Babylon, the price of centuries’ worth of mind-numbing defiance to God, not to mention common decency (child sacrifice? Good night). Next time a skeptic tells you that the God of the Old Testament is insecure and easily triggered, tell ’em that it took 400 years for God to actually pull the trigger on his threatened judgment.
Besides, Judah knew the terms of the deal. Obey, and they would be blessed (and were blessed under Solomon); disobey, and they would be judged. It’s not like they could be surprised.
That message was Jeremiah’s job. Babylon sacked Jerusalem and exiled the majority of the nation back to its own borders – a traumatic event – and it was Jeremiah’s thankless calling to remind the refugees why it all happened. Talk about finally having gotten their attention. The length of the exile? 70 years. Again, given 400 years of buildup, it could have been worse. For his difficult message (and the many irritated plots to take his life), Jeremiah became known as the “weeping prophet”. Pro tip: don’t shoot God’s messengers.
A guy named Hananiah learned that last part too late. By Jeremiah’s 28th chapter, Judah was raising their heads in hope of a reprieve from their exile, and Hananiah, another prophet, was telling them what they wanted to hear:
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the articles of the Lord’s house that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon removed from here and took to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jehoiachin son of Jehoiakim king of Judah and all the other exiles from Judah who went to Babylon,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’” (Jeremiah 28:2-4)
In other words, a 68-year commuting of a 70-year sentence? Babylon’s strutting king getting humbled before a divine flash of power? Hot dog! Don’t bother setting roots down in Babylon, exiles, we’ll be going home before you know it.
Except, to get the title of “genuine prophet of God”, you have to first, you know, be right. Hananiah got right up in Jeremiah’s face in his insistence that Judah would be heading home after no more than a divine wrist-slap. Jeremiah, for his part, would’ve been perfectly happy to see it happen (v.6). But having enough of a clue to separate God’s desires from his own, he went back and checked with God first.
God responded with Jeremiah 29:11…and the seven verses before it.
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘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. 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,’ declares the Lord.
This is what the Lord says: ‘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.'” (Jeremiah 29:4-11)
Judah wouldn’t be wriggling out of its sentence early after all; each of the 70 years of exile would be served. That meant two entire generations would die in captivity, never again to see their homeland. And to seal the prophecy, God killed Hananiah for his false one.
The true message of Jeremiah 29:11 is this: “Yes, there’s a plan. But it’s not the one you wanted.”
Deep breath. Are we surrendered enough to hear that word from God for our situations?
In case you’re struggling, the message got better. God not only promised a plan, he promised a good one. Mercy in the midst of judgment. He told Judah to get back to multiplying thing, and in the meantime, he’d already planted the seeds of Israel’s prosperity by positioning a certain young Hebrew, a talented and promising fellow, among the exiles. His name was Daniel. By the time all was said and done, Daniel was largely running the show in Babylon and her later conqueror, Persia, leaving a trail of heathen kings bending the knee to the one true God (see: fiery furnace, lion’s den, writing on the wall, various dream interpretations, etc.).
And when the seventy years were up, Judah did indeed return home.
And my friend? She ended up going to the state university. She was a little bummed. But she went, and it was all quite brilliant. She had a blast for four years, graduated, and met her perfect fit of a future husband. No regrets.
This is why it’s so important to know the context of a verse. When you examine the story around it, its deeper meaning becomes clear and prevents misapplication. Jeremiah 29:11 doesn’t promise you the plan you want, but the plan God decides. It doesn’t promise prosperity of the body or the bank account (which is how it’s abused by Hananiahs in the church, to the grief of God and the woe of unsuspecting believers), but prosperity of the soul. It promises that if hold your plans loosely and let God pick, you will find life there – and nowhere else.
Even in disappointment, you can trust his heart. He’s better than you think.
And don’t forget to read on past verse 11. It gets even better.
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)