An Honest Look at Jeremiah 29:11

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I think that I had Jeremiah 29:11 memorized before I was even a Christian. I met Jesus after my dad battled (and beat) cancer, so during that season, both strangers and friends were quick to share Jeremiah 29:11 with me. At the time, I appreciated the little token of hope that came with the verse, and genuinely held onto what it seems to promise when it stands alone. But now, I know that there's a lot more to Jeremiah 29:11 than what our culture has diminished it to. I know that might come as a shock to some of you, but fret not, friends, and make sure to read all of what's to come.

One of my best friends, Nathan, is a Christian studies major who knows what's up. He's spent his time at MC studying the Bible and its languages, and he knows a lot more than I do about this kind of stuff. He's gifted in a lot of ways, but a special thing happens when Nathan opens his Bible and begins to teach the Scriptures. This is good news for y'all, because we sat down and walked through through the book of Jeremiah, and the real meaning behind the too-well-known verse, Jeremiah 29:11.

‘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.’
— Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)

Today, we're going to walk you through that stuff, too. We're going to go through the context for Jeremiah 29:11, and the common misconceptions and disregarded realities of the verse, but we're also going offer you some tips for how to read the Bible. 

Context for the Book of Jeremiah

Who wrote it? Jeremiah was a prophet called by God to warn the Israelites of breaking their covenant with God because of their continual sin. Jeremiah predicted that God was going to judge His people by allowing the Babylonians to destroy their native land and take them into captivity.

What is it? The book of Jeremiah is an anthology (a collection of collections) that is made up of historical narratives, poems, messages to both individuals and to nations, as well as oral and written sermons that were preached by Jeremiah himself.

When was it written? The book is set during a chaotic time after the fall of the Assyrians and the rise of the Babylonians. In the midst of the chaos, Israel had been unfaithful to the covenant of Yahweh; they were worshipping other gods, failing to properly care for the orphans, widows, and sojourners, and they were even practicing child sacrifice. Their actions brought God's judgement on them. BUT, don't worry, it's not just a book of bad news about God's judgement on His people. Jeremiah is also laced with messages of how God will bring restoration and redemption to the people of Israel. 

Why was it written? Jeremiah wanted to leave a record of the events that took place and well as God's message to his people and nations during that time, and the messages for the future.

So, why can't i use Jeremiah 29:11 on it's own?

What we think the verse means: When you take the verse on its own (which you shouldn't do), it can become a sort of pacifier for hard times. We take the "you" in the verse to mean "me," and we can lead ourselves to believing that, because of what Jeremiah 29:11 says, the difficult season will end soon, and the ending will be nice and pretty and good.

What it doesn't mean: Jeremiah 29:11 isn't God telling us that He has a step-by-step plan for everyday of our lives. In reality, the verse isn't even talking to "us." The second person pronoun "you" in the verse is actually plural in Hebrew. So, God is essentially saying, "I know the plans I have for y'all," and He's speaking to the Israelites while they're in captivity, not to you and me. It's not God telling the Israelites (or us) that things are about to get better, or telling us that all of life is going to be easy. 

Why it doesn't mean those things: The verses surrounding 29:11 give us a clearer idea of what it actually means. I could go into a lot of the context of the verse, but for the sake of length, I'm going to condense it.

Let's look at the whole paragraph (v10-14):
“For thus says the Lord: 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. 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. 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." (ESV)

Does that help? Jeremiah 29 is a letter to the Israelites who are currently in exile. The whole letter is God speaking to His people through Jeremiah, telling them that, eventually (so like after they die, and their children die, and more bad stuff happens), things are going to get better. In verses 5-7, God even tells them to invest in the city where they're in exile. So verse 11 is just a small piece of this greater piece of discourse that is specifically for the exiled Israelites, not for me and you during a hard season. 

Then what can we take away from it? 

  1. When we're in a hard season, we shouldn't look for a quick escape. // Jeremiah 29:4-7
  2. God is always faithful to His promises, even if He doesn't fulfill them in the way we imagine He will. // Jeremiah 29:10
  3. God promises hope, but that doesn't mean that the product of that hope will be seen immediately. Keep in mind that when God tells the Israelites that He has a hope for them, they're in captivity... and they die there. // Jeremiah 29:11
  4. We can't expect God to bless us if we're serving other gods (read: addiction to technology and social media, lust, gossip, significant other, pride, etc.) and not caring for the orphan or the widow. (Disclaimer: If you aren't doing those things it doesn't mean that you'll receive immediate rewards, either. Also, this doesn't mean that our sin negates God's faithfulness to us and His continual grace.) // Jeremiah 29:12-14 

Practical Tips for Reading the Bible

  1. When you begin reading a book of the Bible, ask these basic questions: 
    • Who wrote the book?
    • What is the purpose of the book? What type of literature is the book? Is it a letter, historical narrative, is it poetic, etc.? 
    • When was it written? Here, look at the historical setting, what was going on with the intended audience, what theological issues were they dealing with, what societal issues were going on, etc.)
    • Why was it written? Why did the author feel that it was necessary to write it?
  2. Read the entire book in one sitting, verse by verse, in order to get the whole picture. (Tip: Start with smaller books before you dive into one that would take you hours to read.) Picking and choosing random verses might seem like a good idea, but it leads to faulty interpretation. Remember, the authors didn't write random verses, they wrote entire books. 
    • This doesn't mean that we shouldn't spend a lot of time on just one passage or a couple verses, but before we do that we need to have a good understanding of how that passage fits into the whole book.
  3.  Don't build your theology on one verse. There may be some verses that stick out more than others, but you should always read them in their context. 
  4. Allow the Bible to inform your opinions instead of reading the Bible through the lens of your opinions. 

Resources for Bible Reading:

  • The Bible Project  || This site has incredible videos that answer the who, what, when, and where questions about each book and give you a quick run through of the book.
  • A Free Study Bible || All you have to do is register and you'll have access to verse by verse notes, detailed introductions to every book of the Bible, and much more.

I hope that you, like me, learned a thing (or twelve) about the book of Jeremiah, and specifically about how Jeremiah 29:11 doesn't mean what most people think it means. Yes, we serve a good God with good plans for us, but at the end of the day, our only hope is Jesus. 

Stay great, friends. 
Ashton & Nathan

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