Reference: Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)
I want to know, is this verse for EVERYONE? I mean, does God really have plans for EVERYONE to prosper? Because it seems to me like he doesn’t. I’m curious as to who Jeremiah was written and the context and all that stuff.
This is one of my all time favorite passages. But before I slip into Bible geek mode I want to clarify that, yes, God does have plans for us and they are plans to prosper us. God wants our restoration, he desires our healing, he desires our reconciliation. Sometimes we don’t experience any of that until we see Jesus face to face, but in the end God’s plans will be realized, and the hope we have in Jesus will be a physical reality as well as a spiritual reality (see post on present suffering).
Jeremiah 29:11 is so beautifully articulated through the prophet that we love to memorize it and make it into songs. That said, it is often misinterpreted because we remove it from its context. Jeremiah was not speaking to you and me, he was speaking to the people of Judah who were being exiled to Babylon (a long long way from home, see map). Specifically, he is trying to set the record straight because some other prophets have been giving bad information to the people. Look at Jeremiah Chapter 28. In this Chapter we see the prophet Hananiah who is falsely telling the people of Israel that they will only be in Babylon for 2 years. He’s lying. Jeremiah (the true prophet) knows that the people will be there longer than one generation (70 years). That is what Jeremiah 29 is all about. He is telling the people to settle in, build homes, get married…ultimately the message is be a blessing to Babylon (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Being a blessing to the people around them is supposed to be the whole mission of Israel as a nation (Genesis 12:1-3), Jeremiah’s message reminds them that their mission doesn’t stop just because they are living in a different place.
When the Lord says through Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you,” he is not suggesting that bad things will never happen to the people. Obviously that’s not true because he is saying it to them right in the midst of one of the most traumatic moments in their history. No, he says this to them so that they will find peace (“shalom”) in the midst of their trials. The kind of peace that reminds them that God is in control, that he will not leave them, and that restoration will come.
So what are the plans that God has for Israel? Well, the plans have never changed. God had promised from the beginning that he would give them land (Genesis 17:8), and that they would be a blessing to the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3), a blessing that we now know is Jesus Christ himself. The plans had not changed, and God is reassuring them that he knows the plan, an it’s a good one.
So what does this mean for us? For one thing, it means that we should be seeking to be a blessing to the people around us, our communities, our schools, our under-resourced neighbors. That’s what Jeremiah was telling the people, that they should be “seeking the prosperity of the city”, and Babylon was their great enemy, wow! God wants our lives to be a blessing to others, even our enemies.
God is also teaching his people that they shouldn’t be looking for a quick fix. Quick fixes are the words of politicians and false profits (see Jeremiah 28). But the people were going into exile for 70 years!!! You think you’ve got problems? Try getting dragged from your home by an army into a land that wants to strip you of your culture and indoctrinate your children. Yet in the midst of such trials, God reminds us “I’m in control”, “I’ve got the screenplay”, “I know the plans”. The idea that God has plans for us that will give us hope and a future, we also need to be prepared for the fact that their future, their hope, may not be realized until long after we are dead. The reality is that many Israelites died while in Babylon. If you left your home when you were 30 years old, you could count on the fact that you were never going to see home again. BUT, your children will. For us when we thing of the future we are usually only thinking of our own life, but God sees lives and generations beyond our own. Remember, he is much bigger than us, so when he says to the people, “I have plans for your future”, he sees a MUCH bigger future than we do.
Lastly, the idea of ‘prosperity’ can be confusing. The NIV translates the Hebrew word shalom as ‘prosper’ here, the NLT translates it as ‘good’. Both are true, but neither captures the full picture of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’. This word is a theologically loaded word that is so much more than a modern Hebrew greeting, more than just ‘peace’, and more than experiencing a good life. The idea of shalom refers to whole-world restoration, wholeness, fullness, completeness. It is a communal word that looks forward to the welfare and health of the nation and indeed the world. It has cosmic implications, not just individual implications.
At the end of the day the truth of this passage (though not spoken to us) should teach us that God is in control. Even when the situation is as bad as it could possibly get, like it was for Israel at this time, we should trust that God is intimately aware of our situation and that his big-picture plans will not be thwarted. The sovereignty of God (his incontroledness), should give us great hope. When it seems like life is falling apart he still holds us close to him, he cares for us, even to the point of death. Jeremiah 29:11 is a powerful reminder of that hope.