It’s a favourite verse for Christians in almost every culture. We see it on church signs, stamped on coffee mugs and t-shirts, embossed on greeting cards – some even tattoo it on their body (really). But the question is, what is this promise all about? I wonder how many have actually read Jeremiah 29 and understood it’s context. Because if they did, we might see some of those signs comes down.
Let me say at the outset here – I’m not wanting to be a killjoy. I love the promises of God. I have memorized a number of them myself – Romans 5:1, Proverbs 3:5-6, Psalm 32:8, John 16:24 to name just a few. But we ought to be good students of the Word of God. We should do our best to interpret it correctly. We shouldn’t treat it like Aesop’s fables and make say whatever we want.
Here’s the problem: there is the constant temptation whenever we open up the bible, to look for something that might be uplifting and positive, that will make us feel better and send us off for the day in a positive frame of mind. There’s nothing wrong with that in of itself. But not everything we find in the bible is “uplifting” and positive. Not everything is meant to make you feel better (in fact some parts are intended to make you feel worse). And furthermore – and this one might surprise you – it’s not always about you.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a perfect case in point.
Jeremiah was a prophet during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.) – the last of the good kings in Judah. Following his death political, moral, social and spiritual decay set in, until finally God said ‘enough is enough’. Within two decades Jerusalem was sacked and the people were hauled off to Babylon. That’s the settings that we find Jeremiah 29.
In chapter 28 we meet Hananiah, one of Judah’s seers or prophets. He is standing in the temple of Jerusalem – or what’s left of it, because the Babylonians had mostly destroyed it. Hananiah makes a bold promise: God is going to restore Israel in two years. Everything that has been taken will be returned, including all the people who were taken into slavery. In two short years everything will be better. God is going to make it better.
The problem was he wasn’t telling the truth. Everything wouldn’t be better. And the people would not be returning.
So God tells Jeremiah, “You go and tell that prophet: the Lord has not sent you Hananiah, and you are leading these people to trust in a lie” (Jer. 28:15). Oh, and one other thing – tell him by the end of the year he’ll be dead. Chapter 28 ends with, “And the prophet Hananiah died that year in the seventh month” (verse 15). Lesson? Don’t tell people God said things he hasn’t said. He doesn’t like it.
But we see it today don’t we? Modern-day Hananiahs prophesying the same thing – God wants to prosper you. God is going to make all things go well for you. He’s got a blank check ready for you. And people love it. They lap it up. They want their lives to be full of blessing. They want to be happy and healthy. They don’t want suffering and pain. So of course Hananiah-type prophets are going to be popular. They are telling people exactly what they want to hear.
But not what they need to hear.
Then we come to Jeremiah 29. Jeremiah sends a letter to the elders who are in exile in Babylon that says something like, “You’re in Babylon because I sent you there and you’re going to stay there for the next 70 years. Build houses, plant gardens, and have kids. You’re going to die in Babylon. Your children are going to die in Babylon. So settle in.” Imagine if you were one of the exiles and you hear that. That’s not good news. It sounds like real bad news. You’ve lost your home, your possessions and you’ve been thrown out of your country. You’re living amongst your enemies. And God says, “Get used to it.”
It is in this setting that the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is given:
“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.”
These would not be easy words to hear. God made a wonderful promise for his people. But most would not see it fulfilled in their lifetime. It was a future promise, for his people.
Does this mean therefore this promise has no relevance for the Christian today? By no means! Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20,
“For every one of God’s promises is “Yes” in Him. Therefore, the “Amen” is also spoken through Him by us for God’s glory”
In other words, because of Jesus and what he has done, everything that God meant to be fulfilled for his people Israel is now going to be fulfilled in his New Covenant people. Even Gentiles inherit these promises, through faith in Jesus. So yes, God does have plans for our welfare; we do have a future and a hope, which is bound up in our union with Christ. But that’s plans do not exempt us from pain and suffering. In fact, they include pain and suffering. Paul says in Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus calls us to deny self, take up our cross and follow him. That’s not a call to pain-free living.
I’ll leave you with a little clip from John Piper. He does a great job in explaining how Christians CAN claim the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, when they understand it in light of the cross and the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
After you’ve watched that, then you can see that Jeremiah 29:11 is in fact about you, just in a different way than you thought. You can even wear the t-shirt.