Unless you’re time traveling with Doctor Who or Sam Beckett into Israel’s Babylonian exile, hearing someone proclaim Jeremiah 29:11 over their life and future should give you just pause to utter, in true Quantum Leap fashion, “Oh, boy.” While a wonderful verse of promise and hope, it is given within a very specific context often ignored by modern Christians. The text has nothing to do with how God plans to use your overpriced liberal arts degree to prosper you and everything to do with a disobedient nation exiled.
In full disclosure, I did graduate from a Christian liberal arts college that showcased the verse on every meaningful spot on campus for all to see. One could not attend a single class without passing multiple plaques or marble inscriptions with the words: “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). For good measure, I just checked their website, and it’s still listed as their “theme verse”. Which, I’ll be a little honest, has always been slightly funny to me. Are they advertising their college-life experience to be like the Babylonian exile? Bold move, marketing team.
Their mistake (if you want to call it that) is that in isolation this verse sounds nice, encouraging, and rather general in its application. It goes well on t-shirts, trinkets, and graduation-themed bibles. However, within its original context, we quickly determine this is a promise given to a specific race of people. It’s a weighty text with decades of sadness and heartache brewing behind it. It’s honestly somewhat absurd when one considers it. We take a verse meant to offer hope to an enslaved race of people and plant it on a coffee cup with a cute font. I fear that our shallow applications of scripture are disrespectful to its author.
Starting in verse 1 of chapter 29, we learn that the prophet Jeremiah is writing a letter to “all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” So already, we have a categorical and contextual problem for our prosperous liberal arts college students. It’s just simply wrong to say this verse is about you and proclaim it over your life like a magician. Having said that, it’s important to mention that while Jeremiah 29:11 may not be about you, that doesn’t mean it’s not for you. There’s a big distinction here.
In one sense, by way of being grafted into the people of God, we can identify with this verse and recognize some personal/spiritual value. It works like a prefiguring shadow to remind us of how those in Christ are within the perfect plan of God. Consider Romans 8:28, which tells us that “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” Both verses hold up a wonderful truth that God’s people can rest within: God is for us. Still, a temptation remains to promote shallow applications and ignore some of the profound realities that surround these verses. We need to dig deeper about what it means for God to promise well-being for His people and how He uses suffering for His glory.
Let’s go back to our spiritual ancestors in Babylonian exile. If we read Jeremiah’s letter in full, we learn quickly that it was God who placed them into exile. Verse 4 reads, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile…” The sovereignty of God ordained such a thing to happen and it should go without saying it was not a pleasant experience for the children of Israel. Psalm 137 explains that the Judahites “sat and wept” as they considered their situation in Babylon. They longed to return to their homeland. This was truly a hardship in which few in western civilization can identify. They’re suffering in exile because of their unwillingness to obey the Lord that made them. For the faithful in the situation, the promise given in verse 11 offers hope. Their captivity is working for their spiritual good.
Such things should cause us to reflect on what “good” means in scripture. What does Paul mean in Romans? Does he mean health and prosperity? What God considers good may not always align with what we consider good. In fact, we are told numerous times in the bible that Christians “will be hated” and that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (Matthew 10:22 and 2 Timothy 3:12, ESV). Like Israel in their 70 years of captivity, God uses such tribulations for our eternal benefit. The world’s hatred of us is ultimately working for our good. It’s growing us, changing us, sanctifying us, and making us more Christ-like. Our sufferings force us to let go of idols and seek God above all else. When everything else is taken away, all we have is the Lord.
Like the Israelites in captivity, we can’t see or always understand what God is doing. We’re too small and finite. It is as Pastor John Piper famously once said, “God is constantly doing 10,000 things in your life and you might be aware of 3 of them.” Israel, although never abandoned by God, was given over to exile so they could learn some lessons on the importance of obedience. After many decades of captivity, Jeremiah comes to God’s people with a message of hope. He gives them instructions on how to live within their land. He tells them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:6-7). God is calling them to learn obedience within their exile.
The LORD then promises, in one of the sweetest verses in the Old Testament, that after their 70 years of captivity is completed, “you will seek me and find me” (Jeremiah 29:12). For a moment, reflect on what it must have been like to hear such a promise after being separated from your home, your God, and members of your family for decades. Despite the pain, the loneliness, and separation God never deserted them. It’s a beautiful example of redemption.
The second half of Jeremiah’s letter is directed towards those who did not join their fellow Israelites in exile. These, who remain disobedient to God’s authority, are also given a promise. However, it’s not one you find carved into marble slabs or on coffee cups. Jeremiah writes:
“…concerning your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, because they did not pay attention to my words, declares the Lord.” (29:16-19).
I think the overall lesson here is that we need to be careful when hoisting up scripture. We need to remember that all verses in the Bible have their own context, and no matter how well it might sound in speech or frame on a wall, we are being dishonest to scripture if we present it without considering its original context and/or meaning. Jeremiah 29:11 is a great example of this. The verse is simply not about us. We can learn from it, and we can apply its lessons to our lives. But we shouldn’t pretend God is promising something to us when He’s not.