Jeremiah 29:11 – a verse out of context?

When it comes to singling out and “claiming” verses of scripture, proponents of the Word of Faith movement don’t have a monopoly. From Conservative to Charismatic, Evangelical to Eastern Orthodox, Christians love clinging onto comforting extracts from the Word of God. And this is right and commendable.As the Psalmist says,

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.

– Psalm 119:11, ESV

Hope (street sign)
Street sign in Mt. View, California, by Michael Toy.
Used with permission.
Taking in scripture, meditating on it, burying it deep within us, planting it as a seed that will grow and flourish – this is the stuff of mature Christianity. But this does not insulate us from our own wickedness and our tendency to misappropriate things for our own evil ends. Not everything that looks good is good. My parents always said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The bible says “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6b, ESV). After all, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18b, ESV).

And so, just because we’re quoting scripture, we should not assume we’re in the right, handling it appropriately or given a licence to interpret or apply it however we see fit. As a dear friend of my often says, a text out of context is a pretext for a proof text.

Perhaps a good example of this kind of mishandling is the modern use of Isaiah 53:5: “with his wounds we are healed” (ESV). Countless times I have heard it preached, “by his stripes you have been healed. So all you have to do is claim your healing,” turning the gospel of grace into a gospel of works. Christ’s healing act is completed by my “work” of claiming that healing. It’s not good theology. It’s not even good logic.

We know from experience and more importantly from the example of scripture (the apostle Paul with his thorn in the flesh, perhaps) that devout, godly people often walk through life with lingering injuries or infirmity. Whether or not they “claim their healing”, or “stand on his promises”.

God does not always choose to withdraw the thorn. Not on our timescale anyway. I, a father of two boys with profound disabilities, know this only too well. Is this God’s punishment for us? Or them? (If you’re not sure of the answer, have a look at the story in John 9 of the man born blind, paying particular attention to verse 3.)

God will be God.

Jeremiah 29:11 then. That’s a favourite. And rightly so – it’s a wonderful verse in an enlightening passage.

“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 29:11 NIV

Though my usual weapon of choice is the ESV, I’ve chosen the NIV for this quote. The ESV translates this “plans for welfare and not for evil”, but I generally encounter “plans to prosper you and not to harm you”. When I hear Christians use the word “prosper”, there’s a part of me that braces itself for what comes next. Not because it’s a bad word or a poor translation (I am not qualified to judge that), but because it’s so often poorly understood. Those who preach a “prosperity” gospel would do well to spend some time in the slums of India, amongst some of the most passionate yet “poor” believers one will ever encounter.

I digress.

Before we reach verse 11 of Jeremiah 29, we are taken through one of the most poignant episodes in Israel’s history. The Israelites have persistently ignored God’s warnings, for century after century, and ultimately, the prophesied doom has befallen them. They have been captured by their enemies – a once flourishing nation utterly vanquished, first by the Assyrians and then, most comprehensively, by the Babylonians. The Babylonians take prisoners from Israel and Judah, to live in their own land as trophies and as servants. This proud nation, these chosen people of God have, in modern parlance, had their ass handed to them.

It is against this background that Jeremiah, a poorly-received prophet from a small town northeast of Jerusalem, writes a letter to those Israelites who are in captivity in Babylon. What message does he send? Don’t worry, the Babylonians will be destroyed in a rain of fire from heaven? Rise up and take your swords to the throats of your captors? No, he tells the captives to “Build houses and live in them” (v.5 ESV), “Take wives and have sons and daughters” (v. 6 ESV) and, perhaps most controversially, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf” (v. 7 ESV).

In short, don’t fight it; get on with your lives; pray for your enemies and wish them well. Small wonder that Jeremiah was unpopular. Who would want to hear this? And yet, God, our Father, holy and just, will tell us not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear.

Jeremiah continues:

When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place [Jerusalem]. 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 29:10b-11

Seventy years! Did you say seventy years, Lord? I won’t be alive then! What sort of “prospering” is that?

When Christians claim this verse as their own, and suppose it means that fortunes are going to change in the near future, they would do well to remember the context of this verse and the age of the God who spoke those words. He does indeed know his plans. And no amount of effort or pleading on our part can change those deep plans, his omniscient foreknowledge of What Will Be. We can amass wealth and “prosper”, but watch out! If we run away from the true will of God for our lives (which may or may not involve material wealth – most likely not), we may well find ourselves in the belly of a fish!

Unless God gives insight – confirmed in the mouths of two or three witnesses – that this verse predicts a present increase in possessions, or a growth in numbers of a particular congregation, we should not take it to mean those things. Instead, let us understand the underlying purpose of this verse, within the passage in which it sits.

Jeremiah 29:11 shows that the Israelites’ exile, however horrible or unexpected it may have felt to them, did not come as a surprise to God. Nor did it thwart his plans to raise up out of Israel a Messiah who would save the world. We can understand that God sees the beginning to the end. Mankind will fall, sin, flog and kill the Messiah, but God’s purposes will prevail. He will redeem his children and present the church, restored and truly prospered, as a bride for his son.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

– 1 John 4:1, ESV

He gives and he takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. (See Job 1:21.)

2 Replies to “Jeremiah 29:11 – a verse out of context?”

  1. I am less and less inclined to use this scripture out of context as we have in the past and whilst we have not been quite to the slums in India, we did go there for three weeks on mission and saw the appalling poverty and yet incredible fervency of the Christians. Also the fellowship we now attend has many Indians in it and their fervency puts mine to shame. Mum XX

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