According to Bible Gateway, the most popular verse in 2018 was Jeremiah 29:11 “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” followed closely by John 3:16, and Philippians 4:13.
I certainly understand why Jeremiah 29:11 would be a most popular verse if we read it completely out of context. The idea that God has a perfect plan for you that will prosper and not harm you is a sentiment that is worthy of embracing and hoping for. It really requires little from us as individuals per se. Knowing that we have a future filled with blessings from God…well…what’s not to like?
Unfortunately, this verse MUST be interpreted and understood within its Biblical context. To do otherwise, devalues this most popular verse so it becomes merely a platitude that we hang on our wall as décor to give us misguided encouragement whenever we look at it.
Jeremiah 29 is a letter written to the exiles who were captured by the king, Nebuchadnezzar who took them from their homes in Jerusalem and carried them to Babylon. (Jeremiah 29:4-7) The Israelites were in exile, a punishment from God as a result of their disobedience. Jeremiah, in exile with them, calls out the lies of the false prophet, Hananiah who has proclaimed that God would free Israel from Babylon in two years. Given the nation’s circumstance at the time, this is just the kind of prophesy people in captivity would embrace whole heartedly. Unfortunately, it is a false hope. Instead, Jeremiah warns the exiles not to listen to the lies, and to “seek the peace and the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (29:7)
Two things are immediately obvious here. The letter is written to a specific group of people who are going through a specific situation. This is not written to an individual but to a group. That makes a big difference to how we are to interpret this entire passage. Furthermore, it does not promise an immediate end to current suffering, but a lengthy time (70 years to be exact), that the people are actually told by God to make the best of a bad situation. (Jeremiah 29:10) It is only after going through this testing trial, that God will bring them back home, and God’s plan for them will be fulfilled. (Jeremiah 29:11) In the mean time, they will learn to pray, and to seek God with their whole hearts, something they were obviously lacking before this captivity. They will raise families, and ply their trades. They will work and be involved in the community around them, even helping their captors to thrive and prosper in the process. They will live and they will die. Life will go on according to God’s daily plan for them.
This places a whole new spin on the most popular Jeremiah 29:11 verse. God definitely has a plan and purpose for everyone. However, it is wrong to conclude that God will not allow us to face trials along the way. We are to take this verse not as a promise for individual success but the fact that in community with others, not drawing from our own strength but in the strength of God and others, we can persevere and prosper. It is a process, and it may take a lifetime to see it to its full fruition, if we see it at all.
Still, to those who want to take comfort from the future hope Jeremiah 29:11 promises, be encouraged. God DID make good on His promises then and He still does now. We may want desperately to know the plan and purpose God has for each one of us individually, but Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us that it is not about us, but it is an eternal collective future for an entire community that is better than any one person could ever wish or hope.