“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
I know you all have heard this verse numerous times. It’s quite popular. After all, the masses love to hear the “health and wealth” promises propounded by all those false prophets dressed up in the clothes of TV “evangelists.” I’ve previously mentioned that I abhor the taking of Scripture out of context. The most believable lies are mostly truth with a tolerable amount of falsehood concealed within. The misuse of Scripture is used to justify so much evil, be it overt or as subtle as conceited control of your own life.
Each year, I read through the Bible, but I must admit that the prophetic books of the Old Testament have seemed rather vague and perplexing. However, they’ve come alive for me this year; the extensive time in them (particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) has proven so rich and vibrant in meaning. It’s also provided context for many well-known verses, such as the one above. It is truly a wonderful passage, but do you actually know its setting? So you don’t have to expend the arduous effort to actually open a Bible and find it (gasp!), here are the surrounding verses:
These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.
“For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Jeremiah 29:1-14 ESV
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of the Old Testament, Israel (and often Judah) had repeatedly followed pagan “gods” and turned away from God. He warned them time and again (as is recorded in the prophetic books), but they persisted in rebellion. Therefore, they went into exile in Babylon for 70 years, conquered by Nebuchadnezzar (yes, this is the setting of the story of “Daniel in the lion’s den”). You really ought to read the Old Testament in chronological order. Doing so entails a good deal of jumping around between books, but the harmony of all of them makes so much more sense.
Jeremiah 29:11 was the verse of my high school graduating class this year, and, to be honest, I found the politically correct choice rather frustrating. Essentially, the message sent is this: “God’s going to bless whatever you’re headed off to do right now! It’s all going to work out! You’ll have an easy life!” Umm…have fun with that. Think about reality, which is more like: “You’re 18. You’ve been sheltered all your life, people have catered to your whims, Mom and Dad have borne the brunt of your mistakes, you have selfish and unrealistic dreams (or maybe you just lack direction), you want life to be easy and success to be handed to you on a platter. WAKE UP. You’re in for a shock.”
Let’s analyze the genuine meaning of this Jeremiah passage. First of all, it was spoken to Israel millennia ago. Obviously, the specifics of the situation differ from our present circumstances; however, it still reveals part of who God is, and can be applied to our lives today. He’s telling them that they are not to attempt to escape their current captivity. At this time, many false prophets were saying the popular phrases that tickled the ears of the deluded people. They said that the Lord wouldn’t hand them over into the hands of Babylon then that they would soon return to their home. Well, that was invalidated by history. Jeremiah’s message was difficult to hear, and thus he was persecuted and scorned incessantly. God is using him to tell the people that they had better settle into their new home—their sojourn will be long. They should do the very opposite of what their impulses dictate. They should resume normal life and even seek the welfare of their captors, because it will be to their own advantage.
God promises that His plans are good because the people think just the opposite. This passage is an assurance, a hope to which to cling in suffering. The fact that He must assert the ultimately beneficial nature of His plans for them indicates that these plans probably seem unfavorable. He says in the next verse that then they will call on Him and pray. The plans He has are hard, and will drive them to Him as their last and only hope. Furthermore, it must be a genuine reliance; He must be sought with a whole heart (vs. 13). He promises that He will eventually bring them back, but first they must trust His plans despite the fact that they don’t understand. Faith doesn’t contradict reason; it makes sense, if you think about it. God is omniscient (knows everything), omnipotent (is all-powerful), is unwaveringly faithful to His character and promises, loves us, and has promised to do what is best for us (not always pleasant—rarely, in fact). Therefore, He knows what is best much better than we do, is able to cause it, and wants to do so. Why would we doubt?
His plans are for our good, but often what we want is injurious. True love is doing what is in the best interest of the receiver, not catering to their vacillating inclinations. As a general principle, our natural desires will most certainly not lead to “a future and a hope.” Only to the extent that we know and emulate Christ will our yearnings accord with Truth. If we persist in recalcitrance, then what ought we to expect Him to do? He promised welfare, which necessitates that we be driven to the end of ourselves, every false hope proved to be a house built upon the sand, every mirage of pride melted, every baseless fable donned like a pair of blinders torn away by stark reality. Do you really want to be driven to such lengths? Why not evade the heartache and despair? The Truth is obvious and available. If we seek Him with all our heart, then that heart will not be tossed to and fro by the winds of circumstance, rather held safe in His hands. When we focus on who He is and let our heart be molded into the likeness of His, to cherish subversive passions is unthinkable. We’ll plainly see what is right and true and beneficial. Anything inferior will be out of the question. However, this may mean we need to change our plans.
Yes, it will hurt; I speak from experience. However, giving up control is fundamentally freeing. Since dying to the firmly-clasped ideas that barred me from effectiveness in the Kingdom of God, I’m slowly but surely learning to accept His peace and joy and rest. Believe me, it’s arduous—I won’t pretend otherwise. But it is worth every agonized prayer of bewilderment and every disappointing outcome. Honestly, I’ve gained such perspective and begun to notice all God’s wonderful gifts and the immense joy and meaning which comprise life. In light of who He is and what He has done and promised: Are you willing to relinquish your naïve, idealized plans for the future to the One who knows who you are and what you need more that you ever will?