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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. – Jeremiah 29:11-13 NIV
What a great verse to pull out of the Bible and use as a life verse. It is realatively easy to memorize. Not too difficult to understand. A powerful message. A great promise. What’s not to like about it? Prosperity. Protection. Hope for a great future. These are all things that any Christian would want to see become a reality in his or her life.
This verse can be a popular life verse and a subconscious expectation for how we think God is intended to bless our life right here and now, just as long as we did what he wanted, as long as we committed ourselves to seek after him “with all our heart”.
But the question is: Is this an appropriate use of this verse, to put God on the hook for a life of prosperity and blessing that fits our timeline and our definition?
Do we think it is appropriate to put God on the hook for a life of prosperity and blessing that fits our timeline and definition if we seek Him with all our heart?
Corruption and despair
This answer lies in a closer look at the context of Jeremiah chapter 29. This time in biblical history was a season of despair. Life was anything but rosy for God’s people, the Israelites. Their kings and spiritual leaders were filled with corruption. The people themselves had disobeyed God’s commands and had intermarried with some of the surrounding pagan tribes who had led them astray to worship other so-called gods. They had compromised their character and broken the covenant that God had made with them through Moses.
God had had enough. Though there were a faithful few among them, the people as a whole had turned their backs on him. And as was often the case when this sort of thing happened, God would raise up a prophet from among them who would serve as his spokesman. Enter Jeremiah the prophet, God’s chosen messenger.
Now, the role of the prophet often varied. They were often charged with preaching and teaching, advising kings and leaders, and predicting the future. But this time, God’s prophet had a daunting task – to proclaim judgement and wrath upon the people of God. They were to be conquered by their enemies and carried off into exile for a very long time, and Jeremiah was charged with delivering the message.
Have you ever had to deliver a message about how things were going to be difficult for a while, with better times in the future? What were some of the tactics used to convey that message?
However, this was not the only message God’s people would hear. There were also competing and contradictory messages from false prophets, prophets who for selfish purposes were eager to tell people what they wanted to hear. In Jeremiah 28, a false prophet named Hananiah emerges, and he is preaching a much softer and different message than Jeremiah, a message that was sure to be instantly popular.
As the predicted judgment and exile begins, Hananiah falsely prophecies that this judgment of God is relatively minor and is due to last for only two years, a direct contradiction to Jeremiah’s previous proclamation that the judgment and exile would last for seventy years.
This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. – Jeremiah 25:11 NIV
This contradiction is brought out into the light when Jeremiah confronts Hananiah face-to-face and eventually tells him that God will judge him for his false claims and that he will soon die as a result of his lies.
15 Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. 16 Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.’” – Jeremiah 28:15-16 NIV
And without delay, the story concludes with a short but definitive statement:
In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died. – Jeremiah 28:17 NIV
Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning Hananiah prevails, and Hananiah’s “prosperity gospel” falls by the way-side. It is false.
All this leads us back to Jeremiah’s original prophecy – that God’s people will go into exile for seventy years. It is a devastating word. To be sure, the majority of people won’t survive long and the rest will have to endure slavery in a foreign land, displaced from their homes, for the remainder of their lives. Even the “faithful ones” among God’s people will go into exile.
Jeremiah is so moved by the thought of this terrible reality that he decides to write a letter to those who will at least survive the initial trip into exile. He has a word from the Lord, who wants to prepare them and their descendants for the next seventy years in Babylon (modern-day Iraq). Though it will never be their true home and they will be forced into slavery, the Lord nevertheless encourages them to settle in, build houses, plant gardens, marry, and have children – to make the best of a bad situation.
They are instructed to pray for their captors, knowing that if their captors prosper, they will inevitably prosper as well. But they were to avoid being deceived once again by the false prophets still bent on telling lies to the people. These deceivers excelled in flattery, made false promises, and preached messages that were all about pursuing self-centered dreams at the expense of following God, twisting the truth. They were not sent from God.
Truth be told, God’s people were looking at seventy years of hard labor, a season of fatherly discipline that would last well beyond their lifetimes, all the while being dominated and subjected to the humiliation of being slaves to their enemies. It would be a hard life.
However, Jeremiah does give the people some good news. And here is where we can read this life-verse in context:
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” – Jeremiah 29:10-14 NIV
With this context, there are few things we should notice right away. First, God is speaking to the Israelite nation of Judah here. This is his plan for the nation, not necessarily a personal promise that is directed to any one person per se. It is a “corporate” promise. Therefore, we should be cautious about grabbing it out of its context and inappropriately applying it to individual believers in the twenty-first century. God is talking about this plans to once again restore his people, prosper them, and literally bring them back from Babylonian captivity!
The future, not now
Second, this is a promise for God’s people who will exist seventy years from now. The majority of the people who hear this promise from Jeremiah’s lips will never see it fulfilled in their lifetime. They will likely perish in exile before it comes to fruition.
Therefore, the current exiles should shed off any expectation of looking for a short-term I-deserve-the-best-right-now kind of blessing from this. They were due to endure seventy years of pain and heartache from this captivity.
All this means the prophecy of prosperity and hope was directed toward a future people – those who would be born in exile and emerge from that place much later, the children and grandchildren of the present-day exiles.
So is it a legitimate moved for someone to take Jeremiah 29:11-13 and use it as a life verse? Many people think the answer should be no.
Remember, in most people’s minds this verse would work great for their personal dreams of having a smooth, prosperous, and materially blessed life just so long as they sought after God “with all their heart”. The thought is that that at the very least God was obligated to make our immediate future into a thing of beauty.
People envision a great job, a comfortable lifestyle, good health – a future defined on their terms. Many people have no problem manipulating the biblical text to suit their preconceived notions of “blessing” while at the same time giving God their timetable for these things to be realized.
But in doing this, they are violating the context and completely missing the fact that God was talking to a nation (not an individual), a nation that had to go through seventy years of heartache and exile before there was any hope of freedom from captivity. And if it could not be used as a promise for the immediate future of those who first heard it, then it should not be used for our immediate future either.
So then, is there anything from this prophecy that we could still apply to our life today? Yes. Though it is true that the promise of a “future hope” did not guarantee blessing in the short-term sense, it nevertheless still has practical application for them and for us in the ultimate, eternal sense.
The richest and greatest fulfillment of this prophecy is to be realized in a spiritual way. This promise ought to bring a great sense of joy to the believer who longs for the “future hope” of experiencing eternal life with God, a restoration that will be experienced in the fullest sense. It is there where we will experience prosperity and protection in abundance, as we are “gathered back” to him.
Our immediate “American Dream” could not be substantiated by these verses. When I was young, I wasn’t thinking of an overall spiritual application in the eternal sense. I wasn’t thinking of spiritual prosperity, spiritual protection, or the spiritual hope of an eternity in heaven with God. I was thinking in primarily materialistic terms, in the here and now.
Once I realized my error, I was somewhat disillusioned and disappointed. It caused me to reflect and to put myself in the shoes of the people who initially heard these words on their way into exile. What if it was God’s will for me to have a terrible life by human estimations and standards (like they were going to have) only to be rewarded abundantly with a glorious eternal life later after I’m dead? Could I handle that? And would I still love, serve and seek after God with the same intensity?
A difficult question to face, if life does not get better, or if it gets worse, is your relationship with God at risk?
Even Jeremiah, the prophet who delivered these words, had a life that was less than stellar according to our mindset. He was hated, forced from his home, thrown into prison, and tossed into a mud pit. So even for him, this magnificent prophet, the hope for a prosperous and glorious future was more to be realized in the hope of heaven itself than it was to be experienced in the temporal life of the here and now. Reading Hebrews 11, we can see that many of God’s people in history had to have the same kind of future hope. Many of them suffered horribly in this life, and yet they lived by faith with the hope of a fuller salvation in a future they could not yet see.
As a believing New Testament Christian then, we can still use Jeremiah 29, but we must apply it appropriately. Without a doubt, a future “heavenly hope” exists for those who have placed their faith and trust in Christ alone for their salvation. This, to me, is the best application of these verses for one who lives by faith today.
But this doesn’t mean that everything about it is reserved for our future in heaven. There are a whole host of blessing and prosperity that can come to us in the here and now. But these are primarily spiritual blessings – blessings like reconciliation, forgiveness, peace with God, fellowship in the church, and love. Blessings like the fruit of the Spirit, answers to prayer, and joy in worship.
But if we make the mistake of refining the phrase “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” with our own preconceived notion of what that ought to look like for our lives today in the material sense, then we’ve overlooked and highjacked the context to suit our own human needs and desires.
Now, this does not negate the fact that God might choose to bless us with a great paying job, a beautiful family, and a healthy life on account of his grace. But the bottom line is we should never expect those things to happen or seek to appeal to the promise of Jeremiah 29:11-13 in order to substantiate our expectations. We have no right to hold God hostage to a promise that we have misunderstood.
Friends, in the end, we should never be looking and living for our own glory in this life. Instead, we should be living for God’s glory now and waiting for the glory that we will receive from him in the life to come. The Bible says we should consider ourselves as aliens and strangers in this world. God will fulfill his promises, yes, but not all of his promises were meant to be fulfilled the way we want them to be fulfilled in his life, and we cannot twist Scripture around in order to make that happen, or make Scripture work for us the way we want it to. We have to live by faith. And those who do will receive what he promised. And when we seek him with all of our heart, we will certainly find him.
I’ve grown up a lot since church camp, and I still believe that it’s permissible for someone to choose for themselves a life verse. But let’s agree to study it in context first, lest we make the catastrophic mistake of misusing and misapplying it. Jeremiah 29:11-13 contains some great promises, but if I use it to demand the American Dream from God, then perhaps we should also be willing to literally endure seventy years of captivity first (if that’s what God should choose).
I think it’s better to use it to inspire us to look for the spiritual life that is truly life now, while trusting in the future hope of the life that is yet to come.
The lesson this week is from the book: “The Most Misused verses in the Bible” by Eric J. Bargerhuff
The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 7:1–2). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.