For Millennials like myself, Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most frequently quoted verses of the Bible. It reads great on pieces of art or in the foreground of a scenic mountain range on your Instagram.
However, within the context of Jeremiah, the Judean exiles would have loathed the idea of God’s plans for his people, in the future tense.
Jeremiah 29:1-14 says, essentially, “Buckle in, because this is going to get worse before it gets any better.” Further, the text prescribes radical measures to take in order to be a blessing to others in the midst of your own judgement.
Before we get out our cross-stitch kit, we would do well to dig into the context of these verses. Who is Jeremiah writing to, what is the purpose of this letter, and how would it have been received?
How about some context
The prophet Jeremiah would have written this letter from Jerusalem to the exiles in Babylon shortly after the first deportation in 597 B.C. There were two corresponding reasons for Jeremiah to send this specific message to the exiles.
First, Jerusalem still was intact, and the temple still was standing and in operation. Since it had been only a short time since their deportation, the Judeans were sure exile would be only a temporary setback, and soon they would return to Zion and its safe confines.
Second, Jeremiah was addressing directly false prophets who were taken in by this teaching as well. These false prophets indulged the already prominent view of the upper-crust exiles—kings, artisans, leaders—that they would not be in Babylon long, because God would bring them back to Zion in short order. These false prophets were repeating the nationalist, Zion theology the people wanted to hear, instead of actual guidance from Yahweh.
In this light, we can see Jeremiah’s message in these verses is not as comforting as it looks when singling out verse 11 on a verse-of-the-day image. Jeremiah was declaring the Israelites needed to get used to the new setting in exile, because God’s judgement on his people would not be brief. Not only that, but the Babylonians were not responsible for the Judeans’ deportation. “The God of Israel” is the one who sent his people into exile.
New Living Texan Translation
Additionally, the way we interpret verse 11 to apply to our individual lives is totally off base. The “you” in verse 11 is a collective noun, not a singular one. We would be served better to translate the verse in my native tongue as, “I know the plans I have for y’all.”
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Jeremiah was addressing the people of Israel torn from their homes. Any interpretation of Jeremiah 29:11 that does not include the prosperity of one’s entire community is missing the target completely.
Jeremiah instructed the exiles to establish their lives in their new surroundings. “Build houses, plant gardens, and continue to build your families,” Jeremiah said.
Not only were the exiles supposed to build lives in that foreign land, but they were supposed to seek its “welfare.”
The Hebrew word commonly translated as “welfare” actually is “shalom,” or peace. It is a peace that would ensure they wouldn’t be returning home anytime soon.
The welfare of Israel being tied up with the peace of Babylon would have sounded anachronistic. If Babylon has peace, then how will they be conquered and the exiles return home?
Death before prosperity
Finally, it is absolutely important to note the message of hope in verse 11 would not be realized by the original hearers of the message. In verse 6, Jeremiah said the exiles would be in Babylon for at least three generations; in verse 10, he clarified that time span to 70 years.
This verse we use so flippantly to bolster a gospel of our own advancement and prosperity is a death sentence to those who originally heard it.
Verse 11 does offer a glimpse of hope, but only for the distant future. God promised he has plans for his people, plans to return them to their home and to be among them again. God has plans to give his people a “future and a hope.” But, most who hear these words will not live to see that future, and all this is still conditional on the people seeking Yahweh “with their whole hearts.”
Verse 11 tempers the bleak message of the whole passage as we read from a distance, but for the exiles—especially the first-generation exiles—the message is they would die in a foreign land disconnected from Yahweh.
Jeremiah was trying desperately to hammer home the Israelite’s precarious situation as they continued to live in denial of their broken relationship with Yahweh.
Not only is Jeremiah’s a message of judgement, prescribing a generations-long exile, even more troubling, it is a message to seek the welfare of their oppressors. This is the furthest thing from any semblance of a prosperity gospel, so we might do well to stop using verse 11 to buoy our spirits in times of trouble.
Instead, the next time we see Jeremiah 29:11 plastered out of context, let’s remember to seek the welfare of our community and pray for our enemies. I’m pretty sure there are some New Testament verses that echo that message, as well.
Adam Dubberly is a worship pastor and musician in Temple. He is finishing a master’s degree at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.