What is Jeremiah chapter twenty-nine verse eleven, if not comforting, empowering and saturated with hope?
“‘For I know what plans I have for you,’ says the LORD. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.’”
If that ancient prophet could walk into our Christian stores filled with posters and plaques of Jeremiah 29:11, would he tear his clothes in frustration? The irony would certainly not be lost on him. Yet it seems to lie beyond our grasp, if marketing and sales indicate how we derive hope from this divine promise.
What would disturb Jeremiah would go deeper than simply our failure to recognize this promise was directed toward the exiles in Babylon. It is the irony of how we use this verse that is so much more profound!
Jeremiah’s ministry entailed battling the false prophets. He proclaimed hope contingent upon repentance. The false messengers, on the other hand, announced a flat, one dimensional message. They offered empowerment without transformation, hope devoid of repentance. In fact, if the false prophets were given the opportunity, they would have gladly plastered Jeremiah 29:11 posters everywhere! It fits into their comforting repertoire. Just listen to their affirming voices:
“No harm will come to us. We will not experience war and famine.” Jeremiah 5:12
“Everything will be alright!” Jeremiah 6:14
“We are safe!” Jeremiah 7:10
“Peace, peace!” Jeremiah 8:11
“The Lord God will give you lasting peace and prosperity in this place.” Jeremiah 14:13
“The LORD says, You will have peace. … No harm will come to you.” Jeremiah 23:17
To lay 29:11 alongside the voice of the false prophets invites the question, why does Jeremiah’s authentic message from God sound so similar to the false prophets? The short answer is our popular usage of Jeremiah 29:11 brutally rips it from its context!
To a people whom God had punished and driven into exile for their sins (Jeremiah 13:22; 16:12-13), God instructed them to settle down, thus abandoning any fanciful notions of a quick return (Jeremiah 29:4-9). Yet, their story would take a turn after seventy years. Once the severe lesson of captivity was completed, God planned to prosper them (Jeremiah 29:11). A transformed people would pray and seek God. Furthermore, God would respond (Jeremiah 29:12-14).
Jeremiah 29:11 is no blank check with a Pollyanna promise affirming God’s blessings over our lives. It reassures a beaten down people of what God would do for a changed people.
How stark the contextless Christian poster contrasts with God’s promised future awaiting his changed exiles. God is good. God is worthy of our devotion, even if we do not receive the prosperity described in Jeremiah 29:11.