I have a confession to make: I cringe a little when folks quote Jeremiah 29:11.
I can understand why it’s such a favorite — after all, who wouldn’t want that kind of promise for themselves? Here it is in the NIV:
“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.”
But taken alone (which it almost always is), it seems to mean something that the author never intended.
I can hardly read it, even today, without the mental image of a Word of Faith/Prosperity preacher, beads of sweat on his brow, a look of intensity on his face, dramatically pointing at people and quoting this verse, his booming voice lingering for effect on the words “prosper”, “hope” and “future.” And the message is that God wants to bless you, prosper you, great things are going to happen for YOU! Your future is bright and full of the promise of happiness, financial success, and health! You are chosen! God has big plans for your life!
The problem is, if you take the verse in context, that’s not really what Jeremiah was saying.
This verse is most often quoted and applied to specific individuals — but Jeremiah is talking to the Jewish people as a whole. This isn’t a promise to every specific individual; it’s a promise to preserve a nation. Yes, it’s still a positive message — but not a prosperity message. It’s not a “God has Big Plans for YOU” message. Not the kind of spiritual “instant gratification” that seems so popular today.
“Prosper” is probably not the best translation of the Hebrew here. In fact, the word that is most often used when speaking of material prosperity, tsalach, is not the word used in this verse. It’s shalom… and while shalom can mean many things, it’s the word we most often associate with the English word “peace.” Here’s the same verse in the NASB:
“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.”
If this verse really meant what some modern preachers would like us to believe, then why didn’t Jeremiah’s audience react the way modern audiences do? Jeremiah wasn’t received as a hero. He was ultimately imprisoned because he did NOT preach a feel-good message. So why do we feel at liberty to take it as a feel-good message today?
Jeremiah was writing a message of consolation, not celebration. He wasn’t giving his audience hope for immediate or or near-term blessings. In fact, when we read this verse in context, we see that Jeremiah was bringing comfort to people who would most likely be dead before these words were fulfilled. He was not promising an absence of calamity — the exile itself was a hardship that would have to be endured, and Jeremiah promised even MORE calamity for those who hadn’t been carried off into exile. We only have to go back to verse 10 to see that the promise of verse 11 would come only after 70 years of captivity had passed. There was an awful lot of time and hardship standing between the exiles and the fulfillment of this verse.
If we go back even further, to Chapter 28, we’ll see that Jeremiah was in conflict with another self-proclaimed prophet, whose message was much more in line with the “instant gratification” message of today. Jeremiah was telling the people that they would be in captivity for 70 years and they needed to pray for their captors and make the best of it. Hananiah was telling them that within two years, they’d be out of captivity and everything would be restored. Can’t help but wonder, which prophet would the modern church embrace?