“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.”
This is one of the most commonly quoted verses in all Scripture. In fact, according to BibleGateway, it was the second most popular Bible passage in 2015 (1). It's been used in everything from encouragement to graduation cards to “best-life-now” books. But does it really apply to us today? Can anyone who reads that verse walk away assured that God has plans to bless them and give them a future and a hope?
In order to study any passage or verse of Scripture, there are three keys you must use to help you understand it:
- Context, and
- Context. ;)
So let's look at the passage that contains Jeremiah 29:11:
“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. 2 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. 3 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: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 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. 7 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. 8 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, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.
So looking at this passage, it's now obvious who the “you” is in Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you”. Looking at verse one, the “you” is referencing “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.” So as you can see, that verse was only intended for the exiles and their leaders. No where in there does it say “to the elders, the priests, the exiles, and oh yeah by the way this applies to all those who read this in the future as well.” So it doesn't apply to just anyone.
Not convinced? Let's look at it another way for a minute. What if this passage did apply to all of us today? What would be the implications of that?
Well first of all, the surrounding material would also apply to us, right? You can't say that Jeremiah 29:11 applies to us today and, say, Jeremiah 29:5 doesn't! So let's look at Jeremiah 29:5:
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.”
Have you built your own house to live in (purchasing one doesn't count as the Scripture clearly says “build”)? Do you have a vegetable garden in your backyard? If you don't, if Jeremiah 29:11 applies to us today, you are in clear disobedience to God's word.
Another perspective: if this letter – one that is clearly intended only for other people – applies to us, then other passages in Jeremiah that refer to other people should also apply to us, such as these:
“You have rejected me, declares the Lord; you keep going backward, so I have stretched out my hand against you and destroyed you— I am weary of relenting.”
Maybe that's God's punishment on you for not having a vegetable garden in your backyard, haha.
Or how about this one:
“You shall become an execration, a horror, a curse, and a taunt. You shall see this place no more.”
If Jeremiah 29:11 applies to us today, then these passages must also apply to us today, because they; just like Jeremiah 29:11, were directed to people other than us.
Let me offer you yet another perspective: does God have plans to prosper and give welfare to everyone who reads that passage? Can a Christian-hating radical Muslim terrorist look at that passage and say that Jesus has plans to prosper him and bless him? Of course not! But if I believe that Jeremiah 29:11 applies to believers today, I have no justification for saying that! Think about it. That verse is not talking about me, a believer. But despite this, I claim that it applies to me. Why then would I say it doesn't apply to him, an unbeliever? I have absolutely no basis for saying that!
Now listen, don't get me wrong. I firmly believe that the Bible supports the idea that God knows and has predestined what will happen to us. And, if we're Christians, I believe what God has predestined for us is good:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
So if you are a Christian, you can be 100% confident that God has predestined good for your life! God will work all things together for your good if you are truly a Christian. And the best part? There's no need to take anything out of context!
So please, rest assured that (if you're a believer) God wants what's best for you! But please, DON'T use Jeremiah 29:11 to support that idea. =)