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Stop Misusing Jeremiah 29:11 and Understand the Real Meaning of 'For I Know the Plans I Have for You'

  • Bethany Verrett
  • 2020 31 Aug
Stop Misusing Jeremiah 29:11 and Understand the Real Meaning of 'For I Know the Plans I Have for You'

God’s Word is full of wisdom and encouragement that guide Christians through life. Memorizing Scripture can serve as a powerful weapon against temptation, despair, and worldliness. However, learning verses in isolation, without context, can lead to misunderstanding and misapplying the virtues and lessons that God wants His people to possess and learn.

One important verse that Christians often quote is Jeremiah 29:11, “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 a message of hope and a promise of a good future that is easy to cling to and repeat. But knowing the full context of the verse is quite interesting, and reveals the enormous scope of God’s will for mankind. Let's dig into what it really means when God tells us he has plans for us.

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    What Does It Mean That God Knows the Plans He Has for Us?

    In the context of Jeremiah 29, the phrase, “I know the plans I have for you,” refers to the plans the Lord has had for the people of Israel from the beginning. This verse is a reiteration of the promises of God, as well as the guarantee that He always keeps His covenants.

    They were the descendants of Abraham, with whom God made a covenant to bless His descendants. They were the people of David, a man after God’s own heart. Even though they broke their promise to worship only the one true God, He was not going to forget His word, and would restore them to blessings. In fact, this verse is a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, the Lord Jesus.

    God promised David, a descendant who would reign forever, “You have said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: ‘I will establish your offspring forever and build your throne for all generations’” (Psalms 89:3-4). There is only one throne that lasts forever, the throne of God where Jesus Christ will reign forever. If God allowed the descendants of David to be carried out to Babylon to go extinct in exile, then that promise of an eternal throne for David’s descendants could not have been fulfilled. 

    In context, this verse served as an encouragement for the Jews in exile, and should be a great encouragement for Christians today. God is not fickle, and He keeps His promises! Because the Father kept His promises to use the Jewish people in His plans, the whole world has access to salvation through Jesus Christ.

    God did not forsake His people, redeeming them for His glory and their good. When the Lord promises that we are saved, He means it. When Jesus promises to return for His church, we can have confidence in His word. As Jesus says in the New Testament, centuries later, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). God does not change, no matter how individuals or the world does, and believers can rest assured that He will keep His promises.

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    Who Wrote Jeremiah?

    The Book of Jeremiah is one of three books of prophecy called the Major Prophets. Its name comes from its author, who wrote during the last days before the exile to Babylon. Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, wrote most of the text during the exile of the Israelites.

    At this time in the history of the Jewish people, Israel was divided into two kingdoms: Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Both kingdoms were conquered by foreign powers during this period. Jeremiah was the main prophet to Judah and the exiles in Babylon working at the same time as the minor prophet Zephaniah, who is mentioned in Jeremiah’s book.

    Babylon and the Kingdom of Judah had been in conflict for a few years, resulting in the Babylonian empire conquering Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, and carrying the Israelites into slavery. The book includes more than just prophetic text; it also has biographical information, sermons, and poetic messages which communicate God’s will to the people.

    The prophet provides some biographic information about himself early in the book. He says, “The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign” (Jeremiah 1:1-2). He gives his father and his tribe, as well as the time he began receiving prophecy and messages from the Lord.

    He preached throughout Israel, and received much persecution; “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. I did not know it was against me they devised schemes, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more’” (Jeremiah 11:19). Though God often protected him from these persecutions, Jeremiah’s prophecies were ignored.

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    What Is Happening in Jeremiah 29?

    Chapter 29 in the Book of Jeremiah is a letter with a specific message to a specific audience. The prophet wrote this passage to those Israelites in exile in Babylon. Many despaired, separated from their homes, their history, and their God. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed as well, adding to the calamity.

    The Israelites received warnings from the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah that this would happen. Because they had been worshipping Baal and Moloch, false gods imported from foreign lands, breaking their covenant, the Lord allowed Babylon to invade. The Jews would be taken from their homeland for a period of seventy years. In chapter 29, the prophet wrote to encourage the people in exile, and warn them against false prophets during this time. 

    The letter can be broken up into sections. Verses 1-3 serve as introductions, stating who wrote the letter and when. The following verses, 4-10, contain an edict from the Lord for the Jews to continue living, to not give up, and to ignore prophets whom He had not ordained. 

    “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters...multiply there and do not decrease...Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you.” (Jeremiah 29:4, 8a)

    Next is a word of promise, an assurance that God has not forsaken His people. In this passage, verses 10-14 contains the famous verse. The Lord said through his prophet, “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me and I will hear you” (Jeremiah 29:10-13).

    God gave the Israelites in captivity a deadline for their time under Babylonian rule. Verse eleven contains God’s assurances that He was not finished using Israel for His divine plan, and there were blessings to come in the future. After 70 years, the people would return to the Lord in prayer, and the relationship between God and His people would be restored. 

    The next passage, verses 15-23, contains a reminder for why the people are in exile. Their idolatry and their reliance on false gods and prophets broke their part of a covenant with God.

    He also addresses those who did not go into exile, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, behold I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten” (Jeremiah 29:17). God reminds His people about all the warnings and prophecies that warned the Israelites about this very event. 

    The final section includes a warning against a specific false prophecy by a man named Shemaiah who prophesied against Jeremiah. Because of his words against God’s chosen prophet the Lord declares, “Behold I will punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants. He shall not have anyone living among this people, and he shall not see the good that I will do to my people” (Jeremiah 29:32a). This verse is the opposite of the promise of verse 1 in many ways. Here, God ends a line, rather than continuing it. He stops a man from receiving the blessings coming to the chosen people in 70 years at the end of the exile, ending Shemaiah’s line in exile.

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    What Covenant Did Israel Break?

    To understand how incredible God’s statement in verse 11 is, it is important to understand the meaning and significance of the many covenants in that culture. It is often compared to a promise, which is not an incorrect assessment, but there is more to it.

    Covenants were seen as binding and lifelong. Because God lives forever, His promises live forever. One of the best examples of this kind of commitment from God is the rainbow, a sign of His promise to Noah that He would never again destroy the earth with water and flood.

    Most covenants required both parties to do something. In Genesis 17, God makes a covenant with Abram, from that point forward called Abraham, to make him the father of many nations, with generations of blessings and kings. Abraham and his male descendants through all generations were to be circumcised to uphold their part of the covenant. 

    The specific promise between Israel and the Lord that the Israelites broke, leading them into exile, was reinforced several times through the Old Testament. If they kept God’s commandments, He would be with them. A specific message given to Solomon that illustrates this relationship is a clear articulation of this guarantee, and underscores how they violated it. 

    God said to Solomon:

    “And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples” (1 Kings 9:4-7).

    Not only did Solomon allow his various wives from many other lands to worship and set up altars to their own gods, but his descendants would engage in idol worship for years before God cut them off from the land through conquest and exile. Yet, as He states in Jeremiah 29:11, He already had plans to restore them to a right relationship with Him.

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    What Does Jeremiah 29:11 NOT Mean?

    This verse promises restoration and redemption for a people in exile that would lead to the salvation of mankind. It is full of hope and assurance. However, it is not always used to convey that message. It can sometimes be used, when taken out of context, to mean that Christians today have guarantees of blessings and prosperity. It can also be used to give a false sense of purpose, chasing after material blessings in a worldly fashion, rather than seeking after God. This verse only guarantees the exiled Israelites that they had not been forgotten by their Lord, not that He guarantees material gain for people who believe in Him.

    Does this mean that Christians cannot look to this verse for hope and encouragement?

    Not at all!

    While the verse does not guarantee comfort and success, it does promise redemption, something the modern Christian experiences daily after being forgiven of their sins, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God does have a plan for all His people, and Jesus even says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31). The truth Jesus states here is the same one from Jeremiah 29:11. God loves humanity, wants to redeem them to Himself, and plans for a glorious eternity together.   

    There will be trials and troubles in this world, and the Bible never promises believers a problem-free life. There are verses in the Old and New Testament that give assurance of His love and that He will keep His promises; Jeremiah 29:11 is one such verse. 

    Sources

    Jerome. Commentary on Jeremiah. Trans. Michael Graves. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011.vvvv

    Thompson, J.A. The Book of Jeremiah. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980.

    Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981.

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    Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.