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. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse which is constantly quoted and used to make encouraging material out of. It is a verse that people love and many people cling to as a favourite. In fact if you do a search on Google for ‘Jeremiah 29’ and click on images you will find a myriad of images en-capturing this verse (it is where I found the above image from!). Now, please do not misunderstand me, this is a beautiful text, and it is a text that should be dear to our hearts. However, when something is quoted this much it often gets taken out of context. Often the message becomes, ‘God has a plan for you and it is good in all ways, nothing bad will happen!’ Effectively what is known as the health and wealth gospel gets preached. We almost never read a quote of this verse with the tenth verse before it. Normally we just get some variation of 11-13. What gets forgotten is that this verse spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was a specific promise to a specific people and we must make sure we understand it in light of that.
For the context of this passage we must remember that the entire book has one very important main theme. The battle of the false prophet and the true prophet. Through out the book the people of Israel are listening and accepting the message of the false prophets while rejecting the true Word of God through the true messenger of God. This specific section was part of a letter sent to the exiles, in order to refute certain false prophecies. “Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon.” (28:3) The people had started accepting this and thinking the punishment brought from God would not last long. God spoke through Jeremiah in order to refute what these false prophets were saying, they would not be in Babylon for two, six, eight not even ten years but in fact seventy!
Can you imagine how the exiles must have felt hearing this? They must have been devastated. However, God knowing that his people needed comfort provides one of the most beautiful texts of comfort that one can find. The punishment may last seventy years, however God would visit them and he would fulfil his promise and bring his people home. God declares that even though they had to be punished, and although it was a terrible thing to face the wrath of God upon their sin, it was ultimately for their good. The plans were for welfare and not for evil, for a future and for hope. In fact God declares that his people will turn and call upon him, pray to him, seek him, with all their heart; and what would be the outcome? God will listen, God will be found, God will restore their fortunes, God will gather them from all the places which they have been driven and bring them home. What a promise!
So the first question we must ask is, can we apply this promise to us? We must emphatically say yes! How does it apply to us today? If there was one single rule I could give you in order to help you in applying Old Testament passages to yourself is to follow one simple rule. Never apply a text from the Old Testament directly to yourself. Instead go from the Old Testament to Christ and from Christ to us. Let us consider how that works in these verses.
What is God’s plan for us? Is it that he will give us a new car or house, that we won’t get sick nor have hardships or persecution? Hardly! The most poignant New Testament passage to help us understand this plan for us is Romans 8. The apostle Paul writes, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,” (vs. 28) and what is that good? “To be conformed to the image of his Son.” (vs. 29) But remember what comes after that promise?
For who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35–39)
The promise in Jeremiah 29 for us is not a promise that life will go well, that we will get what we want, or that bad things won’t happen. This promise is that even though we face tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword all these things are working together for our good and that good is that we would be made like Christ. What comfort is ‘good things will happen’ to Christians in Syria or Nigeria? Rather true comfort is that ultimately God is in control, it is part of his plan, we may not see it, we may not understand it, but God is working out his plan. And for many sons and daughters of God in the world and throughout history they saw no earthly blessing because of this promise, but for these children, as with all others, this promise and plan is ultimately fulfilled when Christ returns. One day all of our pain and suffering will end. God’s plan will be fulfilled. We will live in eternity with him and then this plan will reach its fullest limits.
Praise be to our God and Saviour and Lord who works everything out for our good so that we can be made into the image of his son and so that we can ultimately see the fulfilment of his plan on the day of his return!