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. – Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV)
What’s the issue?
This is one of those heart-warming verses that people like to put onto wall-hangings, internet graphics, and use as words of encouragement when people are feeling down. I’ve heard people quote this to assure friends that God will find them the right spouse at the right time, or that will God will provide them with a job, or otherwise.
Although these are indeed words of comfort to God’s people in distress, we have a tendency to stretch their application far beyond what they’re meant to cover. Consider Jesus; he died on the Cross. Was that God’s wonderful plan to prosper him and not harm him? Consider the twelve apostles (besides St. John) – they all died martyr’s deaths. Perhaps a picture will speak louder than words:
Spoiler alert: all the Christian hostages in this picture died.
Exploring the context of this verse
As usual, the best way to understand these words is to look at the passage in which they are found. Jeremiah 29:1-23 is a letter that was sent to the Judeans in captivity in Babylon. In this letter, he’s telling them that God wants them to invest in their new lives in captivity. They’ll be away from Jerusalem for a long time, so they are to build homes, have families, plant fields, and pray for their oppressive overlords. After 70 years, God promises to bring them back to their homeland: that is the “plan to prosper you” or the “plan for your welfare” that our famous verse 11 is talking about. It’s an affirmation that life stinks at the moment, and an assurance that God will bring them home in due time.
Our popular misuse of this verse reduces it into a short-sighted “prosperity gospel” mantra that falls flat the moment you hold up the Cross next to it. Instead of looking for earthly prosperity and welfare as God’s great promises to us, we are supposed to see the same thing Jeremiah’s audience saw: God’s great promise to bring us home. Where is our home? The new heaven and new earth, where we’ll be living in perfect peace, without sin, in perfect fellowship with one another, and finally seeing and worshiping God face to face.