“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.” Jeremiah 29:11 [NIV]
These words of Jeremiah seem to be cited everywhere these days. They often appear on advertisements seeking contributions to support the poor and needy in third world countries. They are used to promote church conferences or educational institutions – anything which is aspiring to be future-oriented. It has been suggested that this has been the most-quoted verse of the Bible in recent years.
This text is used to promote the idea that God is watching out for us to give us a prosperous future, one where there is hope and not despair, a future and not stagnation.
But can this text legitimately be used in this way? It would appear not, as it has been wrenched out of its context and the situation to which it originally referred.
Its original context was in a letter written by Jeremiah to the exiles taken away into Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. The people of Israel had persisted in their rebellion against the Lord, rejecting his word, and worshipping idols. Eventually their sin became so great that the Lord punished them by allowing them to be conquered by the Babylonians, for the majority of the population to be deported to Babylon, and for the temple and the city of Jerusalem to be destroyed. In the face of such great punishment, what could the prophet of the Lord say to comfort the people?
His words of encouragement are hardly ones which we would use today to promote charitable giving or support of Christian institutions.
Jeremiah instructed the exiles to build houses, settle down, plant gardens, marry and have children, and seek the peace of the city where you are held in exile (that is, as prisoners) since they would have peace only if the city where they lived had peace. That is, they now share the fate of the city where they live, and if that is attacked by enemies then the people of Israel would suffer with the rest of the people of Babylon.
Why should they build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children?
Because they were going to be there for seventy years.
Later in the chapter, the promise is summarised: “It will be a long time. Therefore build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” [Jeremiah 29:28]
It was no good living in tents, eating whatever they could find, postponing any major decisions with the expectation of an imminent return to Jerusalem. No, they were there for the long haul and they needed to organise themselves to make the best of it. The reality was that the majority of those who went into exile would die in Babylon, and it was their children and grandchildren who would be able to return after seventy years. (See Ezra 3:13 where the older people who could remember the first temple wept at the dedication of the foundation of the new temple. The majority of the population there were too young and hence were celebrating starting the construction of a new temple.)
Once the people had become accustomed to their new lives far away from the land of Israel, they could then start to look forward to the fulfillment of the promise given by God: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place [Jerusalem, from where Jeremiah was writing].”[Jeremiah 29:10]
God would not leave his people in Babylon. They had been sent there as a punishment, and when the punishment was complete, the would be allowed to return. Then the word of the Lord to them through Jeremiah says: “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.” That hope and that future would be in the Lord gathering the exiles and bringing them back to the land of Israel. The promise is specifically to the exiles in the expectation of a return.
In context, then, the plans which God had were not for us, so we could have a hope and a future, or for others we seek to assist so they too can have a better future and hope of better times to come. Taking this passage from Jeremiah and applying it to any situation of need does violence to the text and distorts the word of the Lord through Jeremiah.
Why then would we apply this text and not the remainder of the passage? Perhaps because it would not do much for increasing donations if we said: The Lord has given a promise of better future; we just need to wait for seventy years before the Lord fulfils his promise. In the meantime, we need to stay where we are. But why do we not say that? Are we not trusting in the Lord that he will indeed given hope and a future? We may not live to see it, it may be only our grandchildren who see the promise fulfilled, but why would we not hold that out as a hope?
So we can see a number of problems with the way this verse has been used to promote various (quite possibly perfectly valid and noble) causes. I do not have any objection to raising funds to support the needy, or for legitimate Christian institutions. What I do object to is the misuse of Scripture in doing so.
The first problem with misuse of Scripture by wrenching it out of context and applying it to a totally unrelated situation, is that we thereby fail to hear what the Word of God is saying in the context of the text. If we study seriously what the Lord is saying in his redemptive acts recorded in the book of Jeremiah (briefly outlined above) then coming across a text such as v. 11 which we are familiar with in the context of present-day fund-raising will jar in our understanding. This makes it much harder to see what it means in that context.
The second problem is that by selective use of texts, discounting the context, we distort what the text is actually saying. God is not saying here that he has general plans for a good future and a hope for anyone in general who is in need, he is saying that he has specific plans for a specific group of people at a specific time – seventy years in the future.
That does not mean that God does not wish to see all his human image-bearers living peaceful and prosperous lives – that is quite apparent for anyone who reads the Scriptures. God desires this for everyone – it is part of his redemptive plans. But the misuse of passages like Jeremiah 29:11 to demonstrate this prevents us from seeing how this desire of God is taught throughout the Scriptures. It shows our weakness in understanding the Word of God if we have to resort to isolated, pleasant-sounding texts to promote care for the needy, rather than the whole tenor of Scripture which clearly teaches throughout the Old and New Testaments that God wishes us to care for the needy.
By too quickly resorting to random texts plucked out of context, we avoid the hard work of careful study and teaching of the whole of Scripture, which would be a solid and unassailable basis for our work.
Let us knuckle down to do the hard work of studying the Scriptures, ensuring we read it in context and responsibly, ensuring we read the whole of Scripture and not just the appealing passages, and understanding the whole redemptive drama being played out from Genesis to Revelation. Only by placing passages such as Jeremiah 29 in their context will we truly understand what God still has to say to us today in the words given to the people of Israel in exile so long ago. God did fulfil his promise; they did return to the land, and rebuilt the temple.
Perhaps the central thing we learn from Jeremiah 29 is that God is faithful and keeps his promises; can we say the same of his people today?