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.
That sounds so good, doesn’t it? Living in this crazy world, where evil seems to prevail, we want to believe that hope for a future of peace and good well-being is part of the plan. And in the scope of eternity, those who follow Jesus do have a promised rest and rejoicing. But not while on this earth.
Taken out of context, this verse sounds like things will be okay as long as we individually hang on long enough for God’s plans for us to take effect. This idea of individual fortitude and stamina is a modern cultural misinterpretation on two levels. First, Jeremiah 29 is a letter written to a group, the Hebrews, not an individual person. Secondly, the letter is addressed to exiles to remind them that national sin led to conquest and exile from Jerusalem. False prophets tried to convince the people that God’s mercy and grace would overpower His good justice, and they would be returned to their homes soon. Jeremiah’s letter said, in effect, “Not so fast, y’all. The Lord Almighty says you’re going to be in Babylon for 70 years. Get acquainted with the neighbors. Build houses. Get married. Have children. Plant gardens” (Jeremiah 29:4-10). Not only does the Lord want them to be in community with the Babylonians, but he commands them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile” (Jeremiah 29:7). Oh, and call on the Lord in repentance. Pray for God’s mercy while praying for the city. In other words, do more than just hang tight and wait for God to rescue you.
Keep reading the letter and you’ll see that, not only were the people commanded to seek the good welfare of the city where they were exiled, but that the people who had stayed behind in Jerusalem were headed for severe judgement (Jeremiah 29:20-32). Exile to Babylon was actually protecting the people from utter devastation.
Yes, the Lord knows his plans for each of us. Named in Jeremiah 29 are an evil prophets Ahab and Zedekiah whom God called out for “outrageous things,” including adultery with their neighbors’ wives and lying about the words of the Lord (Jeremiah 29:20-23). Their names became curses. Shemaiah the Nehelamite was also called out for disobeying the Lord, and his whole family line was obliterated.
The verse so many people want to “claim” at issue here must be understood in context. “For I know the plans I have for you…to prosper you…to give you a hope and a future” is one sentence of a letter that must be interpreted by everything around it. It is not a refuge or hiding place for individuals dealing with difficulties. It is not a promise that everything will be okay. It is a reminder that God is sovereign and faithful to His people who walk in obedience, humility, and repentance.