“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.”
As we journey through a tumultuous 2020 and enter into an unknown of what the rest of 2020 will bring us, it is helpful to remember that God has a plan for our lives. Jeremiah 29:11 is just such a reminder.
Many Christians know and cling to this verse by itself. But when we understand its historical and literary context, most will find that it takes on a more profound, more relevant, and even more powerful meaning for their lives. Context is always important in understanding a passage of scripture. Often scripture is taken out of context and given a meaning entirely different from its intended purpose.
For historical context, Jeremiah spoke these words to Jews. They were under the domination of the Egyptian and then Babylonian Empires. Under the Babylonians, the Jews were sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. We can only imagine what it would be like to live under your enemies' domination and then to be forced by those enemies to leave your homeland and settle in a foreign country.
For the literary context, the previous chapter tells us that Jeremiah has just denounced the false prophet Hananiah. God had commanded Jeremiah to wear a yoke as a sign of the impending captivity, humiliation, and servitude of the Jewish people by the Babylonians. Hananiah told the people that God would break Babylon's yoke, freeing the people to return home within two years. To make his point, Hananiah took the yoke from Jeremiah's neck and broke it as a token that the yoke, which had been imposed by Nebuchadnezzar on Israel, would also soon be broken.
Hananiah's prediction sounded reasonable at the time. This event occurred in about 594 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar was occupied in a battle against Egypt and could pay little attention to his client-state Judah. Rumors spread that Babylon was weakening. So, Hananiah’s message undoubtedly sounded appealing to the people, but it was a lie. God commanded Jeremiah to tell Hananiah to replace the wooden yoke with an iron one. The yoke to be endured by the Israelites would be stronger than the former one had been. Jeremiah prophesized that Jewish people would live in Babylon for at least 70 years. He is warning them so that they would settle down, build houses, marry, and even pray for the city's peace and prosperity in which they now found themselves.
When understood in context, we discover that the words of Jeremiah 29:11 were spoken to people in the midst of hardship and suffering; people who were likely desiring a quick rescue like the one Hananiah tried to persuade them to believe. But God's response is not to provide an immediate escape from the problematic situation. Instead, God promises that He had a plan for the Jewish people to succeed in their current circumstances.
When facing difficult situations today, we can take comfort in Jeremiah 29:11 knowing that it is not a promise to immediately rescue us from hardship or suffering, but rather a guarantee that God has a plan for our lives. Regardless of our current situation, He can work through it to help us thrive and give us hope for the future.
Furthermore, Christians can take comfort in knowing that God promises to be there for us in the most challenging situations. For in the verses immediately following Jeremiah 29:11, God proclaims through Jeremiah that when you "call on me and come and pray to me… I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 19:12-13).