Post Author: Bill Pratt
One of our favorite verses is Jeremiah 29:11. “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.” Unfortunately, we typically wrench this verse totally out of its original context and misapply it to ourselves.
E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien attempt to set us straight with a careful analysis of this verse and its context. Below is their extended discussion of this verse from their book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.
The context of the passage is undisputed. The inhabitants of Jerusalem were on the brink of disaster. The Babylonians were knocking at the door. Death and slavery were best-case scenarios. God had miraculously delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrians about a hundred years earlier: “That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!” (2 Kings 19:35).
Some self-proclaimed prophets were predicting God would do this sort of thing again. God sent Jeremiah to set the nation straight, to break the bad news. There would be no miraculous rescue this time. Even so, God did add that he had plans to ultimately prosper and not to harm his people. That is usually as far as our students get.
So what is the problem? Didn’t God have plans that he did indeed accomplish?
Your authors are 100 percent certain that God had plans and he accomplished them, just as he intended. The passage itself reminds the reader, “Surely these things happened to Judah according to the Lord’s command” (2 Kings 24:3). But we think that this verse is commonly misread in three ways.
First, Western readers tend to ignore the context. The city of Jerusalem was captured, looted and burned. The king, Zedekiah, didn’t fare better. “They killed the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes. Then they put out his eyes, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon” (2 Kings 25:7).
It may be that we ignore the context because it doesn’t apply to us. We noted above that we are prone to ignore passages we consider irrelevant to us. What could be less relevant than the fate of Zedekiah and his sons? Surely we shouldn’t expect a similar fate. The general context of exile, too, seems irrelevant.
To us, the context of Jeremiah 29:11 feels like little more than a plot detail or filler to highlight the main point, which is a direct promise to us. And this promise is indeed most relevant. For what is it that we want? We want direction: wisdom in choosing a career or finding a spouse or handling an unruly child or an uncooperative colleague.
I (Randy) bought a house just months before the housing collapse. My wife and I prayed about it. Surely, God has a plan to prosper us and our (underwater) house.
So the first problem is that we read this verse in isolation instead of in the context of the surrounding passage. As Greg Koukl likes to say, “Never read a Bible verse!” Always read the passages that come before and after, in addition to the single verse you want to read.
We will look at the second and third ways we misread this verse in part 2. We will also find out how we should apply this verse to our lives today.