Post Author: Bill Pratt
In part 1, we started looking at how we misread Jer 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.” In part 2, we pick up with the second way we misread this verse.
What is the second way we misread Jer 29:11?
Herein lies the second way Western readers misread the passage: we unconsciously turn the us into me. We understand the object of the sentence, you, to mean “each one of you individually.” We then read Jeremiah 29:11 as, “I know the plans I have for you, Brandon.”
But remember that Israel was a collectivist culture. They understood the object of the sentence, you, to mean “my people, Israel, as a whole.” If God meant each Israelite individually, then the promise is nonsense before the words are fully out of God’s mouth.
We must teach every new student that the “plans to prosper you” involved the killing and enslavement of thousands of individual Israelites (2 Kings 24-25), who might dispute the promise “not to harm you.” Moreover, Jeremiah 29:4-7 indicates that God’s blessing extended to Israel’s enemies, the nations in which the Israelites were living as exiles.
Yet through all this, God prospered Israel. He didn’t spare them from exile. He prospered them in spite of their condition of exile. Certainly many individuals languished without prospering, without the prospect of a bright future. Enslavement and suffering were their plight. The promise may not apply to me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to us.
Given the context, it’s clear that Jeremiah is not promising each individual Israelite that they would not suffer. He is promising something different. What is the third mistake?
Third, we Westerners tend to microwave this verse. That is, we fast-forward the outcome. God does indeed prosper his people. About seventy years later, they are returned to the land with blessing.
Most Western Christians who quote this verse would not be happy to acknowledge that the plans God has for his people may not be clear for two generations. Worse, the two intervening generations may endure all manner of hardship. To acknowledge this is to admit that the payoff doesn’t include me and renders the text irrelevant to me. It also offends our sensibility, discussed in a previous chapter, that promises (rules) must apply to everyone equally all the time.
So how should we apply this verse to our lives today? The authors offer an answer to that question:
To avoid misapplication, we should determine what the text meant then before we try to apply it to ourselves now. We suggest a better interpretation of Jeremiah 29 runs something like this: even though Israel is in the condition of exile, God will prosper them by prospering those who enslave them (Jer 29:7). Someday he will deliver them from exile, but that will happen well in the future. Until then, Israel is to rest assured that God is at work for their deliverance, even when he does not appear to be.
The application of this interpretation is broader and profounder than our typical misreading. Remember that the New Testament describes Christians as living in a state of exile. We are “foreigners and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11), members of “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (Jas 1:1), whose “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Like the Israelites in Jeremiah 29, the church is “God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout” the world (1 Pet 1:1).
A more likely application of Jeremiah 29:11, then, is that God is working to prosper his church. Though at times it appears the church cannot resist its enemies—whether hostile governments or worldviews or the unfaithfulness of its own people—God is committed to making it grow, like the mustard seed. He has promised the total consummation of his church. But until that day, we labor faithfully, knowing that God is working his purposes for his church, of which each of us is a part but not the focus.