Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most popular verses in the Bible and many Christians apply its promise to their current situation. “’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.”
Can this promise be applied to New Testament believers today? If so, how? In order to answer these questions, we need to review the proper way to interpret biblical passages.
The article entitled “How can we know what parts of the Bible apply to us today?” on gotquestions.org provides a list of principles for proper biblical interpretation:
1. Context. To understand fully, start small and extend outward: verse, passage, chapter, book, author and testament/covenant.
2. Try to come to grips with how the original audience would have understood the text.
3. Consider the width of the chasm between us and the original audience.
4. It’s a safe bet that any moral command from the Old Testament that is repeated in the New Testament is an example of a ‘timeless truth.’
5. Remember that each passage has one and only one correct interpretation, but can have many applications (some better than others).
6. Always be humble and don’t forget the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation. He has promised to lead us into all truth (John 16:13).
The first two principles tell us to read the passage in historical context. How would the original audience have understood the text?
Jeremiah 29:11 is part of a letter that Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon around 594 BC. False prophets were telling the exiles that Babylon would soon be defeated and that they would be returning to their homeland within a couple of years. Jeremiah corrects the false prophets and explains that Babylon would be in power for about 70 more years and that the exiles should make Babylon their home and prepare for a long stay. The exiles receiving the letter would likely die in Babylon, along with their children. It would be their grandchildren or great-grandchildren who are finally allowed to return to Judah.
Given this historical context, when Jeremiah tells the exiles that God has plans for them to prosper and not be harmed, he must be referring to the descendants of the exiles, not the exiles themselves. The nation of Israel (consisting of the remnant of believers in exile) would be returned to the Promised Land at a future date, so the exiles could have hope for the future of their people. But the people receiving the letter from Jeremiah were not going to return home. They would have to live in a foreign land and suffer under Babylonian rule.
When a Christian applies this verse to himself today, he cannot claim this verse as a promise that God is going to cause him to prosper in his current life situation. This verse doesn’t guarantee that God will make every Christian be wealthy, have a dream job, meet the perfect spouse, and be physically and mentally healthy. This is not a verse that guarantees a pain-free life. To apply the verse in this way is to completely twist the original meaning of the verse, as heard by the exile community in Babylon.
If the verse cannot be applied in that way, then how can it be applied? Here are a couple of suggestions. First, we learn that God keeps His promises to us. Even though the Jews were exiled because of their sins, God still did not abandon them. Second, as Christians, God has promised us that no matter what happens on earth, those who trust His Son Jesus Christ will spend eternity with Him.