I have a confession to make… I once quoted Jeremiah 29:11.
It was my first day of Bible college and I was in the library. I found myself overcome with a sense that this was where I was supposed to be and Jeremiah 29:11 came to mind. It seemed to precisely describe what I felt and experienced at that time:
“‘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.’”
This passage is the second most quoted Bible verse behind John 3:16. It’s plastered on mugs, wristbands, journals, pens, and pretty much anything else you can possibly imagine.
However, it is also one of the most misrepresented verses. Almost as often as people speak this passage, others yell, “Context!”
“That passage is not about you,” they say. “It was intended for a specific people, at a specific time, and was a very specific encouragement.”
All of that is true (which is why I confess to quoting and misusing it!)
Jeremiah prophesied to the Kingdom of Judah, through tears, God’s judgement on them due to their persistent sin. He watched as Judah ignored his prophetic utterances and was, eventually, destroyed. Survivors were dragged off into slavery in Babylon.
But just before the fall of Jerusalem came Jeremiah’s more encouraging utterance, the prophecy of God’s faithful remnant who would return to rebuild Jerusalem along with the temple of YHWH.
This return, though promised, would not to happen for seventy years.
It’s in this context that Jeremiah spoke this much-loved line, and, so (it’s argued) that it’s only in this context that the passage should be quoted.
For the most part I agree. I do think the passage has been woefully misused without regard for its original context. But while this popular passage of scripture is not about us… it is about God.
And because of God’s unchanging nature, we can see his grace and affections reflected in this passage and apply those concepts – not just to the Israelites in the days of Jeremiah – but also to the church today.
God’s promise of shalom
The key to understanding this passage is found in the word which, in many contemporary translations, is usually translated as “prosper”.
Generally speaking, we understand the word “prosperity” to relate to things financial. But this is not the prosperity that God promises in Jeremiah 29:11.
The Hebrew word translated “prosper you”, is the word “shalom”. So, the promise of prosperity that God makes in this passage is actually a promise of Shalom.
We usually take this word to mean “peace”, but its true meaning is far more than this! “Shalom” refers to whole of community restoration… wholeness… fullness. It’s a communal word that looks forward to the overarching welfare and health of the nation and, indeed, the world.
Therefore, the “hope and a future” promised refers not to freedom from suffering in the short term, but to abiding freedom from sin and suffering when the whole community is restored – when God’s kingdom comes to earth and He dwells among us.
So, while the return of the remnant happened in Jeremiah’s time, it doesn’t mark the fulfilment of God’s promise of Shalom. True shalom is still to be realised.
Believers experience a taste of shalom now
Christ the Messiah came so that true shalom might be experienced – not just by the remnant in Jeremiah, nor by the Jews alone, but by all those who follow Him (John 10:10 says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”). And, while true shalom will not be experienced until Christ returns and the new earth is ushered in, as followers of Christ we can experience glimmers of the majesty of shalom even now!
Shalom is experienced, in part, as the kingdom of God breaks in to this world, our current world, by Christ, through us. Our role is to display to others around us, the shalom that is offered in the kingdom of God.
While the kingdom of God will not be fully realised on earth until Christ’s second coming, we are nevertheless called to step in and begin this restoration process, so we might show humanity that there is a better world to be had under the headship of Christ.
We experience a new and fulfilled way of life, focussed on living for Christ by living for others – offering them a taste of the kingdom, imploring them to join us in following Christ towards a true hope and future with Him.
We are part of bringing shalom to fulfillment
2 Corinthians 5:18-20 says:
“All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us”.
God is making His appeal through us, calling other to experience eventual and abiding prosperity – shalom – and to receive a taste of the hope and the future that Christ offers now.
Is this Jeremiah 29:11 about us? Not directly. But it is about God. He offers hope and a future through Christ, as we eagerly await the coming of His kingdom… and inviting others to do the same through our actions and our words.