Once you’ve spent a few years in church, you’re likely to hear a lot of Christians declare that Jeremiah 29:11 is one of their favourite scriptures.
It’s often read within churches, with a deep sense of hopefulness and resilience, ‘“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.”’
It’s a passage that’s bolstered believers for centuries and been a source of hope in my own walk with God. But Jeremiah 29:11 is often so detached from its context that it’s frequently misrepresented and misunderstood.
So, what does Jeremiah 29:11 mean? Let’s take another look together and attempt to both understand and represent the passage well, in context.
Is Jeremiah 29:11 for Us?
Let’s get this one out of the way early. The answer to the question ‘Is Jeremiah 29:11 a promise for us’ is a simple one—not really.
Context OfJeremiah 29:11
As we read the passage, we’re introduced to a people, a prophet, a promise and a promise maker. When we understand all these elements in context, we might discover that we’ve missed a thing or two.
The people are the Israelites—God’s chosen people. Contextually, they find themselves living as captives in the city of Babylon, far from ‘living their best life.’ Captivity in this context is an experience of God’s judgement because of Israel’s persistent sin and unwillingness to heed the warnings and take the opportunity to repent.
Often referred to by theologians as ‘the weeping prophet’ because of his heart for God’s people, Jeremiah prophesied this judgement and watched in deep sadness as warnings were ignored, Jerusalem was destroyed, and the survivors were dragged off into a life of slavery.
We know that the role of a prophet was an important one. They were messengers of God, intermediaries between God and His people. Their words were not those of ordinary people but of the Divine God speaking directly to His people through the prophets.
In this context—of judgment and exile—Jeremiah, a prophet of God, prophesies the promise of a future. One with a plan, with hope and with prosperity. Three things that are in direct contrast to the current lived experience of the exiled Israelites.
This is a specific promise, to a specific people, at a specific time. The context is important.
But at this point, in our attempts to stay faithful to the context, we can overcorrect and miss another element present in the passage. These are not empty words or wishful thinking from a weeping prophet.
This is a declaration from the Promise Maker himself—God.
A PROMISE MAKER
In my context at the moment, promises are a big deal to our four-year-old. She’s quick to make them and quick to ask for them from us. While her requests are beautifully innocent, opportunities are presenting themselves to teach her about the importance of what it means to make a promise. Because as time goes on and we inevitably let her down, we’re excited to teach her that this is where God is different from us.
A promise is only as good as the person making it and their ability to follow through.
Passages like Numbers 23:19 inform our understanding that ‘God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfil?’ And in 2 Timothy 2:13, Paul communicates a beautiful picture of God’s faithfulness—he is faithfulness and cannot disown himself.
In simplest terms, the lesson is that if God spoke it, he’s good for it.
What Does Jeremiah 29:11 Mean?
So, while Jeremiah 29:11 is not about us, it’s about more than a promise spoken to a specific people at a specific time. It’s also about our eternal, unchanging and always faithful God.
This is why millennia later, in a totally different context, as a different people group altogether, Jeremiah 29:11 still has something to teach us.
God’s Promise of Shalom—Fullness of Life
Perhaps one of the most important words for us to understand in this promise is that of ‘prosperity.’
We might best understand ‘prosperity’ to mean things of a material nature: finances, the meeting of physical needs or living ‘blessed.’ But there is much more to it. And if we miss this, we’re at risk of living with a diminished understanding of God’s heart for restoration in the world.
‘Shalom’ is the Hebrew word translated to ‘prosper you’ in the passage.
Shalom is a beautifully layered word. On the surface it means ‘peace’. But it’s not peace in the way we know it. Shalom speaks to something much deeper—it speaks of wholeness, restoration, a setting right of things, fullness of life—holistically not just individually. And not just in the community around us, but in all of creation.
Some translators even go as far as to say that Shalom is the opposite of the chaos experienced in creation as a result of sin. What a promise!
This ‘hope and a future’ then, these ‘plans’ of God are far more than the promise of a life beyond captivity in Babylon. They speak to something of a future for all of creation that should be informed by hope—a joyful expectation of good.
While Jeremiah also prophesied of a remnant who would experience some of this shalom in their lifetime—returning out of captivity to rebuild their city—true shalom, the fullness of God’s promise hasn’t been realised yet.
A Taste of Shalom Now
What I believe people are saying when they share Jeremiah 29:11 as a ‘favourite passage’ is that their story has forever been changed not because they’ve taken an ancient promise out of context, but because they’ve encountered the one who made it. And this encounter informs the way they now live: hopeful; purposeful; restored.
As Better World Ambassadors we can say to a world living in captivity, burdened by broken systems and subject to injustice, there is a plan in the midst of all this mess. Things won’t always be this way.
We can say ‘as though God were making His appeal through us,’ can I introduce you to hope? Can I introduce you to the fullness of life that God promises and is actively at work fulfilling?
That’s the promise of a better world not just for some time in the future, but for today.