05 June 2024

God knows the plans he has for you.

Jeremiah 29.11.

Jeremiah 29.11 NIV
“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.”

Whenever English-speaking Christians quote this verse, I tend to hear the New International Version translation most often. Oddly, not the been-around-way-longer King James:

Jeremiah 29.11 KJV
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

I suspect it’s ’cause the words “prosper” and “hope” and “future” are in the NIV, so it comes across as way more optimistic and inspiring. It’s why Christians quote it like crazy. Like the evangelists tell us, “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” and this verse brilliantly affirms it: God thinks warm, wonderful things about us. He has a good, fine plan, with a good future.

Some of us figure this future is heaven, and some of us figure it’s all the worldly success the American Dream can offer. But, y’know, Christianized. This way we’re comfortably wealthy, but our comfort and wealth somehow hasn’t turned us into out-of-touch, self-entitled jerks. Instead we’re “good stewards” of that wealth… but I gotta tell ya, in practice stewardship tends to look a little out-of-touch, and tends to hoard wealth on the basis of “God gave these riches to me, not the needy, so I must deserve it more than they.” But I digress.

Like many out-of-context scriptures, neither the NIV nor KJV variants are a mistranslation. I translated it myself, and my own results aren’t far different from the NIV and KJV. (Nor should it be.)

Jeremiah 29.11 KWL
“Because I know the intentions I plan over you,” the LORD states.
“Intentions of peace, not evil.
To give you a proper ending, and hope.”

The verse is about what God has in store for his people. He plans good, not evil. (Especially not secret, behind-the-scenes evil stuff, like natural disasters and wars; whereas in public he maintains moral superiority. I know certain Christians claim otherwise, but God’s no hypocrite.) God wants his people to have good lives. Not bad.

Thing is: The people God addressed in this prophecy are the Hebrews of southern Israel, the tribes which the writers of the Old Testament collectively call “Judah,” and the writers of the New Testament call “Judea.” These’d be the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon; plus Levites and various members of other tribes who lived in the cities. Collectively, “Jews.”

Jeremiah prophesied it between the years 586 and 581BCE, after King Jeconiah, his family and court, and Jerusalem’s officials had been dragged to Babylon as captives of Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. Jr 29.2 In fact this prophecy was a message to these very captives. Not necessarily to all the Jews in the sixth century before the Christian Era. And certainly not 21st-century gentiles. Nor even all us Christians.

But we’d sure like it to be us, wouldn’t we? And that’s why we claim it for ourselves. We justify it by saying, “God doesn’t change Ml 3.6 —his attitude towards all people, whether ancient Hebrews or present-day Christians, oughta be this very same gracious-sounding offer of peace and safety. So let’s take him up on it!

Oh, and let’s post this verse on our walls someplace. Underneath some nice Thomas Kinkade paintings of a house lit up as if by a kitchen fire. Or something otherwise inspirational. Let’s recite it to ourselves whenever we’re feeling down, or overwhelmed, or like we’ve lost one of the many minor battles in life. God’s working all things together for our good, right? Ro 8.28 His plans for us are prosperity, peace, and hope, right?

Here’s what it’s actually about.

The proper context of this verse is spelled out at the beginning of the chapter:

Jeremiah 29.1-3 NET
1The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to the exiles Nebuchadnezzar had carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon. It was addressed to the elders who were left among the exiles, to the priests, to the prophets, and to all the other people who were exiled in Babylon. 2He sent it after King Jeconiah, the queen mother, the palace officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had been exiled from Jerusalem. 3He sent it with Elasah son of Shaphan5 and Gemariah son of Hilkiah.6 King Zedekiah of Judah had sent these men to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The letter said:

…followed by what the letter said. It’s not a message for just anyone who grabs a bible and reads the verse as if it’s to us. It’s for those people. Displaced refugees who survived Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon’s conquest and destruction of their city, who lost their possessions and positions, who were dragged away to Iraq and never expected to see their homeland again. What there was of their homeland after the Babylonians burned it all down.

These folks, much like lots of folks throughout history, had incorrectly, blindly, arrogantly assumed God was on their side. They were certain the LORD would never permit Jerusalem—especially his temple!—to get destroyed. Jr 7.3-7 Jeremiah repeatedly warned ’em otherwise, but their civic idolatry couldn’t abide his message: They declared Jeremiah a traitor and false prophet, and would’ve murdered him long ago… if only everything he prophesied didn’t wind up actually happening.

To their minds, none of these things should’ve happened to them. None. They were devout Jews, saved by God’s grace. Sure they sinned; everybody sins. But once they were done exploiting the weak and needy, they took advantage of God’s cheap grace by burning a few more cattle on the temple altar. That made ’em all clean, Jr 7.8-11 and right with God… kinda like we Christians assume the blood of Jesus makes it just fine for us to do the very same thing.

Jeremiah’s rants against their abominable behavior aside, they counted on the LORD’s grace to defeat every foe. The Assyrians may have demolished the tribes of northern Israel, and replaced ’em with Samaritans, but the northern Israelis were a buncha Baal-worshiping, calf-hugging heretics. That stuff would never happen to them.

Picturing their mindset in your head? Shouldn’t be hard. Lots of Christians already believe likewise. Now imagine their utter shock and horror when the LORD permitted these pagan Babylonian gentiles to win—then burn his temple down, and march ’em to Babylon with hooks through their noses.

Depression, despair, denial, doubt, and various other emotions which don’t begin in D, were all going through these folks’ minds. Why’d God permit this to happen? Even after some of them repented (but obviously not all); even after all the “promises” in the bible which “guaranteed” he’d come through for them in the end (obviously taken out of context). Was God powerless before the Babylonians and their gods? Were they worshiping a fake god or something? What happened?

There were also those in denial: Hebrews who put together a resistance to fight the Babylonian military governors. Hebrews who wanted to flee their exile and go back home to Palestine. Hebrews who figured the LORD still might do something in the minute-after-the-last-minute. Some folks never do give up hope, no matter what you do to them. We Christians never should give up hope, either.

So what was the LORD’s message to them, through his least-popular prophet? This.

Jeremiah 29.4-14 NET
4“The LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all those he sent into exile to Babylon from Jerusalem, 5‘Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Marry and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and allow your daughters to get married so that they too can have sons and daughters. Grow in number; do not dwindle away. 7Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the LORD for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.’
8“For the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says, ‘Do not let the prophets among you or those who claim to be able to predict the future by divination deceive you. And do not pay any attention to the dreams that you are encouraging them to dream. 9They are prophesying lies to you and claiming my authority to do so. But I did not send them. I, the LORD, affirm it!’
10“For the LORD says, ‘Only when the seventy years of Babylonian rule are over will I again take up consideration for you. Then I will fulfill my gracious promise to you and restore you to your homeland. 11For I know what I have planned for you,’ says the LORD. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope. 12When you call out to me and come to me in prayer, I will hear your prayers. 13When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, 14I will make myself available to you,’ says the LORD. ‘Then I will reverse your plight and will regather you from all the nations and all the places where I have exiled you,’ says the LORD. ‘I will bring you back to the place from which I exiled you.’ ”

The rest is about the horrible things that were now gonna happen to any fake prophets who told the Jews otherwise. Lotsa bad stuff.

In summary the LORD’s message was this: Settle down. Live your lives. Love your neighbors, pagan though they might be. Seek God. And in his time—not yours, not what your fake prophets have been claiming—he’ll restore Judah.

We kept Jeremiah’s writings because that’s precisely what happened. In 539BCE, Cyrus of Persia overthrew Babylon, let the Jews return to Judah, and funded their reconstruction of the LORD’s temple. Didn’t even take 70 years.

God wouldn’t have sent this prophecy if the Jews hadn’t been thinking and plotting otherwise: Putting off their lives, planning an insurgency, listening to any nut who told them, “God wills it!” and sent them into a crowd of Babylonians with a bomb vest… oh wait; wrong century. But though weapons may have changed, human nature sure hasn’t. And God’s nature hasn’t changed either. He still wants peace. And our obedience. And to give people a proper ending, and hope.

Problem is, it’s for this reason Christians love to claim this verse applies to us too.

Here’s what it’s not about.

Three facts:

  • God’s character doesn’t change.
  • Human nature can absolutely change… but won’t till we turn to God.
  • When it won’t, history repeats itself.

Jews weren’t the only people who’ve ever gone into exile. And the Babylonian exile wasn’t the only time they went into exile. Currently they’re back from exile… and they’ve since gone back to the very same attitude they had in Jeremiah’s day, and assume God would never let anyone drive them from their land again. I sure hope they’re right, but I sure don’t take the idea for granted.

Because history repeats itself. And because our history has a lot of parallels with this history, you’re gonna find a lot of Christians who figure historical context doesn’t matter: This verse sounds like it could apply to us, so it’s precisely how they’re gonna apply it. God knew the plans he had for them, right? He knows the plans he has for everyone. Why wouldn’t he plan to likewise prosper us, and not harm us?

After all, doesn’t that jibe with what he said through Paul?

Romans 8.28-30 NET
28And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.

Oh wait; the “all things” which work together for our good apparently have to do with our salvation. Not success and comfort and material prosperity. Dangit, doesn’t anybody quote bible in context?

Well no. No we don’t. Because we covet success, comfort, and material prosperity so very much. We want unchallenging, happy, peaceful lives. Jesus may have warned us tribulation is coming, but we claim we’re gonna get raptured before that happens. We want money and stuff so much, we insist Jesus is building us mansions in heaven, Jn 14.2 KJV even though in 500-year-old British English, “mansions” meant “apartments.” (Still does; ask any Brit who lives in a council estate.) We want worldly success so bad, we’ll bend the scriptures any which way to get it promised to us.

Jeremiah’s prophecy was written to captives in exile. Is that our condition? Are we living as refugees, without homes, waiting for our exile to end quickly? Are we destined to live in Babylon for the next seven decades, and then return to Jerusalem? Do we have fortunes for God to restore?

Well, if you treat all that history as if it’s allegory—our “exile” and “Babylon” is the sinful world we live in, our “Jerusalem” is New Jerusalem, our “fortunes” are our place in God’s kingdom—then we can sure make it sound like this passage suits us very well. But that’s not the literary context. Jeremiah’s prophecy isn’t allegory, but speaking to then-current events, which are not still current. It’s rooted in history. It’s not free to wander hither and yon, with us free to pin it to our circumstances—after we stretch it to fit.

We can learn from this story, just like we can learn from everything in the bible. We can learn how God always has a plan, even after disaster knocks away everything we’ve ever known. We can learn God wants his people to live in hope, not despair. We can learn God keeps his promises, since we already know the outcome of this situation: God did bring his people back to rebuild Jerusalem. And we can also remember fake prophets and fortune-tellers are always gonna be around to capitalize on desperate people.

But if you wanna claim God has plans for you, and that they’re good plans, you have no business quoting Jeremiah. Quote Romans—but remember, that chapter 8 part is about your salvation, not your wealth and worldly success. Quote John, where Jesus states he overcame the world Jn 16.33 —but remember, he also told us there’s tribulation. Quote all the bible you wish, but remember: It promises us God’s kingdom. Not one of your own.