“For I know the plans I have for you,”
declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you
and not harm you, plans to give you
hope and a future.” (Jer 29:11)
This prophecy of Jeremiah abounds with application that was vital for the listeners in exile; it spoke volumes concerning their time in captivity, yet reveals so much of the character of God and his thoughts toward his people. Because of the overuse of this single verse with no regard to its context, it has become a wishful plea that God will straightway make all things right for whoever wants to claim it. However, there is much more being done here than what can be seen in this single verse. What are the plans of God? What is God currently doing in the given situation? With the appropriate attention given to this verse and its context, we will see God doing something amazing in the lives of the Israelites. By understanding the fullness of what God is intending to do, we may also see what he can and wants to do in our lives today.
The first portion of the context we must notice is the predicament the Israelites are in at the time of the prophecy. Chapters 27-29 of Jeremiah are early in the reign of Zedekiah, King of Judah, which was within the first five years or so of the campaign of Nebuchadnezzar, the new king of the Babylonian empire. Nebuchadnezzar was conquering nation after nation as he was building his kingdom, and he intending to do the same to the nation of Judah. There was a false prophet, Hananiah, who spoke to the people and assured them that the trouble from Nebuchadnezzar would end within two years (Jer 28:1-4). The rest of chapter twenty-eight is Jeremiah’s response to Hananiah, who would in turn die later that year for falsely speaking on behalf of God. In reply to Hananiah’s false prophecy, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the people of Israel telling them the truth of what God intended to do. They would not be free from oppression within two years. Jeremiah told them to settle in, for they would be there for a while. In fact, they would remain in Babylon until seventy years was complete. After, and only after, the seventy years of captivity were complete would God restore them to the land of Judah—this was the plan of God. Jeremiah 29:11 was read to the people just after they heard that they would be in captivity for some sixty-five more years. I am sure it was not the plan they were hoping for; many of them most assuredly favored the prophecy of Hananiah—but God had a different plan.
In order for us to fully grasp this passage of Scripture and its ramifications on us, it is important for us to ponder what Israel’s response was to this prophecy. There would have been a sadness, I am sure; who would not want to have a shortened captivity and soon return home? But even upon hearing that they would be in Babylon for seventy years, I believe they had a sort of a happiness. Why? Because it was at that moment, they realized they were still in the plan of God. Yes, they just heard that they will be in captivity for many more years, but more importantly, they just heard that God had a plan for them. This would have been a joy to the Israelites who were near feeling forsaken.
The plan would not begin when their captivity was over. It is easy to imagine that any plan of God begins when things are well; however, this would be a mistaken understanding of the passage. To say that the plan of God would begin when their captivity ended would infer that while they were in captivity, God was not at work. This, however, is far from the truth. A careful read through Jeremiah would reveal that the seventy years of captivity was an intricately designed plan of God. When we read Jeremiah twenty-nine, we must understand that part of the amazing plan of God—causing them to prosper and have hope for a future—was for them to remaining in captivity for a near sixty-five more years. Not only was it part of God’s plan for them to remain in captivity, but it was the plan of God that put them into captivity to begin with.
On a final note, it is important to notice that the plans of God are most often not intended for short-term happiness. If God was only concerned for the present happiness of Israel, it would be far from him to send them into captivity. But God was preparing them for reconciliation with him where he would be their God and they would once again be his people. Right after Jeremiah spoke of the plan of God in verse 11, he said, “then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you…” (Jer 29:12-14a). This is where God wanted to bring the people: into a relationship with him, into covenant. However, that comes at a cost, they had to be cultivated. Israel had become as marred pottery, and God as the potter was gently reforming them to once again become the holy nation of the Lord. Part of the plan to prosper Israel and to give them hope was to first let them be shaped and cultivated while in captivity.
Jeremiah 29:11 is a beautiful verse that is quoted often by many who need a ray of hope. For the children of Israel, it was that hope. Nonetheless, the hope was not only that things would get better but it was the assurance that God was still at work and had not abandoned them. When we think about this verse and its application for our own lives, we must understand the timeless truth that God always has had a plan for his people. Although it is not always as bright as we would hope, it is always a plan for our good and to give us a future in him. Furthermore, the only reason the plan might not be as bright as we like is because God may be trying to cultivate us for something even greater. We must also understand that when we ask God to work out his plan for our lives, it may not begin with us in the promised land eating grapes and drinking milk and honey. Without a doubt, we would like the entirety of all the promises and plans of God to be pleasant; however, as with Israel, the plan of God has a favorable end and is for your good, and sometimes the path to that end has to go through a time of captivity—cultivation. One last thing that we must remember is what true prosperity is. It is easy and natural to quote Jeremiah 29:11 for any area of success and ask God to bless you. Yet, the plan of God in the context of Israel was more concise and direct—God was reconciling a people to himself. Their prosperity, their hope, and their future were him and in him; everything else was subsequent. God does have a plan for each of our lives. We may not always understand it, and we may not always like it, but it is a good plan, it is a plan with a future, it is a plan of hope.