We’ve all quoted Jeremiah 29:11 in times of uncertainty, leaning on its promise that God has plans to prosper us and not harm us, to give us hope and a future. But can we really apply this verse to our lives? JANELLE YEO takes a deeper look at this verse.
When I received my results for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), I found that I hadn’t done very well. While the scoring system recently changed, the old system required you to score the highest possible score of 300. I scored a whopping 189, barely making it into the Express stream in a neighbourhood school that no longer exists, while my good friends went to elite schools for high-performing students. Cards and verbal encouragements from friends in church started to stream in, and many of them encouraged me with Jeremiah 29:11, “‘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.’”
While I was encouraged by the verse, a part of me questioned how it applied to my situation. After all, how was going to a school famous for gangs, fights, and smokers, going to prosper and not harm me? What kind of future would I have after studying in this school? Would I even make it into university and get a job?
As I matured in faith and studied the Bible, I began to realise that I had misunderstood Jeremiah 29:11. It is less about focusing on a prosperous and safe future — rather, this verse is about trusting in God’s plan, whatever that may be.
UNLOCKING THE CONTEXT
The Israelites in Judah had broken their covenant with God and committed a mountain of sin, from idolatry, adultery, and child sacrifice to rampant social injustice. They were so sinful that they were compared to Sodom and Gomorrah (23:14)! Because of their unrepentance, God used the powerful nation Babylon to judge Israel by sending them into exile. In Jeremiah 29:8–9, we can infer that despite God’s prophecy that their exile would last 70 years (25:11–12), some Israelites still chose to believe in the lies of false prophets that they would return to their home in Jerusalem soon and their lives would go back to normal. They preferred to deceive themselves with the possibility of early deliverance. The Israelites chose to believe in a lie because they wanted things to unfold in their way, not God’s.
It is in this context that Jeremiah wrote this verse in his letter to the exiles. God knew that His people were crushed and in despair after being exiled. More importantly, He knew that they were not receptive to His plan to keep them in Babylon for 70 years. So, He comforted and assured them with these words: “For I know the plans I have for you, […] plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
GOD KNOWS HIS THOUGHTS, AND HIS THOUGHTS ABOUT THEM WERE GOOD.
A PLAN FOR PROSPERITY?
While it might seem like God was promising the Israelites material prosperity and a safe future, the truth is far from so. We often misunderstand this because the familiar NIV uses the phrase “plans to prosper” — we often link the word “prosperity” with wealth. The original Hebrew phrase when translated more literally is “thoughts of peace” or “plans for welfare.” This clarifies that what the NIV translates as “prosper” is not about the people’s prosperity but God’s purposes or intentions for their good.
In short, God was simply telling the Israelites to trust in Him. The exile wasn’t to harm them. God knows His thoughts, and His thoughts about them were good.
When it comes to the word “future,” we may understand it in terms of success: a good school, a good job, or financial prosperity. However, in its original Hebrew, it literally means that there will be an “afterwards” for the Israelites — it tells them, if I may paraphrase, “you will not die in exile.” The Israelites are being assured by God Himself that they as a people group will continue to exist beyond the exile. This is why they can look forward to a future.
To sum it up, Jeremiah 29:11 was not a promise that all would be smooth-sailing for the Israelites, but a call to trust God because of who He is. God was urging His people to trust in Him because He cared for them. If they would trust in Him, then they could trust in His plans — even if they could not see them at the moment. And as God had promised, the Israelites were eventually released after Persia conquered Babylon (Ezra 1), and their existence as a people group continued.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?
Just as God assured the Israelites of His character and urged them to trust in Him, He too calls us to trust in Him today. While this verse cannot be directly applied to us, its principle of trusting in Him can.
Looking back on my PSLE results, I now know that the usage of Jeremiah 29:11 for me was wrong. See, what I was being told was: (1) Although your results are bad, don’t worry — you still have a good future. You can get into university and have a well-paying job; or even (2) Don’t worry, your bad results are all part of God’s plan to prosper you, just trust in Him. But after we have examined the verse in its context, it is clear that these are misinterpretations! They even wrongly imply that: (1) I have sinned very terribly (like the Israelites!) and that was why God gave me bad PSLE results; (2) God sent me to a lousy school to cause me to repent from my sins and refine me to be a better Christian (like the disciplining through the exile!). If you haven’t seen why we can’t apply this verse casually, I hope you do now!
As tempting as it is to use a favourite verse as an encouragement for ourselves or someone else in trying times, we must always consider the context in which the verse was written. Perhaps what we can do instead is to first remind others of God’s character and point them back to Him and what He has done. We can remind those who feel insecure about their appearance that they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:13–14). We can remind those who feel bullied or oppressed that God is a God of righteousness and justice (Ps 36:6). And we can remind those who did not do well for a major exam like me that they are so much more than their grades in His eyes (1 John 3:1).
WHAT WE CAN BE CERTAIN ABOUT IS WHO HE IS – GOOD, LOVING, MERCIFUL, RIGHTEOUS, AND HOLY.
Sometimes, our failures and suffering are because of our own actions and decisions. Sometimes, they could be because we live in a fallen world. But other times, they will remain a mystery our whole lives until we can ask God face to face (1 Cor 13:12). What we can be certain about is who He is — good, loving, merciful, righteous, and holy. Just as God pointed the Israelites back to trusting in His character when their faith was shaken, let us also turn our eyes to who He is and keep our trust in Him.