It's one of the most quoted Bible verses. You might have seen it on bookmarks and mugs and tea towels and Bible cases and on any number of Instagram inspirational images (usually with the verse hovering next to an image of a model gazing into the distance watching the sun rise).
So, in case you don't have it on hand, or tattooed on your hand, here's the verse:
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.
First up, before I try and challenge our thinking around this verse, I want to be clear: if someone is only going to get a little snippet of what God is like, I want it to be along the lines of: 'God is good. God is trustworthy. God is for his creation - including you and me. God loves us.' For a lot of people, perhaps this is the meaning that they are drawing from this verse.
I wonder if there's a little more going on with this verse, both in the context of the Bible, and in the context of our hearts and cultural moment? I wonder if a 'promise of prosperity' has lured many of us and distracted us from the real intended message?
I'd like to have a swing at exploring this verse, both in its own context, and in ours, and hopefully invite us all to deeper engagement with this loving, trustworthy God and this God's plans.
I remember how frequently we used to quote Jeremiah 29:11 at school. We would quote it in our prayers, in our conversations, in our mini Bible-talks. This verse was recited with hope and expectation whenever someone was worried about whether they'd pass an upcoming test or exam, or whether they'd make the sports team they were aiming for, or when someone was considering their life and plans after school. We passed this verse around quickly and unquestioningly, as if its meaning was self evident, and as if it was written specifically, directly to our specific context: whatever we were facing, and however we wanted to apply it. This often meant that we used this verse to bolster an argument that God would never want us to endure hardship and that God wanted to give us the plans we had for ourselves.
But, I remember one day being at a Christian meeting at school, in 2002ish, where a fellow student was giving a talk. I remember he brought up Jeremiah 29:11. And he challenged us all to reconsider it in light of context of the verse within the Bible.
And then he talked for a while about the story and theme of 'exile' in the Bible.
While this verse was very familiar to most of us in that room, I don't think many of us had any idea of what he was going on about with this 'exile' story. It sounded pretty horrible. I wondered, "What does this have to do with God's plans for my prospering?"
At that stage my biblical knowledge was a bit like this: I knew a bunch about the beginning of the Bible - Creation, Abraham and his family, Moses, Exodus, and 'the land of milk and honey'. And then I knew a bunch about the New Testament: Jesus and the church. But, for me, there was this big, fuzzy gap in the middle of the Bible storyline. I think many Christians also have that gap, and many never really fill in that gap.
I won't try and go through this in detail here. But, briefly, here's a summary (or some parts) of what happens between arrival at the land of 'milk and honey', and the arrival of Jesus.
Over time, the Jewish community of faith, the followers of Yahweh God, began to walk away from God in rebellious ways. This was demonstrated in their sin (in particular, their collusion with unjust practices and social systems that meant people who were poor, sick and socially marginalised were oppressed and not cared for) and in their worship (they begin to worship other gods in all sorts of way, and some of this worship included child sacrifice! See Jeremiah 7:31). Then, God allows for empires (Assyria first and then, later, Babylon) to rise up, forcefully take control of the 'land of milk and honey' and send the Israelites into exile.
'Exile' meant moving many people out of their homes and farms and cities, and distributing them into different places within the empire. This was a means of eradicating them as a defined 'people group' and assimilating them into the culture of the empire.
For a great 5min explanation of the biblical theme of Exile, here's a fantastic Bible Project video: (feel free to skip if you're already familiar with exile in the Bible)
So, back to our verse in Jeremiah and its context.
The book of Jeremiah is a collection of prophecies from Jeremiah. It was at a time long after the kingdom had been split into the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah. It was also about a century after the Assyrians had taken the Northern kingdom of Israel into exile.
The book of Jeremiah covers a time when Judah was being conquered by the new threatening world power: Babylon, and the Jewish people were being exiled into various parts of the Babylonian Empire.
In Jeremiah chapter 28, there's another prophet who is claiming that the exile will only last two years. This, of course, was great news for the exiles - they would have been really pleased to hear how temporary their sorrows and hardship would last.
With all this context now in mind, we arrive at our present chapter: Jeremiah 29. This chapter is a letter that Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to those who were already in exile in Babylon.
Imagine getting this letter from Jeremiah. Imagine sitting in some foreign land, away from the temple and your city and many of your people and family, in a culture that's different to your own, and in a society that worships other gods in other ways, and they have a different worldview and a different language. Imagine they forced you to adopt a new name (like they did in changing Daniel's name to Belteshazzar). Imagine how angry and confused and disorientated you'd feel.
I'm sure many of the exiles might have hoped for a letter like this:
"To all those carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Your time in exile will be short! In two swift years I'll carry you back home to Jerusalem. Your pain will be short; your hardship will be over soon. Keep yourselves away from the evil Babylonians and their culture. Oppose them, and I will give you breakthrough."
In fact, that's not God's message through Jeremiah here. What Jeremiah actually says in chapter 29 includes this:
God will bring you (the Jewish people) back to Jerusalem, according to God's promise. But... you'll be in exile in Babylon for 70 years. (This would mean most people receiving this message would live out the rest of their lives in this foreign land.) (verse 10)
"Build houses and settle down." (verse 5)
"Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (verse 7)
Can you imagine the surprise, and the mix of emotions in the receivers of this message? The deflation, the doubt, the confusion... And it is in the middle of this letter from Jeremiah that we find our endlessly Instagrammable, tweet-sized verse. In the context of the whole of Jeremiah's letter, however, perhaps Jeremiah 29:11 could be paraphrased into something like this:
A challenging, disorientating and often confusing road lies ahead of you for many years. Things are not working out the way you planned. Things are not as they should be in the world around you. But, be assured: this is not the end of the story. There is an 'after-part' of my plan beyond what you see now. I have designed and planned things so that ultimately, one day, I will lead you out of this exile you're now in. I will restore.
Living as Exiles
This letter is not a message about God giving them their plans, or them getting what they want. Rather, it's a message about how God wants them to live as His plans are outworked.
The New Testament extends this idea of 'exile' to say that all followers of Jesus live now as exiles awaiting God's future restoration of all things. Jesus' resurrection was like a preview (or a movie trailer) of that coming restoration. The New Testament authors view Christians as citizens of the future world (God's new creation), but Christians are living now in this world as foreigners and exiles (see 1 Pet 2:11, Heb 11:13, or Phil 1:27).
So in Jeremiah 29, and in the New Testament, it seems to me that it is important for followers of Jesus to think carefully about our role as exiles. As foreigners and exiles, Jeremiah urges them to settle down, engage with their local communities, to pray for their new land, and to explore how they can be a blessing there. He tells them to seek the 'peace and prosperity' (which is translating the Hebrew term 'shalom') for their new neighbours, despite having been brutally conquered and violently moved by them.
Jesus has similar things to say to his followers, instructing them to love their neighbours, even their enemies, and to see themselves as 'salt', 'light' or 'yeast': That is, to be a small part making a big difference in the world.
Our Cultural Moment:
This letter, in Chapter 29, from Jeremiah to these exiles is quoted from regularly in our culture today. In fact, according to Biblica's website, Jeremiah 29 is the most commonly search for chapter in the Bible on modern mobile Bible Apps.
The thrust of this letter, in its original context, is about enduring hardship patiently and seeking the welfare of those around us. Understanding the message this way, we see that the exiles are to be sacrificial, hopeful, patient, 'shalom' bringers.
I wonder if we too often quote from Jeremiah's letter in ways that neglect the context and distort the meaning, and therefore the meaning that gets communicated is: God is going to end hardship when we want, and give us the prosperity that we want. Using the Bible like this communicates that we are to be entitled consumers.
What does our infatuation with Jeremiah 29:11 (untethered from the rest of the chapter) show us about our cultural moment? What does this reflect about our relationship with the Bible?
What it would take for us to stop twisting the Bible to mean whatever Westernised, entitled consumers would want it to say?
What would it look like for followers of Jesus today to see calling as seeking the welfare of where we live, regardless of how others have treated us?
I wonder what 'shalom' (peace & prosperity) we could be a part of bringing in our neighbourhoods today?
What would it look like for the church to live as socially engaged, peace-bringing exiles, prophetically pointing towards the Prince of Peace, the the coming New Creation and restoration of all things?