The Context of Jeremiah 29:11

This is an extremely popular verse and one we can find on plaques, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and Facebook posts: but what does this verse really refer to?

11For 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.” (NIV).

11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (ESV).

For starters, notice the word selection from the ESV: “….plans for welfare…..” instead of “plans to prosper you”. In fact, most other versions use something besides prosper, including the most common choices of welfare or peace. The Hebrew word salom can refer to peace, prosperity, success, welfare, state of health, friendliness, deliverance or salvation. This same word salom is used in Genesis 43:27; Exodus 18:7; Judges 18:15; Psalm 35:27; Isaiah 38:17; Jeremiah 15:5; 29:7; 38:4. I had a hard time trying to substitute the word “prosper” in any of these other verses and still have it make sense.

Those who oppose Christianity are quick to take Scripture out of context to attempt to prove their point, and I’m afraid many of us also attempt to take a Scripture verse and mold it to fit our own lives and in doing so, sometimes we take it out of context as well.

An example of this is the “Name it and Claim it” movement by many television evangelists. They use Jeremiah 29:11 as the cornerstone of their “Prosperity Gospel” believing that God wants us to be wealthy and this verse is proof of that. Unfortunately, many are led to believe this. In order to truly understand Jeremiah 29:11, we have to look at the context more closely.

Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet in one of Judah’s most challenging times, in the years 627 BC until sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. He was a prophet during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah—the kings of Judah. He was a contemporary of Nahum, Daniel, Zephaniah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, and perhaps Obadiah. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to Assyria in 722 BC.

He was tasked with declaring the coming judgment of God, and thus was never warmly received to say the least. He endured much hardship and suffering, all the while faithfully presenting a message of repentance upon deaf ears.

At this point in the Scripture, Jeremiah is sending a letter to the Judean captives in Babylon to tell them to get used to their new circumstances. He tells the exiles to prepare for a long captivity and to resume work and life as normal and not to listen to false prophets who are announcing a quick return from Babylon. In the midst of this letter is verse 11. Jeremiah is telling the exiled Jews that God will not forget them and after a period 70 years, He will remember the faithful and take care of them, both physically and spiritually and restore them to their land.

So this prophecy was not about us—but about a generation that would follow those who were sent to captivity as most of these individuals would die during the 70 years that followed. It is still a very powerful piece of Scripture and one that offers a universal message of hope and the faithfulness of God. It’s not, however, about achieving personal wealth or about personal fulfillment, but rather our spiritual fulfillment.

We are not preparing for exile for 70 years and Jeremiah is not our story. We can take this verse build hope upon it, though. We can use Jeremiah 29:11 as a catalyst to build our own story of hope and then tell others of God’s faithfulness in our own lives. In 1 Peter 3:15 we are told to always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks for the reason for the hope within us. Jeremiah 29:11, although meant for a group of Jewish exiles, can still be meaningful in our lives—as long as we understand the context. God’s faithfulness is for all who believe (1 Corinthians 1:9; Romans 3:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:24).

When we can tell our own story of hope, and others around us can feel our sincerity, we can most surely touch a life of someone else more earnestly than any Facebook graphic or coffee mug could ever do. That should be our takeaway of this verse.