Does God Really Have Plans to Prosper You? Jeremiah 29:11 Pt. 1

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

(Jeremiah 29:11)
Prosperity Image
Image by 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay

Jeremiah 29:11 is a much loved passage from the Jewish scriptures used by well-meaning Christians to demonstrate God’s commitment to prosper all His children. But does this verse teach this promise? In addition, we must question to whom does this verse apply? Does this passage from Jeremiah apply primarily to certain members of the nation of Israel or can all followers of Jesus claim this passage as their own?

Bible passages can be easily hijacked and misused

The Scriptures contain wonderful God-inspired truths and promises for His people. However, there is the looming possibility certain verses from God’s word can be misunderstood and misapplied. I prefer to use the word “hijacked” when Christians pick-and-choose biblical passages meant for Israel and erroneously apply these texts to themselves. Obviously, the New Testament authors practiced a similar use of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, these apostolic authors were guided by the Spirit of God in a one-time experience composing scriptures as they employed passages from the Tenach (Old Testament) to support New Covenant theology.

It is this author’s conviction that those who read the scriptures need be sure each text is interpreted correctly and applied with regards to the context in which the verse was written and to whom it originally referred to. Otherwise the reader of the Scriptures stands guilty of hijacking a verse or a chapter or a book to apply to a certain situation when the original context of that passage has little to do with the contemporary situation in which the passage is being sampled.

Somali Pirates Hijacked Boat
AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh, File)

These biblical hijackers are like Somali pirates who illegally climb aboard a ship, take over the crew and confiscate the cargo on board for their own usage. Many evangelicals scour the sea of Jewish scriptures for promises never intended for Christians, swipe verses given to the nation of Israel and use the filched cargo to poorly apply to the New Testament believer.

With certain passages describing God’s future design for Israel, evangelicals are extremely careful about the original intent of these prophecies and would not think of spiritualizing these verses to make them apply to the church. For instance, Christians who support the modern-day Jewish state believe God uttered the dry bones prophecy in Ezekiel 37 to obligate Himself to the restoration of scattered Israel to the promised land both physically and spiritually. It would be contrary for these Christian Zionists to misinterpret Ezekiel’s prophecy as a promise of the Church’s future spiritual gathering and ensuing spiritual renewal.

Yet when it comes to an Old Testament passage like Jeremiah 29:11, the same concern about biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) is not applied by most Christians. Since this passage in Jeremiah portrays God’s blueprint for welfare, hope and a blessed future, modern day evangelicals selfishly grab a verse like this and hack its significance to make it fit into the blessing book of modern evangelicalism.

The Bible demands it be interpreted properly

When Jeremiah penned the divine promise of 29:11, was he thinking of applying this passage to all faithful devotees of the Lord throughout history? Is there an historical context to this passage that is missed by those who plaster this verse as a theme on the walls of churches, quote the passage in contemporary Christian music and cite this text to reinforce their theological position.

I realize I am questioning how Jeremiah 29:1 has been understood by millions of evangelicals. In fact, I am shaking the foundations of many spiritual movements built on this passage. However, it is my desire to come to grips with the original meaning and application of this portion of God’s word as Jeremiah wanted us to understand it.

In an article on the Gospel Coalition website, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention asks, “Does Jeremiah 29:11 Apply to You?” He laments the popularity of this text by evangelicals who haven’t any concept of what the passages meant originally:

These words are the John 3:16 of American cultural Christianity. Watch how often they show up on the Bible verse plaques sold in Bible Belt mall kiosks or posted on Facebook walls, even on tattoos. Whether as home decor or on social media posts, I see this passage claimed fervently by people I know haven’t been in a church service since the first Bush administration.

We should investigate for ourselves the original historical and grammatical meaning of Jeremiah 29:11. What if we have misunderstood this passage? Can you imagine millions of Christians holding God to fulfill this verse for a life of prosperity and blessing when in reality He never intended to broadcast this message?

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to understand this passage so we can decide whether or not this text from the Jewish scriptures applies to followers of Jesus or only a specific group of Israelites in a given historical situation. After all, numerous passages in the New Testament affirm an abundant life for Christians without needing to commandeer passages from the Tenach (Jewish Scriptures) to discover a similar message.

What was the worldwide setting Jeremiah lived in?

We begin our attempt to provide the context of Jeremiah 29:11 by looking at the larger picture of the ancient world. The three major players were the Babylonian kingdom, the rebellious Egyptian rulership and the pesky nation of Judah. Afterwards, we will look at the spiritual scenario among the people in southern kingdom of Judah and then the dilemma of the specific recipients of Jeremiah 29:11

The prophet Jeremiah started his ministry during the time of the Jehoiakim, last king of Judah up until the captivity of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 1:3). The text reads, “It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.” Primarily Jeremiah’s major audience was Judah and Jerusalem. He spoke to the people at large and to the various kings of Judah, her priests and prophets.

The prophet of Judah addressed his message to a nation that had been threatened by Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. The southern kingdom of Judah had to face the consequences of its refusal to trust the Lord in dealing with Babylon. Under Judah’s King Jehoiakim, the nation rebelled against Babylon by trying to support Egypt in their struggle against the Babylonians. The Babylonian king took Israel’s attempt to support Egypt in its struggle against the Mesopotamian kingdom as an affront, and consequently Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar was dead set on teaching Judah a lesson for rebelling against his almighty empire.

In the Bible Knowledge Commentary, Charles H. Dyer describes the situation in Judah at this time.

By December 598 Nebuchadnezzar’s army was prepared for an attack. His chief objective was to take Jerusalem to teach it . . . . the awful consequences of rebelling against Babylon. Jehoiakim died during the time of Babylon’s attack, and was followed to the throne by his son, Jehoiachin. Jehoiachin saw the folly in opposing Babylon, and Jerusalem surrendered in March 597.

Bible Knowledge Commentary, “Jeremiah” Vol. 1, p. 1127).

We gain additional information about this change of kingship from J.A. Thompson’s NICOT commentary on Jeremiah:

But in December 598 B.C. the Babylonian army set out again. That very month Jehoiakim died; since he was a rebel against Babylon he may have been assassinated (22:18–19; 36:30) in the hope that Judah might be treated lightly. Perhaps she was, for the capital city was not destroyed. The new king, the eighteen-year-old Jehoiachin (2 K. 24:8), was taken captive after a mere three months on the throne, along with the queen mother, state officials and leading citizens, and a vast booty (2 Kings 24:10–17). 

The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, The Book of Jeremiah, J. A. Thompson, pg. 23.

Thus, after a brief three month reign Jehoiachin was deported to Babylon and his uncle Zedekiah was made Judah’s vassal king. Most importantly to understand the larger picture of Jeremiah 29, Nebuchadnezzar deported 10,000 of the leaders, skilled laborers and soldiers of Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:12-16).

Believe it or not, after a new Pharaoh (Hophra) came to power in Egypt in 588 B.C., Judah was enticed to rebel against Babylon once more! The Jewish nation had not learned its lesson in relation to the all-encompassing power of Babylonia. Nebuchadnezzar’s army surrounded Jerusalem and in July-August 586 B.C. the holy city fell to the Babylonians and was destroyed.

To understand the context of Jeremiah 29, we will focus on the exiles who were sent to Babylon from Judah as mentioned above. One might expect Jeremiah would provide these misplaced inhabitants of Judah a message that promised an immediate return to the homeland. Surprisingly, the prophet described a prolonged way of life during the Babylonian dispersion that needed to be accepted by the exiles (Jeremiah 21:9; 24:4-7).

Babylonian Exile
The Flight of the Prisoners by James Tissot between ca. 1896 and 1902. (Public Domain)

In spite of the instructions by the prophet to “shelter in place” in Babylon, in Jeremiah 24:5-6 Jeremiah gives the exiles a positive message, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up.”

Though the exiles were to be faithful while living in captivity, this location was not meant to be their final resting place. Regardless, the Judean exiles settled in Babylon according to divine instructions. It is to these exiles in Babylon that Jeremiah addresses the positive and hopeful message of Jeremiah 29:11.

What was the spiritual condition of the nation of Israel?

Now we turn our attention from the mistakes of Israel’s leaders to the wayward lives of the common people of Judah. According to the prophecy of Jeremiah, the people of the southern kingdom were disobedient to the Lord. They had enmeshed themselves with the surrounding pagan peoples by intermarrying with them. As result, the gods of the pagans penetrated the spiritual lives of the Israelites. Thus, the covenant God had made with the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai had been breached.

To call the people back to the God of Israel, the Lord raised up the prophet Jeremiah. The weeping prophet, as he is often described, was directed to proclaim judgment upon God’s elect people. The prophet warned the nation would be judged and carried off into captivity by Babylonia lest they get rid of their pagan deities, turn to the God of Israel and heed the words of God’s prophets.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem”, c. 1630

Yes, Jeremiah’s message was dark and negative. At the same time, the self-focused atmosphere in Judah was prime for a prophet to come along with a more positive message filled with hope. After all, who wants to hear such a daunting message of negativity? Even today God’s people do not want to hear a dark and gloomy message. We come to God expecting a life without suffering, a confidence in our financial situation and a promise that the future would be bright. After all, hasn’t God promised us the best life possible?

Face it, when God’s people experience suffering-either deserved or not-we are vulnerable to any messenger who promises a way out. This is why the ministry of today’s prosperity preachers is so popular. Their message is uplifting, filled with confidence in material prosperity and bolstered with the hope of physical healing. But does this message align with the Word of God?

In contrast to the prosperity gospel proponents, the late Rev. Billy Graham stated, “The Bible doesn’t say that being a faithful Christian will lead to material wealth.” Graham continued, “”Repeatedly the Bible warns us against being consumed by money, or placing it first in our lives instead of Christ [Messiah]. Jesus said, ‘No one can serve two masters. … You cannot serve both God and money’ (Matthew 6:24).” Yet when we place our desire for affluence ahead of our commitment to Yeshua, we find ourselves attracted to these teachers of a false gospel.

What exactly was the spiritual environment that allowed the people of Judah to fall for religious hucksters?

The people of Israel rejected the prophets sent by God. In Jeremiah 25:4 Jeremiah reminds the people that even though he was faithful to God’s call to bring the Lord’s message to His people, they refused to listen to the message, “You have neither listened nor inclined your ears to hear, although the LORD persistently sent to you all his servants the prophets.” Thus, Israel shunned the prophets sent by God. Rather than immediately cast Judah from the land God gave them, they are given an opportunity to repent of their hard hearts towards God’s messengers (Jeremiah 25:5).

The people of Israel were guilty of worshipping false gods. Jeremiah warned the people of God not to follow after false deities, “Do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, or provoke me to anger with the work of your hands. Then I will do you no harm” (Jeremiah 25:6 ESV). Today we may not be giving our devotion to actual false deities, but we direct our devotion to other priorities over and above the Lord, especially earthly treasures. When one’s heart is fixed on earthly prizes, the false message of prosperity teachers is more appealing. We become so fixated on getting our needs met, that it does not matter if the messenger is sharing false doctrine regarding finances, health and alleviation of suffering.

The people of Israel attempted to put Jeremiah and other prophets to death. Because Jeremiah prophesied Jerusalem would be desolate, the priest, the prophets and the people sought his death. In Jeremiah 26:8 we are told, “And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die!” The vein of thinking continued as seen in verse 11 of chapter twenty six, “This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.”

Another prophet Uriah, a contemporary of Jeremiah, spoke forth the same message as Jeremiah. He too prophesied against Jerusalem predicting the fall of the city and against the land of Israel (Jeremiah 26:20). King Jehoiakim heard the words of Uriah and sought to put him to death. Eventually, Uriah was brought to the king and the text tells us what this royal figure did to God’s prophet, “King Jehoiakim, who struck him down with the sword and dumped his dead body into the burial place of the common people” (Jeremiah 26:23). These ugly incidents inform us of the spiritual state of Israel that verified their lack of regard for the messengers of the Lord if they did not like their message.

The people of Israel gave heed to the message of false prophets. In a setting where false deities are worshipped and God’s true prophets are shunned and put to death, the timing is just right for a counterfeit prophet to arrive on center stage.

Jeremiah warned Judah’s king about listening to these false representatives of the Lord. He spoke to king Zedekiah king of Judah and told him to submit to the yoke of the king of Babylon to save his life. In Jeremiah 27:14-15 the king is informed, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon,’ for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you.” Jeremiah continues with his message, “I have not sent them, declares the LORD, but vthey are prophesying falsely in my name, with the result that I will drive you out and you will perish, you and the prophets who are prophesying to you.”

Israel’s good prophets were rejected by bad people; Israel’s bad prophets were accepted by bad people

Louis Lapides

In chapter 25 verses 9-11 Jeremiah could not be more clear about the Lord’s intentions with an unrepentant people:

Behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. Moreover, I will banish from them the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the grinding of the millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years (italics mine).

Jeremiah 25:9-11 (ESV)

In walks Hananiah, a lying prophet, with a more favorable report. His so-called prophecy states the time of divine judgment is a much shorter duration than predicted by Jeremiah. The time for the exiles in Babylon in Hananiah’s prophecy will only last two years. In a sense, it is a brief vacation from the land of Judah. To top that off, Hananiah had the gall to look Jeremiah in the eye and tell him he was wrong. We read in Jeremiah 28:10-11:

Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke them. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the LORD: Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” But Jeremiah the prophet went his way.

Jeremiah 28:10-11 (ESV)

Consequently, Jeremiah 28:15 was a shocker for Hananiah, “And Jeremiah the prophet said to the prophet Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah, the LORD has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie.” In verse 16 it is recorded the prophet Hananiah met his fate and was pronounced dead. Thus, Jeremiah’s prophecy is backed up by the Spirit of the Lord and the erroneous words of Hananiah are shown to be a counterfeit prophecy.

When a prophet speaks forth a message that tickles the ears of the hearers, we can be sure that is not the word from the Lord. Hannah gave a message of promised prosperity after a brief interlude in exile. Jeremiah’s message promised seventy years of hardship. However, the next generation after the 70 years of exile will experience God’s restoration and prosperity. Nevertheless, people want to know the path to prosperity and health right now. Which message would you rather hear? What was the message needed most for the exiles going down into exile?

What was the message Jeremiah needed to give to the exiles?

Letter writing has become a lost art. Today we are accepting of brief Facebook posts or truncated 149 character tweets to communicate personal messages. Rather than send people birthday cards, condolence messages or thank you notes, we choose to send a text, an email or a social media post. Thus, I find it ironical students of the Scriptures spend their time in a volume composed of 66 books which includes letters, narratives, legal codes, sayings of wisdom, poetry, songs and apocalyptic literature. All these types of literature are lengthy and anything, but brief posts and tweets. In our 149 character world, it is quite a test of our attention, time and commitment to study to grasp the meaning of a passage. Rather, a superficial grasp of a passage becomes acceptance. It is incumbent on readers of the Scriptures to understand the passages we so freely quote to support our theology as well as practical implications of the Word of God.

In Jeremiah 29 the prophet sends a letter to the exiles in Babylon. Jeremiah 29:1 reports, “These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon”. Most likely, the words of false prophets had traveled to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. “Jeremiah therefore wrote a letter to neutralize this influence if possible” (Dyer, Moody Bible Commentary pg. 1146). Jeremiah needed to encourage and teach these exiles not to fall for the false prophecies directed at this community. A brief note would not do for people in such a dire situation who needed the full instruction of the Lord.

Biblical Scribe. The scribal figure depicted here, which comes from a third-century fresco at the site of Dura-Europos, is superimposed over an image of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The figure represents either Ezra or Jeremiah.

The people in exile need to know they are not outside the will of God. Rather, “The seventy-year exile was a part of God’s plans to give Judah a future and a hope (v. 11). The people were to be encouraged when they realized that, at the end of the exile . . . God would provide for their welfare and not bring them calamity” (Dyer, Moody Bible Commentary, pg. 1147).

Jeremiah’s job was not to make any appealing promises of instant welfare and prosperity, but to give them a hope that enables them to endure the length of the 70 years while remaining faithful to God.

The people needed to be prepared for the next seventy years.

In Jeremiah 29:4-14 God’s word to the exiles through Jeremiah was to hunker down for a protracted stay in Babylon. In the Oxford Bible Commentary, Kathleen M. O’Connor marks that this surprising advice is given at the beginning of the exile. Jeremiah makes it clear there is no escape, no way out, despite the contradictory message of the lying prophets who ministered among them (Oxford Bible Commentary, pg. 512). Taking this into consideration, we get a much clearer picture of how Jeremiah 29:11 relates to the recipients of the letter. Rather than a passage of scripture that can apply to any follower of God in ancient or modern times, these verses apply to a specific group of people undergoing seventy years of captivity and suffering in a foreign land. This is the clear context of Jeremiah 29:11 and must be kept in mind when interpreting this promise and applying it.

The people were to settle into their new home away from home (Jeremiah 29:5-6)

This is not a message we would want to hear. If displaced, we want to know how and when we will return to the homeland. In contrast, Jeremiah 29:5 advises the exiles, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce” (ESV). In a similar dilemma, we would want to hear a promise of restoration immediately. However, this was not what was shared with them. They were even counseled by Jeremiah in verse 6 to marry and have sons and daughters. They were planted in Babylon exile for the long haul.

The people were to pray for their captors (Jeremiah 29:7)

Rather than wish their captors harm, the exiles are told by Jeremiah to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7). The prophet continued by telling the exiles to pray for Babylon. Are we actually reading this from the Old Testament, a book often characterized as a source of vengeance and judgment? Of course, if their captors prosper, they will be blessed as well. This is not the prosperity gospel taught by quoting Jeremiah 29:11. Rather, the people were told to submit to the evil rulers of Babylon, remain faithful to God and settle down in the place of captivity. The Lord will prosper them in His time after the seventy years of hardship faced by the exiles.

The people were to avoid listening to false messages (Jeremiah 29:8-9)

Once again, Jeremiah has to remind the recipients of his message to avoid those prophets who were predicting a quick return to Judah. Jeremiah states in 29:8-9, “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.” A false prophet often excels in flattery, twists the truth to make false promises and shares messages that encourages a self-centered way of living, rather than submit to the Lord.

The people in exile were in need of some good news (Jeremiah 29:10-14)

In Jeremiah 29:10-14 we come upon the passage that has grabbed the attention of millions of evangelicals. The people were informed back in Jeremiah 25:11-12 that the restoration of the exiles to the land of Israel would only take place when the 70 years of judgment were completed. Any prophet that contradicts this time span is a liar. For the exiles, this will be a time of spiritual discipline and suffering away from the promised land of Israel. In the Bible Knowledge Commentary Charles Dyer sums up the purpose of the 70 years of captivity in Babylon,

The 70-year Exile was a part of God’s plans to give Judah hope and a future. The judgment prompted the exiles to seek God wholeheartedly (cf. Dan. 9:2-3, 15-19). Once they had turned back to their God He would gather them from all the nations where they had been banished and return them to their land. The larger purpose of the Exile was to force Israel back to her God (cf. Deut. 30:1-10).

Charles Dyer, the Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 1, pg. 1166.

Now we know the good news of Jeremiah 29:11 is found within the promise by God to restore the exiles. So what kind of hope and comfort was this passage to the exiles? The answer to this question is the crux of Jeremiah 29:11. It is because many Bible teachers and pastors ignore this question that they misapply the passage and teach their hearers to misuse this significant section of positive hope. Once we understand the original context of this verse and the purpose of the prophecy, then as New Testament believers we can seek the Lord as to how we can apply this passage to our situation.

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