Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context

It's one of our favorite verses„, but we've gotten it all wrong.


It’s written on graduation cards, quoted to encourage a person who can’t seem to find God’s well and doled out like a doctor explaining a prescription: Take Jeremiah 29:11 a few times, with a full glass of water, and call me in the morning. I think you’ll feel better.

“‘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’” Jeremiah 29:11 tells us—possibly one of our most beloved, yet most misunderstood, verses in the entire Bible.

Sure, it might make a person feel better, but this verse as we often prescribe it is being taken completely out of context. It doesn’t mean what people think it means. It’s time to back up and see what the author of Jeremiah is actually saying.

When it comes to reading the Bible, we can sometimes be so familiar with the words on the page that we read them, but we don’t really understand them. We see the words and hear the words, but we don’t make any sense out of them. Familiarity can breed laziness, and so many of our misunderstandings about the scriptures happen because we are too familiar with the passage to look it with fresh eyes. If we would come to the Word of God with fresh eyes more often, we would realize that some of our most common interpretations of Scripture passed down to us don’t make much sense when viewed within the context of the passage.

Like any author worth his salt, the writer in Jeremiah begins by stating the subject of the passage: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon … “ (Jeremiah 29:4).

This verse, quoted to countless individuals who are struggling with vocation or discerning God’s will, is not written to individuals at all. This passage is written to a whole group of people—an entire nation. For all the grammarians out there, the “you” in Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t singular, it’s plural. And you don’t have to be a Hebrew scholar to realize that “one” versus “many” is a big difference.

And the verse just before it is perhaps even scarier. For in Jeremiah 29:10, God lays down the specifics on this promise: that He will fulfill it “after seventy years are completed for Babylon.” In other words, yes, God says, I will redeem you—after 70 years in exile. This is certainly a far cry from our expectation of this verse in what God’s plans to prosper us really mean. He did have a future and a hope for them—but it would look far different than the Israelites ever expected.

So what? Some of you may be thinking. Even when the verse is taken out of context, it still offers value, right? God does know the plans of individual people, so it’s just as well to keep prescribing Jeremiah 29 for those seeking God’s plan for their life, right? Well, yes and no.

We need to let the Bible speak to us, not allow our own personal bent to speak into the Scriptures. If Jeremiah 29 is speaking to the nation of Israel, and not just one person, then we should start with the truth in the Scriptures. Context matters—God speaks at a particular moment in time, to a particular people group, for a reason.

What this means is that God has plans for a whole group of people, namely the nation of Israel. And if we read on in the Scriptures we find that this promise was fulfilled: those in exile returned, and the nation of Israel was restored for a time. God made a promise through the prophets, and that promise came true.

But that’s not the end of the story, either. There is something to the out-of-context prescriptions that so many make using this verse. God is a God of redemption, after all, and He wants to redeem people and put them on a path of wholeness, just as He wanted the nation of Israel to be redeemed and whole again.

As John Calvin says about this passage, the prophet is speaking not just of historical redemption, for that period in time, but also of “future redemption.” For the Israelites, God listened to their prayers when they sought Him with all their heart, and in His time, He brought them out of exile.
But how does any of this apply to us today? Can we still take heart in such a beautiful promise—even though it was spoken to people long ago, people in a far different situation than ours?

First and foremost, we are all in this together. This verse does not apply to isolated individuals or to a broad community. It applies to both, together, functioning as one. The image painted here is one of individuals in community, like the Body of Christ which Paul talks about. Here are a bunch of people, worshiping God together, hoping for a future redemption.

The theologians Stanley Grenz and John Franke explain in their book Beyond Foundationalism just how a community “turns the gaze of its members toward the future.” The future in Jeremiah is one that is bright—one that everyone in the community through prayer and worship seeks as their collective future hope. Many of us want to desperately know the plan that God has for each one of us as individuals, but let the prophet Jeremiah remind us that it’s not all about us, and it might not look like what we think.

Even more important than our decision about which college to attend, which city to move to or what job offer to take is the future hope of the Kingdom of God foretold by the prophets and fulfilled in the reign of our now and coming King. In this way, the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is bigger than any one of us—and far better.


6 thoughts on “Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context

  1. Very good, Thomas…now you sound like my pastor, Jarrod Jones, “Context, context, context…” It’s so true how scripture is often misused or misunderstood especially in arguments against the Bible.

  2. Very good, Thomas…now you sound like my pastor, Jarrod Jones, “Context, context, context…” It’s so true how scripture is often misused or misunderstood especially in arguments against the Bible.

  3. Yeah.. I typically don’t comment on articles, but I found this one particularly irksome. I agree with many of the points in the prior comments, but what really sticks me in the side is the general pretentiousness (“snobbery”) that pervades the post. Of course context matters in biblical interpretation and biblical study, as it does with any piece of literature or art. Our attempts to understand the biblical world can be absolutely key in trying to piece together the deep spiritual insight every book of the Bible presents. But our understanding of this world is very limited, and the way the author of this article gifts us the “correct context” surrounding a verse in scripture and the subsequent “actual interpretation” is bluntly ostentatious.

    Throwing out the inspiration of scripture, the Paraclete, or the existence of God altogether, interpreting literature is still clearly not that simple. Perhaps in the 19th century it was acceptable to claim that “correct context” and then “correct interpretation” was an achievable reality, but not on this side of the 20th century. Some of the best scholars in the world from all fields, especially theology and biblical scholarship, have all but guillotined such a blissfully ignorant proposition. Texts and the hermeneutical approaches to them are alive because the people writing, reading, and thinking about them are alive. There is no such thing as an “objective” context or “correct” interpretation. Such a superman claim on knowledge is oblivious at best, and a malicious powerplay at worst.

    Yes, Jeremiah 29:11 is an extremely popular verse used for just about every occasion, some appearing ridiculous to many (including myself). But, that’s simply not a judgment call any person can responsibly make, and to do so is to lay the cards of arrogance and ignorance on the table. I am on a first name basis with some of the world’s most influential theologians and biblical scholars, and I can promise you that none of them have the impudence to tell another person how to “correctly” interpret any scripture. The Bible is a living, breathing text that has and will continue to inspire and challenge people for thousands of years, and telling people to “stop taking it out of context” is being intellectually irresponsible and relationally irreverent. If Jeremiah 29:11 gives somebody the individuative hope they need for a time, whether it be what college to go to or whether to do missionary work, I think God would agree the verse is in its “correct context” by giving a person hope in a meaningful life. I don’t mean to be impolite, but I’ve just about had it with people denigrating the Bible (or any epistemological issue) to something that can be “correctly” understood, and henceforth disrespecting every human who doesn’t have that interpretation. Not only is such a claim rude, it’s also just not possible.

    As a side, an article criticizing incorrect interpretation as according to biblical context that quotes John Calvin is an irony upon ironies.

  4. Maybe we can let this Bible scholar explain this. Because, you know, when I read it — and, granted, I’m pretty stupid, because I read the Bible and I ask the Holy Spirit to lead me, instead of some Bible scholar with a few degrees. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I happened upon this amazingly wonderful passage in Jeremiah 31:31-34. Well, stupid me is reading that this passage tells me that I have everything I need to understand, without, again, some Bible scholar:

    Jer. 31:31-34 (NRSV) (I’ve also cross-referenced in the KJV)

    “31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[g] says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

    It’s almost like what this scholar is advocating is that the Bible is basically a dead book and everything was written long ago and applies to none of us. Are you kidding me????

    I’m sorry, but I’m going to side with the non-scholar Emmett Fox on this one, when he calls the Bible the manual for the soul, with everything being relevant to us, and that we — all of us — are on the pages of the Bible from beginning to end.

    I’ve really only been delving into the Bible intensely in the last 2-1/2 years. I was raised Catholic and the Bible was absent from my life except carefully-selected mass readings. We did in our home have a Catholic version of the Bible, which I also now own, looking as new as the day as it was bought, only to be put on a shelf to collect dust for years and years and years. The Bible I use is already looking pretty worn and filled with little Post-It tags. For me is a living book.

    And, BTW, a most amazing person named George Muller would also disagree with you about the application of Scripture to life. He lived by it and wrote an autobiography because he wanted to show the everyday person that the Living God was indeed the Living God and God’s promises are true.

    So I will take God at His Word. I am under the New Covenant and God’s Law is written on my heart. The biggest problem in the world today is that people listen to the scholar, listen to the pastor, etc. and never bother really reading the Bible for themselves. To do that you must take time out of your day and sit alone with your Bible and the Holy Spirit.

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