“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)
As we leave a tumultuous 2016 and enter into an unknown 2017, it is helpful to remember that God has a plan for our lives and this verse is just such a reminder.
Many Christians know and cling to this verse by itself. But when we understand its historical and literary context, most will find that it takes on a deeper, more relevant and even more powerful meaning for their lives. Understanding the context of a passage of scripture will help us avoid the human tendency of reading into scripture our own desired meaning, and will instead help us draw out of scripture the original meaning intended by God and His prophet.
For historical context, Jeremiah spoke these words to Jews who had been living under the domination of the Egyptian and then Babylonian Empires before eventually being carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. One can only imagine what it would be like to live under the domination of your enemies and then to be forced by those enemies to leave your homeland and settle in a foreign country.
For literary context, we discover from the previous chapter that Jeremiah has just pronounced judgment upon the false prophet Hananiah. Hananiah had told the people that God would break the yoke of Babylon, freeing the people to return home, within two years. While his message undoubtedly sounded appealing to the people, it was a lie and resulted in God removing Hananiah from the face of the Earth (Jeremiah 28:15-17). Instead, Jeremiah tells the people they would live in Babylon for at least 70 years. Therefore, they should settle down, build houses, marry and even pray for the peace and prosperity of the city in which they now found themselves (Jeremiah 29:4-10).
When understood in context, we discover that the words of Jeremiah 29:11 were spoken to people in the midst of hardship and suffering; people who were likely desiring an immediate rescue like the one Hananiah lied about. But God’s response is not to provide immediate escape from the difficult situation. Rather, God promises that He has a plan to prosper them in the midst of their current situation.
Christians facing difficult situations today can take comfort in Jeremiah 29:11 knowing that it is not a promise to immediately rescue us from hardship or suffering, but rather a promise that God has a plan for our lives and regardless of our current situation, He can work through it to prosper us and give us a hope and a future.
Furthermore, Christians can take comfort in knowing that God promises to be there for us in these situations. For in the verses immediately following Jeremiah 29:11, God proclaims through Jeremiah that when you “call on me and come and pray to me… I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 19:12-13).
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