Alternate title: For I know the plans for you, declares the Lord, plans to punish you for your disobedience by keeping you in captivity for 70 years, not 2.
Captain Buzzkill is back, ready to irritate some people by highlighting a popular but commonly misunderstood Bible verse! But we can’t ignore 2 Timothy 2:15: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. Getting Bible verses wrong isn’t a felony, but if we love God and our neighbors we’ll want to be careful with his word and humbly change our views once we realize we’ve been mistaken.
Here’s the verse:
Jeremiah 29:11 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.
I used to misinterpret it. I can’t remember the last time I heard it used correctly. It is one of the top 10 searched verses on biblestudytools.com and often seen on blogs, Facebook, t-shirts, mugs, etc. as a blanket promise that God has great worldly things planned for you (jobs, health, etc.) or as a general message of consolation. But even if part of the message is technically true (yes, God does know the plans He has for you), is that what the specific passage really means?
It is a fantastic verse in its context, but people rarely use it the correct way. Reading just a little more of chapter 29 makes a big difference:
Jeremiah 29:1 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.
For starters, verse 11 is part of a letter written to some specific people in rather unusual circumstances.
Jeremiah 29:4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon . . .
Jeremiah 29:10–11 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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.
That specific promise isn’t for all people at all times, or even all believers. The more you read of chapter 29 – and chapters 28 and 30, for that matter — the more obvious the real meaning becomes. If you are an Israelite living in Babylonian captivity over 2,500 years ago, then that promise is all for you. Otherwise, you should consider the context.
Consider the opening of chapter 28:
Hananiah the False Prophet
1 In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, 2 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3 Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon.
Or why not quote Jeremiah 28:11 instead of 29:11?
11 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.
So a false prophet predicted they would be back in 2 years and the real prophet says it will be 70 years. Verse 29:11 could have easily said, “I know the plans for you, declares the Lord, plans to keep you in captivity for 70 years, not 2.” How do people turn 29:11 into a blanket promise of goodness? Only by reading it out of its context.
And how would the commonly used theme be reconciled with passages like John 16:33, where Jesus promises tribulation rather than prosperity? (“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”)
And as commenter Bridget noted, how do you reconcile the popular view of that passage with the Holocaust, the persecution of Christians in the early church and beyond, or even a glance at the newspaper?
But don’t be disappointed! There is actually a great message in Jeremiah 29:11: God is merciful and loves to forgive. God makes huge promises and keeps them. He controls the future. He knew exactly what would happen 70 years later. The Israelites were taken into captivity because of their rebellion and worship of false gods, but God promised to bring them back. And He did. But He did not make a generic promise to all people and at all times to prosper them. That message is foreign to the text.
Some people share that verse with non-believers as if it applies to them, but that gives a false sense of security. God’s real message to them is the opposite. If they don’t repent and believe, what are his plans for them? They will spend eternity in Hell. It is hard to imagine a bigger difference than a blanket promise to prosper you versus a promise to send your unrepentant self to Hell.
But does that mean that we don’t have words of encouragement for people? Not at all! There are 31,172 verses left in the Bible, with plenty of words of compassion. If you want to encourage people, try Matthew 11:28-30 instead:Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. That points them to Jesus, and it applies to believers and unbelievers.
Or you can encourage and comfort believers with the correct application of Philippians 4:13 (another commonly misinterpreted verse) by reminding them that they can be content in any situation if they do everything through Christ.
So should you be a Bible-nanny and whale on people who misuse this or other verses? Should you interrupt the sermon if your pastor reflexively uses that passage? Of course not. But I encourage you to be careful when reading any passage and gently point out the correct meaning wherever you can. (“Why yes, God does know the future and He does make and keep great promises, just like He did to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity.”)
And you should read or listen to the Bible daily so that you regularly cover all of it. You’ll be surprised how often you look at popular verses differently when you see them in their proper context.
As often happens, the real meaning of the verse is better than what we wanted it to mean. So feel free to use the verse, but explain it properly. It isn’t some lame consolation prize to teach that God knows and controls the future, and that He makes and keeps enormous promises — such as his promise to adopt you, forgive all your sins and eternally bless you if you repent and trust in Jesus.
Always read more than just one verse! In fact, my rule of thumb is that if I don’t know the general context of a verse then I shouldn’t be quoting it.
Also see Reading the Bible in Context for a very important lesson and more examples.