A commonly misinterpreted verse: Jeremiah 29:11

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.

 

jeremiah 29

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.

27 thoughts on “A commonly misinterpreted verse: Jeremiah 29:11

  1. I know this sounds bizarre*, but that’s a much more sensible interpretation than the logical conclusions of the alternate interpretation would be.

    Twelve million people died in the Holocaust. Tens of millions were slaughtered in Russia. Many are being martyred today. Christians in China are forced to abort their babies. The most powerful person on the planet is a Christian-hating atheist (at least one would think that, based on his church attendance, lack of church attendance, and willingness to tell Christians to pay for abortions or pay fines). How delusional do you have to be to think that things turn out well for those who are the most devout? Even a rudimentary survey of the world shows that it is not a just place.

    On a less odd note, you can’t square the other interpretation of Jeremiah with the NT passages about suffering because you follow Christ. Christ’s promise, IIRC, was that those who follow would be persecuted, those who reject the world will have the world hate them, and can even suffer a death like Christ suffered. Was Peter crucified because he wasn’t sufficiently devout?)

    *Do I win “Bizarre Comments of the Week” award? Can we resurrect COTW?

    • Not bizarre at all – right on track, in fact! The problem with the 29:11 champions is that they don’t read the rest of the book very well. I’m going to add John 16:33 to the post as well.

      And yes, you have the COTW! Great points.

  2. Are you saying then, that the Old Testament should be separated out from the Bible as only dealing with the Israelites and that the only promises of Gid that deal with the Gentiles are those only contained in the NT?

    I ask this in all sincerity because I am having much trouble understanding the passages in Isaiah 7-9 about Isaiah and his sons being ‘signs and wonders’ for Israel. Are two of his sons literal sons from his wife and their prophetic names fulfilled in the OT and the other son, Immanuel, not a physical son of his but the actual prophecy about Jesus Christ ? Any help would be appreciated.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for visiting and commenting! That’s a good question. Isaiah is not my strong suit, so I can’t go into details on that. I would just point to the same principles of reading in context to see if the promise is universal or Israelite-specific. For example, the promises of the Messiah are obviously for more than the Israelites.

      • Thank you for you response and honesty. I have been researching this for several days and commentators in general seem to be all over the place on this particular passage in Isaiah!! Blessings, Lisa

        Sent from my iPhone

      • If you get a good answer, please let me know! There are many books I’m comfortable teaching but Isaiah isn’t one of them ;-) .

      • Many of the prophecies in the OT have a double meaning, one which is for the people for whom they are written, and another with a future messianic meaning. Some of these are quoted in the NT, so we know that this principle “works.”

  3. Great article! The best advice anyone can give when it comes to the bible is NOT to read single verses. Most of the time they are taken out of context .To get the full meaning it is better to read the verses above and below, or better yet, the ENTIRE chapter.

    • Well said! That is the number 1 rule of Bible reading, and a perfect summary of a terrific lesson from Stand To Reason (they have a slogan of “Never read a Bible verse,” as in never read just one).

      • I also believe that many people take scriptures out of context and therefore are misinterpreted. However, I do believe that OT scripture and NT scripture are all the inspired Word of God and therefore good for teaching and reproach and reproof (!! Tim. 3: 16-17). If we interpret Jer. 29:11 as purely materialistic then I do believe it is taken out of context. I, however am inclined to think of it in more of a spiritual sense just like Romans 8:28 (All things work together for good…) is speaking spiritually not materialistically.

        I believe that God does have plans for us because he knew us before we were knit in our mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5) and we each have a specific part to fulfill in bringing to fruition the Kingdom of God. If He truly knows us each by name( I believe that he does), and knows the number of hairs on our head (Luke 12:7), and the words we speak before we open our mouths then surely he does have a plan for us, to prosper us and not to harm us. I believe that this as well as many other scriptures in the OT can be for the Jew and the Gentile alike.

        I don’t believe in a prosperity gospel. I do believe in a God that has my days planned out and my name spelled out in his plans, for he does know me and he does love me and by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ he will use me as a vessel for his glory and to his end.

        Blessings, Lisa

      • Incidentally, that’s also exactly how you are supposed to read the Constitution, statues ,and case law. The Second Amendment didn’t apply to states until the Fourteenth Amendment because, despite the universal language, the intent of the Bill of Rights is to apply only to the federal government.

  4. I understand … but am confused. When I read Jer 29:11, I see an Old Testament Rom 8:28. So in what sense does Rom 8:28 not apply? I understand that Jer 29:11 is specifically aimed at ” 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.” Does that mean that it cannot apply to anyone else? With that sort of thinking, God gave His 10 Commandments (and all the rest of the Law) to the people of Israel, so we can toss it all as not relevant, and Jesus made His Great Commission command to the 12 Disciples, so we shouldn’t let it affect us. Now, clearly you don’t hold to that nonsensical thinking, so where do you draw the line between “God said it” and “But not to me”? And if we’re going to say that the martyrdom of Christians throughout history (more in the 20th century than in all prior centuries combined) proves that God does not have a plan for the good of His people, then on what basis do we not throw out Rom 8:28 (which would suffer the same results from the same data)? Indeed, if any of the exiles had bad things happen to them after they read Jer 29:11, would they rightly conclude that God lied? Or is it possible that we’re thinking down the wrong path here?

    • Wow we used the same verses with the same logic . Well done and well said. All scripture is God breathed and useful for all people in all centuries. Twisting scripture for ones own purpose is wrong and dangerous but applying scriptures to different sitatuations where applicable is called wisdom.

    • Sorry, but two people agreeing doesn’t make it right. Jer 29:11 is Jer 29:11. Rom 8:28 is Rom 8:28. Just because they sound similar doesn’t make them the same. That is a faulty premise, so the rest of the illustration doesn’t work.

      Who said Rom 8:28 didn’t apply? It means what it means, in context. It says nothing about prospering in a material sense.

      Does that mean that it cannot apply to anyone else?

      It means it does not apply to anyone else, except in the sense that God makes and keeps promises. Of course it doesn’t mean that God couldn’t prosper other people, but it also doesn’t mean that God will prosper anyone you give that verse to.

      And if we’re going to say that the martyrdom of Christians throughout history (more in the 20th century than in all prior centuries combined) proves that God does not have a plan for the good of His people,

      But we didn’t say that. We merely noted that God’s plan does not involve prospering in the sense that it is used in Jer. 29:11.

      • I just feel there are many other scriptures in the Bible that support the fact that God does have an individual plan for us and surely because He is God and God only wants good for His children, they would not contradict his nature and therefore they would be plans that are good for us and not to harm us and to prosper us.

        I find confirmation of this in other scriptures as well, not just Romans 8:28. Let’s take a look at Psalm 139:13-16, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you , for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depth of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me.when as yet there was none of them.”

        It may be just my thinking but several scriptures can be found to support each other, commentators do it all the time. As far as this scripture in Psalm 139, it is clear to me that if God knew me before I was born, that He formed my inward parts, and knitted them together that he is very involved in our lives, He actually has a plan and since it would go against God’s nature to have a plan to harm us it must be a plan to prosper us. His eyes saw the days that were formed for me why would he form them for me? Perhaps he had a plan, a plan not to harm but to prosper because he loves his children and that is the nature of God of which he cannot contradict. Scriptures can work together without committing heresy or twisting them into meaningless tangles. All scripture is God breathed and is useful and because God is perfect it all works together to further His Kingdom. Blessings, Lisa

      • Hi Lisa,

        I think we got off track somewhere. I never denied that God has a plan or that scriptures work together. I hold to Reformed theology, so I am all about God’s sovereignty. I was merely pointing to what these words said, in context, and what they meant and didn’t mean.

      • I guess I’m still confused. God promised His people through Jeremiah that He had good plans for them. Things looked bleak (and actually were), but He told them He had plans for their good to give them a future and a hope.

        1. I don’t see anything in there about “prosper”, nor do I believe the promise itself to be such a statement. I suppose there are those who would radically misuse it in their day, too, but no such promise is made. God promised them good (“welfare”), a reason to hope.

        2. I don’t see any difference between that promise to His people in exile in Babylon given through Jeremiah and the promise to His people in exile in modern America given through Paul. God works all things together for good — both in Babylon and any other place and time — for those who love God. Doesn’t matter if it was Jeremiah or Paul, Jer 29:11 or Rom 8:28, or even if circumstances look pleasant or “prospering” does or doesn’t occur.

        3. God promises to work all things together for good in Rom 8:28 and to provide for their welfare in Jer 29:11. To misunderstand either in any circumstance to mean “Things will be wonderfully pleasant for you” would be foolish, given the rest of the promises of Scripture that include trials and suffering. God’s version of good is often NOT ours.

      • To misunderstand either in any circumstance to mean “Things will be wonderfully pleasant for you” would be foolish

        That’s my point, and why the verse should never be used that way (as it usually is) and should never be used with non-believers.

  5. Great! I often have said yes God had good plans for them, He knew what those plans were and they sure didn’t seem “good” to the Israelites as they were being dragged away to captivity but we can trust that they are because we know the rest of it!

  6. Yes, indeed we must be careful as to how and why we’re speaking or even exercising our faith by the word of God. However; and by the way, I have read the book of Jeremiah and so it is in the context in which ematters has said, but I do not believe that God would discredit one of His children for believing Jer. 29:11 nor would He look away if one His were to speak this scripture to another who doe not believe. I do agree that speaking this passage to just anyone is like casting pearls before swine but how do we know, can we be absolutely sure that planting that seed will not penetrate their heart.

    I’m a talker and when I speak, most of the time, I’m heard. Makes no matter to me whether they take it or leave it. I drop it and let it do what it do because nine times out of ten they needed it or we wouldn’t be talking. I try not to talk just for the sake of talking. We cannot forget that we all have a ministry even the ministry of reconciliation for you know that God takes no pleasure in His creation perishing, yet you can’t save the world but there’s nothing wrong with trying to save a soul even if Jer. 29:11 is what you choose to do it with and if you’re believing God for something and Jer.29:11 is where your heart is-I believe you should go for it because you will know eventually whether God is going to honor it or maybe it’s not the time. All said in Love.Just say in. Surely I do not profess to be a bible scholar.

    • Hi WBenson,

      Of course God wouldn’t discredit someone for “believing” 29:11. It is a real verse with real truths. But using Jesus’ example, He does seem keen on people getting his word right.

      Yes, God is so powerful and so is his word. It can accomplish great things even if we don’t communicate it well. But my point is simply that we should strive to get it right. It honors him.

  7. Thank you for pointing out how one can use a scripture out of content; however, Jeremiah 29:11 although in reference to the Israelis back then, it is still of great comfort to those who are going through trials even in our time. KJV: Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.
    Verses 12-13 is also relevant for God’s people today. These verses are all about obedience, which is very relevant for all believers for all times. If we are obedient to God’s will, even though it may not be comfortable or seems good at the time; just bear in mind that God’s thought/plans towards His people is always of peace and not evil. Although we will go through trials and even tribulation, God’s thoughts for us is always good, so I believe as long as this verse is used as stated by the KJV, it is quite appropriate to be quoted when someone needs to be reminded that God plans for them is good and He is in control of every aspect of his/her life, even to the end.

    However, I do agree with you that the verses and the scriptures in the bible must be read in its entirety, in context, and with understanding to grasps the true meaning. Take for instance, when John the Baptize preached repentance it was meant for all that resided in Jerusalem during his time; when Jesus preached repentance, it surpassed that period and is meant for every living soul and when Christ passed the commission on to Peter and the other disciples to preach the gospel, Peter preached repentance and the plan of salvation, in Acts 2, but so many people have skipped over this entire chapter in the bible, as if it has no relevance to us to day. Will we have to give account of our obedience or disobedience to the word of God?

  8. This makes no sense to me. Are we to simply say that Scriptures are only meant for who God was talking to at the time? That’s absurd. God does have an individual plan for each of his children which Will give us a future and a hope. It doesn’t take a scholar to understand that. Using Jeremiah 29/11 for the use of believing that God has a plan for you isn’t taking it out of context. You people are complicating the word of God. Stop.

    • Hi,

      Please read the post again. Did I ever say scripture was only meant for whom God was talking to at the time? No, I didn’t. Otherwise it would be meaningless to have it written down.

      But context matters. And the context of Jeremiah 29:11 is very clear.

      Yes, God is sovereign and has plans for us. But Jeremiah 29:11 is not the source of that truth.

So, what do you think?

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