What does Jeremiah 29:11 mean?
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
Understanding the Context
If you were to take a poll on the most well-known verse in Jeremiah, there is a good chance that Jeremiah 29:11 would rank near the top, if not at the very top. This verse is commonly found on bumper stickers, signs, cards, etc., placed there to encourage people to have hope for the future that God will work things out for them. But is that really what this well-known verse means?
The starting point for determining the meaning of any verse from the Bible is understanding the surrounding context. Jeremiah was a prophet who served during the final days before Judah was taken into exile by the Babylonians, and his ministry continued throughout much of the time that the Jews remained in exile. The book of Jeremiah is a collection of his prophetic oracles that God spoke to and through him throughout his ministry.
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets, and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. It said:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place (Jer. 29:1-10 NIV).
Jeremiah 29 records a letter that the prophet wrote to the exiles living in Babylon (Jer. 29:1–3). Some of the exiles had already been living in Babylon for nearly eight years, while others had just recently arrived. Jeremiah instructs them to get busy in establishing their new lives in Babylon by doing ordinary things like build houses, plant gardens, marry, and bear children; indeed, they are even to seek the welfare of Babylon while they are there (Jer. 29:4–7). They should ignore the so-called prophets who are claiming the exile will be brief because God has not spoken to them or sent them (Jer. 29:8–9). Rather than being brief, their exile will last seventy years. And only then will God fulfill his promise and bring them back to the land (Jer. 29:10).
What is good?
That brings us to verse Jeremiah 29:11. Look at it again. God promises to fulfill his plans of doing good for his people. What is the nature of that plan and that good? The next verses in Jer. 29:12–14 tell us. God will answer the prayers of his people. When they seek God they will find him. God will restore them from their exile to the land that he has promised them.
God still speaks to us today through a promise he made to the Jewish people while in exile.
Therefore, in its original context, Jeremiah 29:11 is God’s promise to Jews living in exile in Babylon. So does that mean it does not apply to us as believers today? Understanding the larger context of the biblical story from Genesis to Revelation helps us see that the answer is yes! As believers, God’s plan for us is to bring us into the new heavens and new earth that he has promised (Rev. 21–22).
In the meantime, we live as exiles and sojourners here on this earth (1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11), waiting for the new creation in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13). Jesus invites us to ask God in prayer and it will be given to us, to seek him and we will find him (Matt, 7:7). God promises that he will work all things for the eternal good of his people (Rom. 8:28), even the suffering he ordains for us (Rom. 8:18).
Understood within the larger context of the Bible, God still speaks to us today through a promise he made to the Jewish people while in exile. Once we understand the nature of God’s plans for us as believers and the nature of the good he promises to do us, we can confidently apply the heart of this promise to our lives today.
God bless you!
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