Perhaps one of the most quoted verses in modern day evangelicalism is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” It’s often quoted by those in the pulpits and the pews alike to say – God has a plan for your life; walk in it; it’s a good plan. It may be found in a picture frame in someone’s home or on a professional athlete’s shoes. It might be sent from one person to another via text or shared on Facebook time after time for encouragement. But while the verse is often shared, the context is often left behind, making it probably one of the misinterpreted passages of Scripture.
Could Jeremiah 29:11 be quoted to Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17-18)? Or Esau (Rom. 9:11-13)? Or Judas (Jn. 17:12)? According to those accompanying Scripture citations the answer is a definitive “no.” So this verse isn’t a one-size fits all promise for humanity (cf. Jer. 29:12-13); rather, it is a specific promise made to a specific group of people at a specific point in time. With that said, is there any application of these words to Christians? Well, we’ll find out soon enough. But first let’s push past all the misnomers about this verse and interpret it properly within its context.
For starters, Jeremiah 29:11 is found in a letter that “Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the remainder of the elders who were carried away captive—to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon” (vs.1). So this was a letter sent to those who had already been taken captive in the previous deportations. Like those in Judah, they, too, were threatened by the prospect of deception by the false prophets who promised a speedy deliverance from Babylon (vs.8-9); namely, two years (cf. Jer. 28:1-4). In fact, in a work entitled The Babylonian Chronicle we find that there were false prophets among the Jews in Babylon who were stirring up acts of sedition through their false promises. There was a plague of false hope spreading among the Jewish people both inside and outside of Judah; and God’s Word was meant to be the antibiotic, providing true hope. But first the people needed to be grounded in the sober reality that they weren’t leaving anytime soon.
God’s message for those exiles was essentially –‘get settled in Babylon.’ He told them to: build houses, plant gardens, get married, have children, and seek the peace of the city in which they found themselves (vs.5-7). As an aside, interestingly, there are hints of covenant blessings found in God’s instructions for those Babylonian captives. But there was also the blessing of restoration to the land after the appointed time – even as the LORD had said, “After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place” (vs.10b).
It’s here, in this context, that the Jeremiah 29:11 promise is found. Although seventy years of exile would take place God wanted to communicate His heart to the exiles, especially against the backdrop of those who supposed they knew His thoughts while they communicated falsehoods about His intentions and doings. So God told them, in a manner and fashion that appears quite tender, “For I know the thoughts I think towards you…” Whether it was at the current moment or when the false promises of the false prophets failed to come to fulfillment, the exiles could have thought that God turned away from them and had set Himself against them indefinitely. But God wanted them to know they hadn’t slipped His mind; He knew the thoughts He had for them. And the thoughts were “thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give [them] a future and hope.” This was a promise of restoration. Exile wasn’t the end. The future and the hope in view appears again articulated in Jeremiah 31:17: “There is hope in your future, says the Lord, that your children shall come back to their own border.” Yes, punishment was going to come; but there was more to the story. “The End” was not written over the history of Israel.
This would be important because while many would look for some way to avoid the exile, the judgment, and the suffering, God wanted His people to know that He had already intended to end it. He had plans for them. We saw this earlier in Jeremiah 24 when the LORD said:
5b “Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge those who are carried away captive from Judah, whom I have sent out of this place for their own good, into the land of the Chaldeans. 6 For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land; I will build them and not pull them down, and I will plant them and not pluck them up. 7 Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.
The last part of that passage (Jer. 24:7) is very important in light of the last verse our devotional. Following Jeremiah 29:11 we read:
12 Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. (vs.12-12)
Too often Jeremiah 29:13 is cited on its own as though it implies salvific synergism and denies sovereign grace. Someone may say, ‘The key to salvation is to search and seek for God and His grace, and if you do, you will find Him’ while leaving out a quintessential variable – the ones who seek are the ones who are sought. Yes, you can teach that from passages like John 6:34, John 17:9, Philippians 1:29, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Romans 9:15-16 and an incredible host of other passages, but you can also see it the Book of Jeremiah. Those exiles that call upon (Jer. 29:12b), pray to (vs.12c), seek, find, and search for God with all their hearts (vs.13), are the same ones that God gave a heart to know Him (Jer. 24:7a). They return with their whole heart (vs.7b), because He gave them a new a heart (vs.7a).
Having seen who God was talking to and what He was talking about, we come back to our initial question: does this verse have application for Christians? Does God have good thoughts, plans, and intentions towards you? If you are justified by Christ’s blood (Rom. 5:9) the answer is: yes, He does. But that isn’t a conclusion you definitively draw from Jeremiah 29:11. That verse was directed towards a specific people, at a specific point in time, with specific promises attached. But with that being said, the blood bought church of Jesus Christ does not enjoy any less affection than those spoken to in our text. His thoughts towards His repentant beloved are indeed thoughts of peace, for He would have His peace guarding our hearts and minds (Phil. 4:7) and the peace of Christ ruling our hearts (Col. 3:15). And He has committed to His people an incredible future – life everlasting (Jn. 6:47), joy unending (Mt. 25:23; cf. Isa. 61:7), communion uninterrupted (Rev. 21:3-4, 22:3-4), and a blessed hope – the appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Ti. 2:13).