Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse that has been used too often out of context. You see it on t-shirts, mugs, pens, Bible covers, etc. In the industry that I am in as a Christian retailer, one local South African supplier (not mentioning any names – but I am sure you know who I mean) plasters this, and other verses (e.g. Philippians 4:13), out of context, all over their merchandise, as though those verses relate directly to us.
Context is king, so let’s consider this passage:
First and foremost, Jeremiah clearly states who this message is for in verse 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” Clearly this verse was not written to individuals struggling with discerning God’s will or who to marry, but to a group of people in a specific situation – the nation of Israel whom God had sent into exile in Babylon.
But take a look at verse 10, “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.” Here God is clearly stating the specifics of His promise within a particular time-frame. What follows then in verse 11 is the reason why God was going to do this – “For” in verse 11 is a purpose clause – with verses 12 to 14 spelling out more details of the promise in verse 10.
God was going to take Israel out of exile and restore the nation because this was God’s plan for the nation – He had a bigger plan in mind than what their futile minds could possibly imagine while living under the iron fist of the Babylonians. This is a far cry from the modern interpretation of this verse of using it to find God’s specific purpose for our individual lives.
One final thing: in verse 11, the “you” is not singular, but plural. And you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that one verses many makes a big difference.
So what now? Am I saying that this verse does not apply to us at all? Not at all. God is still in control and He does have plans for each one of us. The question though is, does this verse apply to me as it stands? The answer is both – yes and no.
Firstly we need to make sure that the Bible speaks into our lives and not us speak into it. Exegesis and correct application instead of eisegesis and “eise-application.”
Since Jeremiah 29:11 is speaking to the nation of Israel as a whole and not just one person, then this should be our starting point. God was speaking at a particular point in time, to a particular group of people, for a particular reason. In this case, to the nation of Israel, in exile in Babylon, for the purpose of restoring them as a nation in their homeland.
If you read on in the Old Testament you will see that each of these promises were fulfilled during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. They returned to their land, rebuilt the temple and the city walls, and the nation was restored. The promise of this text is therefore fulfilled and does not directly apply to us today – as non-Jews, living free, in our own homes and nations.
However, this is not the end of it, because this verse is revealing to us something of the character of God – that He is sovereign, in control, and that His plans will prevail – and therefore we can put our trust in Him, that the things He will do for us have a purpose far greater than we could ever dream or imagine. It gives us hope that the God who can control nations and restore a people group of thousands, if not millions, He can do the same for us in our communities, within our churches, and in our lives as individuals.
So, although this verse is often taken out of context and used by people to try and ascertain their paths of life, it does provide us with hope and trust in the God of the Bible. Even more important than our decision about marriage, career or education, is our decision about the God that we serve. The promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is not ours – to claim and apply directly to our lives – but the God who made the promise is.
Soli Deo Gloria!