It’s a well-known, well-loved, oft-quoted and oft-shared verse.
Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
In 2018, Biblegateway reported it as the most read Bible verse on its website.
It’s a personal favourite of mine. I’ve preached it, posted it, prayed it and even painted it for a friend.
However, it also pops up in the lists of the most misused or misinterpreted verses of scripture. And it’s this abuse, and potentially its perceived overuse, that has many listing it as one of their least favourite verses!
Who was it written for?
Jeremiah delivered this prophetic message from God to His people, the Israelites, as they came to the end of around 70 years of captivity in Babylon. They were a broken down and scattered people. Their knowledge of God’s love and goodness towards them would often not have seemed supported by their current circumstances. And so this promise of hope, prosperity and a future beyond their present experience would’ve been so desperately needed.
How generous of God to direct Jeremiah to remind them – “I see you, I have not forsaken you, your future is in my hands and it’s better than you can perceive or imagine, I’ve got this.”
Any message to the Israelites is a message for us too.
Yes, this is a contextually specific word for then, them and there – but when God spoke historically to the Israelites it was part of the picture He was painting of His heart for His people. His plans and purposes. His generosity and grace.
It’s true for us today. His heart is for us. He desires that we would experience His truth and be filled with hope for the future that He has gone ahead of us to see and prepare. Ultimately, this scripture says more about who God is than anything else. He is the same today as He was then.
Who is defining prosperity?
The misappropriation of this verse lies largely in the definition of prosperity. By today’s dictionaries we understand it to mean “success in material terms” or “financial flourishing”. The Hebrew word used here is shalowm – which is more about safety, welfare, happiness and peace. In fact, in the majority of uses of this word in the Old Testament it is translated as peace or wellbeing.
The former definition suggests promises of the dream home, dream car and dream bank account. The latter indicates a more holistic picture of a preferred future – where God ordained peace and wellness is your experience.
For many readers, that’s a significant shift in focus and expectation.
God’s plan for our welfare might look different than our own.
God’s plans for our future are to prosper. He said it Himself and it aligns completely with His character and activity towards us. His heart is for our wellbeing, happiness and deepest sense of peace. Shalowm.
What I’ve come to understand in a limited form, and what scripture and hundreds of years of testimonies lead us to accept, is that God’s idea of prosperity for us is often different than our own.
To start with, we’re generally only concerned about just that – our own – whereas He is mindful of the prosperity of all people and how each of our experiences interplays with another’s.
Just like a parent constantly makes choices for a child that they aren’t able to make for themselves (because of a lack of foresight, wisdom and maturity) so too, God is working things for our good – our protection, our thriving, our faith development and our future – in ways that sometimes don’t feel like “prosperity” to us.
The most powerful words.
The strength in this verse is in the 3 words at the start. “For I know…”
It’s not really about prosperity. It’s not about a future that we can define and approve. It’s not about hope in circumstances or specific outcomes. It’s about the fact that creator God – all powerful, all creative, all knowing, all loving God – knows.
The message of Jeremiah 29:11 to us today? It’s exactly what it was to the exiled Israelites.
“I see you, I have not forsaken you, your future is in my hands and it’s better than you can perceive or imagine, I’ve got this.”