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. 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. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile." - Jeremiah 29: 4-14 (NIV)
Do you know the most searched Bible verse online after John 3:16? It will probably come as no surprise to many churchgoers today that it is Jeremiah 29:11. This verse is wielded as an uplifting catch-all for seeker friendly and purpose driven pastors across this country. It is probably the key verse for all purpose driven theology. When standing alone, it appears to support the general premise behind purpose driven theology. That God has this wonderful plan for your life. That this plan is overflowing with material blessings and prosperity beyond the greed that resides in our wickedly deceptive hearts. That no matter what we are going through; we are only going through. That on the other side of our pain and suffering is this fantastic life plan that God has laid out for us from the foundations of the earth. A plan flowing with milk and honey. A plan of victory and conquering over the enemy. A plan where no weapon formed against us can possibly prosper compared to the mighty prosperity that awaits us if we would just place our faith in Jeremiah 29:11. I know that this may have been a great source of comfort for many as well as disappointment for many more. My goal is always to show what God actually is saying so that we might be prepared. So that we would not fall prey to the enemy. So that we would endure the race marked out for us. So you may want to sit down when I inform you that Jeremiah 29:11 was not written to you. It was not written for you. It is not correct Bible interpretation to take a verse and wrest it horribly out of context and present it as doctrine. Let me show you a more obvious example:
And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. - Matthew 27: 5 (ESV)
This of course is the tragic ending for the betrayer of Jesus, Judas Iscariot. What preachers do with Jeremiah 29:11 is akin to someone referencing this verse about Judas, providing no context, and suggesting God is saying that we ought to purge ourselves of all our money and go hang ourselves. It is within the context of the entire Gospel of Matthew that we discover the truth behind this tale. It is where we see Judas actually betray Christ and then remorsefully realize that he had betrayed innocent blood. We see that the Pharisees could care less about this realization. The context reveals that verse 27 is about Judas, not us. That it is the retelling of an historical narrative, not a doctrinal foundation. So what then about Jeremiah 29:11? Why is it that we never hear Jeremiah 29:10 or Jeremiah 29:12? What happens when we take a step back and look at the entire context of the chapter?
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. - Jeremiah 29: 1 (NIV)
That's right beloved. Jeremiah 29:11 is actually part of a letter and that letter was not addressed to you or me. This was a letter of support and encouragement to the exiled Israelites in captivity in Babylon. The key verses today is the immediate context of Jeremiah 29:11. It is the first half of this letter sent from the weeping Prophet to the exiles. The opening of the letter makes it clear who God is talking to. It is written to those who were carried into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. It was written to the three Hebrew boys. It was written to Daniel. It contains three major portions. There are instructions, warnings and promises. The letter opens with God instructing them to seek prosperity within their captivity. I am reminded of the story of Joseph when I read this. Joseph found favor even though he was in slavery. He found favor even though he was wrongfully imprisoned. The text of Joseph's story however does not indicate that he had trouble seeing this for himself. In fact when Potiphar's wife tried to seduce him we see the opposite:
But he refused and said to his master's wife, "Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?" - Genesis 39: 8-9 (ESV)
Keep in mind this is still a teen age boy who was betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery! Yet God gave him favor in the house of Potiphar and Joseph saw it. Likewise he would see it in the prison. We often times cannot see the favor God gives us in the darkest portions of our lives. It appears based on the opening of Jeremiah's letter, that the exiles were not seeing their situation "favorably." So God has to get specific with them. He instructs them to settle down, plant gardens, marry and procreate. To seek peace and prosperity even within their captivity! This must have seemed such a foreign concept to the exiles. I am sure it seems that way to us as well.
In the middle of the key verses we see God switch from instruction to warning. Do not let those prophets and diviners among you deceive you! Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have! I have not sent them. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. Wow, it seems this could be written to the church today! Throughout the Old Testament, we see false prophets constantly lying to the people but more importantly, we see the people wanting and encouraging those lies. Consider this exchange between King Jehoshaphat and King Ahab as they were trying to discern the will of the Lord regarding going to war:
And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, "Inquire first for the word of the Lord." Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, "Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?" And they said, "Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king." But Jehoshaphat said, "Is there not here another prophet of the Lord of whom we may inquire?" And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, "There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah the son of Imlah, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil." - 1Kings 22: 5-8 (ESV)
In the church today the four hundred lying prophets would be found in the itinerant preaching circuit and Michaiah would be ostracized and marginalized as having a "religious" spirit. That is because like the exiles of old we encourage the false prophets to prophesy falsely. We support their lies. We crave their lies. We want our itching ears scratched. God sees this in the exiles. They want to hear a feel good, seeker friendly message so they actually enable and encourage the false prophets to falsely prophesy. Assuring them a speedy release from captivity no doubt. Which is why God closes with His promises to His people in captivity. While the false prophets were assuring a speedy release God was laying out the truth. It would be seventy years before they would be free again. God promises He will come to them and fulfill His good promise to bring them home. Because God knows the plans He has for them. Plans to prosper them and not to harm them. Plans to give them hope beyond their captivity and a future. Here is 29:11 from the King James:
or 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. - Jeremiah 29: 11 (KJV)
The prosperity that God is speaking about is peace with Him. The peace that surpasses all understanding. The peace we all so desperately lack in this life. The true sadness of preaching Jeremiah 29:11 as a materialistic panacea is that it misses the larger point. God is willing to release all of us from the captivity of Babylon. He is willing to grant us all the peace that is only found through salvation in Jesus Christ. To have an eternal hope that transcends this mortal coil and promises us a true future in His heavenly kingdom. That if we would just call upon Him, He will answer. That if we would just seek Him, He would be found. Talk about missing the forest for the trees!
So the only question is if the remainder of Scripture supports how most preachers present Jeremiah 29:11 as. The answer is both yes and no. God does indeed have a plan for our lives. One might even call it a purpose. But is hardly the purpose driven mantra.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. - 2Peter 3: 9 (ESV)