“‘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.’” This verse or portions of it are very popular. Jeremiah 29:11 is often displayed on posters, T-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. This verse is often spoken as a promise of hope to people who are grieving or discouraged. However, before it can be applied, it must first be understood in context.
When interpreting Scripture, we must keep in mind the distinction between a passage’s interpretation and the same passage’s application: a passage can have only one meaning, but it may have many applications. Jeremiah 29:11 is no different. The verse has only one meaning.
Jeremiah 29 is addressed to the exiles in Babylon. As punishment for the sins of Judah, God was going to send the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and the temple and to carry away many of the people to Babylon. (See Jeremiah 25:8–14 for one example.) At the time Jeremiah wrote Jeremiah 29, Nebuchadnezzar had already removed some Jews to Babylon (see verse 1), although the total destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was still to come. Jeremiah writes to the exiles to tell them that people would return to the land after 70 years (verse 10). Then he reassures them in verse 11 that God has not forsaken them. They will be restored. God’s plans for His Chosen People were “for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (NLT).
In the primary application, Jeremiah 29:11 has nothing to do with any person living today. This verse applied only to the Jews who were in exile in Babylon during the sixth century BC. However, the sentiment expressed is so beautiful and encouraging, is there not any sense in which it applies today? The answer is, yes.
Jeremiah 29:11 has other applications. In particular, this verse reflects a more general principle of God’s grace and affections for those whom He loves, including the modern church. This more general application can be made because of the unchanging nature of God.
God had promised to bring Israel back; therefore, the exiles could be assured that they had a future and a hope. This promise was not made to all nations at the time, but only to Israel. Likewise, God has promised believers in Christ certain things that are not applicable to the human race in general. For those who are in Christ, God has promised that our sins are forgiven and we stand before God justified. God has plans for those in Christ, and those plans are good.
Shades of Jeremiah 29:11 are seen elsewhere in Scripture, such as in Romans 8:31–39: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Believers in Christ can be confident that all things will work together for our good and that God has a future planned for us. We have hope that “does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:5). We have been given promises to rely on, just as Israel was. So, if by quoting Jeremiah 29:11 we are thinking of our security in Christ, then the wording is appropriate, even if the historical context does not apply.
A word of caution, however, that Jeremiah 29:11 can be misused as well. First, it is sometimes wrongly applied to humanity in general. Strictly speaking, the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 does not apply to every human being, but only those who are in Christ. Perhaps it could even be extended as part of the invitation to receive Christ: “If you come to Him, He promises you a future and a hope!” Outside of Christ, the only Savior, there is no future and no hope (see John 3:18). Too often, Jeremiah 29:11, quoted without context and applied universally, is made to give the impression that God is a doting grandfather who just wants to spoil us.
The second danger of using this verse without understanding the context is the same as the danger of taking Romans 8:28 out of context. Jeremiah 29:11 promised that the nation of Israel would be restored, but very few of the exiles lived to see the fulfillment of that prophecy 70 years later. Most of them died without seeing the future that God had planned. Likewise, the future and hope we have in Christ are not a guarantee that things will go well in this life. For most believers throughout history and in the world today, the world is a cold and dangerous place. In fact, the promise outlined in Romans 8:28 is specifically that, even though believers will face all sorts of dangers and persecutions in this life (trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword—see verse 35), Christ will never abandon them. In this life, believers have hope because of the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, but the future and the hope and the prosperity that God has planned for believers will be fully realized only after this life of suffering is over.