They call it “going viral.” Almost overnight a video, a news item, or perhaps a piece of music rockets from relative obscurity to universal recognition. It happened with Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. He wrote it about 1680, but it lay forgotten for three centuries. Then, in about 1980, it began appearing everywhere—advertisements, background music to movies and TV series, and as an entrance march at weddings.
Scriptures can be like that, too. Like this one:
“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.”
You’ll find it buried in the writings of the Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah. In chapter 29, verse 11, to be precise.
I probably have read that verse many times since I began studying the Bible. But it never really stuck out. Then I began to see it everywhere. Christian ministries that focused on “health and wealth” loved it. It seemed to say exactly what they were offering—a gospel that promised the good life now. Never mind that it was from the Old Testament; it delivered the good news that God wanted to bless us and prosper us, and it was his plan to do so. No wonder the verse has become so popular.
The problem is, health and wealth now is not what this verse is about. To read that into it is to wrench it out of context. I am not suggesting that it is not God’s ultimate will to prosper us and give us a bright future—that is a topic well worth exploring. But to use this verse to buttress that argument is to miss its real point, the one that really needs to be made today. Especially as our traditional Christianity is in decline, and many of our congregations are made up mainly of older people, clinging desperately to keep the faith alive.
So let’s let Jeremiah make his point. To do that, we first need to get the context.
This verse is part of a letter that Jeremiah wrote about 2,500 years ago. Jeremiah, you remember, was a prophet that God sent to the people of ancient Judah to urge them to mend their ways and turn back to him to avoid national ruin.
It was a thankless task. Jeremiah was ignored, ridiculed and put in prison. Then the wheels came off. The Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah, executed most of the royal family and took the elite of the nation—its priests, nobility, scholars and other leaders—into exile in Babylon. The nation was stripped of talent and leadership.
Jeremiah, because he had foretold the Babylonian victory, was well treated by the invaders and allowed to stay in Jerusalem. He continued to minister to his people—not by crowing, “I told you so,” but with messages of comfort and compassion.
Meanwhile, the exiles in Babylon were restless. After the initial shock of deportation, it seems they lived in relative freedom. But like all exiles, they yearned to return to their homeland. Some of the exiled priests took advantage of the situation and begin preaching that the exile would soon be over and the captives would soon be repatriated.
However, a quick return to the homeland was not what God had in mind. He inspired Jeremiah to write to the exiles and explain to them the reality of their situation. That letter is preserved in the Bible:
“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” (Jeremiah 29:4-9).
This was not what the exiles wanted to hear. God was telling them, through this prophet they had repudiated, but whose warnings had been validated, that they should not expect an early return home.
How long would this state of affairs last? “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.’”
And then comes the oft-misapplied verse:
“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” (verses 10-12).
God was not abandoning his people. Everything he had promised would eventually happen.
“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” (verse 14).
But not just yet. The generation that had been taken captive was not going home any time soon. It would not happen until their grandchildren were mature adults. So they needed to face facts, settle down, make Babylon their home, reestablish their families, start businesses and work for—not against—the best interests of their captors.
Even in captivity the Israelites had work to do. A foundation had to be laid on which the future generations of the chosen people could rebuild.
It seems as though the captives listened to Jeremiah this time. Some, such as Daniel and his three famous friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, rose to positions of great influence in the Babylonian government and became trusted advisors to Nebuchadnezzar. And when the 70 years were fulfilled, some leading Jews were allowed to return to reestablish their nation—the nation to which the Messiah would eventually come.
With that as a background, let’s look at this verse again.
God was not promising the exiles in Babylon immediate relief from their circumstances. He was telling them that he had not forgotten them. They were still the “chosen people,” and their nation did indeed have a hope and a future. And even though the vast majority of them would not see that hope fulfilled in their lifetimes, they had a responsibility toward it.
Many people reading this article are older. Perhaps we have been Christians for decades, working, praying and contributing to the life of the church. We have lived with the expectation that our work would be crowned with success. Our congregations would thrive and our influence would grow. Many of us have lived with the very real hope that we were the “end time” generation who would see the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. That expectation provided an impetus that motivated us to make extraordinary sacrifices. We wanted to be ready. But as the years have gone by and our understanding has grown, we have accepted the strong likelihood that we are not that generation. So what do we do now?
We are a people not used to delaying gratification. We buy now and pay later. Advertising tell us “we deserve” it and “owe it to ourselves” to get what we want, do what we want and be what we want, when we want it. So when we read that God wants us to have “hope and a future,” we want it now. And if it looks like that won’t happen, it is tempting to lose interest and let the world and its needs pass us by.
Yes, the economy is in trouble, the environment needs attention, the spiritual state of our nations is decaying, our congregations are dwindling and religion, as we have known it, is on the ropes. Well, all that will probably not change in your lifetime. Maybe you should just sit it out.
It is just as well the captives in Babylon did not think like that. They did as Jeremiah instructed. Those captives had no mandate to give up and drop out. The dream was not over—they had work to do. A foundation had to be laid on which the future generations of chosen people could be established. They listened, and out of what seemed like a hopeless situation, the nation was eventually restored. Then, “when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son” (Galatians 4:4).
Jeremiah’s letter, put in its proper context, should resonate with us. Things have not worked out quite as we expected, but God still has expectations of us, just as he did those ancient captives in Babylon. They were a part of the story—the epic saga of how God was redeeming the world in his Son, Jesus Christ.
We are a part of that same story. As Jesus explained to his disciples, “others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:38). There are times when the activity is intense and “the harvest is plentiful” (Matthew 9:37). At other times it may look as if not much is happening, and we must remember “how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains” (James 5:7).
“So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit” (Galatians 6:9).
Author: John Halford