Jeremiah 29:11 is an extremely popular Bible verse often quoted in an individualized fashion to show that God wants us to be prosperous financially, vocationally, materially, etc. This verse can be found imprinted on get well and graduation cards, on bookmarks, as well as other inspirational and motivational items. But did God speak these words to Jeremiah to tell us that He wanted us to prosper in this life, a life that Jesus tells us will be difficult at times, full of temptations, persecutions, and even heartache?
Unfortunately, this is one of those verses that is taken completely out of context by the “Prosperity Gospel” teachers and is completely misunderstood by many others.
Just by reading that single passage alone, it does sound positive and uplifting:
Jeremiah 29:11 (36:11) And I will devise for you a plan of peace, and not evil, to bestow upon you these good things. – CAB, Septuagint
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. – NIV
(I prefer to use the Septuagint, but I also put the NIV version here as well, because it is the most common version.)
It does sound like God has great plans for us and wants us to prosper, if we read this completely by itself. However, when we put it into the context of the surrounding text as well as the historical context, a whole different picture is drawn.
4 Thus said the Lord God of Israel concerning the captivity which I caused to be carried away from Jerusalem: 5 Build houses, and inhabit them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruits thereof; 6 and take for yourselves wives, and bear sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, and be multiplied, and be not diminished. 7 And seek the peace of the land into which I have carried you captive, and you shall pray to the Lord for the people: for in its peace you shall have peace.
The prophecy begins with what God says “concerning the captivity.” Immediately the stage is set to be focused on the captivity of Judah in Babylon. God tells them to basically settle in and get comfortable. He wants them to make peace and multiply, that way they don’t diminish because He still has plans for them in the future.
8 For thus says the Lord: Let not the false prophets that are among you persuade you, and let not your diviners persuade you, and hearken not to your dreams which you dream. 9 For they prophesy to you unrighteous words in My name; and I sent them not.
This part can be placed with the previous chapter of Jeremiah, as well as those prophets to come while they were in captivity. In chapter 28 (35 in the Septuagint) Hananiah-a false prophet-spoke of the captives release being in two years, bringing about false hopes in the people. However, God speaks through Jeremiah and tells the people to not heed the words or the prophets or even their own dreams.
10 For thus said the Lord: When seventy years shall be on the verge of being accomplished at Babylon, I will visit you, and will confirm My words to you, to bring back your people to this place. 11 And I will devise for you a plan of peace, and not evil, to bestow upon you these good things.
Just think, you had one false prophet tell you that your captivity would be over in two years, and then you have Jeremiah telling them that it will be 70 years before they are released. That’s nearly two generations! So those hearing the prophecy, and most of their children as well, were going to die in captivity. But it is after those 70 years, when the plan of peace and good things would begin to come upon the people. And it was exactly then that the people began to return to the land of Judah under Cyrus.
While most do use this verse for good things such as reassuring someone who is sick or one who has lost their job, the context for the tribe of Judah was much more significant as the whole tribe was being taken into exile in Babylon. This was not one person but all those lives were being turned upside down.
Now, if we did want to apply this to our time today, it still couldn’t be applied in the manner that these prosperity evangelicals are teaching it. You have to keep in mind that those types in the Old Testament point to Christ. And it is only two chapters later (31 MT; 38 Septuagint) when God gives Jeremiah the promise of a new covenant which would come through Christ.
Therefore, if you want to project the “plan of peace and not evil” and God’s bestowal of “good things” to the future, then that would be through His Son, Jesus Christ. It would be the ability to continue on to eternal life after we die here. We can metaphorically relate this world we live in to Babylonian captivity and the release is when we pass from this life to the next. It still has nothing to do with us prospering materially, but prospering spiritually, into a new life beyond anything we can comprehend here.
To say that God’s promise to the tribe of Judah is meant for us to prosper materially, financially, vocationally, and however else it is described, would be to pit the Father against the Son. Christ didn’t come teaching us that we would be materially prosperous or rich beyond our needs, but He came and taught us that the world would hate us, that it is practically impossible for the rich to inherit eternal life, that the poor and the meek and the humble would inherit the kingdom of God.
Think about the lives of the earliest, most devoted followers of Christ (i.e. Paul, the Twelve, the Early Church Fathers, etc.). They weren’t materially prosperous, but they sold everything they had to give to those in need: “Nor was there anyone needy among them; for all who were owners of lands or houses were selling them, and were bringing the proceeds of the things which had been sold, and were placing them beside the feet of the apostles; and they were distributing to each, to the degree that anyone had need” (Acts 4:34-35). Not only that, but they were constantly persecuted and most of them were martyred for Christ. If that is a plan of “peace and good things and not calamities” as spoken in Jeremiah, then I would have to say that God is a liar. However, we know that isn’t the case as God is holy, perfect, pure, and full of truth. Therefore, we can see that the prosperity described in Jeremiah isn’t what most today make it out to be.
Sadly, many today use Jeremiah 29:11 (36:11) to promote the prosperity gospel, applying it to having material items such as nice cars, six figure salaries, and luxurious homes. When they do this, however, the context, history, and plight of the Israelites and the backsliding that caused them to go into exile is completely lost. The whole image of how the Israelites could and did lose the Holy Land should speak to Christians today reminding us that we, too, can lose what we have (our salvation) if we do not follow God’s will. In addition, Christians begin seeking material gain based on faith, when our prosperity is far beyond any form of material possession we could ever obtain here in this life. Our prosperity is our life in Christ, sharing Him with others, and having the hope of eternal life: “For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26) How much more prosperous could we be than to have Jesus Christ as our King and Savior?