Is this in fact a difficult passage? Well, not so much – the difficulty arises when it is rather misused and abused by various believers today. The difficulty arises, as usual, when context is ignored and the passage is used in a way it was never intended to be used.
The verse is this: “‘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’.” Now this is of course a terrific verse and offers much welcome encouragement. But too often it is stripped of its context and therefore is used quite wrongly.
Thus we have various dubious theologies such as the health and wealth gospel, the name and claim it folks, the positive confession creed, the “your best life now” folks and so on all appealing to this passage. They use it as a sort of magic wand: you can succeed and prosper in everything if you do this or that.
Often this promise is especially given to those who are asked to donate to a particular ministry! And many misinformed Christians claim it means God never seeks to harm us in any way or bring hardship, suffering or difficulties into the life of a believer.
But the context quickly dispels such unhelpful notions. Jeremiah had a forty year ministry warning Judah, the Southern Kingdom, that because of her persistent sin, idolatry and immorality, she was headed for a fall at the hands of the Babylonians.
Thus one dire warning after another is found in the first 45 chapters of his book. Just as Israel, the Northern kingdom, had already fallen to the Assyrians, so too would Judah. And his time of ministry extends into the period when that has in fact happened, and most of the Judeans were deported into exile in Babylon.
Jeremiah 29:1-23 is a letter of his sent from Jerusalem to the exiles. He tells them to settle in for the long haul. There will be no speedy exit from Babylon, but they will in fact be stuck there for a period of 70 years. So he tells them to build houses, plant gardens, and form families.
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.”
As is so often the case, we find genuine conditions attached to this promise. If they seek God and repent and turn back to him, then this return from exile will occur. It is no magic pill to a life of ease, pleasure and affluence. It is a means of averting the just wrath of God, by getting right again with Yahweh and his covenant conditions.
And this was not some personal, private message to some individual, but to the whole people of God stuck in exile. So that is the primary reference point to this text. Sure, we may seek to draw a secondary spiritual application for ourselves, but we must do so guardedly.
This is no blank cheque for a happy and pain-free life. Those believers who only want to claim the goodies from God, the positives, the uplifting stuff, the “bless me” stuff, are being quite unbiblical here. It is God who also sends the ‘negative stuff’ – difficulties, the suffering, the hardships, the trials, and even the punishments when needed.
Indeed, the idea that God would never send anything negative into the believer’s life is blown out of the water in the book of Jeremiah. Dozens of passages tell us that Yahweh directly brings disaster and punishment on his people in judgment for their rebellion and sin. Let me mention just a few of these:
Jer 6:19 I am bringing disaster on this people,
Jer 6:21 I will put obstacles before this people
Jer 8:14 God has doomed us to perish and given us poisoned water to drink, because we have sinned against him
Jer 10:18 I will bring distress on them so that they may be captured
Jer 11:11 Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.
Jer 16:10 Why has the LORD decreed such a great disaster against us?
Jer 18:8 If that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
Jer 19:3 I am going to bring a disaster on this place.
Jer 19:15 I am going to bring on this city and all the villages around it every disaster I pronounced against them
Jer 21:10 I have determined to do this city harm and not good, declares the LORD.
Jer 32:42 As I have brought all this great calamity on this people.
Jer 35:17 I am going to bring on Judah and on everyone living in Jerusalem every disaster I pronounced against them.
Jer 36:3 Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will each turn from their wicked ways.
Jer 44:11 I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah.
Jer 44:27 For I am watching over them for harm, not for good; the Jews in Egypt will perish by sword and famine until they are all destroyed.
These are just some of the words given to wayward Judah. Yahweh of course brings the same word to pagan nations as well, eg:
Jer 46:21 The day of disaster is coming upon them, the time for them to be punished. (Egypt)
Jer 49:37 I will bring disaster on them. (Elam)
Jer 51:2 I will send foreigners to Babylon to winnow her and to devastate her land.
So God can and does bring affliction, punishment and disaster on his own and others if they refuse to walk with him properly. But, the critic will reply, that was the Old Testament. We are under grace today. Um, no, not quite. The grace of God is fully manifest in the OT as well as in the NT.
As is the wrath, holiness and just judgment of God. Moreover, there are plenty of hard-core warnings to be found in the NT which we dare not trifle with. But I deal with that all in detail elsewhere, eg: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/24/whatever-it-takes-to-prepare-the-bride/
So yes, this is a wonderful passage of hope and grace. It is good news to the captives in Babylon. And God is always looking to bless his people today as well and give them hope and a future. But all this does not come about by taking some special happy pill.
God does not want us to be happy, but holy. And whatever keeps us from being a holy, set-apart people of God, he will, in his great mercy, deal with, to make sure we become all we are meant to become. His plans for us are indeed for our good – but not the good we often demand: wealth, health, fame and fortune, a life of ease and the good life.
His good plans for us are that we conform to the image of his Son. And that always comes by way of the cross. The crucified life is the good plan of God for us – not our “best life now”. He cares about us too much to just let us go our selfish and carnal way.