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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Jeremiah 29:11 and the Health and Wealth Gospel

Aug 19, 2016

There are so many memorable passages in Scripture, but they can be misused and abused if not handled correctly. Jeremiah 29:11 is one such passage. It is not really a difficult passage to understand, provided it is read in context. But because it so often is ripped out of its context, it does indeed become problematic.

One of the most important rules of biblical interpretation is to study every text in its context. But various groups, such as the prosperity teachers, the name it and claim it crowd, the positive confessionists, and the health and wealth gospellers, love to run with this text while completely ignoring from whence it came.

Thus they will use this as a proof text as they claim it is God’s will for all his people to always be rich and well off, and that we should only think happy, positive thoughts, and never dwell on the negative. If this verse had no context, perhaps these folks could get away with such interpretations.

jer 29But it most certainly does have a context. The passage says 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’.” Taken by itself it is a nifty passage, and who wouldn’t want to claim it? But when the whole context is considered, it becomes quite another matter.

Anyone reading through Jeremiah in the chapters just before and after this one will know that the entire context is one of a disobedient and sinful Israel and the coming judgment of God. Because of sin and idolatry, God has warned the people through Jeremiah that King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians will be his instruments of divine wrath and retribution.

Over and over again Jeremiah also warns against the false prophets: those who proclaim peace and prosperity when there is only judgment to come. The false prophets tell the people what they want to hear – Jeremiah tells them what they must hear, and he is hated and rejected as a result.

Earlier in this chapter Jeremiah tells the people that they will be in Babylonian captivity for quite some time, so they need to prepare for the long haul while in exile: “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” (Jer. 29:5-6).

After a lengthy period of time we are told about what will next occur in verses 10-14:

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.”

This passage, like the entire book of Jeremiah, is filled with the language of repentance. It is only when the people turn back to God and seek him afresh that the promise of verse 11 holds true. Yet how many Christian teachers today claim this verse for themselves and their followers, yet never say a word about repentance, and never say a word about the context of this verse: the just judgment of God on a rebellious and sinful people.

The positive confession teachers and the health and wealth gospellers just want to accentuate the positive and ignore the other vital – if not painful – truths of Scripture: the wrath of God, sin, divine holiness, and the need for repentance. A quick release from captivity – and divine judgment – would not be forthcoming, but turning back to Yahweh would see them eventually released.

Christopher Wright in his commentary says this about this incredible passage:

Jeremiah 29:11 probably ranks as one of the most quoted and most claimed promises of the Bible. It is found in countless text calendars, pretty pictures and sacred ornaments. It is rightly trusted as a very precious word of assurance from God. But do we take note of its context? This is a surprising word of hope to a people who stood under God’s judgment. It is not a glib happy feeling: ‘God’s going to be nice to us all, me especially’ (we should note that the ‘you’ is plural, not individual – this is primarily a promise to the people as a whole). It is rather the robust affirmation that even in and through the fires of judgment there can be hope in the grace and goodness of God. That is God’s ultimate plan and purpose. The promise stands firm, but it does not preclude or neutralise judgment. Rather it presupposes but transcends judgment.
What then should be the response to such a surprising word of amazing grace? Not gleeful celebration. Not mere relief: ‘Well that’s all right then; everything will turn out fine. Let’s have a party!’ Rather, the people are called to respond to the restoring grace of God with renewed prayer and seeking him (12-14).

All this is not to say we can get no comfort from this passage. Quite the contrary: even though it was written to a people under God’s judgment long ago, there is much believers today can take from this. As Michael L. Brown comments, “It is difficult to find a more wonderful promise anywhere in Scripture that expresses the tender compassion of Yahweh toward these exiles and setting before them, at last, a real reason for optimism and expectation.”

A major theme here is the need to trust God during difficult times. The troubles we are now going through will not last forever, just as the exile for God’s people back then would not last forever. As Philip Graham Ryken remarks:

Even though God’s people were going through the worst of times, things were still promising because God knew the plans he had for them.
If God’s plans are for the future, the Christian must not complain about the present. One of the dangers of grumbling about what God is doing is that, whatever it is, God probably is not finished doing it. By its very nature, a plan is something that will not be completed until sometime in the future. And once it is completed, it will not be a plan anymore; it will be history. If God has plans for hope and a future, you must give him enough time to work them out.
This is why the Christian always lives by faith. A Christian is someone who trusts the promises of God for the future and acts upon them in the present. In other words, the Christian acts on God’s promises before they are fulfilled. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). To draw comfort from God’s plans for the future, one must take them by faith.
The refugees in Babylon had to live by faith. During the seventy long years of their captivity, they had to trust the promises of God. They had to live for God in the city by faith.

So the contemporary Christian can certainly draw hope from this passage and learn some valuable spiritual lessons. But it is a text which must be seen in the light of its full context, otherwise it becomes a false promise and a shallow comfort.

Repentance is ever the way to get right with God, and when we are under his just judgment, simply claiming positive words or thinking happy thoughts will not get us off the hook. It is turning back to him with all our hearts that can restore fellowship and get us back on the proper path.

As Jeremiah reminded the people in exile: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” That is the language of confession and contrition, not the language of name it and claim it, or positive confession.

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9 Responses to Jeremiah 29:11 and the Health and Wealth Gospel

  • This verse had a special meaning for a couple I knew, and it is what led to their coming into contact with a mission in New York City and accepting the Lord. Benjamin and Esther Chlenkin Lew were holocaust survivors who had met in a displaced persons camp in Europe. After getting married in Europe, they immigrated to the United States and first settled inNew York City. One day they were walking down a street in NYC when they saw Jeremiah 29:11 on a billboard outside a Christian mission. After losing most of their immediate and distant family in concentration camps, they certainly did look to God for a hope and a future. They walked into the mission where they heard the gospel and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and Messiah. Later they were blessed with a son and a daughter and grandchildren, and they relocated to Oak Park, Michigan, where they operated a Hebrew-Christian mission. They are with the Lord now, but I always think of them when someone mentions Jeremiah 29:11.

  • Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding …
    This is what I thought after reading your blog. I like the way you point out how God’s plan for good is an unfolding one. Thank you.

  • Yes, all this needs to be said as you have, Bill. One seemingly unimportant observation on the word order of “sin and idolatry”. It has recently impressed me lately that it is idolatry which is the root cause of our personal sins of the flesh. “idolatry and (then) sins” started with Adam. Self instead of God, then slavish fear, the strife of accusation of Eve etc. Existential guilt is the guilt of that act of idolatry. The Cross and Resurrection of The Son of Man destroys the root and its fruit, that guilt, and thus restores to the Father. If this order was burning in our hearts the health and wealth folks would not cut it at all. I think this anyhow. Thanks for the article directing us to the real issues the holiness of God, His promised intent, His just judgments which must precede His restoring love and blessings and the hope in Him by His Word and His Spirit sealed to us by the Atoning Blood of the eternal, Son of Man. It’s a passage for revival eh?

  • Linked to this on a Christian Discussion Forum with the comment “Gotta love scripture when it’s explained by a Godly teacher, not a wolf”.

    The first reply said “Unfortunately for you, we are supposed to receive what Jesus did for us which includes speaking what He says about us … Like it or not, Jesus and Paul taught “word of faith”… ”

    Eventually I asked “You did read it didn’t you? ” to which I received the reply “No. I usually skip reading articles by heresy hunters”.

    Pretty cluey these folks (NOT); able to make eight comments on the truth of an article without even reading ti.

    It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

  • Thanks Adrian. Yes, those who comment on articles they have never read are a bit of a worry!

  • Hi Bill
    Back in 2012, my wife and I could no longer live in our Melbourne home as a result of having a “smart meter” installed. We took our story to the media and were featured on Today Tonight, The Herald Sun, Channel 10 News, and a number of local papers. We lived in our campervan for 6 months on the streets through this whole process, not sure where this was all leading. Through it all, The Lord saturated us with Jeremiah 29:11; we would be walking through a shopping centre and be approached by Christian friends who were unaware of our plight, upon hearing our story, they would quote this verse; we’d turn on the radio to listen to a Bible teaching, there it was again; again and again this encouragement was repeated.
    Finally, we put our home on the market. Many were cautioning that as our story was so well known, we’d never be able to sell. My wife merely replied that “if God wants us to sell our home, it will be sold”. We received a fair offer on our home within 5 days of listing and subsequently sold our home.
    We have since moved to the Sunshine Coast. Our new home features a lovely plaque with the words of this verse prominently displayed to remind us of God’s goodness through that trial and how we can trust Him with anything that comes our way in the future.
    Vic

  • Dear Bill,

    Thank you for explaining this Biblical passage so beautifully. It has reassured and consoled me that something I hope and pray for which I know is for the good might take some time and I need to be patient and have faith.

  • We Christians are “exiles” too. We ought never to feel “at home” in a world where our Lord and Master was crucified. We are aliens and strangers in a world under our Lord’s judgment (1Pe 2:11). Like the Genesis patriarchs, we have here no continuing city (Hebrews 13:13). Whatever material blessings we may accrue are only until our Master returns. To Him we must all render an account of how we used His property while He was away (Luke 19:13 ff).

  • I have been a Pastor for over 40 years and always taught along the same lines of your article. So many quote this scripture totally out of context, it will only apply to oneself if the Holy Spirit highlights it you personally by a “Rhema” word to oneself. Health, wealth and prosperity teachers mislead people into the broad road of Matt.7:13-14 or using 3.John.v.2 where they generally place the cart before the horse, teaching prosperity without commitment

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