“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.”
(Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
There are few verses from the Bible more often recited than Jeremiah 29:11. The verse has brought comfort to countless people who have gone through difficulties and wondered why God has allowed hard things to happen to them. But is that really what the verse means?
Here are five ways this verse is understood today, paired with five principles for how to properly understand and apply any Old Testament passage to your life today.
A Message of Temporal Prosperity
Interpretation 1: God is going to “prosper” me in this life with financial success, physical well-being, mental and emotional stability, and so on.
Because in the old covenant, God promised Israel material prosperity during Moses’ leadership (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:1-14), some people assume that material blessing is God’s will for Christians today.
This conclusion that God wants to bless us with health and wealth does not align with the rest of the Bible’s teaching, and is dangerous. If we make these kinds of false promises to people, we may lead them to blame God for not delivering on his “promises”—promises he never made.
Principle #1: Scripture interprets Scripture.
Because the Holy Spirit inspired all of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16), it speaks with one consistent voice. So our interpretation of one passage of the Bible must agree with other passages.
Nowhere in the New Testament are followers of Jesus promised physical comfort or financial security—just the opposite. Jesus says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV). Jesus promises his followers trouble and difficulty.
God does not always deliver his people from earthly peril. What about John the Baptist (Matthew 14), Stephen (Acts 8), and the apostle James (Acts 12) who died because of their faith in God—not to mention present-day martyrs?
We can’t interpret Jeremiah 29:11 to mean God will materially prosper us. But the following four principles will help us better understand how to interpret this verse.
God’s Message to Me
Interpretation 2: Because it’s part of God’s Word, Jeremiah 29:11 is God’s direct message to me about my circumstances today.
Because something is in the Bible, and all of the Bible is God’s Word, some people assume all of it directly applies to their present situation. But is this true?
Here’s an example. Apply this verse directly to your life: “But Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, ‘Behold, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man.’” (Genesis 27:11). Should we encourage bald men to relate to Jacob? Esau was, in fact, a redhead (Genesis 25:25). Does his story hold special meaning for redheaded Christians today?
I hope you can see that such interpretations are silly. The above verse has nothing to do with us. It describes what happened in the past, because in terms of literature, it’s history.
Principle #2: Understand what type of literature your passage belongs to.
The Bible is a collection of various literary types: laws, prophecies, proverbs, poetry, parables, and so on. Each genre of literature has its own set of guidelines and interpretative principles for readers to understand it properly. We can’t interpret the letter to the Romans, for example, in the same way that we would interpret and the poetry of Psalms or prophecy of Isaiah.
Jeremiah 29:11 is part of a prophetic oracle that was addressed roughly 2600 years ago to Israelites living in exile in Babylon. As with many Old Testament prophecies, it has already been fulfilled. Though Jeremiah 29:11 is part of God’s Word, we have to understand the method by which God is speaking.
Therefore, trying to find how Jeremiah 29:11 relates to God’s plans for me today is probably a wrong approach, because then we would be reading history like it is a personal letter addressed to us.
God’s Message to Those who Believe in Jesus
Interpretation 3: If you are a follower of Jesus, then Jeremiah 29:11 applies to you, because Jesus secured all God’s promises for you.
This approach equates Old Testament Israelites as “God’s covenant people” with Christians today. People who follow Jesus can claim the promise to Jeremiah’s readers.
Principle #3: Know what the passage meant in its original context before you apply it to yourself.
Here is the context of Jeremiah 29:11:
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.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14 NIV)
“Captivity” and “exile” specifically refer to God’s punishment of the Israelites for their violation of his covenant with them. God is the one who sent them into exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:20).
We cannot cavalierly read ourselves into this passage while redefining words like captivity and exile into metaphors for suffering related to our present financial difficulties or health problems.
If we approach the Bible this way, we can make it say whatever we want it to say, instead of listening to what God intends to say in his Word—first to his original audience, and then to us.
But as followers of Jesus, we can apply this passage to ourselves, after understanding the historical and literary context. The next interpretation will help us understand how.
A Message About God’s Character
Interpretation 4: Christians don’t have the same circumstances as the people receiving Jeremiah’s message, but they know the same God.
This interpretation respects the original context of the passage. Christians are not Jewish exiles living in Babylon, but they follow the same God as the exiles. So, someone might ask, what can we learn about God from this passage?
In this case, we learn that God has a purpose for his people in trials, and he has kind intentions, even if that isn’t shown in material ways.
Principle #4: Right interpretation of the Bible is God-centered, not us-centered.
God’s character stays the same. Despite the differences between the old and new covenant, the same God made both. Look for enduring truths about God’s character as you read the Old Testament.
A Message Only for Its Original Hearers
Interpretation 5: Jeremiah 29:11 has nothing to do with your life; it’s meaning has already been unfolded in history.
This interpretation says that Jeremiah 29:11 says nothing to 21st century Christians, because it was addressed to Jewish people living in exile in Babylon under the old covenant which is now obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). The “you” of “I know the plans I have for you” is not addressed to anybody today
This passage has been fulfilled—the Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem after seventy years of exile—and therefore has nothing more to say to us other than to show us that God was faithful in the past to his Word, and therefore will be faithful to all his promises.
Principle #5: The New Testament determines how Christians apply the Old Testament.
If Christians want direction about God’s plans for their lives, they should look to the new covenant (our relationship with God through Jesus) and the New Testament.
For example, Romans 8:28 sounds a lot like Jeremiah 29:11.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 ESV)
Of course we may be tempted to think of “for good” as “God will heal me of my cancer,” so we still must properly balance our understanding of Romans 8:28 with the rest of the New Testament.
What this fifth interpretational approach does well is treat the old covenant as a fulfilled and thus obsolete covenant, moving Christians to rightly look to the new covenant for God’s promises.
Christians should pay attention to how the New Testament handles any given Old Testament passage. For example, commands from the Old Testament repeated in the New Testament (e.g., do not murder) still apply, and often promises in the Old Testament are echoed in the New Testament.
Though someone might dismiss Jeremiah 29:11 as not applying to Christians, they would point to the New Testament where God makes a similar promise of hope to us. But because there are no promises of material prosperity in the new covenant, it would be unwise for us to propose an application of Jeremiah 29:11 that gives this hope to people today.
Of the five interpretations of Jeremiah 29:11, the first one must be discarded. But each of the four left has a certain truth to them. The Bible is all God’s Word filled with his promises to his people and revelations of his character. But we need to make sure we read his Word well and carefully.