It has become increasingly popular in recent years for teachers of the Bible (myself included) to disparage people who apply Jeremiah 29:11-13 to their lives. “You’re not paying attention to the context!” they loudly protest (…as I have). This post will explore whether such disparagement is appropriate, and conclude that often it is not. I hope to model something about how to interpret the Bible at the same time.
Jeremiah 29:11-13 are favorite verses for many people:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:11-13 ESV).
People love these verses because they find encouragement in the thought that God has good intentions for them even in the midst of suffering. They are heartened when they read that God hears their prayers. They are strengthened with the thought that when they seek the Lord with all their heart they will find the Lord.
But teachers of the Bible sometimes point out that the immediate literary context pertains to God’s promise to bring back the people of Israel from Babylon after 70 years in exile (Jeremiah 29:10). Thus, these verses apply only to the exiled Israelites living in the 6th century B.C.—not to us, or so it is claimed. “Pay attention to the context!” is the reminder they offer, and, truthfully, a reminder that all of us need to hear.
But I think that there is a bit more to consider in biblical interpretation. The dissenters are correct that the literary context (the verses surrounding these verses) connects the reader to a particular historical context, that is, return from the Babylonian exile. It can be terribly frustrating (maddening, actually) to listen to people interpret the Bible who glibly ignore literary and historical contexts. But are those two contexts (the literary and historical contexts) the only two contexts you need to pay attention to when reading Scripture?
No, there is another context that is crucial if you want to read the Bible well. That context is the canonical context, or, labeled differently, the whole-Bible context. The whole-Bible context is the context you work with to identify patterns and themes that run through (you guessed it…) the whole Bible, and pay attention to whether such themes are also present in the verses you are trying to interpret. If whole-Bible themes run through the verses to which you are attending, then it is proper—even necessary—to call out such patterns and themes—not as the main meaning of the verses, but as a proper broadening of the meaning that connects specific verses to the overall narrative and teaching of the whole Bible.
Are there such whole-Bible patterns and themes that appear in these verses from Jeremiah 29? Yes. There are at least four.
- God makes promises that are good, and intends to fulfill them (verse 11) (compare 1 Kings 8:56; Psalm 105:8-10; Jeremiah 32:42; Luke 24:49; Rom 11:29).
- God listens to his people when they pray (verse 12) (compare 2 Chronicles 7:12-16; Psalm 34:15; Matthew 7:11; James 5:14-18).
- God allows his people to find him when they seek him (verse 13) (compare Deuteronomy 4:29-31; 1 Chronicles 16:11-17; Isaiah 51:1-3; 55:6; Matthew 7:7).
- God repeatedly rescues his people out of exile (verse 14) (compare Exodus 2:23; Psalm 144:11; Ezekiel 34:10-22; Colossians 1:13; 1 Peter 1:1).
Any time we fail to pay attention to the literary and historical contexts of Jeremiah 29:11-13, we deserve the wrist slap we’ve been getting by teachers who complain that we have been misinterpreting these verses. Nevertheless, it turns out that the main ideas found in these verses are consistent with the canonical (whole-Bible) context. Consequently, these verses do communicate words of encouragement that God’s people can draw upon for encouragement in their daily lives, not because the verses offer such encouragement directly, but because they do so in conversation with patterns and themes that course their way throughout the whole Bible.
 Now, if people take this passage to mean that they individually will prosper (say, materially or vocationally), then that is a different kind of error altogether. I have left that issue out of today’s post to make the point about the need to pay attention to the broader canonical context of the Bible.