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.
7 thoughts on “Jeremiah 29:11-13: “For I know the plans I have for you…” Do these verses apply to us…or not?”
That’s a good distinction, taking into account the context of all of Scripture in addition to the context in which the text was written. Usually though, I find that people are so eager to claim a sweeping promise, that they follow (their own) interpretation of “whole-Bible” context, and don’t give proper weight to the historical context. For example, some folks claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, and the way to bring about God’s blessing in our country is to follow 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” But the context of this passage is the Temple dedication, where God is speaking to Solomon about His people Israel, and so there the historical context needs to be properly applied. Now I do think it’s true from a “whole-Bible” context that God will often heal and restore his children when they humbly repent and turn to him, but that would refer to believers and not political nations. Anyway, some promises can be difficult to tell if they are uniquely (or primarily) for Israel, or if they have a broader application for believers today. Thanks for giving us some guidelines on how to walk the narrow path of good exegesis.
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A delightful analysis of the application of scripture with respect to both literary context and canonical context. Having shared this verse most recently with my wife who was literally fighting for life in a battle with COVID-19 gave her great comfort. I wonder if God in his grace and wisdom provided for this beautiful verse to be included in the holy book we know as the Bible for just such a purpose as to provide encouragement by example of his promise to Israel? Indeed, I find many instances that may not be specifically intended as a corporate application yet do provide encouragement to the reader. Thank you for sharing your insight.
Thanks so much, Ken, for this wonderful reflection on this oft-quoted verse. Your canonical reflections are very helpful.
I’d like to add one more canonical reflection / connection point to us today. When God is promising (exiled) Israel a “future and a hope” in Jeremiah 29:11, one of the things included in that promise, besides bringing them back to the land, is to send the Messiah and bring salvation and new creation to Israel and to the nations (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34, etc.). Because we are in Christ, we are grafted in to this promise made to Israel (cf. Eph 3), which includes all of the blessings we have in Christ as part of God’s covenant people.
What that says to me is that despite Israel’s (and the church’s) sins and failures (which are many), God still has an unchangeable plan for us for good, to give us a future and a hope as a part of his people in Christ, a future and a hope which is defined by all of the blessings we have in Christ, now and in his coming kingdom.
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Thanks, Scott. That is spot-on. I appreciate your comment.
Professor Berding, could you elaborate on your footnote 1 here please? I am very interested in this point. Thank you.
Sally, all I meant is that people should not take the words “prosper” to mean that God will make them financially rich or successful in their careers–and sometimes people try to apply this verse to such an idea. Many faithful Christians–including apostles in the first century–have lived their lives from conversion to their deaths without financial prosperity. In fact, the “prosperity gospel” is a false gospel. Here’s a short primer on it in case you’re interested: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-you-should-know-about-the-prosperity-gospel/.
Thank you very much Professor Berding! I have a much better understanding now. Thank you again!