Jeremiah 29:11 reads (NRSV): ‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope’.
Other translations render ‘plans for your welfare’ as ‘plans to prosper you’.
This text is very popular among evangelical Christians, who take it as a promise that God’s plan is for them individually to be safe, financially prosperous, and to have a great future ahead of them. Unsurprisingly, it appears on merchandise aimed at Christians, such as decals for office walls, bracelets, and even pillow cases, presumably to reinforce the motivational message first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Here’s a typical Internet graphic referencing the text:
I’m not going to get into questions regarding how compatible such a statement is with the kind of promises Jesus made to his followers about their future (e.g. Matthew 10:22 and Matthew 24:9), but will look at whether or not Christians are justified in taking this quote to refer to them.
First, here is how Jeremiah 29 opens:
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
– Jeremiah 29:1-3 (NRSV)
And here’s Jeremiah 29:11 in context:
10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
– Jeremiah 29:10-14 (NRSV)
The promises made in Jeremiah 29:11, then, do not stand alone as universal promises, and are certainly not promises aimed at Christians. Instead, these promises are part of a very specific message delivered at a specific time to a specific people – the Israelites who were being held captive in Babylon.
The full list of promises made by the God of Israel to these Israelites in Babylon is that:
- After 70 years in captivity they will be released and returned from their exile.
- God has a plan for these captives’ futures, which will improve their lives.
- If the captive Israelites seek the God of Israel, he will undo their misfortunes and return them from the diaspora.
These promises are all given to a particular group of people in a particular place and time, and they stand together. There is no logical justification for ripping one of these promises out of its textual and historical context and claiming that it applies to modern Christians. This is not a message aimed in any sense at modern Christians. It is not even aimed at the modern descendants of the Israelites (Jews).
Contemporary Christians have every right to believe that God wants them to prosper and has a great future planned for them, but Jeremiah 29:11 simply doesn’t say that or refer to that in any way.