Ask a group of ten Christians what their favourite verse is and there’s a hefty chance that at least one person will reference Jeremiah 29:11. This sterling, promise-packed reference carries immediate resonance and reassurance for our troubled lives. God intends good for us, it seems to say – our welfare and our hope are secured in his plan, so we don’t need to worry, harm is not on the immediate agenda.
All of this is marvellous, apart from the nagging fact that the chapter in which this verse appears is complex, and unkindly elbows our hope in the ribs a little. Sometimes context can be a killer.
As with many passages of Scripture it can be a shock to find that Jeremiah 29 is not immediately about us. Jeremiah is not issuing an insurance certificate to risk averse Christians in this chapter, but is writing a letter to specific people in a concrete historical setting.
Jerusalem, the citadel of the sacred, is crumbling. The Temple has not proved to be the talisman that inhabitants of the city had hoped it might be. It has turned out that living off the vestiges and vapours of the glory days of being God’s people has afforded little protection against the consequences of sin and convulsions in society. The chasm which has opened up between professed belief and godless behaviour is now yawning wide, and the old pretences and the old protections are proving impotent. The King and his retinue have exited stage left, and there are now a group of people living in Babylon as exiles. To get under the skin of that word ‘exile’ we might want to summon the images we have in our minds of helpless refugees who are far from home and far from hope. Exile is awful.
It is to these people that Jeremiah addresses his letter, and for whom verse 11 was originally intended. These people are not to think that their time in Babylon is a kind of gap year judgement from God, a period of work experience in divine discipline which will soon come to a close. They are going to be in Babylon for a long time, 70 years in fact. From the vantage point of history 70 years seems like a minimal period, but imagine that you are standing in the dock and a judge has just sentenced you to that duration of imprisonment. Hope in such circumstances has a habit of evaporating. These people are to build houses and build homes, they are to allow themselves the dubious luxury of seeking the welfare of the city that they are in. They are, in short, being called to settle for exile.
And the reason why they can do this is because of the truth of the eleventh verse: God knows what he’s doing, he has a plan, a long term strategy which will be future oriented and hope laden. God is still at work, even though these people are far from where they long to be, and will never get their lives back to where they want them. “Accept this”, God says, “trust me, I’m working off a different script than you are”.
So, what about the people from that group of ten who selected Jeremiah 29:11 as their favourite verse? Do they need to hand it back to the exiles in Babylon, and have done with it? Do we handle this verse like we might test drive an iPad Pro in the Apple Store – we can appreciate its features but we ultimately have to leave it behind because it’s not our property?
Well, yes and no.
If we want to have a verse which functions as a kind of safety net or welfare state for our temporal lives, then we are doing violence to Jeremiah 29:11. But if we gather up all of the material facts around this verse and then seek to apply it to our lives, then we can truly make it our own. Sometimes context can be a clincher.
Here are some ways in which we might rehabilitate our use of Jeremiah 29:11
- The genius of God’s protection of his people is that he can preserve us in trouble as well as from trouble The recipients of this promise had traded their optimism for realism. This verse is sent to them after terrible things have happened, and that ought to protect us from the Disneyfied view of life and Scripture which ultimately leaves us disappointed. God is sovereign when we’re in very real bother, and God speaks to us when we’re in very real bother – even if we are painfully reaping what we’ve sown for ourselves.
- Realistic acceptance of our circumstances can be a dynamic assertion of God’s sovereignty. Jeremiah calls these exiles to accept where they are and to seek to live where they are. They are not called to dream away the dramatic changes they have experienced. They now live in Babylon, and that’s that. This acceptance is not, however, merely cognitive, but covenantal. Buying a plot of ground in Babylon is not denying the plot of God in history – he knows his plan and this is part of it.So acceptance is part of our worship. We are here, and so is God. What an application that brings when we are living in the wake of the wheels coming off. Joy is not dependent on a journey back to the halcyon days of pre-trauma life – covenant commitment from God lends covenant contentment to his people: regardless of their terrain.
- Present hope is ultimately secured on future hope. A seventy year lease on property in exile meant that the generation who received Jeremiah’s letter would be buried in Babylon. This would not resolve in their lifetime. Where they might be tempted to think in the immediate, God is working towards the ultimate. And he wants them to know that that’s enough.
We live in a world of 24 hours rolling news, and we get frustrated when events and their explanation don’t make themselves known immediately. But God works on a different timescale. Sometimes like Joseph we get to read the final page of our personal story and phrase the blessed conclusion in our own words, but some of us – perhaps most of us – live and die in the middle chapters of a tale we don’t fully understand. And God says that’s ok, because the words ‘hope’ and ‘future’ are happily married.
The real test for the exiles is a test of faith – are they willing to trust that God will eventually and majestically work through these circumstances even if there are multiple loose ends in their lifetime? That’s a huge challenge, but a promise-packed one nevertheless: our difficult ‘now’ is governed by the ‘not-yet’ of what God is going to finally do in the consummation of His covenant promises in Christ.
So it turns out that Jeremiah 29:11 is a great verse to select as a favourite after all. It gives us far better hope than a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card ever could. It meets us on strange Babylonian turf (being elect exiles as the Apostle Peter describes the Christian) and tells us that we can trust God even among the ruins, even when we feel lost in the middle, knowing that he is working to a grander scheme for our good and his glory.
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