A friend who’s in the midst of a dreadful situation admitted that Jeremiah 29:11, a verse she had clung to in her youth, now seemed unbelievable.
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.—Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)
Knowing she didn’t want to hear my full exegesis just then, I only told her that my interpretation of this verse isn’t exactly Joel Osteen material.
I think the main problem with people, especially Christians, clinging to this verse is that, in its original context, it’s a promise for the nation of Israel.
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.—Jeremiah 29:1
Large numbers of Israelites were already in exile at this point. Jeremiah wrote to “the remaining elders”—which implies that some of the elders were already dead. He reassured them that the punishment for their apostasy (which had been warned of in Deuteronomy 28) would end and they would be restored to the promised land.
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.—Jeremiah 29:10
They would have to ensure decades of exile before being restored to the future with hope promised in Verse 11. Seventy years! Some individuals wouldn’t survive that long. They would die in exile.
The people were eventually restored to the promised land, but it didn’t happen quickly, and it wasn’t permanent. They were overrun by the Greeks and the Romans and the Turks, and the people of Israel wound up scattered across Europe, where they were maligned and oppressed for centuries. Where was their future with hope?
Then came the Holocaust.
How can you cling to a verse like “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” when you’re standing in a boxcar on your way to Dachau?
In 1948 the modern nation of Israel was formed. But millions of Jews did not survive to see that happen. This reinforces my belief that the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is not for any individual. It’s for the nation of Israel.
Yet even now, that nation is surrounded by enemies who would like to wipe them off the face of the earth and finish what Hitler started. Israel is prosperous, but under constant threat.
As long as we live on earth, our future is not secure. Even though as New Testament people we are heirs to the promises of Abraham, we can’t take Jeremiah 29:11 to mean that our individual futures will all be bright. The apostle Paul, for example, never got rich, never got healed, and never had a life of security. He was brutally executed by an oppressive regime.
Our hope on earth can never be for security or health or prosperity. Because on earth those things never last. Not for nations, and not for individuals. Our only hope is that Jesus has overcome the world. When the new heaven and the new earth come (Revelation 21), then we will have security, health, and prosperity. That is the future with hope.
But in our modern culture, we don’t like to be told that the promise of a future with hope is at the end of time. We want our security, health, and prosperity now. But that’s not what we’re promised, no matter what Joel Osteen says.
I don’t think this is particularly comforting, either to my friend or anyone else. Unless one really believes what the book of Revelation says.