Misunderstood Passage: Jeremiah 29:11-13 and the Promise of Prosperity

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 362 3

Everyone misinterprets a passage of Scripture at some point (sadly, many do this quite a bit). Usually we will read into a passage what we want to see, while at other times we misinterpret Scripture because we do not fully understand its original context. One of the best examples of both of these is Jeremiah 29: 11-13 which says:

“11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

This is a very popular passage for many Christians. It tells us that God has plans to prosper us, have no harm come to us, and that he will give us a good future. This passage goes right along with the American Dream. God wants you to prosper with lots of material items (a big house, a cool car, and everything else your heart can desire) and have no bad things happen to you – as long as you follow the Lord with all your heart.

Sadly, however, this is a gross misinterpretation and misuse of this passage. When we study Jeremiah 29 in context we will see that it was meant for someone else in a completely different time period.

The Context

During the lifetime of Jeremiah, the Israelites had turned their backs on the Lord. They were worshipping false gods and doing all sorts of horrible things. God sent Jeremiah to tell the Israelites that he was going to judge the nation of Judah by sending them into captivity in the land of Babylon (modern-day Iraq). When the fulfillment of God’s judgment began to become a reality, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the captive Israelites in Babylon. Jeremiah 29:11-13 appears in that letter.

The first part of the letter (verses 4-9) tells the Israelites to settle down in Babylon and continue on with their lives – to make the best out of a horrible situation. The Lord tells them to pray for their captors and avoid false teachers. The Israelites were looking at seventy years of humiliation and slavery in Babylon, so the message from Jeremiah didn’t seem like a good thing. However, in verses 10-14, Jeremiah gives them some hope for the future:

10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

Within this context, we can notice two things: First, God is speaking to the Israelites from the nation of Judah. This promise was for the entire nation, not an individual. It is a “corporate” promise. God is talking about bringing his people back from exile to the land of Israel and making them prosperous.

Second, this promise was given to people who were going to live seventy years after the promise was given. Many of the people alive at the beginning of the exile would be dead by the time the exile was over. Thus, they were never going to be prosperous.

Writer Eric Bargerhuff says concerning this passage, “All this means the prophecy of prosperity and hope was directed toward a future people – those who would be born in exile and emerge from that place much later, the children and grandchildren of the present-day exiles.”[1]

When a Christian takes these verses to mean that God will prosper you and give you a great life now, you are taking them out of context, and completely missing the fact that God was speaking to the sons and daughters of the exiles in Babylon. Bargerhuff makes an excellent point: “And if it could not be used as a promise for the immediate future of those who first heard it, then it should not be used for my immediate future either.”[2]

Can Christians today learn anything from this passage?

Although this passage cannot be used to indicate that Christians will gain prosperity in this lifetime, they can understand that God does promise them a great future. However, this future is not during this current lifetime. The future hope of Christians is in the new heavens and new earth.

Most of the prophets and apostles, and other saints throughout history, have lived very hard lives. Jeremiah was hated and persecuted for delivering God’s message. The Apostle Paul was imprisoned and beheaded. Peter was crucified upside down. James, the earthly brother of Jesus, was put to death for being a Christian. Think of all the other Christians throughout history, and even in today’s world, who have been persecuted, tortured, and put to death. None of these Christians prospered in the way that many of us today think about (especially in America). None of them lived the American Dream for obeying God. They suffered horribly in this life because they were looking forward to something truly great and prosperous that doesn’t come about until after Christ returns (Hebrews 11:39-40).

Bargerhuff adds to this: “Now, this does not negate the fact that God might choose to bless us with a great paying job, a beautiful family, and a healthy life on account of his grace. But the bottom line is we should never expect those things to happen or seek to appeal to the promise of Jeremiah 29:11-13 in order to substantiate our expectations. We have no right to hold God hostage to a promise that we have misunderstood.”[3]

Most Christians will not live the American Dream, and those that do are only experiencing it because God allows them, not because they have done something to deserve it. For those Christians who suffer greatly in this life, and even for those who do not, the world to come will make the American Dream seem like nothing.

What do you think? Have you looked at this passage and thought that God will provide you with a wonderful life on this current earth? What are your thoughts now?

[1] Eric J. Bargerhuff. The Most Misused Verses in the Bible (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2012). 38.

[2] Ibid. 38.

[3] Ibid. 41.

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3 thoughts on “Misunderstood Passage: Jeremiah 29:11-13 and the Promise of Prosperity

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  3. Lumkile

    You are 100% correct.One day when I was reading the book of Jeremiah, I realized same. It’s true that when we read our bibles, it’s very important to understand the full context to avoid misinterpretation and misunderstanding. just quoting a verse can be dangerous and misleading because it can be applied where it’s not relevant.

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