The famous verse is a favorite among graduation gift givers, but it is almost always misinterpreted. - Image courtesy of Downbiggin (http://bit.ly/1bIUnhq)

The famous verse is a favorite among graduation gift givers, but it is almost always misunderstood. – Image courtesy of Downbiggin (http://bit.ly/1bIUnhq)

Three weeks before I graduated from high school, the gifts began pouring in. I got a wad of cash, which elated me, and also a pile of presents I wasn’t sure what to do with. What exactly is an 18-year-old college freshman supposed to do with a Mont Blanc pen? Your guess is as good as mine.

One gift I’ll never forget, though, is a framed print of a famous verse that is a favorite among graduation-gift-givers:

 “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 a hope and a future.”

Jeremiah 29:11, NIV

At the time, it seemed too good to be true, but I “claimed it” because I wanted it to be so. After college, however, I began to travel to developing nations and witness Christians stuck in dire situations. My preconceptions eroded. Does God have plans to “prosper” and “not to harm” that Sudanese refugee boy with the dazzling brown eyes or the Indian woman who was always within earshot of her “owner”? Maybe only wealthy white Westerners got a slice of God’s good plans?

My preconceptions broke down further when I began to think about the scope. Sure, God had a plan for which career I needed to pursue, but did God have a preference if I spent my summer acquiring extra course credit at a community college back home as opposed to going on a month-long mission trip to South America? And what of the minutia? Did God care whether I ate steamed broccoli or Ramen noodles while cramming for that test? The ministers I asked usually offered a vague affirmation of God’s sovereignty and then changed the subject. So I let it go.

In recent years, though, my mind has returned to that framed print that is probably tucked away in my parent’s basement, and I’ve seen it in a new light.

It begins with context, something Western readers often ignore when reading scripture (or they assume that the context from which the author writes is similar to their own). The context of Jeremiah 29 is undisputed among scholars. The prophet is writing to the inhabitants of Jerusalem who were about to be conquered by the Babylonians. They were about to have their tickets punched for a one-way trip to either slaughter or slavery. God had delivered the Israelites from disaster before, and some wondered whether God would swoop in and save them again.

Jeremiah is sent in, not with a placard of encouragement for hanging on their walls, but with incontrovertibly terrible news. He tells them that there will be no divine rescue mission. The worst-case scenario is about to become reality. And yet, Jeremiah says, God has plans ultimately to prosper his people.

At this point, I want to pause: “Aha! You see, it means what I thought it did. God is going to prosper me in the end!”

But I return to the context.

The Babylonians enter Jerusalem, capture the inhabitants, and burn the city to the ground. They kill King Zedekiah’s sons while the monarch watches before putting out his eyes and enslaving him. The generation that first heard the promise of Jeremiah is forced to endure all manner of terrible things, as is the generation after them.

Unfortunately, the verse’s context makes it sort of difficult to say, “God has plans to prosper you and not to harm you, Jonathan. Just claim Jeremiah 29:11.” Unless of course, I also admit that these plans for prospering me might include slavery, exile, and the untimely gouging of my eyes after witnessing the death of my family. Or that the plans won’t be realized for generations.

So how do we make sense of this verse?

Sunbather with Jeremiah 29:11 tattooed on his back. - Image courtesy of Tobyotter (http://bit.ly/15Wrz1x)

Sunbather with Jeremiah 29:11 tattooed on his back. – Image courtesy of Tobyotter (http://bit.ly/15Wrz1x)

First, we have to carefully avoid the trap so common among American Christians, which is to assume that the Bible is always about me. To be fair, Americans have gravitated toward this kind of self-centered individualistic impulse for generations. It was fertilized through early American immigrants journeying to the New World, gestated by baby boomers who raced toward job promotions and gold watches, and is now being birthed through the materialistic, anthem-singing “generation me” of which I am a part.

When I read, it is easy to unconsciously assume that Jeremiah’s you is, well, me. But in fact, Jeremiah’s verse is not written to a me; it is written to a we. It is not a promise by God to prosper the individuals in the audience but to prosper the community over the course of history. (I’d like to pause here to apologize to those of you who’ve had this verse tattooed across your rib cage.)

As E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien note in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes*,

“[Modern Westerners] misunderstand the object of the sentence, you, to mean ‘each one of you individually.’ We then read Jeremiah 29:11 as, ‘I know the plans I have for you, Brandon.’ But remember that Israel was a collectivist culture. They understood the object of the sentence, you, to mean ‘my people, Israel, as a whole.’”

Of course, admitting that Jeremiah’s promise was intended for another audience doesn’t mean that it is irrelevant to our lives. Just because a verse doesn’t speak directly to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to tell us.

In the Old Testament, “God’s will” describes a plan for God’s people. It is less about prospering a person who follows God and more about prospering the community of God as a whole. So a better modern application for this verse might be:

“God has always worked to prosper God’s people and God always will. Just as God worked in history to preserve Israel, so he is now working to preserve the Church. Though God’s Church will undoubtedly face challenges and often be co-opted into the unholy agendas of governments and politicians and false teachers, and though the individual parts of the whole may experience the terrible effects of a sin-stained world, God remains committed to seeing that beautiful body of Christ through to the end.”

I’ve begun to think that maybe we have mis-imagined God’s will to be a series of intricately marked out roadmaps, personalized for each journeyer with pushpins stabbed into specific waypoints. Could it be that God’s will is bigger and broader and profounder and more majestic than we assume? Maybe it describes the way God goes before the Church and pulls us into new realities.

This would be good news for all of us who languish over individual decisions about whether to be a doctor or a mechanic or if we should move to Wyoming or Nebraska. We know that God intends for the individual parts of the whole Church to be instruments of justice and mercy and compassion and grace and to help proclaim the good news to the nations. This can be fulfilled on a multiplicity of paths, not just one. So maybe when we make these decisions, we’re faced with a beautiful both/and rather than a rigid either/or, wherein God’s plans are not thwarted by our choice.

I don’t claim to have plumbed the depths of God’s will and how it all works. But one thing I do know, when it comes to Jeremiah 29:11, it’s not about me and it’s not about you. And yet it still speaks truth. Because it reminds us that God has gone out ahead of the Bride to call her forward. And It still bleeds hope. Because it whispers that God has not forgotten his people and God never will.

>>RELATED READ: “PHILIPPIANS 4:13: HOW CHRISTIANS MISUSE THE ICONIC VERSE”<<

>>RELATED: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes was listed in my article, “Top 10 religious books I’ve read in the last 10 years”.<<

41 Comments

  1. Good words, Jonathan.

    Philippians 1:28-29 nkjv

    And not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God. For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake,

  2. I think people who want to claim a verse like Jeremiah 29:11 personally also want to read John 10:10 as if it promises riches here and now. The context of each is long term and kingdom wide, though. Thanks for laying out so carefully and clearly, JM.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. My take on ministry and the myth of discerning God’s specific will: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/5-ministry-myths/

  3. This article is spot-on. For a while I’ve had a problem with people who make this verse/the Bible in general all about themselves, but I love how you give an alternative: it’s about us, the community of believers. I’ll be thinking about this for a while. :)

  4. I take exception to your comment wealthy white westerner, was that really necessary? Americans have long felt entitled, whether receiving government hand outs or thinking the Word of God was written for us to have everything if we only name & claim it. I’ve wonder why we say the Law no longer is valid, but thank you very much I’ll take the promises.

  5. I’ve heard this argument before.. I understand the argument of the individualistic culture of The West, and I think it’s good to remember as Christians that it is NOT about US but about HIM. That being said, I have a hard time accepting that God wouldn’t want to tell us that he wants to give us a hope and a future, collectively and individually. The context argument somewhat bothers me also, because if you’re going to say that about Jeremiah 29:11, you’d better be ready to apply that to every single one of the epistles, which were all written to a specific churches/cities. There are transcendent truths in the bible that are outside of context.

    • YES! I agree. I have hard time reading the articles that claim that this verse it taken out of context. Just because he addressed a group doesn’t mean that at the same time it couldn’t be applied individually. How can you say God promised prosperity for not the individual but the group? Don’t you realize the group is made of individuals? That means that message had to be applied to every individual!! And how come this verse can’t be applied to me and you? Isn’t the very Word of God and it’s parables and messages to be applied unto our lives to be our road map? And how does one think it selfish to see this verse as only beneficial to ones self..actually it confuses me how that conclusion could come about? Doesn’t speak it volumes to us.That in the first place we have to live through the dark days , but know we are promised something better…Serve the Lord through anything…..this is your faith and faithfulness that is fully being test…to worship and praise Him through the toughest times of our lives…I don’t find it selfish… I find it refreshing.

  6. I’m glad you wrote this article, Jonathan. When reading Scripture, it’s very important to keep in mind the context, and this verse in particular seems to be used more often than others, without explaining what it really meant.

    I think that my biggest hang-up about the conclusion that you draw is that it almost smacks of utilitarianism. “You can’t make a Church without breaking a few eggs,” that kind of thing. For a loving God, we almost have to assume that He plans the highest good for His people, which is where we run into the problem that you mention.

    I’m not sure I can untangle the skein of corporate vs individual grace, but… somehow, I do feel that there’s both. Though I’m glad you pointed out that there’s the likelihood that our choices don’t necessarily have to be an either/or in regards to God’s will. That takes a lot of weight off of my shoulders, at least!

  7. Since the church is made up of individuals this verse certainly applies to every person who is part of the church. The problem is how we define prosperity.

    • Easy. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich………………the riches of Christ are His grace. Blessed poverty!

  8. Hooray! After years of hearing well-intentioned people naively claiming this as their life verse, someone has the acumen and the grit to call it right. A few years back, I was teaching on this verse in context in a Sunday School class. Unknown to me, a new believer was present, about to chunk her faith because one of her friends died, shattering her faith. Afterward, she thanked me for helping her keep her sanity and her faith in God. When we tailor our hermeneutics to an egocentric culture, we damage people spiritually. BTW, you are right: In the Hebrew, all the pronominal suffixes are plural. Its about us, not me, and it is a life of accountability, discipline, and ultimate blessing.

  9. In Eastern Orthodoxy, Christians read and interpret the Bible “through the mind of the Church.” The kind of confusion on display here is only possible when people abandon Apostolic Tradition. Apostolic Tradition isn’t a consensus of scholars claiming credentials from an academic body, it is the Wisdom of Scholar/Saints. Without the anchor of Apostolic Tradition, the hermeneutic chaos of Protestantism blossoms.

      • It is more correct because it faithfully transmits the interpretation and the understanding of the Apostles (hence Apostolic Tradition). My church has performed the same worship service over the centuries. The Divine Liturgy expresses a great deal of our theology. The crown jewel of the Divine Liturgy is the Holy Eucharist.

        If “solo Scriptura” worked as a hermeunetic, there would not be 2,800 plus Protestant denominations. Orthodoxy never needed a Reformation.

        The Protestants have caused scandal for Christianity with their insistent quarells and debates. They have debased worship by, for the most part, excising the most sublime Christian experience: the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They have abandoned the genuine mysticism of monasticism and do not consistenlty follow the ascetic traditions of the church such as fasting.

          • The Church produced the canon, the canon did not produce the Church. The canon, as Protestants understand it, didn’t exist for many years of the Apostolic period, a period in which the Faith thrived and spread like wildfire. This is the core of our differences.

            Although writings of the Early Church Fathers are not voluminous they contain important theological teachings. St. Ignatius on the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist for example. His letters supplement, correlate and amplify writings later accepted as canon. How do you explain St. Ignatius away? How about Polycarp, and Irenaeus. (Crickets chirping)

            Protestantism generates Biblioatry and, BTW, endless hermeneutic debates which have not been resolved over 600 years of strident quarrels. Again, if Sola Scripture worked, there wouldn’t be 2,800 Protestant denominations. This divergence is an intense scandal to genuine spiritual inquirers and a burden to Christendom.

            As to monasticism, Staniloae, probably the one of the most brilliant theologians alive today, wrote an extensive defense of the authenticity and validity of monasticism based on Biblical teachings. You should read Staniloae it will expand your horizons. If you really want to open your mind read Kalomiros “River of Fire.” The concepts set out in River of Fire are concepts which I encounter every time I approach a friend or acquaintance about the Faith, they have to be untaught and instructed that there is another view, another way.

            Moving from Protestantism to Orthodoxy was like leaving a confused, two-dimensional world and entering a verdant, three-dimensional world. I have never been worthy to participate in the Divine Eucharist, but, I never experienced anything like the Divine Eucharist in a Protestant church. Working oneself up into a frenzy in response to some loud music, may or may not represent true worship, it mostly represents worldly entertainment.

  10. Well written teaching, Jonathan! It’s important to understand context as well as the original language and its meaning. You’ve done well explaining it.

  11. The word of God is NOT subject to private interpretation. Therefore no one can “claim” it for themselves. Jeremiah 29:11 was initially spoken by the prophet of that name to the remnant going into captivity, true. However (as all Scripture is God breathed, or inspired) it is for all believers, known as the remnant. Never bound by time, He warns us we will go through trials and we will endure them. The refiners fire burns off the dross. This is the process of sanctification which causes us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord. Even as His Son endured untold sufferring and the cross of Calvary. He tells us “Take up your cross and follow me.” He does NOT promise we’ll be healthy, happy, and come to possess material riches. He says “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

  12. A few other perspectives if anyone is interested: http://www.christianpost.com/news/jeremiah-2911-is-not-about-you-frequently-quoted-bible-verse-often-misinterpreted-101867/

  13. @NIKA-KC I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here… It seems like you’re on a hunt to discredit Protestantism and/or the Western Church on the basis that we leave room for different interpretations of scripture when it comes to less fundamental aspects of Christianity. My friend, humans are imperfect, and even true followers of Christ disagree amongst one another on meanings of scripture, that doesn’t mean we should throw away discussion about the meanings of scripture altogether. For example, I disagree with you on the idea that the bread which is broken to symbolize Christ’s body and the cup that is to symbolize Christ’s blood actually turn into the body and blood of Christ when you partake of this sacrament, but I don’t think you are less of a believer than I am, nor do I think you should view me as less of a believer because this issue is not important in the grand scheme of things. What is important is that you, by faith in Christ Jesus as your savior, have been cleansed of all unrighteousness in the sight of God the Father, and will be with Him in heaven for all of eternity. Period. Shouldn’t we then skip the pointless rhetoric and live in light of what He has done for us? I personally think this article is great because it is getting back to the original meaning of the text, and I believe it is very applicable to our self-centered culture. It’s taking the focus off of us as individuals and returning it to God’s sovereign plan for his people as a whole, which I think most can agree is a good thing.

    Furthermore on a little bit of a side note, in my opinion, attempting strict adherence to church traditions is just the other side of the coin that “working oneself up into a frenzy in response to loud music” is on. They are both taking the act of worship, something that is meant to convey praise, adoration, and thanksgiving to our Creator and Savior, and making it about ourselves.

    Anyways, I just wanted to toss my perspective out there for you, my apologies if I said anything offensive.

  14. A few months late, but here are my thoughts:

    First, I agree that context is always important, and that some knowledge of original languages is needed, which most Christians don’t have. I agree that this verse is no doubt one of those on which the “health, wealth and prosperity’ ‘gospel'” is built, which is one of the false “gospels” of our day. They are fraudulent in their promise of all good things, now, in this life, as long as we “name it and claim it.”

    However, what I take from Jeremiah 29:11 is personal, in that I believe God weaves everything that happens in my life–what happens to me, what I do, choices I make; everything–into the fabric of His plan for fulfilling His purpose for me, which I understand to be that of making me more and more like His Son. It is a verse that gives me hope, along with many other passages (e.g., Psalm 139, Hebrews 10-12, and too many more to list): God knows me; He formed me and He knows my name, He knows and meets all of my needs, and He leads me along the path of righteousness. He gets very personal with me; why, then, should I not take this verse personally?

  15. I think that our relationship with God is totally individual, we were all created with our own personalities, and our walk with him is an individual thing. I don’t believe we are all thrown into a big group and everything written is interpreted the same to everyone. if it’s all the same to you, i’ll take Jeremiah 29: 11 personal.

  16. Christ lover

    To argue that scripture should not be interpreted individual is to invalidate the message of the gospel. It is without doubt that the scripture has helped me through difficult periods in my life and I do not regard it as at all selfish to say that God has plans to Prosper me personally and not to harm me personally. God knows our rising up and our sitting down, he knows our thoughts afar off and His thoughts toward us out number the grains of sound. That sounds like a very PERSONAL God to me. Why do some Christians try to make it seem like some scriptures are too good to be true? The word of God says that God is not a man that he can lie and I would be lying if I said that I haven’t witnessed God working wonders in my life to ‘prosper me’ and demonstrate His glory through me as an individual. When God’s glory is seen through an individual , it benefits christians as a whole. In addition, with regards to riches. Proverbs 3:9 clearly says honour the Lord with your wealth and the first fruits of all your increase and your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will overflow with new wine. Scripture does not lie. As I have been faithfully paying my thithes I can’t even explain the finically blessings I have been seeing. But because christians don’t want to believe that we too can receive great things on this earth, we downplay scriptures like this and Jeremiah 29:11. I will be a christian who will take every good thing God has to offer me on this earth , aswell as enjoying eternal life with him when I die and rise with Christ. We do not have to wait to enjoy until we reach heaven, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand .

  17. As someone mentioned, I think the most salient issue is with the meaning of the word “prosper” and not the historical context in which the verse resides. Prosperity, as given in this verse, resides within the redemption we have in Christ and our carrying out of His plans for us (e.g., submission, bearing fruit), not material wealth. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to John Piper’s scripturally based arguments:
    http://www.christianpost.com/news/jeremiah-2911-is-not-about-you-frequently-quoted-bible-verse-often-misinterpreted-101867/

  1. […] God remains committed to seeing that beautiful body of Christ through to the end.” See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2013/09/26/jeremiah-2911/#sthash.hthOw1YK.dpuf I understand. And I also understand what important distinctions are to be made that the author […]

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