Good ole Jeremiah 29:11″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.” (NIV)
So many of us have heard it! At graduations, birthdays, funerals, times of sorrow, it’s inescapable. But are we even aware what that passage is about? Have we spent time to analyze the context? why do we quote a passage that has more of a messianic and salvific message than anything else? What if we analyzed it together? I can even hear that small group leader telling me “it’s gonna be ok…God’s word says For I know the plans…” and quoting the passage, but if we take a look at the context, we’d notice something interesting. The audience that heard this never got to see the situation get any better. In fact, when they heard this, it was not what they were hoping to hear.
So let’s take a look at the famous “For I know the plans” together and let me know your thoughts through social media, eh?
“For I Know the Plans” Introduction
A needle finds its way to the middle of a haystack, only to be found by a man that has no clue where to begin. He searches for hours, using a pitchfork, and a shovel. He plows and shakes, but finds nothing, only sweat and sore muscles from the labor. Obviously, no one in their right mind would attempt to find a needle in a haystack like this man, it would be pointless. Surely, one may grace the needle tumbling and shoveling, but that is not the right way to find it.
For years, many have wrestled with Jeremiah 29:4-14, a passage that is filled with wonder and destiny. Countless are the people that use the wrong tools, and spend numerous years preaching from said passage, only to realize that their work has been fruitless. Although not a needle in a haystack, this passage is often times poorly treated. The wrong tools are used, therefore, rendering no service at all. This passage has been used almost as a fortune cookie, reducing its context to mere motivational speeches.
Moreover, it is ironic since “part of the battle that Jeremiah had to fight against the liberation preachers of his day—for among the captives as well as in Jerusalem there were prophets stirring up false hopes of almost instant freedom” It is imperative, therefore, to not make the mistake that even Jeremiah’s contemporaries were accused of—speaking from their own minds with false hopes; proclaiming peace where there was none. Therefore, just like using a pitch-fork and a shovel on a task that requires concentration and close examination. Bible readers have to avoid doing the same, that is how eisegesis happens, instead of exegesis.
“For I know the Plans…” emphasizes God’s sovereignty, the word is easily twisted when taken out of context.
To begin with, Jeremiah 29:4, is the beginning of the letter sent by the prophet meant to be read by the exiles living in Babylon and king Nebuchadnezzar. “This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon” The way the letter begins, indicates a profound acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty. First of all, the Lord of Armies indicates God’s power and might. For instance, Winkel writes, “He is the one who is in charge, even in a foreign country.”
Furthermore, it is important to note that God refers to himself not as the God of Jerusalem but the God of Israel. This is because God is not bound to one place, but he associates himself with his people. While other nations always tie their gods to a location or to an object, the Almighty reminds his people of his ranking and boundless power.
However, the most intriguing part of this opening statement is when he says “to all the exiles I deported”. Huey, Jr. explains that “the first person pronoun served notice to the exiles that what had recently happened to them was under God’s sovereign control.” His people were not under the dominion of king Nebuchadnezzar, but under God’s eternal reign. So much, to the point that no credit is being given to the king, but to the Lord of the Armies.
Ultimately, it was not by accident they ended there, God put them in that situation, for obvious reasons— their stubbornness and rebellion. In the same token God is addressing the impatience the people were exhibiting to return home, as they were being encouraged by the false prophets. To be clear, the point that God has sent the exiles to Babylon “at the very least they should accept the situation” After all, they are not abandoned, even though they abandoned God.
Build Houses and Plant Gardens
Certainly, this juxtaposition comes with great plan as it is written on the following verse “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce.” The following verse calls the exiles to settle down and have children. “His advice to build houses and to plant gardens presupposes that the Judeans, though captive, have considerable freedom.” Some commentators note that this call to cation brings a glorious positive to the anxious exiles. Thus, it is “a liberation from the paralyzing sullenness of inertia and self-pity, into doing for a start, what comes to hand and makes for growth, but above all what makes for peace.”
However, this was not what everyone wanted, for there were still false prophets with a different agenda.
In addition, when God tells his people to settle down, he discredits those who insisted on using his name in vain. It is understandable, that they would not want to settle down in a foreign land. So, where there is hope in one side, there is also a loss of hope on the other, “insisting that the exiles will be long, sweeps away all hopes of an early return.”
To clarify, the stay would be long indeed, God was telling them to have children and grandchildren. These are probably not the news hopeful exiles would want to hear in their captivity.
The imperative was to live as if they were home, but they were not home, they were in a pagan country. As Carvalho explains, “The book of Jeremiah maintains that God authored the disaster, but only after ample opportunity for the people to avert that fate”
So far, the typical Law of Attraction, Prosperity Gospel, Church optimist that starts with “For I know the Plans…” has no business taking this passage out of context. The irony of using this passage as a scapegoat to problems is surreal.
Pray for Your Enemies
Furthermore, God tells his people to seek the peace of Babylon and to pray for their success, because then in turn the Judeans would too be successful. It is noted as, the only place in the Old Testament where prayer for one’s enemies and for unbelievers is commended. Thus, to seek the peace (shalom) meant this was also a directive that superseded lex talionis of an eye for an eye.
Above all, Shalom is not limited to the covenant relationship between God and his people, it means completeness when referring to numbers, safety and soundness of the body, welfare, health and friendship. Not the words the desolate would want to couple with their captors. To pray for their success would have been opposite to the desires of the Jews. This was an unprecedented call to action that violated the bad theology of the exiles.
Obviously, this was practical and beneficial for them, but it is easier said than done. Even today, it is almost impossible to pray for enemies. Therefore, it should be no surprise that these exiles would not have enjoyed hearing God’s directive. But, it is from this moment that it has become Jewish practice to pray for political leaders during the Sabbath and other festival services.
Prophets and Diviners
Like hammering a nail, verse 8 God takes a moment to ensure that it was only He being heard and no one else. “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are in your midst deceive you, nor listen to your dreams which you cause to be dreamed.” Here, God is more explicitly discrediting the false prophets that were selling pipe dreams to the captives. “The diviners were a forbidden group who predicted the future.” They would simply tell people what they wanted to hear. God is not one to be harnessed but one to be experienced and driven by.
It Was All About the Money
Undoubtedly, Diviners would mock up prophecies on demand usually for the exchange of something. The closest to this act today are those television psychics that enchant people into giving their money away for a quick moment of serendipity. But in the end these are all charlatans, looking for a quick buck. They are not sent by God, as Jeremiah was. Verse 8 was a call to fidelity, to listen to the true voice of God and not be shaken.
“Next time the televangelist starts by saying ‘For I know the Plans…’ think about this particular section”
Correcting what the charlatans had prophesied verse 10 starts with “This is what the LORD says”. An exact timeframe is given by the Almighty, seventy years would pass before he would fulfill his promise. “Only though revelation would Jeremiah have been able to know that the empire days of Babylon would be so brief.” The timeline is precise and the outcome is nowhere near vague. While the false prophets spent time feeding a pipe dream to the exiles, God gave Jeremiah a thorough timeline. Whereas, one would skip over the amount of years a deeper story rests in the number of years.
To emphasize, “The concept of the seventy years of Babylon captivity is reiterated from 25:12. The number 70 symbolizes completion and fulfilment of God’s sovereign plans for creation and human history.” Jeremiah had already mentioned this timeline before, hence the audience would have been more vigilant this second time around. Another commentary puts it in a better perspective “After seventy years, Babylon will be dealt with, the Lord will favor the people and will return them to their land.” In fact, when reading the text in Hebrew, one can find a chiasm revolving around the completion of shalom and Judgement from verses 4-23.
The famous line “For I know the plans” is less about today’s strife, and more about Christ.
I Will Visit
What’s more, the Hebrew actually says “I will visit (paqad) you.” Sometimes this word can be used in the tense to punish, but it is also regarded as looking after. This is important, because it is foreshadowing a reconciliation between the exiles and God. Although, the Judeans had disobeyed, God was going to visit them. God would come, and be reunited with his people. Indeed, this was a good promise, which would later in part also mean the reunion of the exiles with their land. In this case, it would be their offspring, but they would not be forgotten.
“Starting a sentence with ‘For I know the plans…’ isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, but it’s not a magic wand neither.”
For I know The Plans
Bringing back the analogy of the man with the haystack, the verse that comes is perhaps the most misquoted and misrepresent text in the Bible. Understanding everything prior to this verse is imperative. No pitchforks or shovels, handle with care. The verse goes, “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.” It is important to disclose that I know is emphasized in Hebrew, consequently stressing that God is in charge.
His sovereignty is being exhibited, yet again. In addition, it is also inclusio, “a literary device in which a section’s opening and closing are identical or a least similar.” The word plans is machashabah, and it depicts the mind of God. He is saying “I know my thoughts” emphasizing that he cannot doubt himself. There is something in the horizon and he has set his mind on it. The Lord was assuring the people that the events that preceded and the ones that were to come, were not unplanned, accidental events.
To continue, the word prosper is actually the word shalom. God emphasizes his unchangeable plan to bring peace and not evil. God had not terminated his relationship with Judah. Therefore, it is not a prosperity Gospel, but a Gospel of peace. God establishes a timeline in which Judah will experience his complete peace. “Shalom embraces all that belongs to the good and satisfying life. It means ‘peace,’ understood as ‘wellbeing, wholeness, unimpaired relationships, and harmony.’ It is the opposite to fragmentation, conflict, and alienation.”
By the same token, upon enduring the seventy years in exile, the Judeans would encounter peace and a restored relationship. Verses 12-14 record the hope to look for. When they call and pray God offers to listen, when they seek him, there he will be found, and at last he would bring them back from the place that he sovereignly carried into exile. This is a great evangelistic text found in the Old Testament. In fact, it is directly connected with Deuteronomy 4:29. Which says that “God is accessible. If we seek him, we will find him when we want him more than all else.”
In addition, the overarching statement is “I will restore your fortunes” He was assuring the people that if they sought him wholeheartedly, they would find him, and the outcome would be gathering them from all nations where he had scattered them. To clarify, Then you will call is not in the Hebrew, but it is added to the English translation for grammatical dialogue. “The phrase when you seek me seems to be more of a fact, something that is definitely going to happen, rather than a condition”
Considerably, the most significant word in the entire book of Jeremiah is return (šûb). In verse 14 when God declares the outcome of his people the word šûb is most notably the resounding theme of the book. “In the book of Jeremiah, there are announcements of doom and salvation to Judah, Israel and the other nations. For example, The versatile Hebrew verb šûb in its diverse forms is used very regularly in prophecies of both judgment and salvation.” The ones who were meant to turn back to God, were being brought back by God. God’s endless grace is bestowed upon his people when he uses that word.
Like an avalanche, the love that is lavished on the undeserving people of Israel in the time of Jeremiah 29:4-14 brings to perspective the character of God. Although, God was betrayed, He still pursued his people and offered a plan of salvation. To clarify, a nation that had allowed false prophets to deafen their ears from the voice of God, was still receiving messages. Obviously, the timing for this could not have been more pressing. When the people were distraught God offered shalom.
Moreover, It was certainly unexpected to hear that God was intending to keep the exiles in Babylon for seventy years, knowing that all wanted to come back home. Being told to seek peace and to pray for their enemies was the first time anyone had heard of such a thing. For instance, Hammurabi’s code was the norm and wanting to seek revenge was something too familiar to the world. Knowing that Babylon would come to a certain end and being asked to pray for them may sound ironic, but it is difficult to desire vengeance when praying for the enemy.
Truly, God’s faithful plan was to restore what had been broken. This is an advent of sorts, because as it turns out, God did fulfill his promise. What one must abstain from doing, is reading into the text and thinking that this passage is about winning the lottery. In other words, God was speaking to a specific group of people, in a specific time. The word prosper is greatly misrepresented since it is actually shalom.
Likewise, this is not denying that God does have a plan for everyone. After all, nothing happens by accident. Moreover, if there is an overarching principle between Jeremiah 29:11’s “For I know the plans” and today, is that God’s mindful thoughts are about bringing his people to a rendered state of shalom. Lastly, it is about not turning away from Him and to not listen to the false prophets of the time.
For I Know the Plans
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 Jeremiah 23:16-17 (New American Standard Bible)
 Jeremiah 29:4 (Christian Standard Bible)
 Jeremiah 29:5 (Christian Standard Bible)
 Jeremiah 29:8 (New King James Version)
 Jeremiah 29:11 (New International Version)