Jeremiah 29:11 states: “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” This is one of the most popularized Hebrew Bible verses as it is cited by both unbelievers and believers to essentially affirm God’s unconditional favor in their lives. For many, this verse means that no matter what they do, God is on their side; He will help them achieve their dreams and never experience any suffering. As we know, context is king, so let’s see what Jeremiah 29:11 really says when read… in context.
In Jeremiah 29, God addresses both the Israelites who have been relocated by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon in 586/7 BCE and the Judeans remaining in Jerusalem. The central theme of Jeremiah 29 is God’s just punishment of the Judeans for their disobedience, and His unmerited mercy shown to His people amid their suffering. Earlier in Jeremiah 25, God revealed that He would use Nebuchadnezzar as His tool to judge the unrepentant people of Judah and Jerusalem. In Jeremiah 29:4–10, God announces to the captives that their exile will not be brief but will last 70 years during which they are to settle down and multiply in Babylon. At the same time, the Lord still fills their hearts with hope as He promises to bring them home in due time. In Jeremiah 29:11–14, the Lord reassures the captives that He intends not to destroy but to bless them because His ultimate plan for Israel is her redemption and her return to the promised land (cf. Deuteronomy 4:25–31).
So, how should we apply Jeremiah 29:11? As said above, verse 11 cannot be interpreted without the context of chapter 29. So, first and foremost, this passage historically applies to the nation of Israel. As a benevolent Father, the Lord loves Israel with an everlasting love and desires only welfare for His stubborn, fickle nation (cf. Jeremiah 31:3). The Lord justly punished Israel for her disobedience but would gather her from all around the world. This promise came to pass in 1948 with the establishment of the modern State of Israel. Jeremiah 29:10–14 also points to God’s redemptive plan for Israel in the future when He would pour out His grace and salvation upon her in due time: “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10). Likewise, the Apostle Paul proclaimed: “All Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).
Furthermore, Jeremiah 29:10–14 addresses all of us, both Jews and Gentiles, believers and unbelievers, with the call for repentance. Verse 11 reads: “I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” According to verse 11, the Lord alone knows and has the plans which would bring us welfare. The word “plans” comes from the Hebrew הַמַּחֲשָׁבֹ֗ת which can also mean thoughts, intentions, devices. God’s thoughts, intentions and plans for us are drastically different from ours. Similarly to ancient Israel, our self-seeking nature tends to serve the gods of this world, as well as follow false teachers or prophets who tickle our ears and approve the sinful desires of our hearts (see Jeremiah 25:6, 29:8–9). Consequently, we reap destruction for ourselves and for our future generations (Jeremiah 26:4–6). The Lord’s expectation for us is that we will make a U-turn back to Him. This process is known as repentance (Hebrew, thsuvah= return). We are to surrender ourselves to our Heavenly Father and seek Him with “all our hearts” that now have no room for falsehood or conceit. Then, no matter how distant we have gotten away from God, He will hear our cry and bring us back to the territories that are rightly ours but have been taken over by the enemy and left desolate: “’Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile’” (Jeremiah 29:12–14).
Jeremiah 29:11 cannot be properly understood and applied in isolation from the context. It ought to be interpreted in its historical context in canonical unity with other biblical texts. Although it speaks of God’s good intentions for us, in no way does it approve of all our aspirations and ambitions. On the contrary, it reminds us that the Lord is the one who orchestrates history and has His own unique plans for each one of us. We ought to genuinely seek an intimate relationship with Him and He will transform our hearts and lives according to His “good, pleasing, and perfect” will (Romans 12:2).