Jeremiah 29:11 is a frequently quoted and commonly referenced Bible verse. Often used as a generic statement of positive encouragement, many Christians consider the verse to be cliché.
Now while a Biblical cliché is not necessarily wrong, it can obscure other lessons the text has to offer. When we overuse a phrase, it can start to lose its meaning, and we naturally tend to take clichés less seriously.
Reading Jeremiah 29 in a historical, narrative context is a bit of a task. But, through a closer study of this passage, I believe there is a relevant message that can speak to us wherever we may be.
So now, let us spend a few minutes unpacking some history.
In historical context, we can identify that the letter in Jeremiah 29 was addressed to the Hebrew exiles taken from Jerusalem to Babylon some time around 597BCE. Israel’s identity was found in the covenant that God (the one true God) made with their ancestors. The book of Jeremiah identifies this exile as punishment for Israel’s disobedience to God and worship of idols. The temple in Jerusalem (which was central to their worship of God) had been pillaged, and the sacred instruments had been carried off to Babylon. The people of Israel identified themselves as God’s chosen people, who were called to be an example to the nations and to show their God was the one true God…this exile called that identity into question.
For these conquered, displaced exiles, every single day was a reminder of how far they were from where they belonged.
Earlier in the book of Jeremiah, we see several prophets arise among the exiles, speaking of God’s imminent intervention on Israel’s behalf. They prophesy the soon return of the king, sacred temple instruments, and all exiles to Jerusalem. One prophecy gives a timeframe of two years. You can imagine, to the exiles, these messages are good news.
This is the circumstance in which the letter in Jeremiah 29 speaks, as a direct response to the numerous prophets stirring the hopes of the people.
1 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 (This was after King Jehoiachin and the queen mother, the court officials and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the skilled workers and the artisans had gone into exile from Jerusalem.) 3 He entrusted the letter to Elasah son of Shaphan and to Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon.
It said: 4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.
10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good 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 on 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.”
Jeremiah’s message is not exactly what the exiles want to hear, particularly verse 10. These people are seeking an imminent deliverance from exile… but Jeremiah tells them they’ll have to wait 70 years. Realistically, this means most people hearing the message will die without ever returning to Jerusalem. They will die in exile. And this is supposed to be encouraging?
But look a bit closer at what this message says:
Plant gardens and farm (which is Genesis/Eden language).
Have your babies make babies.
Seek (and pray for) the peace and prosperity of the land you are living in.
Think about it….
Sounds pretty good…
Sounds like a good life, doesn’t it?
Instead of stirring emotions and challenging people to wait until they can go back to Jerusalem, the message is to live where they are now. Live and thrive.
It is within this context of living that Jeremiah speaks of people seeking God “with all their heart.” God’s people, living together as God intended, will someday be restored to the land promised to their forefathers.
Jeremiah’s message to the exiles is neither to stop hoping for deliverance in the future nor to give up their covenant inheritance, but to continue living in the present.
And this is the hope of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God is here, that it is near, that we can enter it now, in this age… and yet also look forward to the day when God restores all of creation—the age to come.
Where are you at right now?
Are you where you expected to be?
Are you where you think you deserve to be?
Or are you somewhere… else?
And if you are somewhere else, is your life on hold?
Should you wait until things change to move forward?
Sometimes when we are wronged, when hardships come, or when our own failures derail us…we may feel like our lives are on hold. What we are missing can become all we think about. That failure is constantly on our minds. The place where we were supposed to be can become an obsession, one that makes us lose sight of what is right in front of us.
I know a pastor who frequently officiates funerals. In every one of them, he reminds the audience that the traffic outside has not stopped, that businesses are still operating, and that life is still moving. He does not say this to be cruel or insensitive to the grieving, but as a reminder that regardless of our current sorrows, time continues to pass… time that cannot be replaced.
Wherever you are, whatever you are going through, may you be encouraged as the exiles were, to live life to the full wherever you may be. And remember as you live that you have a hope and a future, both in this age and the age to come.