Pete Enns has ruined Exodus, Isaiah, and Christmas, so I thought I’d take a stab at ruining one of the American Christian’s favorite Bible verses, an oft-quoted, stenciled, and memorized 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.”Jeremiah 29:11
(Pete Enns is a biblical scholar and author of several books, including The Sin of Certainty, The Bible Tells Me So, How the Bible Actually Works, and more. If you aren’t familiar with his work, it’s quite good. He also has a podcast called the Bible for Normal People.)
Jeremiah and Me: A History
In the infant years of my faith as a college student, discovering this verse and verses like it (Isaiah 42:16, for instance) were both deeply encouraging and anxiety producing. As a young person in high school, I had ideas about what I’d like to do as an adult, but when I became a Christian at age 18, suddenly a new layer was added to my career pursuits. Now it wasn’t just a matter of finding a job I was good at and doing my best at that job. That wasn’t enough. I was a follower of Jesus now. What did God want me to do?
That someone, like God, had a plan for me, I reasoned, was good news. I was grateful he cared that much about me to have a plan for my life. But when was he going to clue me in?! Should I major in this subject, or that subject? Should I teach or should I write or should I try to teach writing? Should I attend this college or transfer to another college? Should I marry this guy, or should I wait and marry some other guy? Should I marry at all?
What are your plans for me, God? Show me! I pleaded. I grasped at whatever signs I could find, trying to divinate God’s particular roadmap for my life. As I moved along through my college years and into young married life, the pleas continued. I earnestly sought the Lord’s will in all things. This man? This job? This house? This church? No? How about this job? Baby? No babies? O Lord, I prayed again and again, What is your will?
Where is God’s plan when things shatter?
Not very long into marriage, I had a miscarriage with a side dish of health complications that lasted for eight months. When it was okay to try again, we swiftly became pregnant and then unpregnant, a second time.
Suddenly, Jeremiah 29:11 seemed like a bunch of BS, right alongside other verses that promised that God would give me whatever I wanted or asked for if I delighted in him. I loved God. Wasn’t I faithful enough? Hadn’t I delighted?
For so long I had buttressed my faith with all of these promises of prosperity without acknowledging, reading, or understanding the context of the verses, and as a result, when hard things began to happen, my faith in a God of Good Fortune was shaken. What was I to do with all of the bad things happening?
I’m not the first to ask such a question, of course. Job, the oldest book in the Bible, wrestled with the question of suffering 3,500 years ago, and we’re still wrestling with it today.
So, is Jeremiah 29:11 untrue? Does God have a plan and a purpose for your life? Or is it something else?
When it comes to prophecies, it’s not personal.
This is the first truth about Jeremiah and the prophets: It isn’t personal. We want it to be personal, because that’s the kind of faith many of us were raised in: we were invited to have a personal, saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
But the prophets spoke to the nation of Israel. Every “you” is a “you plural,” not “you singular.” We could say instead “You people” or “Y’all” for pretty much all of our favorite passages. Unlike our Americanized, individualized approach to Christianity, the Jewish people saw their relationship and standing before the Lord as a community, systemic. We the People. Not me the person.
God is concerned with all of humanity’s progression towards healing, reconciliation, and peace. Not just my particular path, my day in and day out life choices. He just wants me to live, and live abundantly (John 10:10).
While God does know the plans he has for me, plans to prosper me and not to harm me, plans for my hope and future, I should not take this to mean a very specific, tactical plan that I may miss or screw up, like taking the wrong job, or not marrying the right guy. No, these plans God has are universe-sized, plans to reconcile all of humanity to himself, plans for love and joy and hope and peace and every other good thing.
I’m involved in that plan, but I am not the center of that plan… praise Jesus in heaven. My involvement is to do my part to love God and love others. By working together to fulfill these two commandments as a people of God united in spirit as the body of Christ, we might collectively bring heaven to earth. No single one of us is going to achieve that plan and purpose by ourselves.
There were false prophets and there were true prophets, and the true ones usually brought bad news.
The second truth about Jeremiah is that no one looked forward to hearing from Jeremiah. He was rarely there to bring good news. In fact, the letter in which Jeremiah penned Jeremiah 29:11 is preceded by a throwdown between Jeremiah and another prophet, Hananiah. Many of the Israelites were living in exile, kicked out of Jerusalem and under the rulership of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. As you can imagine, the Israelites were not happy with these arrangements.
Hananiah told the Israelites that it would only be a little while before the awful King Nebuchadnezzar was out of power—like two years!—and then Israel would have victory! God’s going to come in and break Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon. You just wait. It’s going to be awesome.
In front of all of the Israelite priests, Jeremiah told Hananiah, “From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true” (Jeremiah 28:8-10 NIV).
In response, Hananiah says that not only will Israel be free from underneath Babylon’s rule, all the nations will be free, and it’ll only take two years. Ka-pow! Shake and bake, baby!
Isn’t that what we want to hear, right now? This present suffering is only going to last a little while and then just wait. God’s gonna come and show those enemies of ours what’s what.
Instead, God speaks through Jeremiah and says, nope, it’s going to be worse than what you think. Everyone is going to serve Nebuchadnezzar. God has a word for Hananiah: “Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord’” (Jeremiah 28:15-16 NIV).
False prophets face mortal consequences.
God deals with false prophets severely. Two months after this interaction, Hananiah died. Not only this, but two other false prophets, people in the community of believers who spoke lies in God’s name and committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, these prophets as well were punished and killed by Nebuchadnezzar, a foreign king.
Don’t miss this: God is not condemning the foreign king who is ruling over the people of Israel. He’s condemning the priests, the prophets, the speakers and teachers who all claim to follow God but are not speaking the word of the Lord. Instead, they are behaving like politicians, delivering what the people want to hear instead of what the people need to hear.
Leaders who persuade other people to trust in lies face mortal consequences. Jesus had the harshest words for the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. Woe to you, Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. (Matthew 23:13-39 NIV). The false prophets had sweet words that made the people feel good, despite the information being false. The same is true today. Smooth talkers and people who say only what the people want to hear might win some over in the short term, but sooner or later, God’s gonna cut you down, as Johnny Cash says.
There’s hope in that for the powerless, and there’s warning in that for those of us in leadership, who hold power to sway and persuade. The burden of responsibility for leaders is substantial, and the temptations of power are great. The warnings of the prophets are often directed at the leaders, and the consequences are dire. We would do well to heed the warnings of the prophets.
True prophets speak the truth, even when it’s grim.
The prophets saw the crises in the community of believers, and fire burned in their bones. It’s the prophet’s job to rattle the cages of complacency and pride in the community. Prophets see the consequences of action (or inaction) and warn the people of what life will look like if they continue down this road. The prophets spoke to specific circumstances of disobedience at specific times in history, and yet, we can learn from history, we can glean truth from these specific events.
After Hananiah died, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the leaders of the people throughout Babylon, all those who were exiled and living in foreign lands. It isn’t going to be two years, he said. It’s going to be 70. Seventy years! Here’s what God directed the people in exile to do:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 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. 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.”Jeremiah 29:5-7
Get comfy. Live your lives. Don’t expect this burden to ease up for a while. In fact, seek the good of the place you’re stuck in, even if it’s a foreign land.
Prophets delivered promises of hope for the nation of Israel… in God’s timeline, not ours.
All of this leads up to Jeremiah 29:11. God tells the people, when it’s been 70 years, I’ll bring you back to your land, as I promised. “For I know the plans I have for y’all, plans to prosper y’all and not to harm y’all, to give y’all hope and a future.”
You, plural. You, the people. You, nation of Israel. You, people of God. This suffering will not last forever.
Even when God deals harshly with his people, rebuking them, stripping them down, and humbling them, he always promises salvation, hope, healing, and restoration. There is always an “and yet.” The disciplinary hand of God also lifts the chin of the shamed daughter and folds her in his arms.
After some more false prophets are condemned by Jeremiah and God, Jeremiah writes of the discipline Israel will endure and the eventual restoration of Israel, the true good news and what the future forecast is, according to God’s timeline. It is coming, it will be fulfilled, and it is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, who declared the kingdom of God is among us, now.
Prophets compel us to action.
God uses his prophets to cause a disturbance and shake us out of our complacency, to sound the alarm about the direction we’re headed and reroute us back to God, back to “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6-7a). What does that look like when you’re in exile, when you aren’t where you thought you’d be, when your plan and your purpose don’t align with your reality, when you’re mixed in with a group of people and leaders who do not reflect your values, do not respect your customs, and do not follow your God?
Build houses. Settle down. Seek the peace and prosperity of the town where you live. Be here now. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Act humbly, now. Love your God and love your neighbor as yourself, whether you turn to the right or to the left, because in either direction, you can love. In either direction, there is God.
And his plan and purposes are good.