Jeremiah 29:11 is EASILY one of the most frequently cited passages in all of Scripture. It often appears on ceramic coffee mugs, leather Bible covers, and farmhouse-style signage available at your nearest Hobby Lobby. In 2019, the website Bible Gateway ranked Jeremiah 29:11 as the second most popular Bible verse among Americans (behind only John 3:16).
That’s understandable; the words of Jeremiah 29:11 are certainly inspiring and comforting:
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
We often read Jeremiah 29:11 as a promise from God that whatever suffering, loss, hardship, or pain we may be muddling through right now won’t last forever. Even if things are bad in the present, we can look ahead with confidence that God has something better for us just around the corner. We may even watch the clock and get impatient when our “hope and future” isn’t arriving quickly enough!
And while it may seem like I’m raining on the parade, it’s important that we understand the deeper context of Jeremiah 29. This is an important step in preventing ourselves from abusing this (still wonderful, don’t get me wrong) verse.
Jeremiah was a prophet sent from God to speak to the people of Judah (the southern portion of what was once the united Kingdom of Israel in the time of David and Solomon). But despite the word “hope” in his book’s most commonly cited verse, Jeremiah’s message doesn’t always sound that hopeful. In fact, much of the time, Jeremiah is pronouncing not a message of hope, but of doom (hence the term “Jeremiad”; AKA a “naysayer”).
God commands Jeremiah to warn the people of Judah – especially the kings, the priests, and the so-called “prophets” – that God’s judgment is coming. The vast majority of those living in Judah, from the top down, had abandoned God. They worshiped idols, committed evil, acted unjustly, and were just generally awful. Specifically, this well-deserved judgment from God would come in the form of the Kingdom of Babylon, led by King Nebuchadnezzar.
Jeremiah does his job. He preaches his message of warning day in day out, and regularly calls the people of Judah to repentance. However, they don’t listen to him. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to Jeremiah; God told him as much when he first commissioned him as a prophet.
Eventually, Babylon knocks on the door (see 2 Kings 24-25 for the tragic account). After a few years of serving Babylon with SOME relative peace and stability, Nebuchadnezzar finally flexes his muscle once and for all around 586 BC. Babylon’s armies storm Jerusalem’s walls, burn the city, and ransack the Temple. When they return home, they don’t just bring material treasures from Jerusalem; they bring people. Many of the youngest, best, and brightest of Judah are forcibly removed from their homes and families and dragged to Babylon – just as Jeremiah had said.
It’s not exactly pretty, but that’s the lay of the land by the time we arrive in Jeremiah 29. The entire chapter is a letter sent from Jeremiah to “the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (VS. 1). God’s promise in VS. 11 – the promise of “a future and a hope” – is delivered to people who may be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder following their deportation to a foreign land to serve a pagan king. But when everything you know and love has been taken from you, “a future and a hope” may be all you have to cling to.
But then in verses 12-14, God goes into further detail about what lies ahead, promising that His people will not be stuck in Babylon forever. He “will bring (them) back to the place from which (He) sent them into exile” (Jerusalem).
So what should God’s people do now? They probably shouldn’t unpack their suitcases; they’re going to be delivered soon! They ought not get too settled in to their new surroundings; it sounds like God’s going to swoop down and save them anytime now. It may even feel like a weekend getaway; they’ll be back in Jerusalem in time to water the plants! Right?
Wrong. Jeremiah advises the exiles:
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (VS. 5-7)
In VS. 10, God tells those exiles that their time in Babylon will last 70 YEARS. In other words: get comfortable, because the judgment you’re under right now isn’t going to end right away. Presumably, many of the exiles wouldn’t live to see the day when their deliverance finally comes; only the sons and daughters they bore in Babylon will remain.
Hold on; I thought God said he would give His people “a hope and a future”! 70 years under a foreign king’s thumb probably isn’t what they had in mind!
But God’s promise is still true. While not every individual exile will experience the “hope and a future” promised in VS. 11, God isn’t lying. His promise of “a hope and a future” is a promise that He has not truly abandoned His people now, and will not ultimately abandon His people forever. He promised Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David that He would be faithful to His people in the long-run, even as His people were not always faithful to Him. Not every exile will see the lights of Jerusalem again; but God’s people will not be wiped out permanently.
So yes: Jeremiah 29:11 is a promise that the suffering of God’s people wouldn’t last forever. However, it was no guarantee that the suffering wouldn’t last a long time. In fact, God’s people were instructed to make lemonade out the lemons God had justly given them. They were commanded to bloom where they were planted.
That’s the immediate context of God’s promise for “a hope and a future” in Jeremiah 29. But how might this Old Testament passage relate to believers in Jesus today? And to be even more on the nose about it: what can this passage teach Christians living through our current season of hardship?
Believers today have a similarly-beloved passage in the New Testament (perhaps not coincidentally, this one ranks fifth on the Bible Gateway list mentioned above):
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Like Jeremiah 29:11 for the exiles in Babylon, Romans 8:28 doesn’t promise believers in Jesus that suffering won’t come at all, or won’t be long-lasting (just ask Paul – the guy who wrote it). But it does promise that in the big picture – in the eternal scheme of things – we can be confident that God will not abandon those saved by faith in Christ. We may never see the end of whatever temporal hardship, pain, or loss we may face in this life – but we can be utterly confident that we have “a hope and a future” in God’s presence forever. We have been justified by faith in Jesus, adopted as God’s children, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Our sins have been forgiven, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.
As for our more immediate, current situation – a global pandemic – perhaps Jeremiah 29 can also be instructive.
First, an important disclaimer: we can’t say with complete certainty that COVID-19 is a form of God’s judgment (we CAN say that about the exile to Babylon, because the Bible explicitly identifies it as such). We can wonder, and we can speculate about our current situation as a form of God’s judgment; I’d argue that we have to at least be open to the possibility if we take the Bible seriously. But we don’t have the authority to proclaim – infallibly – that COVID-19 is a form of God’s judgment. To do so would be arrogant and irresponsible.
However, that doesn’t mean we can’t gain anything from Jeremiah’s guidance to the exiles in Babylon to “bloom where they were planted” in VS. 5-7.
Maybe the best response to our current predicament isn’t to do anything revolutionary, new, or drastically different. Maybe Jeremiah would advise Christians like us to simply live faithfully as God’s people in our current environment. Go on about life as we should (within reasonable and wise precautions, of course). Do the things God explicitly calls us to do without hesitation (even if there’s some risk involved). Submit to the governing authorities over us when their expectations do not compromise our faithfulness to God (speaking of Babylon, Daniel is an excellent example of how to walk that tightrope). Like the exiles reading Jeremiah’s letter, we may be doing this for a while (though hopefully not 70 years). So for now, we might as well get used to living as God’s people in a COVID-19 world.
Is that message ideal? No. Is it romantic? Definitely not. Is it inspiring and comforting enough to embroider it on a throw pillow? Maybe not.
But it doesn’t negate the promise God has given us for “a hope and a future”. The exiles’ suffering really did end after 70 years, exactly as God had said. God’s judgment came to a close, and the people returned home to Jerusalem to rebuild.
Likewise, our suffering will end at some point as well, even if not in this life. We too still have “a hope and a future”, no matter how long our current predicament lasts. It’s secured by Jesus himself, and no exile, no virus, nor any other form of suffering in this life can take our hope and our future away from us.
So in the meantime, we wait. In the present, we live faithfully as God’s people in whatever situation we find ourselves in. And we look forward with hope to the future, even if it’s a long way away.