Hermeneutics,  Old Testament

Do We Use Jeremiah 29:11 the Wrong Way?

Many a Christian has found comfort in the words of Jeremiah 29:11, “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.” But are we guilty of misusing this verse?

Photo of Jeremiah 29:11

The message of Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the oft quoted verses in Christian circles. I think I have seen Jeremiah 29:11 used in contexts of encouraging graduates, newlyweds, and new employees. There have also been many times where believers have quoted Jeremiah 29:11 in an attempt to comfort those who are suffering.

The Problem with Using Jeremiah 29:11 as a Proof Text of God’s Love for Us

I do not want to play the role of Debbie Downer, but I do want to point out how we are often guilty of misusing verses like this.

The first thing I want to point out is that this verse was written specifically to the nation of Israel. For theologians who say that the church has spiritually assumed the role of national Israel this is not an issue. Many covenant theologians, for example, see complete continuity between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church. Therefore, since Israel and the church are the same, there can be a direct importing of this principle to our daily lives (or so it is argued).

But if we acknowledge that the Old Testament nation of Israel is a distinct entity from the church, then we have to think a little more carefully about how we can apply this verse. For example, although it may be tempting to want to apply Jeremiah 29:11 in a specific way to our lives, are we allowed to pick and choose which promises to apply? Why would we not use the same principle to apply 2 Kings 21:14, “And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies”? Jeremiah 29 promises blessing and 2 Kings 21 promises exile. Why would we assume the blessings of Jeremiah 29 apply to us, but the promised exile of 2 Kings 21 does not?

As Usual, Context is King

As usual, appropriate biblical application is derived from a contextual understanding of a passage. Or to put it another way, meaning leads to significance. It is important to understand texts in their context.

Concerning the passage in question, the promise in Jeremiah 29:11 is not about only blessing. The immediate context of verse 10 provides an important setting for this verse. Verse 10 promises that the people of Israel must undergo 70 years of captivity before the Lord will bring them back to their land. Thus the promise of blessing in Jeremiah 29:11 is specifically related to the return from exile and the renewal of God’s blessing on Israel. In fact, a few verses later (29:13) is basically a direct quote of Deuteronomy 4:29, which was Moses’s prophecy about Israel’s future repentance and return to God, and God’s restoration of the people to their land. Jeremiah 29:14 emphasizes that same reality, “I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”

In sum, the context of Jeremiah 29:11 is specifically a promise that God will not forget Israel in their exile, but that they will be restored to their land and have God’s blessing placed upon them. Is that a promise a Gentile can claim? No. But that is not the end of the story.

A Way Forward in Applying Jeremiah 29:11

If one is a Gentile, how can he or she derive application from Jeremiah 29:11? First, it is always appropriate to understand personal application is not the ultimate goal. There is a real sense in which texts that glorify God for His grand plan of world redemption are worth studying for their own right. For example, although the future plans of Israel’s restoration may seem not directly applicable to us, God himself says it is, “It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you… Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezek 36:32-36).  The point is that God often acts and reveals His plan simply so that His name will be glorified and not profaned (cf. Ezek 39:7).

There is another appropriate application of Jeremiah 29:11. Jeremiah 29 gives a template for understanding the faithfulness of God on behalf of those He loves. Although we are not the people of Israel, God’s faithfulness does extend beyond the people of Israel to the church. We can read Jeremiah 29:11 and meditate on the fact that God is a God who is faithful to His promises. Yahweh is a God who is defined by compassion and a desire for his people to experience good (cf. Rom 8:29-30). Thus, we know that God (as an unchanging person) continues to exercise those characteristics of His personality. In this way, it is right to derive comfort from meditating on the fact that God does desire good for His people. We also have used proper means of biblical interpretation without forcing a passage into our own lives. As always, the means matter as much as the ends.

Is it Worth Quibbling Over the Details?

What is the point of a post like this? Wouldn’t it be better to attack liberals or something instead of gently challenge the way many Christians treat this dearly held verse?

The point I want to make is that how we read the Word of God matters. We have no right to make God’s Word mean whatever we want it to mean. Scripture was written in a specific time, in a specific place, to a specific people. Each passage has one intended meaning, and that meaning is inspired by God’s authority. We ought to be careful in how we use God’s Word, because we don’t want to put a meaning in God’s Word that He did not intend! We are under obligation to apply Scripture, but that does not always mean inserting ourselves into the ancient audience. There are other ways Scripture must be applied. And I believe this passage is a great illustration of how we can think through the way we interpret and apply Scripture.

Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


  • Karole Fedrick

    Thank you for the well-written exortation to let God’s Word mean what God intended it to mean. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but while believers cannot claim the promises God made to Israel, the principles of them often apply to us as found in the New Testament. We know God’s ultimate promises to believers come through the complete work of Jesus, our blessed hope for the future as God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

    Praise God from Whom all blessings flow. Maranatha.

  • Seth Denney

    Thank you Peter for this great article on the use of Jeremiah 29:11. It helps with a very important issue in our churches. How we read our Bibles! I appreciate all of your articles and podcasts. Thanks for being faithful.

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