“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.”
Here’s an experiment you can try. Google the opening phrase of our text, “For I know the plans I have for you…” You’ll quickly discover that this text is popular. I came up with 729,000,000 hits. Of course, I didn’t look them all up, but even if only a tenth of them are genuine, that’s quite a number. Look up Jeremiah 29:11 on Google. I got 628,000 hits. Just for comparison purposes, when I looked up Jeremiah 29:9, there was a mere 93,400 hits.
So our text is a fairly well-known passage. A lot of people take it as their “personal life text” or something like that. This is the passage that they keep coming back to for encouragement. When life gets hard, you can retreat to Jeremiah 29:11 and find comfort with those beautiful words. God wants to prosper you, not harm you. He wants to give you hope and a future.
Now they are beautiful words, there’s no doubt about that. Anybody can see how attractive they are. They are full of grace and God’s love. So, let’s take a brief closer look at them. Let’s consider God’s plans for a future and a hope. What is this all about?
We need to start with context. You can’t take this text seriously if you don’t think about the context. Jeremiah lived in a tumultuous time for God’s people. For many years, the people had been drifting away from God. In connection with that, they were living in gross sin. Their lives were a mockery of everything holy and good. Idolatry was rampant. This wasn’t the sort of idolatry where people are bowing quietly to some different god. This is the idolatry where children get thrown in fires and sex is an important part of the worship. But God wasn’t sleeping. He sent prophets to warn the people. God had warned Israel already back in Deuteronomy that if they would live this way, they would pay the price. The prophets repeated these warnings. The warnings did not change matters and the people continued on their path of unbelief. Finally, God had enough. He sent his people into exile. In the beginning of Jeremiah 29 we read of how many of the Jews were sent off to Babylon.
That was the chastisement for their sins, the Lord’s discipline for what they’d done. They were removed from the Promised Land. They were sent off from the inheritance of their fathers. They became strangers in a foreign culture. It was a disaster such as the Jews had never seen. They were in turmoil.
Now here in Jeremiah 29, Jeremiah is writing a letter to these people. They’re in Babylon while he was still in Jerusalem. In the first part of the letter, Jeremiah tells them of God’s will for their lives in Babylon. They’re to settle down and build houses and so on. They’re to seek the peace and prosperity of their new surroundings. They’re not to listen to the false prophets who will tell them lies about the exile and how long it will last. God says clearly that this exile is for seventy years. Seventy years must be completed before the Jews will be ready to come back.
Verse 10 leads right into our text. It speaks of the seventy years and then also mentions God’s gracious promise to bring the Jews back. He is not going to give them what they deserve and abandon them and leave them in captivity. He’s going to come after them and restore them.
Now all of that is the background to what we have in verse 11. It’s important to get that. Why? Because we need to be clear about the identity of the “you” in this verse. “For I know the plans I have for you,” – who is the “you”? Well, there’s a clue in the original Hebrew. It literally says, “I know the plans I have for you all…” In other words, this is not a singular “you,” but a plural. God is not speaking to individual persons here, but to his people as a corporate body. It was not like one of the Jews could read this letter from Jeremiah and conclude, “Oh, God is going to do all these things for me personally.” Rather, the right conclusion would be, “Oh, God is going to do these things for the people to whom I belong. He’s going to do good for Israel.”
Our individualistic and narcissistic age has a hard time getting the difference between the individual “you” and the corporate “you.” Yet the corporate “you” is such a crucial biblical concept. It is a covenantal concept. God deals with a people. For you personally to be blessed in the way described here, it’s critical to be joined to God’s people.
God declares the plans he has for his people. Sometimes the thoughts or plans here are understood to be God’s secret counsel, his hidden will. But again that doesn’t fit with the context. God had revealed those plans in his Word through the prophets. The plans mentioned here are God’s revealed will found in his Word. His revealed will was that the chastisement would work. Israel would repent. They would lose their taste for idolatry and unbelief and return to God. He would be found by them and he would bring them back to the Promised Land.
His revealed plan was to restore peace among his people. I regret the translation of the NIV here. It says, “plans to prosper you.” Unfortunately that translation has played right into the hands of the prosperity gospel movement. They read this text and say, “See here, the LORD wants to give you, you personally, prosperity.” And you know what prosperity involves. It involves wealth and material goods, getting tons of money. The Hebrew text says, “thoughts (or plans) for peace.” The word is “shalom,” a well-known word. God is going to bring wholeness (ESV) to his people, he’s going to bring them back to the way they should be – living in the Promised Land, worshipping in the temple, serving their God, looking forward to the coming Messiah.
There in the Promised Land, God would give them a hope and a future. In Babylon all they could look forward to was the end of the 70 years. But in the Promised Land, God was going to bring a Redeemer. God’s restoration of his people would put things on the right track again.
So what were the Jews supposed to do with this letter? In particular, what they were supposed to do with this promise here in verse 11? It was intended to awe them. To impress them. Here is grace in all its splendour. These people have slapped God in the face repeatedly. Yet he gives them these words? They were to take that and humble themselves before God in gratitude. To turn to him again and love him. To call upon him and seek him with all their heart. To do all that, not merely as individuals, but as a people.
And what are we to do with these words? For one thing, we recognize that these words are bigger than us as individuals. If it is going to apply to us, we need a corporate perspective. In our context, that means we’re talking about the church here. God has revealed his plans for his church. And they are good. God promises to take care of his church from age to age. He promises to gather, defend, and protect. He gives the church a hope and a future. Even when the forces of unbelief are united against her, the church will stand because God is on her side. Why can the church be so confident? Because of Christ. Because Christ is our peace, our shalom. He has reconciled us to God and made us a people precious to him. In Christ, God’s thoughts towards us are all for good. So we ought to call upon our gracious God, trusting his love for us in Christ.
And in Christ, God promises us a hope and a future. As we participate in the Lord’s Supper this morning, we do so as a body. We are together eating and drinking. And we do that together looking forward to something God has promised us in his Word. The Israelites had the promise of return to the Promised Land, we have the promise of Christ’s return to us. The Israelites had the promise of the restoration of life in their ancestral homeland, we have the promise of the restoration of life in the New Jerusalem. This Supper is a foretaste of the joy we’ll have when God’s promises are fulfilled and we sit at the marriage feast of the Lamb. Then we’ll be home, home together at last. The message of the bread and the wine is the same as the message of our text. In this bread and wine, God declares, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for peace and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Believe what your God says. AMEN.