Jeremiah 29:11. An often used verse of hope for the future:

“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.”

How nice. Plans for a future. Hope in the future. But what about today? It wasn’t until I read the book Run With The Horses by Eugene Peterson that I saw this verse in it’s context.

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “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.” 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. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.

This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 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 11:4-15

So often we use these verses as a “put your hope in the future.” We wind up in a situation or stage of life we can’t bear to live in, so we close our eyes to it and “look ahead.” But that seems to be the exact opposite of what God was telling the people to do, and the place at which this verse finds its home. These Israelites being written to are in exile. They’ve been taken from their home that God gave them, and are now living in a pagan land, surrounded by pagan people, pagan idols, and a pagan way of life. And what does God tell them to do?

  • Build houses and settle down
  • Plant gardens and eat what they produce
  • Marry, have kids, so that you can have grandkids
  • Pray for the prosperity of those who’ve taken you into exile

Every one of these seems counter-intuitive. You’d think that if you were in a place you didn’t want to be and hoped to get out of soon, you wouldn’t settle down or take the time to plant a crop of tomatoes. You’d do everything you can to prepare for your return. You’d live in seclusion, trying to separate yourself from the world around you. But God warns the people to not even listen to the prophets that tell the people what they want to hear (that they’ll be headed home soon). This exile thing is serious. It’s going to span multiple generations. BUT, says God, it’s not the end. I have plans for you. This is for your good. All of this pain, is for your good.

Over and over again, even in these few verses, God reminds them of the long term promise: I will bring you back. You may not even be alive when I bring you back in 70 years, but I will do it. Live like you want your family to be alive and ready when that time comes. Live like you believe in me. That’s where this “hope and a future” concept comes from… not simply hoping tomorrow will get here sooner, but hoping and realizing that today is part of the path God has for me to get there.

This understanding of the context of Jeremiah 29:11 has both helped me see the bigger picture of the hope God wanted for the Israelites, and has also opened my eyes to the world around me. The hard things I go through – whether they are learning new skills, parenting an infant, dealing with my own faults, living in an imperfect family… these things need not determine my future, but they are part of it. The future 5 years from now depends somewhat on what I do today, tomorrow, and next week. God’s promises will be fulfilled, but that doesn’t mean I should (or can) sit idley by and let him do all the hard work.