Do a quick Google Image search for the Bible verse Jeremiah 29:11. You'll find hundreds of word art images, pictures of this verse on walls, wallpapers of this verse, kitschy knick-knacks with the verse, cards with this verse plastered on the front, tatoos of this verse...it's one of the most thrown around verses of our time. Thomas Turner, a writer for Relevant magazine argues that this verse is one of the "most misunderstood verses in the Bible." Writers Tsh Oxenreider and Jerusalem Greer (also a minister) make a case that, for many, this verse has become a "platitude...often seen on bathroom plaques." I did some reading this morning before and after Jeremiah 29:11 because it's been a few years, and what I discovered there does not match with our culture's current obsession with Jeremiah 29:11. We are missing the purpose of the verse.
The verse is part of a letter that Jeremiah (the prophet) sent to the Israelites who were exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. The letter seems to be a sort of guide for the exiles for how to live and thrive in their new land. The letter starts in Jeremiah 29:4; I encourage you to read it for yourself, but I'll break the text down to bullet points of advice that Jeremiah (speaking on behalf of God) gave these exiles:
1. Build houses and live in them (vs. 5)
2. Plant gardens and eat their produce (vs. 5)
3. Have kids and let your kids have kids (vs. 6)
4. Grow in the community where you are planted--help it be better and you will be better; pray for your new community (vs. 7)
5. Don't be fooled by false prophets (vs. 8-9)
First, I have to say I'm sad these four verses are overlooked. Jeremiah 29:11 is often advice given to people in times of transition--moving, graduation, taking a new job, getting married, etc. The instruction embedded in verses 5-9 is a beautifully simple and practical set of guidelines often missed because they don't pack the feel-good punch of verse 11.
Now let's take a gander at verse 10 alongside verse 11 (remember, this is still a letter from Jeremiah (inspired by God) to the exiles): "'For thus says the Lord: When SEVENTY YEARS are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 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.'" What we miss with the context of this letter when we focus only on verse 11 is that God says this plan to give the exiles a future and a hope will take SEVENTY YEARS. SEVENTY. YEARS. God always brings redemption, but it's on His timetable--and this timetable often feels too long for us--so we lob off verse 10 because it doesn't make us feel good, and we focus only on verse 11---the feel-good stuff. Then we become disillusioned when the good stuff God promised us doesn't come to us after we've been praying for a week or even a month or (gasp) a year. I think this is especially true for new believers. Jeremiah 29:11, when taken out of context, can cause people to have unrealistic and unbiblical expectations of God, which may jeopardize their faith.
The letter doesn't stop at verse 11. It marches on for 12 more verses. I won't carry on and on, but I do want to point out that the three verses after 29:11 seem to be the most encouraging of this whole letter. They say, "'Then [remember...this is after the 70 years the Israelites will be in exile] you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear 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 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.'" God promises a return back home....but we must remember, he also promised it will take SEVENTY YEARS. This will require a season of waiting that will allow the Israelites to pursue God...a beautiful thought when you dwell on it long enough.
In short, let's quit taking this verse (and others like it) out of context. The Bible is certainly a spring of excellent advice, but we must be careful not to pick and choose.