As I was reading Jeremiah today, I came across one of the most famous passages of the book, chapter 29 verse 11:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
I can imagine this verse being set to a Hallmark card accompanied by an inspirational photo in the background. And in fact, a quick Google Image search of “Jeremiah 29” yields just that: dozens of cute/inspirational/tranquil etc. images, each with the text of Jer 29:11.
Well, I don’t want to spend my time bashing these images for being tacky or misleading (in the sense that they lead us to interpret the passage out-of-context). Jeremiah 29:11 certainly is a beautiful and comforting passage. But I’d like to suggest that when we read this verse in context, we aren’t just left with the fuzzy feeling of a Hallmark greeting. Instead, we gain a lasting impression of God’s redemptive grace.
First, consider the historical context. The passage is part of a letter that Jeremiah sent to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. Jeremiah 29:2 tells us that “[t]his was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem.” You can read the full narrative of these events in 2 Kings 24. In short, the best and the brightest of Judah have already been exiled. The Zedekiah described in Jer. 29:3 is basically a puppet governor of King Nebuchadnezzar (Zedekiah will later rebel, and the rest of Judah will be exiled to Babylon). All of this is happening to Judah because of their sin and idolatry.
So what should we make of all this history? Well, the actual contents of the letter that Jeremiah sends to the exiles is surprising, given the historical context. Consider Jer 29:4-7:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…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.
In other words, Jeremiah is telling the exiles that they are going to spend a long time in Babylon. This likely isn’t something they wanted to hear. Remember, Babylon is the enemy of Judah. Indeed, Jer. 27-28 is about how false prophets in Judah are promising that Babylon will fall and the exiles will return. As much as Jeremiah himself wishes that this were true (see Jer. 28:6), he is clear about God’s word: Judah will go into exile and live among the Babylonians.
To summarize, Judah is going into exile for her idolatry, and this exile is going to be longer than expected. Judah is experiencing the consequences of her sin; God is judging her. Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t just about God promising to do good and to bless people in general; Jeremiah 29:11 is about God promising to do good for Israel despite her radical unfaithfulness towards him. Thus, it is a testament to God’s continuing grace for His people despite their failure to keep the covenant.
Far from killing the good feelings we have towards Jer. 29:11, reading it in context humbles us before the majesty of God’s grace. The focus, as it turns out, isn’t on us, or even on Judah. The main speaker, the initiator, and the star actor in the passage is God. Jeremiah 29 offers a glimpse into the character of God. Here are several things we learn about Him:
First, we learn that God is sovereign and that his sovereignty is characterized by grace. In 29:14, God says that He is the one who has sent Judah into exile. Despite how it may look from a human perspective, Judah is not at the mercy of her enemies. Her exile is not just the story of the Babylonian war machine gobbling up another smaller nation as it tightens its grip on the ancient near-east. Instead, it is the story of God chastising his people and judging them for their unfaithfulness. Throughout all this, God-not King Nebuchadnezzar-is the one who is in control.
Since God is in control, exile does not spell the end of the Israelite nation. Carry on while you are in exile says God, because His plan for Israel is a plan for wholeness, for hope, and for a future. Even mighty Babylon will one day fall to the Persians (who will fall to the Greeks, who will fall to the Romans…), but there will always be a remnant of Israel. From this remnant, Israel will receive her Messiah, who will not only save Israel, but all of humanity from sin and death. God shows grace to Israel by preserving her in exile.
Surprisingly, God’s grace is also extended to the Babylonians, Judah’s enemies, through the Israelite exiles. Seek the welfare of Babylon, says God; pray to the LORD on behalf of its inhabitants. Yes, exile is a bad thing for Judah, but through all this, the Babylonians come into contact with the people who worship the living God–the people whose destiny is to become a blessing to all nations. Despite their failure to live up to their high calling, God’s people, by His grace, continue to be a priestly nation even while they are being judged in exile.
All that to say: Jeremiah 29 reminds us that God is sovereign, that He is gracious, and that His grace extends even to the enemies of Judah. God continues to be faithful, even when the Israelites have been radically unfaithful. Judah’s exile isn’t the end of the story for God’s people, but a chapter in the narrative of redemption that will culminate in the coming of Jesus Messiah. In this sense, Jeremiah 29:11 is not an ancient Hallmark greeting. It is God’s promise to remain faithful to his plans for redemption, a testament to His sovereignty and grace.