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.
-Jeremiah 29:11, English Standard Version
Pop culture theologians love this verse. Especially the Prosperity Gospel types. They inspire confidence in people by pointing out this verse. “Look,” they’ll say, “God doesn’t want you to suffer. God wants only good things for you.” Only good things? Then why does the New Testament constantly promise that bad things will happen to those who follow Christ? Because this interpretation of this verse is nonsense and taken entirely out of context.
What is happening in Jeremiah? Jeremiah is speaking to Jews exiled in Babylon. He speaks about himself, about the history of the exile, and about the faith of the people (or lack thereof). Chapter 29 turns into a letter directed to the people exiled in Babylon.
Jeremiah begins the letter by telling the people on behalf of the Lord to be prepared to be in Babylon for a while. He tells them to settle down, have families, help your children to have families, and pray for prosperity for those around you. If they prosper, the Israelites will prosper.
As we approach verse 11, Jeremiah reminds them of the Lord’s promise to return His people to their homeland. He writes,
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. Then 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.
-Jeremiah 29:10-14, ESV
Now read the verse in question (bolded above), in context. The Lord knows the plans He has for His people – that plan is to return them back to their homeland. Those are the plans. As the Lord says, these are not evil or malicious plans, but good plans to give the people hope. This is a very hopeful verse for the people living in exile away from their homes, away from the land the Lord had promised them. The Lord working through the prophet Jeremiah was reminding the people to never forget about that hope, a hope based on His promise. Jeremiah reminds the people that the Lord’s promises never fail.
This verse is beautiful in context. The reminder that God’s promises never fail is a blessing for those who place their trust Him. Does it mean that God only promises good things for us all the time? Of course not. There will be suffering. There will be difficulty. Look at the life of Jesus and His suffering. Look at the initial Disciples of Christ. There is no promise of a better life now, the better life promised will come later with Him. This verse absolutely does not promise that. Yet, what this verse provides us is a reminder that the Lord’s promises never fail. That is better than any false promise from the false prosperity gospel.