This last Sunday I felt God strongly impress on me to teach on the context of Jeremiah 29:11. Most Christians know the verse and have probably used it, or had it used with them, to bring comfort and assurance. The verse goes: 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 am not sure why God wanted me to spend a Sunday morning on it, but I believe that the use of that verse (so often out of context) as a blanket promise or assurance from God underscores a dangerous "fast food" mentality among us that wants quick verses, quick broadband, quick meals, and quick spiritual maturity. I believe we are heading into harder and harder times to be a true follower of Jesus, and I believe it is important going into them to know the full context and precepts of the promises from God we are so quick to lay hold of for ourselves or offer others as comfort. It is kind of like when I was in the military—we tested our vehicles and weapons systems thoroughly in peace time so that in war we knew exactly what they could and couldn't do. War is not the time to find out you had a false confidence or assurance in something!
In Jeremiah and other books God repeatedly warns against false prophets, and listening to false prophets, who declare "Peace, peace" when there will be, instead, very serious consequences if the people don't turn from their direction (see Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11, and 23:16-20 for a few examples). We as Christians must, I believe, be careful not to deliver (or accept for ourselves!) false assurance in the guise of God's Words to people that may, instead, need to be corrected and encouraged to turn and repent.
So, as I share briefly about Jeremiah 29:11, realize this need to look closely at verses we are so familiar with might apply to many other verses besides it. And, a closer examination may not necessarily mean we lose confidence in a promise—we may actually gain confidence if we come out assured we are, indeed, the intended audience and we have met the precepts laid out around it in the verses not quoted so much.
In a nutshell, after King Josiah died God's people fell very quickly away from God. God repeatedly warned them against their direction, but they continued until He drew the line and basically told them it was too late, He was going to raise up Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, and they would be taken under Babylon for 70 years (see Jeremiah 25:1-11). Then, in Jeremiah 27, God then warns other nations of the severe penalties if they don't serve Nebuchadnezzar and put themselves under Babylon's yoke ("I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the Lord, until I have consumed it by his hand."—vs. 8) He then warns His people that they will share the same fate if they, too, don't submit to His declaration or correction and punishment, "Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live. Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon? Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are saying to you, 'You shall not serve the king of Babylon,' for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you" (vs. 12–14).
So, when we arrive at Jeremiah 29 there are two very different groups among God's people! There are those who have submitted to His correction (like Daniel and his friends) and are in exile—exactly in a place God told them to be!—and those who are resisting His yoke and correction and remaining in the place they are. To the ones resisting and not submitting God sends very strong words. Starting with verse 16 it says, "thus says the Lord concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who dwell in this city, your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: 'Thus says the Lord of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten . . ." and it goes on from there.
However, to the ones, who are submitted and where He wants them to be, God has Jeremiah write to them the following: . . . 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; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 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. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. "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 wholeness 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 (verses 4–14).
What an amazing promise and hope Jeremiah 29:4–14 would have been to those in exile, where God wants them and submitted to Him! It would be a promise they could hold to and teach their children and look to and stand on. It had precepts about how they were to live, how they were to handle teaching they were given, and how they were to seek Him, but, being right where He wanted them and obeying His precepts, His promise to bring them back after seventy years and His promise of, "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." would have been an amazing comfort to them! One they could stand on, from a God who does not lie!
But, it must be said again, that promise wasn't for everyone of His people! As we saw, in the very same chapter He sends very harsh and dire words to the one who were not submitted to His yoke and correction and not in the place He wanted them! For them to stand on the Jeremiah 29:11 promise, or for someone to even offer it to them, would be a devastating lie leading to further entrenching in sin, not the repentance required. It is, I believe, a warning for us all. Given a promise from God we can stand on it with all confidence—but we MUST be assured it is for us and we have met the conditions of it, or we will be lured (or lure others) into a false comfort instead of a required adjustment, and that can be very, very dangerous!