At the time, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what that verse really meant. Of course, I knew the words – it is perhaps one of the most recognizable passages of Scripture after John 3:16. But I, like many Canadian Baptists, have held a broken and counterfeit understanding of one of the most profound promises of the Bible.
Previously, I thought of this verse as an optimistic Christian cheer. “Look up, God has a plan and your life is going to be great!” But that interpretation of Jeremiah 29:11 could not be further from the truth. The significance of this passage is something far more important than what many of us have made out of it.
To truly understand the promise of Jeremiah 29:11, we need to go back to the story that preceded it in Jeremiah 28. God’s people are living in crisis. Displaced from their homes and placed under the oppression of Babylon, where the people of Judah are living in exile. Babylon, the centre of pagan worship, is the antithesis of Jerusalem. The exilic community is desperate for God’s rescue and return. And the false prophet Hananiah is essentially telling the people what they wanted to hear: Don’t worry, God will break the yoke of Babylon, deliver us and return us home in two years. Hananiah is looking for a short cut, a quick resolution to the crisis, and a return to the old way of life.
At first, Jeremiah cautions Hananiah. But after some time of seeking God’s direction, Jeremiah calls out Hananiah’s lie. The people will not be rescued from captivity in two years, their belongings will not be returned, and God is actually calling them to settle in Babylon for the long term. In fact, Jeremiah tells them that God’s deliverance back to their homeland will not take place for another 70 years. This meant that the generation receiving his letter would live and die in Babylon.
Jeremiah’s message would not have felt like good news. Listen to the words of instruction that the prophet gives to this community bearing the hardship of loss and displacement.