Scripture in Context: Jeremiah 29:11
Words by Audrey Ann Masur // Image by Dianne Jago
“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
It’s a well-loved verse easily found on graduation cards and other kinds of Christian paraphernalia, from magnets to wall decor. There’s no mystery as to why we like how Jeremiah 29:11 sounds. But do we understand what it means? When reading any verse in the Bible, we should look at its context—from the chapter, to the book, to the grand and overarching story of the Bible, which is the story of God and his people. Considering the historical time period and setting, we ask questions like, “To whom was this written and why?” We are then able to better understand what the verse means, what it tells us about God, and how we can apply that truth to our lives.
With 52 chapters full of curses and sadness, the book of Jeremiah was written circa 627–586 B.C. to Judah (a group of God’s people, the Jews). They had turned from God, followed their hearts, and through the encouragement of their former King Ahaz, had given themselves to terrible acts like child sacrifice and idol worship.
Reading through Jeremiah is moving and full of emotion. It’s a heavy book of God’s impending judgment for a people group that continually rebels and listens to false prophets offering false hope of quick rescue from the Babylonians. The prophet Jeremiah mourns this, pleads to God for them, and pleads with God’s people to listen.
In the beginning we read of the preparation of Jeremiah (ch.1), a heroic prophet who lived an extremely difficult life full of trials and pain. He makes many proclamations to Judah (ch. 1–29) full of curses and heaviness, with assurance of eventual deliverance. Following is the hope of Judah’s eventual New Covenant restoration along with her more immediate doom (ch. 30–45).
The book finishes with proclamations of judgment on the nations (ch. 46–51) and the fall of Jerusalem (ch. 52). Whew, that’s quite a lot!
Our verse is found in chapter 29, a letter from Jeremiah to the exiles—specifically the leaders. What a relief to get to the part about hope. God is letting them know that even though he is punishing them for their disobedience, he still loves them, and there is hope for their future.
David Guzik said, “It was easy for [the Jews] to think that God was against them; that he intended evil for them. Through Jeremiah, God assured them that his thoughts toward them were of peace.[...]This promise was made to ancient Jews under the Babylonian exile, but they express the unchanging heart of God toward his people.” Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse nestled just past the middle of a very long book. It’s one line in a letter to God’s people that reveals the character, love, and steadfastness of our God, even though he cursed his people for their disobedience.
With much feeling and moving literature, the book of Jeremiah recounts historical events and a conversation between God, Jeremiah, and the people of Judah. There is a lot there, and we’d be remiss to just glance at one verse instead of studying the verse in light of its greater context. Respecting the Bible as a book (that includes 66 distinct books) with historical contexts and an overarching message will help us read and apply it properly.
Jewish philosopher and rabbi Abraham Heschel once said to Christians, “It seems puzzling to me how greatly attached to the Bible you seem to be and yet how much like pagans you handle it. The great challenge to those of us who wish to take the Bible seriously is to let it teach us its own essential categories; and then for us to think with them, instead of just about them.”
There’s nothing wrong with loving this verse or having it on your wall. It shows the character of God and his love for his people. And yet, the danger in just focusing on certain verses is that we miss out on Bible literacy and really never grasp the big picture of the Bible and how God reveals himself through it. When we approach God’s Word the right way, we can learn more about the glory of God, what is actually meant for us, and how to live in light of it.
Author’s note: Historical and contextual research for this article was aided by The John MacArthur Study Bible.