In Defense of Using Jeremiah 29:11

Jeremiah 29:11 has been stalking me. It is the theme scripture for a women’s prayer brunch at which I’ll be preaching later this fall. Jeremiah 29:4-14 was the focus passage for this year’s NEXT Church gathering in Minneapolis. My friend, the Reverend Casey Wait Fitzgerald at Faith and Wonder, who is a gifted biblical storyteller, produced a video for the conference in which she enlisted a slew of folks to tell the story of that passage. Guess which verse Yours Truly was given to recite. Actually, go ahead and look for yourself:

It’s a favorite and heavily-quoted passage of scripture, but not everyone is happy about how popular it is.

Many have rightfully and cogently encouraged readers of the Bible to consider the context of this passage before quoting it all willy nilly. In an article published in Relevant Magazine. Thomas Turner of International Justice Mission reminds us that the passage must be understood in the context of community. In other words, God isn’t speaking about the journey of an individual, but of an entire community. Oh yeah, let’s not forget that pesky 70 years detail mentioned in verse 10. Things might turn out alright, but it would be seven decades before that happened.

The use of Jeremiah 29:11 has even been criticized in internet memes. A few of my favorites:

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Listen, I get it. As someone who highly values sound biblical exegesis, I totally understand that, for many serious students of the Bible, hearing Jeremiah 29:11 quoted to speak to everything from a job loss to an unexpected illness is like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. I honor the call to contextualization. As a student of Dr. Cain Hope Felder, I’ll be the first to tell you that “Text without context is pretext.” But I’m also not convinced that this passage can’t faithfully be used to encourage someone through a personal (or communal) rough patch.

People who read the Bible for answers, comfort, or reassurance often read it with the intent of seeing into the heart and character of God. What is God like? What would God care about? Would a loving God be concerned about what I’m going through? What situations in the Bible would suggest that God cares?

Reading Jeremiah 29:11 in its context gives you insight not just into the setting of the passage, but into the character of the God who is speaking. It is our tendency to judge future behavior by past behavior. Even as the community in the text was in exile, and even as they would remain in exile for a long time, and even as this exile was largely their own fault, God’s intentions toward them were still for good. Perhaps what this suggests to the casual or careful reader is that if God’s ultimate plans in that difficulty were for good, then maybe God’s ultimate plans their own difficulties and uncomfortable places are for the same. If this is the same God we’re talking about, hopefully that same propensity toward restoration is present.

If reading Jeremiah 29:11 helps strengthen you in the face of a recent cancer diagnosis, or it helps you hold onto hope as you face foreclosure, then perhaps that’s not the time for me to regurgitate what I learned in Hebrew Bible classes. Perhaps the text is already working as it should. If given the choice between being pastoral and being pedantic in these cases, guess which one I’m going to choose.

4 thoughts on “In Defense of Using Jeremiah 29:11

  1. Thank you for breaking this down Pastor! I’m one of those people who has and will continue to use Jeremiah 29:11 all “willy nilly” but for the exact reasons you mentioned. I understand the scripture within it’s context and still decided to individualize it to apply to ME when I need the encouragement the most. IMHO, the reason why so many “babes in Christ” struggle in the beginning is because it is hard to relate to the Bible, especially in the OT, in a personal way. For me, to grow in my walk with Christ I had to figure out how to personalize my journey … so thats why I personalized J2911 … even with contextual understanding.

    1. I think some of us tend to forget that while not everyone in the church has a seminary degree, they’re not stupid. They can apply scripture to their lives in a faithful and informed way. Spirit enables them to do so! It’s a gift when we’re able to know what the Bible said and discern what it’s still saying.

  2. I feel like this, why WOULDN’T a loving God know the plans he has for me and want to give me a hope and a future – at both a individual and “village”/communal level? Just as each piece of the body makes up the whole, so does every individual within the community….at least that’s the way I look at it. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and Pastoral care your put into this post!

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. It’s important that we understand the context in which scripture is presented and how to “rightly divide” it. Though I agree that there is personal application not everyone will apply this or any scripture correctly. The gift may be given but not everyone will open the box. We do have our tendencies to lean to our own understanding instead of studying and gleaning truth.

    We must take care that we do not be carried away by every wind of doctrine, the slight of hand or word. It is refreshing to see such thoughtful discourse and I’m encouraged by it. I hope and pray that everyone will see the truth in these words and prayerfully submit to the Holy Spirit’s leading and guidance. Grace & Peace

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