God deeply cares for us and desires to give us good things. On social media I see a lot of memes with one of our favorite verses, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” (Jeremiah 29:11) In fact, this verse has been used by many a prosperity preacher to tell you that God wants to bless you with riches, implying that He wants to give us blessings now. In the passage this is taken from, the Lord indeed told the Israelites that He wanted to bless them, but was certainly not talking about blessing them immediately, nor because they had a personal desire.
What is important to remember when praying a verse to the Lord, is to understand the meaning within the context of the verse. To understand the context, we need to go back a couple of chapters in Jeremiah where the Lord instructs the king of Judah to yield to the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar: “‘With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and its people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him. All nations will serve him and his son and his grandson until the time for his land comes; then many nations and great kings will subjugate him. If, however, any nation or kingdom will not serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon or bow its neck under his yoke, I will punish that nation with the sword, famine and plague’, declares the Lord, ‘until I destroy it by his hand.'” (Jer. 27:5-8)
They are further instructed not to listen to prophets that the Lord didn’t send: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Do not listen to the prophets who say, ‘Very soon now the articles from the Lord’s house will be brought back from Babylon.’ They are prophesying lies to you. Do not listen to them. Serve the king of Babylon, and you will live. Why should this city become a ruin?'” (Jer. 27:16-17) The Lord made clear that He was in control of the king of Babylon, and that His people were to serve that king in order to serve Him.
And then a false prophet (Hananiah) persuaded the priests and all the people in the House of the Lord to trust in lies. “Then the prophet Jeremiah said to Hananiah the prophet, ‘Listen, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies. Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the Lord.” In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died.” (Jer. 28:15-17)
Then Jeremiah sent the following letter to the people Nebuchadnezzar carried into exile, in order to instruct them how to live in captivity: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’” (Jer. 29:4-7) Life cannot grind to a halt during troubled times. We may find it difficult to pray for those in authority if they seem evil, but that is when our prayers are needed most (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We need to pray diligently and keep moving ahead instead of giving up due to fear and uncertainty.
He tells them how they should live and then warns them: “Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,’ declares the Lord.” (Jer. 29:8-9)
And then He gives them hope for a future: “This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to 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 will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.'” (Jer. 29:10-14)
The Lord didn’t forget His people, even though they were captive in Babylon. He planned to give them a new beginning with a new purpose–to turn them into new people. Does it feel as if God has forgotten you? The Lord never forgets His children, but He does use uncomfortable circumstances to test our faith and prepare us (as He did the Israelites) for a new beginning with Him at the center. Let’s look again at everyone’s favorite verse and the two verses that follow: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.'” (Jer. 29:11-13)
And right here is where we see that the Lord isn’t a vending machine ready to pass out blessings because you “name and claim” them. He has plans for us — He wants to use us for His purposes. “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Gal. 5:13-14) He continues in His letter: “‘I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.'” (Jer. 29:14)
Now if we stopped reading the story right there, we would see a happy ending for the Israelites in captivity and those who were still in Jerusalem. They would be reminded that the Lord is their God, they will pray to Him, seek Him, find Him and He will bring them back to Jerusalem healthy, wealthy, happy and wise. Instead, they are reminded of what the Lord said back in chapters 27 and 28 (reread paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 if you need to). “You may say, ‘The Lord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,’ but this is what the Lord says about the king who sits on David’s throne and all the people who remain in this city, your fellow citizens who did not go with you into exile—yes, this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them. For they have not listened to my words,’ declares the Lord, ‘words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either,’ declares the Lord.” (Jer. 29:15-19) I encourage you to finish reading the chapter on your own.
So in light of what we have read in the story, how do now you see “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” ? I read about a loving, faithful and just God who has plans for each of us. Plans to carry out His purposes; to make each of us an integral part of His story. He prepares the way, our hearts and makes provisions for us to be able to carry out His will, but He requires our obedience. Our Sovereign Lord is in control, and we are not. “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” (Proverbs 19:21)