I was amazed when a Sunday School teacher taught my children to quote from memory Jer. 29:11. When I was four all I remember memorizing was “God is love.” Then thirty years later my kids were quoting this long verse. This past week I saw this verse written in four different contexts—it seems everyone is claiming this verse for themselves now.
It is a wonderful sentiment: “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’” We all derive strength and renewed hope from this verse. But let’s look at it in its context.
This promise is in the middle of a letter Jeremiah wrote to the discouraged exiles in Babylon. These people had been through horror. They had endured a siege on Jerusalem, with all its privations of no food or water for many months. They had endured the fear that threatened to drown them knowing that any day this invading army would breach the walls and probably slaughter them and their children. Then when the breach came they watched as many members of their families were in fact killed before their eyes. The ones who died were the fortunate ones—the survivors lived to relive the nightmare every day as their captors put them in chains and made them walk hundreds of miles to a foreign country. Now, in poverty, displaced to a foreign culture and language, they had to eek out some sort of “living”.
Into this bleak, discouraging existence Jeremiah sends this message. At first it seems to mock them—“plans for welfare and not calamity”? This is faring well? Where is the “future and hope” when your last image of your beloved home, Jerusalem, was seeing it go up in flames as soldiers ransacked the city and carried off anything of value?
To gain hope from this message, those exiles had to go on to verses 12 through 14: “‘Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord.”
Their situation did not change over night. They did not immediately return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem. In fact, many of them never lived to return from exile. Their children did, but seventy years would pass before that prophesy was fulfilled and most of the adults who went into captivity would die in exile.
In meditating on this scene, and trying to apply this promise that God has a future and a hope for me, I have gained much strength to persevere by seeing the context of this promise. The difficult things in my life may not change immediately just because I quote Jer. 29:11. But I am changed when I call upon the Lord and seek Him with all my heart. When I search for Him in that way—He is always there. I find Him, in the middle of my troubles. And for today, until He changes those circumstances, I find hope.