Many Christians like to quote and claim the promises of Jeremiah 29:11-13. These verses bring assurance of prosperity and a bright future. They are words of hope and security. God said: Come tell me and I will answer. Come find me and I will be found. It greatly encourages us that if we pray with all our heart – believing that no harm is coming to us but only prosperity, it will be so.
But we need to know the context of these verses. To whom were they spoken? What were the circumstances of the people to which this message was given? Context is important in reading Bible verses because background knowledge helps us to apply correctly God’s words to our present day circumstances. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us to read attentively and reflect carefully what is the truth.
4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
(God is speaking to the exiles of Judah (the southern kingdom) whose capital was Jerusalem. These were the people brought into captivity by their enemy to Babylon. They were living in a foreign land under the rule of the Babylonian king.)
5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 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.
(To build houses, plant and eat from them imply staying a long time. This is not a temporary exile. They are told to marry and multiply – even from one generation to the next. To stay in a place beyond a generation means to take root in that place. Make it your home.)
7 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.”
(Since they are to call it their home, they need to seek the peace and prosperity of the place – the foreign land where they are exiled. Since it is now your home, pray for its peace and you too will enjoy peace. Pray for its success and you too will be successful.)
8 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. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.
(Do not be deceived by lies of the prophets who said there’s peace – staying in your own land.)
10 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.
(God was very specific. He even told them of a time frame. 70 years. After 70 years, God will bring them back home. Indeed God’s promises came true. Read more about the 70 years of exile from https://www.gotquestions.org/Babylonian-captivity-exile.html)
11 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 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.”
(And God also spoke to those who remained in their homeland – those who did not go into exile.)
15 You may say, “The Lord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,” 16 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— 17 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. 18 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. 19 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.
Is it not ironical that people in exile were promised prosperity and security while those who stayed behind were doomed to die by the sword, famine and plague. The exiles would enjoy peace and prosperity in enemy territory while those who ran from their enemy would be object of horror/scorn and reproach among nations where they ran to.)
Bottom line: God’s ways are not man’s ways. God’s thoughts are neither man’s. Our idea of peace and prosperity is quite different from God’s. God’s plan – not to harm, to give hope and a good future is not dependent upon circumstances of our lives. God’s plan is about his character – he knows what he’s doing. God’s promise is not about what we will do – it is about what he will do. His desire is for us to draw near to him – to call on him and seek him with all our heart. To seek him with our heart is to obey his call no matter the circumstances of our lives – even in exile – away from our comfort zone, even when all around us seem far from peaceful. His promise is that he will be near to us, he assures us that he will answer to our call. Answers might not be according to what we imagine the best to be – because God’s best is far far beyond the reach of our best.
God says ‘I know the plans I have for you.’ God knows – he wants us to call on him to reveal those plans to us… plans to draw us near to him – to seek him and love him with all our heart.