I know, you were just passing on a Facebook meme that someone else sent to you. You filled in your favorite Bible verse, and the Facebook algorithm customized it as a personal promise to you in AD 2021. Maybe that’s okay, to borrow a promise God made to someone else in a totally different time, place and situation, but first you should make an effort to understand its original significance in the Bible.
You see, this was a word that came from the broken heart of the great prophet Jeremiah, who had suffered with his people through the most tragic collapse in their history. After a period of some hope under King Josiah, when the Laws of Moses were rediscovered after years of idolatry and moral decay, leading to a brief revival of faith in Judah, he watched with dismay as they sank back into the darkness of disbelief (2 Chronicles 34-36). God gave Jeremiah message after message, calling them back to embrace him and the spiritual destiny he had prepared for them, but his warnings were scoffed at and Jeremiah was rejected as a prophet. Meanwhile, after centuries of Middle Eastern dominance, the Assyrian Empire collapsed, and a powerful upstart took its place — the Babylonians, led by the mighty King Nebuchadnezzar.
Nebuchadnezzar offered the Kingdom of Judah good terms if they would submit to him, but the rise of Egyptian strength in the south tempted the next three kings after Josiah to assert their independence from Babylon. Jeremiah kept bringing warnings from God, but the leaders of Judah listened instead to some very persuasive false teachers. There were repeated acts of defiance by petty rulers jockeying for power, assisted by convenient “words from the Lord” brought by those false prophets.
It didn’t go well. First, Babylon soundly defeated Egypt in the decisive Battle of Carchemish. Now the unquestioned autocrat over the Middle East, Nebuchadnezzar decided to put pesky Judah in its place. The climax of repeated attacks came in 587 BC when the Babylonians overtook the City of Jerusalem, destroyed its walls and demolished the great Temple built by King Solomon. To make sure the rebellion was permanently squashed, King Nebuchadnezzar took all the leadership people, royalty, nobility, scribes and priests, to live in captivity in Babylon, where they could be closely watched. The only residents left in the homeland were the poor and powerless who were not considered a threat. And Jeremiah. Yes, he was still there. Because he had been advocating for the Jews to lay down their arms and submit to the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzar considered him an ally and offered him a privileged place if he joined the Jewish captivity community in Babylon. Instead, Jeremiah chose to stay with the poor remnant in Judah.
However, Jeremiah’s heart still went out to the people who had continually rejected his messages, and God kept giving him prophetic words to encourage them. That’s where Henry’s Bible verse comes in. It was part of a letter, preserved in Jeremiah 29, that the Prophet sent to the captive Jews in Babylon. The message was that GOD HADN’T GIVEN UP ON THEM! He still had a plan for their future; he still offered them hope and salvation.
After spending the next fifty years in captivity, the Jews were allowed by the Babylonians to return to their homeland, little by little. The Book of Ezra records the story of the construction (on a much smaller scale) of the Temple, and the Book of Nehemiah tells us how they were allowed to rebuild the city walls.
Jeremiah didn’t live to see his prophecies fulfilled. In spite of his warnings, there was another pathetic rebellion attempt in Jerusalem, followed by an exodus of many of the people to what they thought would be safety in Egypt. Jeremiah accompanied them. He continued to prophesy, and they continued to reject his warnings. Tradition tells us he was stoned to death by his own people in one dramatic final act of rejection.
So, Henry, this is the story you’re identifying with when you say Jeremiah 29:11 was written for you. Are you sure you want to embrace this tortured spiritual journey? It may take years of suffering and defeat before you see the fulfillment.
Modern believers, like Henry, often lift wonderful gems out of their Biblical context and claim them for themselves. I encourage you always to study the actual context in which promises were given. By doing this, you’ll avoid applying them in cheap and superficial ways, and you’ll also find rich layers of eternal truth that will magnify the meaning of the promise in your life.