Jeremiah 29:11 ranks high on the list of favorite Old Testament scriptures. As much as we love it, do we really understand how much it promises? “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.” (NIV)
“Prosper” translates the Hebrew word shalom, a word (a noun, by the way) so rich it has no good English equivalent. It usually appears in English translations as “peace.” In fact, many English translations of Jeremiah 29:11 say, “plans for peace” or something similar.
Here, according to the Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew lexicon is the meaning of shalom:
completeness, soundness, welfare, peace
- completeness (in number)
- safety, soundness (in body)
- welfare, health, prosperity
- peace, quiet, tranquility, contentment
- peace, friendship
- of human relationships
- with God especially in covenant relationship
- peace (from war)
- peace (as adjective)
Take some time now to reread Jeremiah 29:11, substituting each English word in the list for “prosper” in the NIV translation. Since shalom is a noun, it will be an easier substitution if you pretend the NIV said “for prosperity” instead of “to prosper.” That entire list of nouns is what God plans for his people. That is what God plans for you.
Is that what you see in your life? Does that describe your experience? If not, you can either reject the promise as untrue, which means falling into unbelief, or you can use it to stretch your faith and believe God and have a vibrant, living hope that you will experience shalom (peace, prosperity, etc.) in the foreseeable future.
Or, to state the same challenge from another scripture: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19, NIV). In other words, when God speaks, he gives you two choices and even tells you which to choose.
Shalom in contextJeremiah 29:10, 29:12, or any verses but 29:11 do not rank high on the list of favorite Old Testament scriptures. Millions of Christians and Jews have probably quoted and claimed Jeremiah 29:11 without ever considering its context. And as someone has observed, a text without a context is a pretext. So let’s at least look at the preceding and following verses.
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. 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.
Jeremiah spoke to a corrupt people, led by a succession of corrupt kings and priests who had hardened their hearts against the commandments of God. God had promised punishment, and it was Jeremiah’s job to proclaim that punishment.
Take a look at the entire 29th chapter of Jeremiah. The punishment had already begun. King Jehoiakim had died, and his son Jehoiachin, his designated successor, had been taken as captive to Babylon. False prophets both in Jerusalem and Babylon told everyone not to worry. God would soon defeat the Babylonians. The king and exiles would return to Jerusalem, and everything would be hunky dory.
That’s not what God had in mind. Here’s how Jeremiah explained how the exiles in Babylon would receive that shalom (peace, prosperity, etc.):
- Settle down in Babylon.
- Raise families there, have lots of babies, and grow in numbers.
- Pray for the shalom (peace, prosperity, etc.) of Babylon and reap the benefit of Babylon’s shalom as long as you live there.
- Exile will last 70 years.
- In other words, most of the exiles receiving Jeremiah’s letter would not live to see the end of the exile. All of those children he told them to have would return to Jerusalem after the fulfillment of the 70 years.
So who, in verse 12, will call upon God, pray to him, and be assured that he will listen? Only those who believed the word of Jeremiah and prayed for shalom not only for themselves, but also for the people who caused them to live in unwelcome circumstances.
In other words, God promises shalom (peace, prosperity, etc.), but not the immediate restoration of the circumstances in which people would prefer to experience it!
If you do not experience shalom (peace, prosperity, etc.) in all of its varied richness in your current circumstances, then pray for it. Pray not only for yourself and your loved ones, but also those who appear as your adversaries. Do not wait for outward circumstances to suit your preferences before you turn to God for shalom.
God has planned shalom (peace, prosperity, etc.) for your future, but you will benefit from his plans only if you start living out shalom now.