Recently, I heard a sermon in church on the story of Esther, the central thrust of which was to point out the variety of ways in which Yahweh so providentially ordered her circumstances so as to turn her rather desperate situation into one of victory and deliverance. As far as it goes, this point was well taken. But toward the end of the sermon the pastor, in attempting to bridge the gap between Esther’s context and his modern audience, quoted the infamous Jer. 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope“). He then informed the congregation that he believed that Mordecai in all likelihood would’ve brought to mind this truth (or something like it) to Esther as he gave her council in and through her desperate situation. And furthermore, like Esther, those of us in the congregation could apply this promise for ourselves in our desperate situations.
On the contrary, such a claim, though so ubiquitous and oft repeated, is completely mistaken for a variety reasons:
The context of Jeremiah 29 is about the pending judgment that the southern kingdom of Judah was about to succumb to and God’s promise that after this exile and captivity the people of Israel would be restored in the land from where they were exiled, in fulfillment of the promise made to them in the Mosaic Covenant (Deut. 30:1-5). In Esther’s case, she was living in Persia during the reign of Xerxes and indeed would have been one of the exiles referred to in the passage. However, Jer. 29:11 does not have anything to do with God’s plan for saving or redeeming individual persons from their calamities and life circumstances, and thus cannot be immediately applicable to Esther’s case (i.e. If Esther had not been selected and remained in the harem her whole life and died at an early age, the promise would still be valid to Israel as a nation).
But if it does not apply to Esther, it certainly is not directly applicable to us either. The “you” being referred to is not a generalized second person designation that can refer to anyone you like. The “you” is the same group mentioned in Jer. 29:4, i.e. “all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” In other words, the “plans for welfare” being referred to are clearly speaking of God’s intention for restoring the people of Israel to the land from which they currently sojourn (again in fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant), meaning that his promise is not something that we can claim for ourselves any more than the promise made a little further on in Jer. 29:17 “behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten” (why doesn’t anyone ever put this on a graduation card?). This is a special promise that God is making to particular members of a particular group who were obliged to uphold the parameters of a particular covenant. People in the church today are not among these members nor this group nor are they obliged to uphold the statutes of this covenant.
One might argue that we can make the same application from other passages (i.e., a right sermon wrong passage kind of situation), but even then the prospects are dubious. There is a good reason why prosperity teachers love to quote Jer. 29:11, i.e., they have correctly identified that the context of Jer. 29 is primarily material blessing. Israel is being ousted from their land, severed of their family ties, dispossessed of their wealth, and divested of their livelihoods, all in fulfillment of God’s promised curse identified in Deut. 28-29. It’s true that all believers do have a future and a hope when they enter into the eternal state and perfect justice is enacted. But God has not guaranteed in the slightest that if his people are exiled from their land or become slaves or find themselves the victims of gross injustice that we or our progeny after us should expect to be ultimately restored in the same way Israel is being guaranteed in Jer. 29.
As believers we should take the teaching of the word of God very seriously. We all know that there is a temptation, and anyone who preaches regularly has felt it, to take verses out of context because they prima facie seem like they support the message that we want to preach. Preachers especially should to be held to a higher standard. Too often messages are built by first deciding what theme is to be taught on, and then look for scripture to support it. It should be the other way around: the sermon chiefly needs to flow out of whatever scripture happens to be theme of the teaching. Many people in the pews approach the Bible as a quasi-mystical, egocentric self-help book, and we do them no favors by quoting passages like Jer. 29:11 in isolation of the hermeneutical considerations necessary to handle it correctly. There are important truths in Jeremiah that should be learned and assimilated by believers, however, these are too often lost and never fully grasped because the preacher would rather repeat simplistic slogans rather than exegete and proclaim the word of God in it’s fullness. Unless and until preachers take this responsibility seriously Christians will continue to insert this passage on graduation cards and throw pillows, ignorantly attempting to claim a promise for themselves that God never issued.