AUDIO VERSION: YouTube Podbean
As is often the case, the original context of this sunny little verse is very dark and gloomy. Jerusalem has just fallen and many of her people have been dragged away by the terrifying and ruthless Babylonian army. Jeremiah 29:11 is part of a longer speech which Yahweh is directing at the terrified exiles. They are now living in a foreign land, anxiously waiting for Yahweh to come and rescue them. Indeed, God will be bringing them back to the original Promised Land—but not until seventy long years have passed, and this is the grim news that He is breaking to the Jews in this passage.
In Jeremiah 29:4-7, Yahweh tells the exiles that they should marry and settle down in their new and very undesirable home. As for the prophets who are running around promising that Yahweh will deliver His people from the nasty Babylonians, He says:
“Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in My Name. I have not sent them,” declares Yahweh. (Jer. 29:8-9)
Of course the people want God to rescue them. But His immediate answer is tough. After all, they’ve been rebelling against Him for decades and they refused to repent no matter how many prophets He raised up to warn them that this exile would happen. So now they’re going to have to just deal with the hardships until their period of discipline is over.
“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares Yahweh, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares Yahweh, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you, and I will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jer. 29:10-14)
Seventy years is a long time. Many of the people who originally heard this message would die in captivity. Just as Yahweh predicted their exile long before it happened, He is predicting their freedom very far in advance—much too far for many. Notice the if-then condition of the promises in this verse. If the people come back to God with their hearts and call on Him, then He will listen. If they seek Him with all their hearts (which they haven’t done for decades), then He will be found by them.
When we put verse 11 back into context, we realize that it is not some blanket promise for future blessings, nor does it have anything to do with modern day Christians. Like most promises in the Bible, this was directed at a specific audience and is referring to a specific set of historical events.
While verse 11 can’t be used as a promise for Christians, it is a humbling reminder of God’s gracious attitude towards us. We can only appreciate this when we realize that this verse is directed at defiant, spit-in-your-eye rebels who have been wallowing in vile idolatry and purposely reveling in everything Yahweh hates for a very long time. These people deserve to be struck down by lightning and cast into Hell for the way they have desecrated God’s Temple with hideous idols, murdered His prophets, and mocked every command He ever gave them. Even in exile, the Israelites refused to repent of their sins. Yet while they are still defying Him, Yahweh is giving them reason to hope that their current situation will improve. What an incredibly gracious God.