After God redeemed Israel from Egypt, he cut a covenant with them at Mount Sinai. The covenant terms were simple: blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience. For almost a thousand years, the people repeatedly violated the covenant. Finally, when their sin was full, God sent the Babylonians to destroy Israel and to uproot them from the Promised Land to make them slaves in Babylon. In the midst of their misery in exile, Jeremiah sent them a letter with these instructions from the covenant God:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters . . . multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:5–7).
In their captivity in a strange, foreign land, the Israelites were to live “normal” lives and be part of the Babylonian culture and society. They were to be there for the long haul, so they were to pray and work for the peace and prosperity of Babylon, since their own welfare depended on the welfare of their masters.
But God was not done with Israel, because he had a promise of hope for them in 29:10: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” After seventy years of captivity, God will bring a remnant back to the Promised Land.
And then he continues with the oft-misinterpreted verse 11: from eternity past, he already had a plan for a future full of hope. He will not forget his covenant with their forefathers. In fact, he has a better covenant prepared for his people, unlike the covenant that their forefathers broke (Jer. 31:31–32). Through a better mediator, namely Christ, who will himself be the once-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 8:6; 9:26), God “will write [his law] on their hearts . . . and they shall all know me” (31:33). In the new covenant, God’s people will never be banished again into slavery to sin.
Jeremiah 29:11 then is not a promise to the man on the street that God loves him, that God has “a wonderful plan” for his life, and that “God hates his sin, but loves him the sinner.” On the contrary, he needs to realize that God “hates all evildoers” and has a terrible plan for his life—if he does not repent from his sin (Psalm 5:5–6). If you could know that someone would be one of the “dogs” outside the heavenly city, would you still tell him that God “has a wonderful plan for his life”?
This verse is not even God’s promise to believers that he has “a great plan for our lives”—it was a promise of restoration to Israelites in exile 1,500 years ago. It is not a promise of health and wealth to Christians.
It must also be noted that God’s promise was a future of hope—not in Babylon—but in the Promised Land. They were to avoid settling in for good in Babylon, where they were only pilgrims in exile. Like their father Abraham, their hope was to be on a permanent dwelling-place in a city “whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10–11).
Like our father Abraham, we are to set our minds on heavenly things (Col. 3:2), for although we are still in this world, our future and our hope are not in this world, but in the new heaven and earth, where God will dwell with his people forever (Rev. 21:1–3).
Rev. Malabuyo is an associate pastor of Trinity URC in Walnut Creek, CA, and serves as a missionary to the Philippines.