Jeremiah 29:11 (ESV) … “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.”
Jeremiah 29:11 probably ranks as one of the most quoted and most claimed promises of the Bible. It is found in countless text calendars, pretty pictures and sacred ornaments. It is rightly trusted as a very precious word of assurance from God. But do we take note of its context? This is a surprising word of hope to a people who stood under God’s judgment. It is not a glib happy feeling: ‘God’s going to be nice to us all, me especially’ (we should note that the ‘you’ is plural, not individual—this is primarily a promise to the people as a whole).
It is rather the robust affirmation that even in and through the fires of judgment there can be hope in the grace and goodness of God. That is God’s ultimate plan and purpose. The promise stands firm, but it does not preclude or neutralize judgment. Rather it presupposes but transcends judgment.
What then should be the response to such a surprising word of amazing grace? Not gleeful celebration. Not mere relief: ‘Well that’s all right then; everything will turn out fine. Let’s have a party!’ Rather, the people are called to respond to the restoring grace of God with renewed prayer and seeking him (12–14). The language here is taken straight from Deuteronomy 4:29–31, which had anticipated just such a return to YHWH in the wake of the judgment of exile, and had promised that when Israel would thus return with all their heart and soul they would run into the arms of the God of forgiving grace. ‘For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your ancestors, which he confirmed to them by oath.’
We should notice the gospel of these verses, contained in the indicative verbs: then you will … and I will. The movement of the people’s heart to seek God is itself a gift of God’s grace, even while it is at the same time the necessary condition in which they can receive his grace. God’s grace gives what God demands. Similarly here, the statements you will seek me and find me and I will be found by you, are both promissory statements. They tell us that it is God’s supreme will to be found and known, and that is the only source of his people’s life and blessing.
Their hope lies in God’s willingness to be found, not in Israel’s ability to search.
And this time we know that Daniel was aware of Jeremiah’s words. Daniel tells us that, at some point in his study of Jeremiah’s prophecies, he understood that the ‘seventy years’ for Babylon must be coming to an end soon. And what was his reaction? Not to call in his friends for celebration, but to respond exactly as Jeremiah 29:12–14 portrayed, by seeking God in prayer and confession, appealing to God to act in forgiving and restoring grace, as God had said he would.
Here then was a surprising hope for the future that turned victims into visionaries. It enabled the exiles to look up and look forward and believe. They were not going to get the instant quick fix their prophets were dreaming of. But they could trust that God would be true to his promise and that there was a future for the coming generations of God’s people which (as we now know) would eventually be a future and hope for the nations.
The message of the whole letter could turn refugees, mourners and victims into resident missionary visionaries. And on such a foundation, the immediately following chapters will build an even richer tapestry of hope. The challenge is, which of those descriptions would fit the way we live as Christians in the unbelieving world that surrounds us today?