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.
Today is my 37th birthday. I decided to search for bible verses about birthdays, and one of the most frequent to come up in my search (i.e. If you exclude those on the birth of Christ) was Jeremiah 29:11. It is such a beautiful verse filled with immense hope, and I wanted to look into the context of it. Conduct a Google search of Jeremiah 29:11 and you’re likely to see it referred to as “the most misinterpreted verse in the Bible.” This verse gets this moniker for a reason.
This verse, quoted to countless individuals who are struggling with discerning God’s will for them, is not written to individuals at all. This passage is written to a whole group of people—the exiled Jewish people in Babylon. The “you” in Jeremiah 29:11 is actually plural and if it had been written by an American southerner instead of the prophet Jeremiah it would say “y’all” instead of you.
We need to let the Bible speak to us, as God intended for it to do. We should not allow our own personal bent to speak into the Scriptures. The propensity for people to take verses out of context and to allow their personal bent to be applied to verses is one of the reasons that homosexuality is condemned by modern Christians. Context matters—God speaks at a particular moment in time, to a particular people group, for a reason.
What this means is that God has plans for a whole group of people, in this instance, the Jewish exiles. And if we read on in the Scriptures we find that this promise was fulfilled: those in exile returned, and the Hebrew nation was restored for a time. God made a promise through the prophets, and that promise came true.
But that’s not the end of the story, either. There is something to the out-of-context prescriptions that so many make using this verse. God is a God of redemption, after all, and He wants to redeem people and put them on a path of wholeness, just as He wanted the Hebrew nation to be redeemed and whole again.
Biblical scholars have said that in this passage, the Jeremiah is speaking not just of historical redemption, for that period in time, but also of “future redemption.” For the Israelites, God listened to their prayers when they sought Him with all their heart, and in His time, He brought them out of exile. But how does any of this apply to us today? Can we still take heart in such a beautiful promise—even though it was spoken to people long ago, people in a far different situation than ours?
First and foremost, we are all in this together. This verse does not apply to isolated individuals or to a broad community. It applies to both, together, functioning as one. The image painted here is one of individuals in community, like the Body of Christ which Paul talks about. Here are a people, worshiping God together, hoping for a future redemption.
We don’t need to be exiles living in Babylon to faithfully appropriate Jeremiah 29:11, but let’s remember something about this chapter when we quote verse 11. First, it was written to people in incredible pain, more than most of us will ever experience. They were mourning death, a move, and a transition to enslavement all at once. And yet into that context, God can still speak words of hope. That’s amazing.
I think when we apply this verse to a group who is downtrodden and seem to be without hope, this verse becomes even more powerful. As LGBT Christians and our allies, we often find ourselves exiled from the church, but that does not mean that we should be kept from our communion with God. God is so much more powerful, loving, and understanding than humans are. He created us the way we are, and we must love and worship Him. We must not give up on our faith because of the things men do, but we should believe in the redemptive power of God. Jeremiah is sending a message to all those in exile to keep the faith, because God knows the plans He has for us, and these are plans for welfare and not for evil, to give us a future and a hope.
And on one final note, as I was looking up verses for birthdays, I came across a site called BirthVerse (http://www.birthverse.com), where a group has gone through the Bible matching up numerical birth dates with chapter and verse in books of the Bible and has chosen a inspirational verse for each day of the year. My BirthVerse happens to be Proverbs 11:30, which reads:
The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and he who wins souls is wise.