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Bible Verses That Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean Jeremiah 29:11

The handsome TV preacher looks like a model, his mane of hair sculpted high and his teeth gleaming like a set of newly-polished bowling pins. He stares earnestly into the camera, a sincere twinkle in his eye as he chirps, “The blessings of heaven are all yours! Just sow your seed into this ministry and you will experience health and prosperity. Yes, it’s all yours today with a generous gift!”

Did you know that such “prosperity gospel” messages are heard by a third of American Protestant churchgoers? Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, discovered in a 2008 survey that a “significant group of churches seem to teach that donations trigger a financial response from God.” A version of the prosperity gospel focuses on health and wellness, teaching that faith in Jesus (and perhaps a nice donation) will assure that any disease or deformity will leave your body.

Is this scriptural? Some believe so, quoting Jeremiah 29:11 as proof: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. ‘”

But does this verse really teach health and wealth? Is it enough just to claim a Bible promise and believe it will happen?

Remember what I wrote in the first two posts of this series: context, context, context. When was this verse written and under what circumstances? What did the author intend when he wrote it? Do certain English words lose something in the translation? With that in mind, let’s explore Jeremiah 29:11.

No Quick Fixes

Jeremiah wrote this pronouncement in the shambles of catastrophe. King Nebuchadnezzar had sieged Jerusalem, breached the walls, and ransacked the Temple. In 587 BC, he deported the Judean upper class to Babylon, leaving the poor of the land to fend for themselves. When the prophet wrote what would become Jeremiah 29:11, the Jews were looking at 70 years of exile. Many of them would never see the prophecy fulfilled. 

This is a far cry from “name it and claim it,” isn’t it? There were no quick fixes here, no rosy dawn on the horizon. God was calling an entire nation to trust Him during a time of uncertainty. There were false prophets back then who promised otherwise, just as there are now. One of these prophets was named Hananiah. He told the people that the yoke of Babylon would be removed in two years with all the sacred treasures returned to the Temple. It didn’t happen. Hananiah died that same year.

Be careful what you prophesy!

False Profit

Most of us want our problems worked out by the end of the day, not the end of a century. Such impatience works in favor of false prophets, who guarantee false profits to the desperate and helpless. “If you have enough faith or give a generous gift,” they say, “you will be blessed!”  But God is God, not a slot machine that pays out every time you want Him to.

But what about the promise of prosperity that God made in Jeremiah 29:11? you might ask. This is where word studies are important. When a Western ear hears “prosperity,” the mind conjures up images of cash, stocks and bonds, fancy cars, a successful business. Material wealth is not what the word means in Hebrew. Jeremiah used shalom, a multi-faceted word that means peace, wholeness, well-being, harmony. 

There are a lot of rich people in this world who do not possess shalom. Oil tycoon J. Paul Getty once lamented, “I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting marital success.” A 2018 Purdue University study found that a lot of wealthy people aren’t happy because they keep buying more, believing that they need one more material thing to bring them satisfaction. Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, who has studied the lifestyles of high net-worth families, calls this the “treadmill effect.” 

The person who experiences true prosperity is the one who prospers in his or her soul. Cultivating inner peace, courage, wisdom, kindness, patience and humility refines the character in a way money simply cannot do. This is why Jesus pointedly taught, ““Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”” (Luke 12:15).

End Game

In the end, God kept His promise to restore Israel. After 70 years in a foreign land, King Cyrus of Persia ascended to power, releasing the Jews from exile. In the first wave that returned to Israel, Zerubbabel led the rebuilding of the Temple. Eighty years later, Ezra the priest instituted religious reform. It took another Persian king, Artaxerses, to release Nehemiah from royal service so he could supervise the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. At that time, nearly a century had passed since Cyrus issued his edict of freedom.

For those who wait upon the Lord, the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 can be claimed today. We just have to be careful of how we claim it. If you think God guarantees that you will get what you want when you want it, you are surely in for painful disappointment. In times of trial, what God does promise is hope; hope that a future with Him is worth seeking. He is and always will be Emmanuel, God With Us. For those of us who follow Jesus, we can be assured that we will never be alone as orphans, broken and alone. He promised to come to those who call Him, living with them and in them. If we remain in Him as a branch remains on the vine, we will bear much fruit. He will give us things the world can never give (John 14:15-18, 27; John 15:5). 

It is malpractice for any spiritual leader to use Jeremiah 29:11 (or any other scripture, for that matter) to promise people riches and a pleasant, trouble-free life. What really matters is our relationship to God, even when we don’t get everything we ask for.

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