Dozens of Bible translations exist today with no single version commanding a majority of sales in bookstores. Among pastors, preferences vary widely among a half dozen dominant translations. Readers and pastors alike gravitate to different versions based on perceived accuracy, readability, style, and reputation. Not surprisingly, no consensus exists as to which Bible translation is best.
So when the Christian community overwhelmingly selects one translation to quote a particular Bible verse, we ought to ask why. Perhaps the most reasonable conclusion is that the preferred translation tells us what we want to hear – it underpins the narrative we choose to believe. The fact that so many churchgoers can quote the verse from memory reinforces this inference. But such a prodigious consensus should concern us when the espoused opinion aligns neatly with what our secular culture teaches. We ought to examine more closely any such verse to determine its true intent rather than hasten recklessly to a popular perspective that indulges our desires and biases.
Jeremiah 29:11 is such a verse. One of the most recognized and oft-quoted Old Testament verses, 29:11 plays a prominent role in how many Christians define and live their faith. Unfortunately, its influence flows from a misunderstanding of its meaning. A little context around the verse is instructive. The people of Israel are living in exile in Babylon and are disheartened. The Lord has just informed them that they will remain there for seventy years. As encouragement He reminds them of two things in verse 11, their exile is part of His plan and those plans reflect their best interest. It is a difficult message to digest because it goes against the prevailing view that God will rescue His people quickly and keep them from suffering.
Let’s look at several translations of the verse. The NASB states: “’For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’” The NKJV versions explains it like this: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Finally, the NLT translates the verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” [I’ve highlighted the key word difference in each].
All three translations make clear that God’s plans offer hope and are for the welfare/good/peace of the Israelites. But first they must endure seventy years of captivity (see verse 10). All is clear, right? Well, not so fast. Instead of understanding the verse as it’s intended, many believers embrace an entirely different message using the NIV translation. “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 hope and a future.” (Emphasis added). We focus on the word ‘prosper’ and insist it means that God wants His followers to enjoy wealth and prosperity. That perspective, however, fails to understand the context. It ignores the fact that their exile will continue, which is not at all what they want. So God shares a truth we would do well to remember: His plan often runs counter to our desires but is in our long-term interest. Therefore, we should never lose hope.
Frequently, we dismiss that truth. Why allow context and intent to distract us from the message we want to glean from Scripture? We want a God who blesses us with prosperity, coddles us with comfort, and frees us from discomfort. So we scour the Bible for verses that reinforce that mindset and validate our yearnings. If the truth gets lost in the process, so be it. That’s a small price to pay for enjoying a message that tickles our ears.
Sadly, the predominant view of Jeremiah 29:11 is predicated on deceit, just like the false teaching of the prophet Hananiah earlier in chapter 28. He dies two months after pontificating lies in the name of the Lord. He had told the people of Israel that, according to the word of the Lord, God would rescue them from captivity within two years. His deception cost him his life. It is a valuable lesson. We need to exercise caution in deciding who and what to believe. Pastors must diligently teach the truth, irrespective of whether people agree.
One reason the prevailing view of 29:11 finds such an enthusiastic audience in this country is because it fits with the American dream. We want to enjoy ‘the good life’ as much as our unbelieving neighbors. We want the American dream and God’s will to be one and the same. But they are not and nothing in Scripture supports such a position.
I encourage readers to examine Jeremiah 29:11 on their own. Read through the entirety of chapters 28 and 29 to understand the context and learn what God is saying to His people. Study several translations to glean the message. Most of all, resist the temptation to interpret the verse through the lens of your fleshly desires. Instead, ask the Lord to reveal His truth to you through His Holy Spirit. As you do, His word will come alive in a way you may never have experienced.