QUESTION: Can Christians biblically use Jeremiah 29:11 today? I think the verse is overused. Was not this verse given to God's people for a specific time? I believe God is a good God, but pleasant things do not always happen to us. I like to think, "Yes, God is good, and what happens, good or bad, is for my good and God's glory." Your thoughts?
ANSWER: Thanks for your good question. You point out a common error that some believers make. It reminds me of a little chorus we used to sing in Sunday School when I was a boy. It begins, "Every promise in the Book is mine, / Every chapter, every verse, every line." But that is simply not true--or it needs to be qualified carefully.
Proper hermeneutics (the interpretation of the Scriptures) requires that we consider the historical context of each passage. All the Bible was written for us, in the sense that it all has things to teach us from which we can "profit" (II Tim. 3:16-17). But not all of it was written directly to us. Did the Lord command us to build an ark? Or fight some Midianites? To fail to consider who a passage was written to, for what reason, and under what circumstances, is to make a muddle of Bible study.
One of the important distinctions we need to keep in mind is the one between Israel and the church. Israel is an earthly nation, with a land promised them forever, by God, and an earthly throne. The church is a spiritual body made up of all nations, with the ascended Christ as its Head. As Christians, our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), not on earth. Israel is God's earthly people, the church is God's heavenly people.
Some today espouse what's called "Replacement Theology," that denies that Israel has any future in the program of God (which it does, Rom. 11:28-29). They believe instead that the church has replaced Israel and has taken over her promised blessings in a figurative sense.
This then opens the door to a subjective spiritualizing of the Old Testament promises to Israel. So, for example, when the Bible tells us to "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem" (Ps. 122:6), it means we are to pray for the church. In spite of the fact that the next verse talks about city walls (vs. 7), we are to make this a prayer for spiritual blessing on the body of Christ!
I'll get to Jeremiah 29:11 in a moment. But you speak of the verse as being overused. Another verse that has been definitely overused and blatantly misapplied by Christians is Second Chronicles 7:14, which says: "If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."
Yes, we need to humble ourselves before God (I Pet. 5:6-7); and yes, many individuals need spiritual renewal (Rom. 12:2). But this wonderful verse in Second Chronicles often is appropriated wholesale by Christians today, some even going so far as to apply it to their own nation (whether the United States, Canada, or some other). The thought is that, if only we would pray earnestly and humbly, the Lord would not only restore us spiritually, but cause our nation to prosper materially as well.
But it is Israel that is "called by God's name," the "el" portion of their God-given name being short for Elohim. And the promise concerns the conditions under which they can enjoy the blessings of the land God has given them. If the Jews refused to obey God, He warned, "Then I will uproot them from My land which I have given them" (II Chron. 7:20).
No other nation on earth can fully apply these words, because no other has been designed to be a theocratic state with a divinely appointed territory which is theirs in perpetuity. While it is true that humble prayer and repentance will bring God's blessing to God's people today, we mustn't wrench the text from its moorings and rob it of its primary application.
However, having said this, I go back to what I said earlier. All Scripture was not written directly to us, but it has been preserved for our profit. There are examples to learn from, and universal life-principles illustrated on every page. For example, the command to build an ark was given to Noah, not to us. But the blessing of obedience to God that he experienced can be ours too, if we do what He wants us to do.
With that in mind, let's look at Jeremiah 29:11, first in its context. "Thus says the LORD: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. 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" (Jer. 29:10-11).
The historical context is the captivity of the Jews in Babylon. It was to last for seventy years (which it did). Then the Jews were to be allowed to return to the Holy Land (which they were). That is the primary application of the text. However, there is nothing in verse 11 itself that applies to Israel exclusively, or applies only to that time on the other side of the cross. It is given a direct application to Israel in the context, but its principles can be applied generally without doing violence to the meaning.
The NET Bible renders verse 11, "I know what I have planned for you,' says the Lord. ‘I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.'" And is that not true for every child of God today? Ronald Knox paraphrases, "‘I have not lost sight of My plan for you,' the Lord says, ‘and it is your welfare I have in mind, not your undoing; for you, too, I have a destiny and a hope.'"
As you note in your question, we Christians definitely go through some trying times in our lives, and face many different challenges. But you're correct in stating that whatever happens is for our good as His children (Rom. 8:28), and for God's own glory (Rom. 11:36). Even so, given our weakness, it's possible to get down and discouraged sometimes. I think Jeremiah 29:11 helps us to keep the bigger picture in view, just as Romans 8:28 does. In a way, the verse in Jeremiah is an Old Testament version of the Romans text.