“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord; plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
My Facebook newsfeed exclaimed, “This isn’t just encouragement; it’s truth for all believers!” while subsequent commenters chirped amens. Aside from denigrating encouragement, is this “truth for all believers”? Since my Facebook friends were probably not referring to our heavenly future of prosperity, what have millions of poor, troubled believers from the apostles to the saints to the Third World done wrong not to have this “truth”?
First of all, the verse sits in the middle of a letter of prophesy from Jeremiah to the Israelites, who were exiles in Babylon. God told them to submit to King Nebuchadnezzar and settle down, that they would not be freed to return home for seventy years, that He knew the plans He had for them . . . (and the rest of the verse). It is a specific plan for a specific situation with a specific nation, not to individual people. I wonder if there were Israelite women (sistas like us) who, upon hearing the prophesy read, crumpled a little on the inside. Our husbands and older sons were speared to death; our teenage daughters abducted; our little ones sold into slavery. The promise will come too late for us, Lord. Again, the plan was for a nation, not individuals.
Does this mean the Old Testament holds no significance for Christians today? Not at all. The New Testament is hidden within the Old, offering luminous glimpses of Jesus in the drama of early salvation history as it advances toward the Incarnation. What we know from it all is that God has a Plan, that obedience matters, and because we are living in the Church Age, that hope and future mean heaven.
There are also telling translation differences. The translations that use “prosper” (NIV and GNT) were published in the mid-twentieth century, while older ones (and some newer ones as well) use “peace” (shalom).
“For I know the thoughts I think toward you, saith the Lord; thoughts of peace and not affliction, to give you an end and patience.” (Douay-Rheims)
“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord; plans for your welfare, not for your woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope.” (New American)
God guided the Israelites to an earthly land, government, and salvation from their enemies. But the new covenant has Jesus teaching us that His kingdom is within us and among us, regardless of government; and that our land, hope, and future are found in His Father’s House. That is true prosperity.
So the verse is not a fist-pumping excitement over God’s plans of material prosperity without harm. It is part of the story of His love and leading of the nation of Israel (our elder brothers in the Faith) to salvation, which we read and focus our knowledge of Him onto the Person of Jesus Christ, Who loves and leads His Church to salvation. It is truly a better promise than earthly prosperity, and is harmonious with scriptures about suffering and trouble.
God, the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent I Am, thinks about His people. Has plans of peace for His people. Has a hopeful future for His people. Because He is Love. Now that’s a prosperity promise I can exclaim over. Amen!