Does God Plan for You to Prosper?
A sermon on Jeremiah 29:11 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 7/27/03
Does God want you to prosper? How can you go about answering that question?
One way would be to look at all the Bible verses that contain the words “prosper” or “prosperity”. Consider three you would find:
Joshua 1:8 "This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. (ESV)
Ps 1: The man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked “is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (ESV)
And our own text for today:
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. (NIV)
After reading these verses, you might be tempted to conclude: “OK! God wants me to be prosperous!”
Numerous churches teach such a doctrine. One website puts it this way:
“The Bible is the greatest book ever written on motivation, success and prosperity. It is the original source book for discovering the keys to successful living through the power of kingdom principles.
“By studying the Scriptures, you will come to understand that the prosperity of God is multi-dimensional. It is God's will for us to prosper financially, to be in health, and for our souls to prosper (3 John 2). This is the three-part blessing of being obedient to His will and commands. God's success plan for man encompasses the prospering of the spirit, soul and body with both spiritual and material blessings.”
Is there anything wrong with this? Doesn’t God bless His people financially as well as spiritually? In particular, doesn’t Jeremiah 29:11 say explicitly that God plans to prosper us?
This morning I want to look at Jeremiah 29:11 specifically. While I won’t try to address the entire topic, the exposition of this verse will show clearly the direction we should take on understanding such verses. Our goal as always is to learn what God is telling us through this verse, and thus to see His very precious promises – promises that are indeed precious though they are quite different from what they might appear to be after a casual reading.
A secondary goal this morning is to provide you with an example of how to interpret the Bible – how to “rightly divide the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) How can you tell if someone else is misinterpreting a verse? How can you be careful not to misinterpret verses yourself?
Consider these three helpful (but not exhaustive!) rules:
Let’s do the first two now:
These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 "Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD. 10 "For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. 15 "Because you have said, 'The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,' 16 thus says the LORD concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who dwell in this city, your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: 17 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, 19 because they did not pay attention to my words, declares the LORD, that I persistently sent to you by my servants the prophets, but you would not listen, declares the LORD.' 20 Hear the word of the LORD, all you exiles whom I sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon: 21 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning Ahab the son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah the son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name: Behold, I will deliver them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall strike them down before your eyes. 22 Because of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon: "The LORD make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire," 23 because they have done an outrageous thing in Israel, they have committed adultery with their neighbors' wives, and they have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them. I am the one who knows, and I am witness, declares the LORD.' (Jeremiah 29:1-23 ESV)
This historical context is this: Situation: Nebuchadnezzer, King of Babylon, attacked Jerusalem for the first time in 605 BC. The king of Judah paid tribute and promised future payments to entice Nebuchadnezzer to withdraw. The Babylonian did so, but took away to Babylon some exiles, including Daniel and his three friends (whom we know best by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). Shortly before Nebuchadnezzer attacked, Jeremiah prophesied that it would happen, and that the exiles would remain in Babylon for 70 years (Jeremiah 25).
Seven years later, in 598-7 BC, Nebuchadnezzer returns, after the Judean king foolishly stops paying tribute. This time he deposes the king, sets up his own puppet from the Judean royal family, and takes thousands more into exile. Jeremiah remains in Jerusalem.
Today’s text is part of a letter Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon in 594 BC, three years later. False prophets in Babylon and Jerusalem were claiming that the captivity was going to be very short – that God would break the power of Nebuchadnezzer and send the captives back to Jerusalem very shortly. In effect, they were saying, “God will prosper both you and Jerusalem.”
Jeremiah clearly says, “No! God is NOT going to prosper Jerusalem during the next several years. Don’t think you’re coming back soon – live out a normal life in Babylon!”
Note that Daniel in exile is aware of this letter or the earlier prophecy; perhaps he even keeps a copy of the letter. In Daniel 9, written more than 50 years later, Daniel realizes the prophesied time of the captivity is almost over, yet the exiles are not living in accordance with God’s laws. So he confesses the sins of his people, and asks God nevertheless to fulfill the promise contained in Jeremiah for His own Name’s sake.
That’s a little bit of context – which alone calls into question the “God wants to prosper us” interpretation.
But what about translation? Obviously knowing the original language helps, but everyone can look at different English translations in hard copies or on the internet. Consider these three translations:
NIV 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.
ESV For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
NAU '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.
Hmm. “Prosper you” in NIV becomes “welfare” and “wholeness” in the other two translations. In general, an interpretation that only holds with one translation is likely to be suspect.
According to Webster’s, “prosperity” means “the condition of being successful or thriving; especially economic well-being.” That is certainly not what “wholeness” means, and even “welfare” has quite different connotations. This should give you an important clue that learning the specific Hebrew word will be helpful.
As it turns out, in this case the Hebrew word is one you may already know: “Shalom.” Normally this word is translated “peace”, but it has a much wider range of meanings than our word “peace”. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament uses these words to describe it: “Completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfillment. . . . Unimpaired relationships with others and with God.”
So the emphasis of the word is not on economic prosperity, but more on the positive relationship with God and others.
Another clue to the meaning of the word in our context is the contrast with “evil”, “harm”, or “calamity”. God promises that His plans are for “shalom” and not for “ra-ah”. These two words are contrasted in another verse in Jeremiah: 38:4, written about eight years later. At this time, Jerusalem is under siege by Nebuchadnezzer, and this time he will destroy the city. Jeremiah prophesies that this will happen, and tells people to abandon the city. Not surprisingly, this leads some to oppose him. I’ll read the Hebrew words when they come up:
4 Then the officials said to the king, "Now let this man Jeremiah be put to death, inasmuch as he is discouraging the men of war who are left in this city and all the people, by speaking such words to them; for this man is not seeking the shalom of this people but rather their ra-ah."
Of what are these officials accusing Jeremiah? Not that Jeremiah is failing to seek the economic prosperity of the people, but that he is failing to seek their welfare, their good.
So our English word “prosperity” is not a good match for “shalom” in this context. For to us, the main connotation of “prosperity” is economic well-being, with some overtones of happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. But for “shalom” the main connotation is good relationships with others and with God, with some overtones of other sorts of welfare: absence of war, economic success.
So the biblical context and the historical context as well as the meaning of the Hebrew word all serve to undermine the interpretation that God wants all His people to have economic prosperity.
The third way to check interpretations mentioned above is to compare it with the thrust of Scriptures. We do that a little bit this morning below, but that’s enough of a lesson on interpretation; now it’s time to preach!
The outline for the remainder of this morning focuses on one central question, and then three subsidiary questions:
1) Shalom for Whom?
2) Shalom means what?
3) How should we then live?
Whom is God addressing in this great promise in Jeremiah 29:11? And what modern groups of people – if any – are the heirs of this promise?
Note first of all that this promise cannot possible be for all people. Look at verse 22: Two of the Jewish exiles, false prophets named Kolaiah and Zedekiah, will be roasted in Nebuchadnezzer’s fire. Perhaps this is the same fiery furnace of Daniel 3, into which the king throws Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But does God have plans to prosper Kolaiah and Zedekiah? Here in same chapter He plans to burn them!
Furthermore, look at verses 16 to 19. Verse 11 is addressed to those exiled to Babylon. What about those in Jerusalem? What is God sending to them? Verses 16 to 19 say He is sending them the sword, famine, and pestilence! Why? Because they have disobeyed him, they have disregarded His prophets.
Thus, the promise is not for all people. God does not have a wonderful plan for the lives of all. Some are headed to terrible destruction.
So the promise of shalom is for whom? At most, this promise is for all of God’s people. It is written specifically for those who are in exile in Babylon.
Look back at verses 5-7:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
God is telling them, “Lead a normal life in Babylon. Don’t keep thinking, ‘In a few months, I’ll be back in Jerusalem!’ You’ve got a long time. Live out your life. Honor me there. It’s not home, but you work for it’s welfare – it’s shalom - and as you do that you will attain welfare – shalom - also.”
Given all this, does the promise of 29:11 have any relevance to us?
We know that some promises to Old Testament Israel transfer to us; for example, God calls Israel in Exodus 19 “a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people for His own possession” . Peter then uses these same phrases to describe the church in 1 Peter 2.
What about this promise? Is there any indication in the Bible that this promise might apply to us today?
Think, now: This promise is written to those in exile in Babylon. The New Testament does refer to us, to the church, as aliens, as strangers, as exiles. Consider these three verses from 1 Peter:
1 Peter 1:1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,
1 Peter 1:17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile,
1 Peter 2:11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (ESV)
Furthermore, “Babylon” is used in Revelation – particularly in chapters 17 and 18 – to refer to the whole world system opposed to God.
So we have seen that the promise of shalom is not to all people; in the specific historical context of Jeremiah 29:11, the promise was to those Israelites in exile in Babylon. But given that the New Testament refers to the church as people in exile, and given that Babylon is used to refer to our present world system opposed to God, it is at least possible that God intends this promise to be in part for us. Let’s examine the meaning of “shalom” a bit more, and then see what implications we can draw out for us today.
To our ears, “plans to prosper you” sounds like the promise of an easy life. But that is NOT what Jeremiah 29:11 means.
Consider: What do we know about the lives of the Jewish exiles?
· Daniel follows Jeremiah’s injunction in 29:5-7, working hard for the welfare of Babylon and he rises to a prominent position. But he also is thrown into a lions’ den.
· Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into a fiery furnace when they refuse to bow down and worship a golden statue of Nebuchadnezzer. Yes, God saves these three as well as Daniel. But the point is, their lives were not easy. They exhibited courage in the face of great danger prior to God saving them from certain death.
· And not all tragedies experienced by these exiles were halted by God. Consider Ezekiel, who prophesied to the exiles in Babylon while Jeremiah was prophesying in Jerusalem. In Ezekiel 24, God tells Ezekiel his wife will die, and Ezekiel will not be allowed to mourn for her, as a picture of what will happen to God with the destruction of Jerusalem. And so it happens. Ezekiel’s wife dies, and he must remain unmoved.
No, these exiles did not have an easy life. Once again, such experiences are not normally what we think of when we hear the English word “prosper.”
Furthermore, when will the promise of verse 11 be fulfilled? Note that v10 and 11 go together, linked by the word “for:”
"For thus says the LORD, 'When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. 11 '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.
So the promise of shalom in 29:11 is really a promise which will only be fulfilled in sixty years, when they return to Jerusalem. But who will go back? Hardly any of those reading the letter! Most of them will be dead; others, like Daniel, will be too old to make the difficult return journey.
Then what does this promise mean? If most of the exiles reading this letter will be dead by the time the promise is fulfilled, what good is it?
Of great good! And here we see the good the same promise holds for us.
First, God assures His people in exile that He has a purpose, and that purpose will stand. It may look like evil is prospering, it may look like God’s plan to work through the descendants of Abraham to bless all nations is in danger of aborting, but God assures the exiles that He is in control. He spoke through Jeremiah in chapter 25 before the exile took place, telling the people that it would happen, but it would have an end.
Indeed, earlier today we read Isaiah 40, written about 90 years before today’s text, in which the prophet looks forward to the return from exile about 150 years before the event happens. There, God speaks through Isaiah, asking:
Why do you say O Jacob, and complain O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD” My cause is disregarded by my God!” 21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? 23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
God is working out His purpose even during the tragedies of His people, such as exile. Nothing is pointless; nothing is out from under God’s control. He controls the nations.
Furthermore, part of God’s purpose is His close relationship with His people. This is primary sense of shalom – peace, intimacy, unhindered relationship with God. Once again, Isaiah 40 points this out also:
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young
God purposes to draw His people to Himself, to love them, to cherish them, to remain in close relationship to them. He is not “the God”, some distant creator, but He is the “Lord your God” – a phrase that appears more than 400 times in the ESV.
So if we are in close relationship with the living God, we need never fear evil. We always have a future and a hope – because God controls the future, and He will keep and guard His people.
In light of the relational aspect of shalom, consider verses 12 to 14a. In effect, God here gives His definition of “shalom:”
12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me. When you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations
This is a picture of real, personal intimacy. They call, He hears. They seek Him with all their heart, they put Him first - and they find Him.
(The phrase “restore your fortunes” in verse 14 may seem to stress “prosperity” again. But once again we have a translation problem. More literally, this phrase means God will “return your captivity.” This may include the return of some of what was looted from the temple – we know that some temple furnishings were returned at the time of the restoration – but primarily this is simply a promise to return them to the promised land, as the next line says.)
So we might paraphrase God as saying, “Yes, you will have troubles in Babylon. But you are my people, my flock! I am working on a big plan. All these trials of yours are part of it. After you are dead I will bring your children back. And I’m going to bless all the families of the nations through them. So know that all this apparent evil is not the result of some other god overpowering me; it is not the result of my forgetting you. Even as an exile you can have some earthly shalom, and spiritual shalom with me is always available for those who seek. So seek me! Trust me! Delight in me!”
So God promises His people that every trial has a purpose, and that they can be in relationship with Him no matter what their circumstances might be. These are two precious promises – much more precious than any promise of economic prosperity.
Before we consider implications for us, let me share one more rich image: Who is the prince of peace – the prince of shalom? Jesus Himself! Isaiah 9:7 says,
Of the increase of his government and of shalom there will be no end
And what does Jesus Christ, the prince of shalom, promise us? Financial success?
33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. John 16:33
Here once again we have a contrast between evil and shalom, tribulation and peace. Jesus does not here promise to keep us from tribulation. Instead, He says, “In me you have shalom EVEN WHILE in the world you have tribulation. But I have overcome the world!”
So as we compare Jeremiah 29:11 with other Scriptures, we see a common theme: God is sovereign. God is in control. He works out His purposes, at times even using the evil plans of evil men to effect His purposes. But always, He watches over His people, and invites them into close personal relationship with Him.
So does this apply to us? Are we like those exiles?
By all means! We, like them, are not in our home – that is with God – but like them God has a purpose for our being here. We, like them, may live in intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ even during this period of exile.
Like them, God redeems our suffering, our trials, and uses them for His glory. We have the promise from Jesus Himself that He is with us, having overcome the world.
Every believer can have the shalom of God; every believer can have confidence in His sovereign control of all events.
So how should we respond?
First, recognize that this promise is to believers ONLY.
Do you believe?
Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you.”
Have you done that? If not, will you do it?
If you will, even in the remaining period of your exile you may be in close relationship to God through Jesus Christ; you may know that He is in control, working all circumstances together for His glory and your good.
Pray, then: “Lord God, Father, I have been in rebellion against you and you have sent me into exile. But I seek your face now. I want to seek you with all my heart. I want the shalom of being in close relationship to you. So forgive me by the blood of your son Jesus Christ.”
God’s promise through David is, “A broken and contrite heart you will not despise.” So fall down broken before Him!
And then, all of us, all believers:
Seek His face! Be His people, then be part of His plan! Delight in Him, and He will fulfill the desires of your heart.
As you do that, God will give you shalom. Your shalom on earth may include earthly goods. It may not. In any event, we are aliens and strangers here and our hope is not in this world.
Rather, our hope is Jesus Christ Himself! So delight in Him! Seek His face! And know the shalom of God.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 7/27/03. The quote in the introduction is from http://www.prosperinlife.com .
Copyright © 2003, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it in written form, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.
This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, posted on the internet, copied for resale or incorporated in any products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, email, c/o Desiring God Community Church, PO Box 620099, Charlotte NC 28262.