One of the most common questions I get asked by young Christians is 'how do I know what God's will is for my life?' We're all trying to work out where we fit in to the world and what we're meant to do. Often when we talk about our future we quote Jeremiah 29:11: "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." It's one of the most frequently quoted Bible verses and it's easy to see why; it's incredibly encouraging to believe that God has plans for us and that there is hope for our future. What we often fail to do, however, is to put the verse into any sort of context, which means we miss out on what God was really saying.
The prophet Jeremiah's ministry covered the 40 years leading up to the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 587BC. Firstly a small group were taken along with the King and much of the treasure from the temple, then about 10 years later King Nebuchadnezzar ordered that thousands of Hebrews be marched hundreds of miles across the desert into exile in Babylon – a place where Yahweh was not known. There was no temple of God, no Levitical sacrifices, no Hebrew festivals and celebrations and instead a radically different culture. Put simply, they were aliens in a foreign land.
The book of Lamentations expresses the crushing sadness they felt; they were a people who felt abandoned, rootless, vulnerable and orphaned. In Jeremiah 28 we read the words of the prophet Hananiah declaring that God was saying he would restore Israel and their temple within two years, bringing back the temple treasures that Nebuchadazzar had taken to Babylon. This was the prophecy the people were longing for and Jeremiah would have been happy to see it fulfilled, only it wasn't a word from God.
It was against this backdrop that Jeremiah wrote a letter from Jerusalem to the elders, priests, prophets and all the people who had been exiled. He told them they would be in exile for 70 years so they should settle down and plan to stay. These were not easy words to hear for a people desperately longing to go home. Hananiah's two years were far more appealing. Yet in God's amazing way, this 70 years wasn't to be wasted time; God had a purpose. He told the people to build houses and settle down, to marry and have children and grandchildren and to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jeremiah 29:7).
It was into this context that God promised his people a hope and a future. As author and Old Testament professor David Lamb points out: these words were offered to a group of people in incredible pain who were mourning a huge transition from their own land to being enslaved, and yet into their situation God spoke hope. He notes that the 'you' in Jeremiah 29:11 is actually plural, meaning 'you all' as it was written to a community and not an individual. Despite all that they had lost, the people were still in it together and God would bless them as they sought the welfare of the whole community and as they embraced God's plan.
We see this truth all over scripture that God intended us for community, right from the start of Genesis where he declares it is not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18) to Jesus sending the disciples out in twos, through to the incredible model of community we see in Acts. We're meant to do this life together, to draw strength from one another, and to support each other through the good and bad times. Together we find out how we fit in the world and together we find God's hope for our future.