The following assurance was given by God to the people of Judah through the prophet Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you…plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11, ESV). In what context was this well-known promise made?
Jeremiah wrote a letter to Jews “whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jer 29:1). “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel,” he began, “to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce…; multiply there, and do not decrease. 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” (vs 4-9).
Jeremiah’s message was an unpopular one. He warned the people of Judah not to make a coalition against the king of Babylon. God’s prophet insisted that they should “not listen to your prophets…who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon’” (Jer 27:9). The people of Judah were being told by certain “prophets” (some in Judah, others in Babylon) that they were not to serve Nebuchadnezzar, and they were not to submit to his yoke. They were promised that their time in Babylon would be very short.
Early on in Zedekiah’s reign (in his fourth year, 594/3 b.c.) the rival prophet Hananiah had said to the people of Judah, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house. I will also bring back to this place…all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, declares the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon” (Jer 28:2-4). Jeremiah challenged Hananiah’s message, saying, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie…you have uttered rebellion against the Lord” (Jer 28:15-16).
This was a time of unrest all over the Babylonian empire. Vassal states in the western parts of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire were exploring a revolt, and these were trying to enlist Zedekiah’s support (Jer 27:3). Thus false prophets in Jerusalem and Babylon, like Hananiah, promised the collapse of Babylon and an imminent return of the exiles. Jeremiah’s message was contrary to popular opinion. “So do not listen to your prophets,” Jeremiah pleaded with those who had not yet gone to exile, “who are saying to you, ‘you shall not serve the king of Babylon’” (Jer 27:9).
Jeremiah’s message seemed hopeless in contrast to that of the optimistic prophets he accused of speaking lies to the people. Jeremiah’s words seemed to portray God’s plan for Judah’s future as one of evil, and not of welfare. It just didn’t seem like much of a future with hope and blessing for God’s people. How could they worship Yahweh outside their native land and in the absence of the temple structure and sacrifices?
It is not surprising that priests, kings, and the people were more inclined to listen to Hananiah and the other false prophets. It was in this uncertain political climate that God promised these hopeful and encouraging words through the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Judah: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11, ESV).