Thoughts of Shalom: Bible Study in Jeremiah 29:11
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11, KJV)
It is often out of great darkness that God causes the light to shine forth. We witness this immediately when God calls the light of Creation out of the darkness of the void in the beginning of Creation. Many see the royal crown of Scripture that we refer to as Jeremiah 29:11 as a verse of great comfort and hope, and rightly so. It has provided great relief to many a weary Christian throughout the ages. But few understand the horrific, historic, context in which it was written.
The portion of Jeremiah that comprises Jeremiah 29:11 was written as a letter from the prophet Jeremiah to the remnant of true believers living in exile in Babylon during the first phase of the captivity, as the people of God (true believer and non-believer alike) were violently taken from their homes and forced into captivity in Babylon.
It is first beneficial to examine the verses surrounding this beloved portion of Scripture, in order to gain a better understanding of how to apply its truths to our lives today. Immediately preceding this passage, thus says God to the people of Israel: “That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place” (Jeremiah 29:10). Such, then, was the circumstances surrounding Jeremiah 29:11–that God had started to fulfill His Word of judgment against His own rebellious flock. Immediately proceeding the chosen passage, in verse 12 and 13, God then declares: “Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart”. And such was the condition of Israel’s heart, that a period of violent upheaval was necessary for its edification.
Jeremiah was writing to encourage the remnant of true believers, to give them great hope and light from within the confines of unceasing darkness which would envelop them for seventy severe years. For many, Babylon would mean the end. For others like Nehemiah and Ezra, the darkness of Babylon would serve as the starting point of their ministry, and serve to shape them into the faithful servants of God who would lead the people of Israel in rebuilding the temple after the completion of the Babylonian exile.
It is interesting how many ways in which current versions of the Bible have translated Jeremiah 29:11:
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end (KJV).
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 (NKVJ).
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 (NASB).
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).
Why so much disparity between the translations? Whereas the KJV says that God will give Isreal an “expected end”, other versions state that God will give His people “a future and a hope”. Additionally, the King James and New King James speaks of God having “thoughts of peace” towards us, “and not of evil”, whereas the NASB talks of “plans for welfare and not for calamity”, and the NIV states that God will ultimately “prosper” us and “not harm” us.
Such notable differences between the versions becomes crystal clear once we examine the original Hebrew in which this portion of Scripture was written. The original tongues state that God has thoughts or plans of shalom for us. Many understand shalom to simply signify peace. But shalom has an intrinsically deeper meaning, including peace, welfare, prosperity, health, wholeness, soundness, fullness, perfectness, rest, and harmony. The Messiah Himself is called Sar Shalom, Prince of Shalom, often translated Prince of Peace, from which we derive one of our titles for Christ. Shalom is a profound, enduring blessing given by God to His people. Its meaning goes far beyond that of peace, prosperity, or welfare combined! So to truly understand the depths of God’s promise in this verse, it is best, in some sense, to apply all translations simultaneously.
We also see that the Authorized Version claims that God’s people will have an expected end — whereas other versions translate this as a “future and a hope”. We must understand that the prophet Jeremiah was offering the exiled people of Israel this great blessing of shalom at the start of their seventy-year captivity. Jeremiah was prophetically envisioning their expected end.
Time and again we observe that God is truly a God of comfort and of hope. In Isaiah, our God commands His prophet: “Comfort ye, comfort ye My People,” saith your God. “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem” (Isaiah 40:1-2). This is after the prophet Isaiah has pronounced judgment against God’s own people. As with Jeremiah, God wants to turn the hearts of His people around. This is in God’s nature — even in the midst of His own executed judgment against His own, God comforts them with the expected end of their salvation.
And thus it is that we come to the crux of the matter: that sometimes, because of our sin nature, because we have been unprepared and unrefined for God’s great promises, He must first try us through a period of personal exile. God will set the promise before us, and then He will turn us away into capativity to prepare us for its fulfillment. He will cause us to wander through the barrenness of the wilderness, to test us as gold refined by fire, before sending us to the hallowed ground of the Promised Land. You see, with God there is nothing superficial. Every word has meaning; every word He whispers to us should be heard as a trumpet blast in our ears.
Prior to the hopeful words that we receive in Jeremiah 29:11, the false prophets of Israel had also declared a word: that the captivity would last a mere 2 years, rather than the seventy that God had promised through Jeremiah. The prophets of Israel spoke what the people wanted to hear; we see in II Timothy 4:3: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears”. This is what had happened in Israel. Time and again, God’s warnings were ignored, in favor of the prosperity preachers of the day.
The two year exile promised by the false prophets of Israel would have been a cruel and pointless march and countermarch. But in the seventy years of actual captivity, in the confines of Babylon, God would be able to accomplish His purposes: there was time enough to produce the great visions of Daniel which would lend us an observable eye into the prophecies of the End times; there was opportunity for the encouragement of our faith that we would receive from Daniel’s encounter in the lion’s den; there would be time for the bravery of Esther and the timely wisdom of Mordecai; most importantly, there would be time for God’s people to reflect upon their prolonged adultery and proffer heart-searching repentance that would create a people zealous for their God.
God’s promise of shalom goes deeper and farther than that of personal ambition and prosperity. It gives God’s people an opportunity to be conformed to the very image of His Son, and to be refined, by God’s strong arm, in the fires of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Such a promise is inexhaustible. Such a promise is what we can cleave to and have a hope for our future, knowing that the end of our wandering in the valley of the shadow of death will bring us bravely marching home to the streets of Jerusalem.
Remember: the promise is continually before us, even in the midst of our exile on Earth — everything we could ever want: we have God’s own Son for our brother and God Himself as our Father. We are co-heirs together with Christ. How shall we then not inherit all things? How then shall we not lie down in green pastures for His name’s sake? How shall our cup not run over? For we find that this promise of Jeremiah’s is the same promise as the one given to us through David, the good shepherd, and Jesus Christ our Great Shepherd.
For surely, the plans that God has for us are for good and not for evil, to give us a future and a hope, to bring us into his everlasting shalom — surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives: and we shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever!