“… plans to give you hope and a future.”
If you’ve been tracking with me you know what I believe about what prosperity is and how we get it. Now let’s go back to verse 11 and talk about when we can expect prosperity.
Whenever I hear this passage announced it sounds to me like people have the idea that the future has fully landed in the present. They seem to interpret it to mean: “OK, so your past sucked but you can have a better future in the present!”
OK, so it has a nice ring to it, but on a purely grammatical level does it even make sense? The past, present, and future exist in three different time zones. I’m not saying that God doesn’t care anything about our earthly future. Nor am I claiming that he has no “plans” for us here in the Babylonish world into which we live as exiles. Of course he does! But is our foretaste of the future the same as the full meal he promises? The thing about “hope” is that it’s pretty much about the future.
The Bible teaches that we have hope in the present about the future.
“Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Romans 8:24-25
“Live godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Titus 2:12-13
Yes, we’re saved from Babylon, but we still live in it in order to make a difference to it while we wait for the New Jerusalem to arrive.
Here’s verse 11 in its surroundings:
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
Notice the two words that indicate the timing God had in mind in his letter to the exiles – the “when” and the “then.” The way I read it is: “When the 70 years are completed… Then you will call and … I’ll bring you back…” In other words, they were deported to Babylon to live obediently and missionally there for seventy years. Then at the end of that time they’d pray and God would bring them home.
The most famous of all the exiles was Daniel, who, near the end of the seventy years, read (or reread) Jeremiah’s letter and prayed his heart out in repentance and the fulfillment of their hopes for restoration .
So, how does this all relate to us? Well, we’re “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 2) but residents on earth. Thank God that he answers many of the prayers of his exiled saints, but someday he’ll answer them all! That someday is when Babylon falls and the New Jerusalem descends! If it sounds like I’m discouraging faith-filled prayer, please don’t tune me out. Read on…
We’re told elsewhere that an average life expectancy in patriarchal times was seventy years (Psalm 90:10), which corresponds to the same amount of time that God made his people live in the foreign land of Babylon. Most of Jeremiah’s contemporaries weren’t going to be the ones to come home; they were there for a lifetime. My point is that most of the “future” that God “planned” for those Jews was after their lives were completed in exile. The span of their time as strangers in a foreign land for a generation suggests that our lives as exiles “in” but not “of” the world lasts for a lifetime. That’s why the New Testament can call us “exiles and strangers” in our own current day Babylon.
Spiritual liars told them that their stay would be as brief as two years, while, through Jeremiah, God made it clear, “You’re going into exile. Don’t fight it. You’re gonna be there for a full lifetime, seventy years. So bring a blessing to Babylon while you’re there. Bring shalom to it… Then, at the end of that time, call on me and I’ll bring you back from where I banished you.”
So, finally I make my soapbox point…
I don’t just have a beef with the TV evangelist in his $5000 suit who flies around in private private jet and who promises riches for the faithful. I’m also quite troubled about the populist authors on book selling tours and even well intentioned pastors who are just trying to bring some comfort to their flock. They use this passage and others to promise, if not financial prosperity, an easy life with minimal challenges for those with the right kind of faith. In my estimation they confuse earth with heaven. Maybe they’re trying to create a following, sell books, or to simply encourage the sheep, but they mistakenly claim that all of heaven’s future blessings are available to us on earth in the present – and on demand! While Jesus taught us to pray for the “kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven,” his kingdom won’t come in its fullness until the King comes in his glory. Until the day he rides in on his white horse we will faithfully pray and labor together with the him to advance his rule over more and more of our own hearts and over more and more of our world.
I labor to make this case because those who use and abuse this passage and a number of others do damage to sincere Christians who are led to believe that all will be well here in Babylon. Like Jeremiah’s exiles who were convinced that their time in a foreign land would be brief and that the fulfillment of their hopes for a Promised Land future were just around the corner, many of our comrades hold to the mistaken idea that if they “claim” passages such as this one they are entitled to a prosperous earthly life that God guarantees the faithful. Then after they’ve said the right prayers in the right way enough times and they still don’t get the results they expected they become disillusioned with their Servant God and go looking for something or someone else to fulfill their American Dream.
I’m not claiming that there’s no hopeful future for us here on earth or that God only answers our prayerful longings in the eternal state of heaven. Of course he answers many of our requests in this life. Jesus told us to ask, seek, and knock in prayer. But as much as we might want to believe that the future has now entirely arrived, there’s no evidence to that in this, or any New Testament passage, to say nothing of the horrific history of inhumanity. Indeed we believers do “taste the powers of the age to come,” but it’s merely a “taste.” The full meal is yet to come! In this life, God supplies all our needs. In the next, he gives us all we want, and more than we can fathom wanting!
The kind of prosperity that we clamor for in this life will mean zilch in the next. Most of what we treasure here rusts away to nothing or feeds the moths. In the next world we’ll be so enamored with our treasures that the things that we deemed so central here will, by comparison, be cheap costume jewelry.
In the meantime, and I don’t have to tell you that where we live now is a very mean time, we have responsibilities. A day is coming when all the “meanness” will evaporate and his kingdom will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Our ultimate future will materialize in the better place where there exists no sin, Satan, or sorrow. In the meantime, the lengthy leash of the devil and the free will experiment in which we were born mitigates the full release of God’s shalom. Nevertheless, we take seriously our exilic lives in this foreign land and choose to become better people who will someday leave this world, but leave it a better world than we found it!
While the “hope and future” of which Jeremiah speaks is just that, hope for the future, hope-filled living is our birthright. It’s unclear how far in the future we’ll have to wait for comprehensive shalom; it’s that lack of clarity that incentivizes us to live on alert and on purpose. The buds that appear on the branches remind us that our hopes are not in vain. Those buds will someday bloom and transform into fruit – lots of fruit!
Next time we’ll examine some good and some not-so-good strategies for exiles living in a Babylonish world…