“I know the plans I have for you.”
Most of us are quite familiar with this verse, perhaps too much so. We skip over it, thinking that there isn’t a lot to mine here. We’re wrong. A close examination of the verse reveals a very different and complex understanding.
It all starts with “know”. The Hebrew word is yada. This word occurs nearly 1000 times. It signifies the many contexts of gaining information through the senses. It is used of God’s understanding of men as well as our understanding of God. It describes the context of being acquainted with other persons, of distinguishing between good and evil, of moral insight and judgment and of the prophetic revelation directly to men of God’s will. It is also used euphemistically to describe sexual intercourse and sexual perversions.
The Bible uses this word to proclaim God’s complete knowledge of creation. Nothing can be hidden from His understanding. God’s perception and recognition extend to every act and circumstance. God’s knowledge extends to our relationships, tendencies, behavior, talents and emotions. God talks about knowing us before we are even born. Someone with that kind of knowledge would certainly know what is best for us and exactly how we should fit into His world.
The word “plans” is from the Hebrew root hashav. In this case it is the noun mahashavah. The verb form “make plans, reckon, account or think” is used 121 times. There are several different meanings but they are all within the context of creating something new. The most interesting use of this word is found in Genesis 15:6 where the meaning is “impute” or “account”. In that verse, God counts Abraham righteous – He imputes righteousness to Abraham as something new and unanticipated.
In the noun form mahashavah, the word means “thought, plan or invention”. It is used in Genesis 6:5 about the evil thoughts of all mankind, in Jeremiah about the plans that men follow and in 2 Chronicles about creating an invention. Again, the context is about new things.
“I know the new ideas I have for you.” God’s plans are never cast in concrete. They are flexible, adjusting to our lives as our circumstances change. It is easy to think that God has only one perfect plan for your life and that if you make a mistake or sin, the plan will be forever destroyed. Then you will have to live with second best, then third best and so on each time you fail to meet expectations. But God does not have one perfect plan for you. He has one purpose – one goal – that you become all that you were meant to be through conformity to the image of the Messiah. The goal never changes. But the plans are new ideas every day. God is full of surprises. An eternal inventor.
I know the new plans I have for you
This word is really not “have”. We translate it this way because it makes sense in English, but in Hebrew the verse really says “I know the plans that I plan for you” or “I know the purposes that I purpose for you”. So, the word for “plans” that we looked at is really used twice, first as a noun and then as a verb. In the second case, the verb has a little different sense. The noun is mahashaba. It means “new ideas”. The verb is hashab. The verb means ““make plans, reckon, account or think”. We already saw that it is the verb used to describe God’s decision to see Abraham as righteous. Perhaps there is more to this verse than simply that God has purposes for our lives. Could it be that God’s purpose includes being counted as righteous? That sense of the verb is certainly in God’s purpose for each of us. In fact, without that sense of the verse, none of God’s plans will ever meet His purpose.
I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.
Prosper is the word shalom. It primarily means “peace”. But it also has the meanings “perfect, whole, complete, prosperity, well, health and safety”. It is far more than just the absence of conflict and strife. It encompasses the entire range of well-being. Therefore, it includes spiritual and physical completeness, harmony and fulfillment. But shalom comes from a Hebrew culture, not a Greek culture. The word is couched in relationship, not possessions. Ultimately, shalom is about our relationship to the One who can provide all of the other aspects of completeness. Without the primary relationship as the fundamental purpose of life, all of the other aspects of living are unsteady. They will lack a solid foundation. In this verse, the active agent is God. We do not find prosperity, peace and wholeness on our own. God’s direct activity in our lives is the basis of shalom. The intention of God’s purposes for us is shalom.
I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.
Literally, this should say “and not for evil”. First, it means that God’s new ideas for you are for your good. His purposes are to bring you shalom, not evil. He is not a vengeful or malicious God. He is a God of holy grace, compassion and care. God has no plan to do you evil. In fact, His plan is just the opposite.
The word for “evil” is ra. The root behind ra is a noun that means “rotten, spoiled or good for nothing”. It is most often used in conjunction with the word tob which means “good”. The first instance of this word is in the Garden of Eden in the expression “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. The Bible recognizes that men often have varying idea about what is evil. We acknowledge this fact about cultural differences every day. Sometimes it surprises us when we see what other cultures consider morally correct. However, even though the Bible recognizes this fact, the final verdict on good and evil is always in God’s hands. Since He is the Judge of the world, His determination about what is evil is the last word on the subject. If God says that some act or event is evil, there is no negotiation on the matter. The essence of evil is disobedience to God’s will. It is progressive. Evil begins with a lack of acknowledgement – we do not recognize God as God, we refuse to give Him honor as the Creator. From this lack of acknowledgement, we proceed to an attitude of ingratitude. We are not thankful for what God has done. Refusal and ingratitude become ingrained as habit, then compulsion. The result is that we do injury to others and to ourselves.
In this verse, God tells us not only that He has no plans to harm us, but His plans and purposes will keep us from self-inflicted harm. God’s plan is for harmony, unity, peace and life. Ignoring His plans for us will lead to strife, hostility, injury and death.
I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a future with hope.
The last part of the verse reiterates the intention of God’s plans. God has two goals in mind. The first is “a future”. The word is aharit. What is unusual about this word is that it literally means “afterward, backwards or after part”. So, how can it be about the future? H. W. Wolff says that the Hebrew concept of time is like a man rowing a boat. He sees where he has been, but the future is toward his back. He backs into the future. It is entirely unknown to him because it is behind him!
This picture has some very powerful theology in it. First, God must set our course since only He can see “behind” us. But secondly, we have as our guide what we see, the course we have been following. We see the past because we are facing it. The past is in “front” of us. No wonder our history with God is so important. It is not just about where we came from. It is the visible guide for our course into the future. Finally, there is a great connection with the idea that we must trust God’s direction and not fear. If we are “backing” into the future, we must trust the guide. We cannot see where we are going, but He can.
There is a tremendous example of this word in a story from Genesis. When Lot and his wife ran from the destruction of Sodom, they were told not to look back. Lot’s wife did look back and she saw her future. She died there. Looking back was a choice not to obey the guide who was taking her out of harm’s way.
So much of our lives seems to be consumed with plans for our future. We all want to “look ahead” as though we will be able to guide and protect ourselves from what may come. But God says that the real direction of our life should be to the past. The course of our life was set in the past. The victory over the future happened in the past. It is our history with God that gives us peace and confidence.