Question: "Why does God say, "You will find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13)?"
Answer: As the exile of Judah was beginning, Jeremiah sent a letter recording a message from God to the elders of the exile, the priests, the prophets, and all the people taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:1–4). In that letter, God foretells that the people of Judah would one day return to Him. God says, “You will find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
The letter begins with God exhorting the people to go about normal lives in Babylon, to be a blessing to the cities where they were exiled, and to pray for the welfare of those cities (Jeremiah 29:4–7). Any messages that they should not do so (perhaps that they should fight or rebel) would not be from God but would be from false prophets (Jeremiah 29:8–9). God said He would bring the people back into the land of Israel after the 70-year exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:10). That exile had been explained in Jeremiah 25:8–11 and was a consequence for breaking God’s covenant given through Moses (the Mosaic Covenant, or Old Covenant, as it is referred to in Jeremiah 31). That judgment had arrived, but it would not last forever—there would be a time coming when the people “will find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
When God brought the people of Judah back into their land, it would be to fulfill the plans God had for them—plans for well-being rather than calamity and to give them a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11). God’s plan was to fulfill the unconditional promises of blessing that He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to bless the people in the land. But before He would fulfill those covenants of blessing for Israel, God would ensure that they were not placing confidence in their own efforts and righteousness. God wanted to ensure they would seek Him with all their heart. They would call upon Him and pray to Him, and He would listen to them (Jeremiah 29:12).
God’s promise to Israel, “You will find me when you seek me with all your heart,” denoted a major change. At some point after the completion of the 70-year exile, when Israel was back in the land, the people would relate to God differently than they had in the past. Rather than follow laws externally, they would one day have true righteousness as God would write His laws on their hearts, and they would all know God (Jeremiah 31:31ff).
While the return from exile fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy, God’s full plans for the nation’s well-being and their future of hope have not yet been realized. That fulfillment will come after the Messiah’s second coming as He installs His kingdom in Jerusalem (cf. Jeremiah 31:31ff and Revelation 20). At that time, all the nation will know their God, as the New Covenant promised. In the meantime, all who seek Him with all their heart will find Him.
While these prophecies and promises are specifically related to the people of Judah and Israel, the principle that God will draw near to those who draw near to Him is a universal truth (James 4:8a). But we have to draw near to God on His own terms—with clean hands and purified hearts (James 4:8b) that only God can provide by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). While Jeremiah’s letter recorded the words of God for the exiled people of Judah, readers today can benefit from recognizing that the same God who said, “You will find me when you seek me with all your heart,” has also told us that we can draw near to Him and He will draw near to us (James 4:8) and that He will never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5).