“I know the plans that I have in mind for you.” This verse has been used as a “proof text” and taken out of context by many well-wishing teachers, who use it to try to show that God always has good plans for us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although God loves us and would love to always have plans that seem good to us, when we do evil, God sometimes plans for disasters in our lives that He hopes will “wake us up” so that we turn from our evil. For example, seven chapters later in Jeremiah, but earlier in time, before the Babylonian captivity, God has “plans” to bring disaster upon the people of Judah unless they repent (Jeremiah is not in chronological order, some later chapters are earlier in time than some earlier chapters): “It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the disaster that I am planning to do to them, so that each one turns back from his evil way; then I will forgive their iniquity and their sin” (Jer. 36:3. Cp. Amos 4:6-10).
Jeremiah 29:1 makes it clear that Jeremiah 29:11 is part of a letter that Jeremiah wrote from Jerusalem to the Jews who had been captured by the Babylonians and deported from Israel to Babylonia. The Judeans had repeatedly defied God, so He took His blessing off Judea and allowed them to be conquered. God said, “I will send and take all the families of the north, says Yahweh, and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations around, and I will utterly destroy them and make them an astonishment, and a hissing, and everlasting desolations” (Jer. 25:9). The Babylonians destroyed the cities of Judah, including Jerusalem, killed the men, raped the women, burned the Temple, and carried a huge part of the population away from their homes into captivity in Babylon. The devastation and sorrow are portrayed in the book of Lamentations.
Now in captivity, the people prayed that somehow they would be allowed to go back to their homes, but Yahweh had told Jeremiah that the captivity would last 70 years (Jer. 25:11-12), too long for most of the people to ever see their Judean homes again. Nevertheless, God had plans to prosper the people in their captivity, not to deliver them from it, but for many people who longed for their homeland, that was a difficult message to hear. In spite of the Israelites’ desire to go back to Judah, God’s word to the captives was to build houses, plant gardens, get wives or husbands for their children, and pray for the city they had been deported to. God planned to prosper them there (Jer. 29:5-7). God had stated earlier that he would bless the captives that had been deported from Judah, and had given Jeremiah a vision and a message about them (Jer. 24:1-10).
[For more on God allowing disaster so people will turn back to Him, see commentary on 1 Kings 17:1.]