" 'For I know the pans I have for you.' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' " Jeremiah 29:11
This is lots of peoples' favorite verse. I like it too, but I don't think it means exactly what people think it means. Have you ever noticed how, when angels appear to people in the Bible, they always say things like, "Fear not!" and "Don't be afraid!" ? They do this, I expect, because people's instinctive reaction to seeing an angel is abject terror. There is a little bit of this issue implicit in the "plans to prosper and not to harm you" verse, as well.
Why would God need to assure His people that He has definite and specific plans for them, and that they are plans for good and not for bad? Probably because they were in a position where circumstances might tempt them to doubt these things... and, if you look back even just one verse, you begin to see. Jeremiah 29:10 says, "This is what the Lord says: 'When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.' "
Put those two verses together in order, and you get a slightly different picture from what you get when you read verse 11 by itself. There is something about Babylon and seventy years, followed by a bringing back. This bringing back is God's keeping of a gracious promise that goes along with His plans to prosper and not to harm. So what is the deal with seventy years for Babylon?
If you know your Bible history, you know exactly what I am talking about. Going all the way back to verse 4 gives a clearer clue for those who may not have heard this story before. "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon." (Jeremiah 29:4)
The children of Israel were going through a tough time, a time of judgment and punishment. It happened because Israel, as a nation, had been very disobedient to the Lord. God's people had forsaken the covenant promises they pledged with God at the time when Moses gave them the Law. They had been unfaithful to the Lord, and now it was time for them to receive His discipline.
Every individual Israelite (actually, we could call them Jews now, because it is the last remaining children, the ones from the kingdom of Judah after the sister kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians), every remaining Jew was not wicked. But the nation had been unfaithful, and the nation was being punished as a whole. It must have been a very discouraging time for the faithful few who sought to follow the Lord.
In the midst of this sad time, God spoke through Jeremiah and encouraged them. In essence, He was saying, "Don't worry. I have it all under control. You will live in Babylon for seventy years, in captivity. Make the best of it and get on with your lives. Build houses and plant gardens. Marry and have children. Seek the peace and prosperity of the town where you live, and pray for your new neighbors. After seventy years, I will bring you back to your own land. My plan is not to harm you but to prosper you and give you hope and a future, so never give up hoping. It's going to be all right."
So that's what Jeremiah 29:11 means. It means that we need to live lives of trust and obedience, believing that God is for us, and that the hard things we encounter are also part of His plan to do good to us in the end.