Christians often quote the verse above without understanding the context in which it was given. It is one of those feel-good verses that makes us feel special believing that God is looking out for us and only has good things in store for us. While that is certainly true to a great extent – God does care and provide for His own, and I can certainly testify to that in my own life. However, deeper thought should be given to the circumstances surrounding this passage.
The ten northern tribes of Israel were conquered and expatriated by Assyria around 722 B.C., and a short 136 years later, the southern kingdom, comprised of the two remaining tribes, Judah and Benjamin, was taken captive by Babylon. It was during this time that Jeremiah prophesied. Indeed, before the Babylonian conquest, Jeremiah urged Judah to repent of its idolatry and avoid what God determined to bring upon them. So deep had they fallen into sin that God actually instructed Jeremiah to stop praying on their behalf.
God finally had it with His people and He summoned “His servant,” Nebuchadnezzar, to conquer them and take them away captive, which he did in 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar took Daniel, the prophet, and his friends, captive in this first of three rounds of deportations.
Early in their captivity there arose false prophets telling the captives that their captivity would not be long and that God soon liberate them. That was not God’s plan, and He instructed Jeremiah to send a letter “unto the residue of the elders which were carried away captives, and to the priests, and to the prophets, and to all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar had carried away captive from Jerusalem to Babylon” (Jeremiah 29:1). In short, the letter instructed the people to settle down and prepare for a long stay – build houses, plant gardens, have children and grandchildren. Their stay would not be permanent, but it would be long – 70 years to be exact. God encouraged them to “seek the peace of the city … and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace” (Jeremiah 29:7).
Surely these were not ideal conditions for God’s people. Psalm 137 records how they felt. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:1-4).
Under these circumstances, God promised, “For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:10-11, emphasis mine). God’s “good plan” for them was not immediate. Not until a generation away would God’s plan be realized. In the meantime, they had to endure the captivity, pray for their captors and get by in the best way they could. There was no easy way out.
The phrase, “to give you an expected end,” gives pause for thought. When we consider the rest of Israel’s history, we learn that their relationship with God did not improve that much. Yes, they finally gave up their overt idolatry, but they exchanged it for the idolatry of “religion” and “legalism.” After they returned to their homeland and after they rebuilt their Temple, God stopped talking to them for 400 years until Jesus came. So steeped were they in the practice of their religion and legalism, that they completely missed their promised Messiah. Their rejection of their Savior led to the dissolution of their nation and the dispersing of their people among the nations of the world.
Yet, when the prophets speak of the “expected end” – the Day of the Lord – Israel once again becomes a nation, and they finally recognize their Messiah whom they missed at His first coming. God says, “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10). This, I believe, is their “expected end” to which God referred in Jeremiah 29:11.
Now, with all this in mind, how does this verse apply to us? In many respects, we as Christians, are living in a kind of Babylon. The world grows continually more wicked every day. As Jesus warned, we live “as in the days of Noah.” He said that we “are not of the world,” yet we are “in the world.” Our citizenship is in heaven. Therefore, we need to conduct our lives in a manner befitting our true Kingdom. We should be good citizens in our current state and pray for our leaders and the welfare of our nation. We may not change the world (indeed, the Bible tells us that we won’t), but we do have an influence on people around us. And, God does know the thoughts and plans He has for us – thoughts of “peace” – the peace that only comes from His Holy Spirit in us. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). We also have an “expected end” with Him in heaven for all eternity, whether we meet Him in death or in the air.
 Many modern translations read, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (ESV) or “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for prosperity and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” (NASB). The Hebrew word that they translate as “welfare” and “prosperity” is “shâlôm,” which the KJV accurately translates as “peace.” It is no wonder that Christians often misapply this verse.