What does God mean when He says, 'I know the thoughts that I think toward you' (Jeremiah 29:11)?
In Jeremiah 29, Jeremiah records a message to those who had been exiled from Jerusalem in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:1), including an oft-cited promise of God that begins, "I know the thoughts that I think toward you" (Jeremiah 29:11a, NKJV) or "I know the plans I have for you."
To understand what God meant when He said this, we look at the broader context. God encourages the people of Judah to build houses, plant gardens, and have families in exile (Jeremiah 29:5–6). Rather than perceiving their Babylonian exile cities as an enemy, they should seek the welfare of those cities and pray on behalf of those cities, as God would bless the people in those cities (Jeremiah 29:7). God warns that the people should not listen to the false prophets who might declare something contradictory to what God was telling Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:8–9).
God reminds the people that, after seventy years of captivity had been completed, He would fulfill His promise and bring the people back to their homeland, Israel (Jeremiah 29:10). God adds that "I know the thoughts that I think toward you" (Jeremiah 29:11a, NKJV). He knew the plans He had made for Israel, and He had given His word that He would bring those plans to fruition.
Roughly eight hundred years earlier, God had made a covenant with Israel through Moses (beginning in Exodus 19). If Israel kept the covenant, God would bless them and allow them to live in the land He would give them. If, on the other hand, Israel failed to obey, God would remove the people from the land (see Deuteronomy 28—29). For most of the time the nation lived in the land, they were not faithful to God's covenant. God determined that He would remove the people so the land could enjoy its rest and its sabbaths that it did not enjoy because of the people's disobedience (Leviticus 26:34–35). God determined that the years of exile would be seventy, based on the number of sabbath years that the people had violated God's command to let the land rest (2 Chronicles 36:21).
God kept His word to judge the people for their breaking of His covenant, and He would also keep His word to restore them from captivity. He says, "I know the thoughts (or plans) I think (or plan) toward you." These would be thoughts or plans of peace and a future of hope (Jeremiah 29:11b). After the seventy years of exile were completed, God did indeed bring the people back into the land. And He gave the promise of a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31ff), which would result in the salvation of the entire people of Israel.
Jeremiah 29:11 is often used out of context and taken as a personal or individual promise of deliverance today. It is actually a record of God's faithfulness to an entire nation—specifically, Israel. If God is committed to keeping His promise to a nation that failed Him, then we know we can trust Him when He makes the promise of—for example—eternal life to us.
In Jeremiah 29 God is encouraging the people of Israel that they can count on Him to keep His word and that He has promised their eventual good. Even though He has made different promises to individuals—Jews and Gentiles—who have trusted in Christ, it is certain that He has plans for their peace and a future of hope as well. While we need to be careful not to conflate God's promises to the nation of Israel with God's promises to individuals today, we can be confident that, just as He knows the plans He has for Israel—plans for peace and a future of hope—He knows the plans that He has for us. If you have believed in Jesus Christ, you are His workmanship designed for the good works that He has prepared beforehand (Ephesians 2:10). He has made your relationship with Him and your eternal place with Him totally secure (1 Peter 1:3–5).
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