Jeremiah Week 9

Restoration and a New Covenant

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 30:1–33:26

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Jeremiah and the yoke of scrap metal
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In real estate, the maxim is location, location, location. Apparently, this was also true in Jeremiah’s time. The material we will cover in this Lectio relates a real-estate transaction between Jeremiah and one of his relatives. Jeremiah is in prison and the Babylonians have Jerusalem under siege. Things look very bad. At just this time, Jeremiah is offered a tract of land in Anathoth. Under normal conditions, this would seem like a good idea. After all, Jeremiah’s family is from Anathoth. Unfortunately, at the time he is offered the land, it is under Babylonian control. It is occupied territory. It is this location that makes it the ideal piece of land to convey God’s message of hope. Sometime in the future, the people of God will occupy that land again. It is worthless now, but it will become valuable. This story becomes one
of several episodes in this section relating God’s promise
to renew and redeem Israel in the future.

Without question, the book of Jeremiah is unrelenting in its account of the LORD’s judgment of Judah. There is much more in this text about plucking up, pulling down, destroying, and overthrowing than there is about building and planting (Jeremiah 1:10). This week’s chapters, however, focus on restoration and renewal using a variety of styles and images.

The Book of Consolation

Initially, Jeremiah is instructed by God to “write in a book all the words I have spoken to you” (Jeremiah 30:2). Because of this command, chapters 30 and 31 are sometimes referred to as the “book of consolation.” These chapters are directed to a time in the future when God will restore both Judah and Israel. This claim is significant because it shows that God has not abandoned the Northern Kingdom and does not intend either for Judah to remain alone or for Israel to be divided (Jeremiah 31:27).

After this introductory statement of the LORD’s plan to restore the people of God, the rest of chapter 30 employs a diverse and rich set of images to account both for Judah’s judgment and for God’s promise of restoration and redemption. At the same time, God does not neglect the fact that Judah’s wounds are serious, self-inflicted manifestations of God’s just judgment. Nevertheless, God will not and has not abandoned Judah. God’s intention is both to judge and to heal and restore. God’s sends “the storm of the LORD” to accomplish a purpose. Then God restores because of God’s steadfast love of Israel. This is a fierce dynamic; it is hard to understand and acknowledge when one is in the midst of the storm of the LORD. Ultimately, the people of God will understand this (Jeremiah 30:24), but Jeremiah suggests these words may be hard to grasp now.

Hope for the Future

Chapter 31 continues this theme, compiling further images of restoration and renewal. There will be joyful noises, productive harvests, security, consolation, and flourishing (Jeremiah 31:1−9). The implication of verse 6 is that Jerusalem and the Temple will be rebuilt. Overall, “my people shall be satisfied with my bounty” (Jeremiah 31:14).

Chapter 31 contains the famous verse about Rachel weeping for her lost children, which Matthew uses to illumine Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:18). When Matthew uses this verse, it conveys unrequited anguish and mourning. Matthew then has Jesus announce comfort for the mourners in Matthew 5:4. In Jeremiah 31:15−17, this anguish is directly requited: “There is hope for your future, says the LORD: Your children shall come back to their own country” (31:17).  Although the imagery is not always clear (e.g., “a woman encompasses a man,” 31:22), the tone is unquestionably hopeful, pointing to a future of healing and blessing.

Following the voice of Rachel weeping, the text moves to consider the voice of Ephraim pleading (Jeremiah 31:18−20). God hears Rachel’s crying and answers with hope. God also hears Ephraim’s cry. It is a cry of repentance and hard-won discipline. Ephraim has recognized his sin and seeks to return home. God has not forgotten Ephraim and promises mercy.

As the images of restoration and comfort continue, we read in verse 26 that this has been like a very pleasant dream for Jeremiah. This must certainly be the case in the light of the previous chapters.

Verses 27−30 offer a reprise of Jeremiah 1:10. The days are coming when God will sow and plant. Plucking up, breaking down, overthrowing, and destroying have already happened. It is time for building and planting. Nevertheless, each generation will be responsible for its own actions. Presumably, this indicates that future restoration does not rule out future judgment if the people of God stray.

Covenant Written on the Heart

The next verses, Jeremiah 31:31−34, are probably the most famous verses in Jeremiah. In the future, God promises to make a new covenant with Judah and Israel (again stressing the reunified kingdom). The reference to the Exodus indicates that this covenant is in contrast to the Sinai covenant. The chief difference here seems to be between a written document and something written on the heart. It would seem that the written law tends to invite misunderstanding if not disobedience. At the very least, there appears to be the sense that the written law is something separate from those who seek to embody it. Obedience to the written law requires teachers and discipline. The covenant written on the heart requires no teachers or interpreters. Its requirements are clear and will be embodied by all, from the least to the greatest.

Christians should read this promise with some care. On one hand, it is unacceptable for Christians to assume that this new covenant is a covenant made with them and that the old covenant is one made with Israel that has now been nullified. A God who makes an “everlasting” covenant with Abraham and his people (Genesis 17:7, Jeremiah 32:40) and then abandons that covenant in favor of a new covenant is not a trustworthy God. On the other hand, Christians should assume that the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God is a continuous, but climactic, part of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. It begins the decisive renewal of Israel that will draw all the world to God (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 2:2−4).

At the same time, in 2 Corinthian 3:1−6, Paul also seems to indicate that by the power of the Spirit, Christian communities are, at least, the first fruits of that process of God writing on our hearts. That is, Paul claims the material, outward lives of the Christians in Corinth are to be a testimony to God’s writing on the hearts of believers through the Spirit. Of course, given what Paul has already said about the Christians in Corinth, it is clear that this process has yet to reach its consummation. Nevertheless, the important aspect of Paul’s invocation of this new covenant language to speak about the Christian community is that he is not drawing a contrast between flesh and Spirit or outer and inner parts of our lives. Rather, the contrast, as with Jeremiah, is between a written text and a text written on the hearts of believers that is only evident through their outward lives.

In addition to the presence of the Spirit, the fact that those early Christian communities were made up of Jews and Gentiles together were signs that Jeremiah 31:31 was being fulfilled in their midst. Nevertheless, they also recognized that although this prophecy may be in the process of being fulfilled, it has not yet been fully realized. Christians, like the first readers of Jeremiah, anticipate that time when God’s law will be written on our hearts and there will be no gap between God’s speaking and our hearing.

Sovereign in Judgment and Redemption

This striking assertion in Jeremiah 31:31−34 is underwritten by the claims of Jeremiah 31:35−37. These claims are founded on the LORD, who sustains all of creation. The abiding continuity of creation and its unfathomable greatness are themselves testimony to the abiding nature of God’s promises to Israel. The chapter concludes with a brief prophetic word about the expansion and rebuilding of Jerusalem that will happen when God brings the people back from exile (Jeremiah 31:38−40).

The words of consolation written in Jeremiah 30−31 are followed by a prophetic act of hope in chapter 32. This act is a single real-estate transaction. In itself it is not very significant, but context is everything.

When chapter 32 begins, we learn that Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians, and Jeremiah is under arrest. Zedekiah has arrested him because of his persistent prophetic words that Jerusalem will fall and that Zedekiah will be taken into exile. Things look bleak for the city and for Jeremiah personally. In this situation, Jeremiah is invited by his cousin Hanamel to buy a field in Anathoth, outside Jerusalem. At the LORD’s instruction, Jeremiah goes through an elaborate public process of buying this land. This is to show that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jeremiah 32:15). This is a symbolic act that confirms God’s intention for Judah to flourish after exile, and it is an opportunity for Jeremiah to materially commit himself to that outcome. He is putting his money where his mouth is.

We then read an account of a prayer Jeremiah offers to God (Jeremiah 32:16−25). The prayer recounts the LORD’s character as one who extends steadfast love and mercy and also righteously judges Judah’s infidelity. Jeremiah notes that the current situation of imminent disaster is just what the LORD promised in the light of Judah’s sin. Jeremiah is confident that destruction will be comprehensive and the Babylonians will win out. Finally, at verse 25, Jeremiah expresses his confusion over why God would want him to buy this field.

This prayer allows the LORD to reaffirm the plan that, because of her idolatries, Jerusalem will be handed over to the Babylonians. The city will be destroyed. In addition, however, the LORD reaffirms a plan to restore and renew Jerusalem and Judah. God will bring disaster and then prosperity (Jeremiah 32:26−44).

This theme continues into chapter 33. The first 13 verses of this chapter reprise the dual promises of judgment and healing that are part of chapter 32. Much of the language of restoration and renewal has focused on Judah’s commercial life (e.g., land, trade, farming), social life (e.g., sounds of weddings), and worship life (e.g., restoration of worship in Temple). In Jeremiah 33:14−22, the LORD announces the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. This passage builds on a similar promise in Jeremiah 23:5−6. Again, this is a promise for a united kingdom. There will be one king who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This is presented as an ironclad commitment on God’s part (verses 19−22) despite the reality of impending exile. In fact, as the chapter comes to a close, it appears that God’s own integrity would be in question if this commitment to David was not renewed and sustained.

This closes the sustained pattern of consolation that starts with chapter 30. There are two persistent themes here. First, exile is God’s choice. Despite the fact that it would appear to any seasoned political observer that the Babylonians are in control of events, the LORD is using them as instruments of judgment upon Judah. The second theme is that of God’s steadfast love for Judah, a love that is connected to God’s covenantal promises to Israel. These two themes are connected. Only a God who is truly sovereign over all things can both direct and oversee Judah’s judgment and exile while at the same time making firm promises of restoration. Only a God whose first and last words to Judah are words of love has the capacity to both tear down and build up. An angry, vengeful God can tear down if that God is powerful enough. That God, however, has no reason to build up, restore, or redeem. Only the LORD — bound to Judah in love — can be relied upon to build up and restore.

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. The Lectio says that, “only a God who is truly sovereign over all things can both direct and oversee Judah’s judgment and exile while at the same time making firm promises of restoration.” How do you see this dual-pronged plan at work in the reading from Jeremiah for this week? How does this statement challenge or affirm your understanding of who God is?
  2. Jeremiah buys a plot of land (Jeremiah 32) as a “prophetic act of hope.” Why is this land purchase so important? What is the context? What might be a prophetic act of hope in your context?

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