< January 03, 2010 >

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

 

This text is part of Jeremiah's Book of Consolation, often identified with chapters 30-31, but probably including chapters 32-33.

The larger scope of the Book is likely in view of the bracketing references to the ancestral promises in Jeremiah 30:3 and 33:26. This block of material focuses on God's promises to the Israelites: they shall return from Babylonian exile and once again be established in the land of promise.

Even before the fall and destruction of Jerusalem (described in Jeremiah 39), God's saving work was seen to be at work in the midst of judgment. These oracles are often introduced with a "Thus says the Lord," indicating that God himself stands behind these promises and is the one in whom Israel is to place its trust even in the worst of times.

The images used throughout Jeremiah 31 are predominantly familial rather than political or military. Female images, especially those associated with birth and new life, are prominent. The return to the everyday life of the village, with its familiar tasks and joys, is given special attention. God is imaged as a loving, nurturing parent (both father and mother), comforting those who sorrow and caring for the needs of a bruised community.

The opening verses of Jeremiah 31 are important in evaluating verses 7-14. God's word to Israel is strong and clear: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you" (31:2). God's love and faithfulness to promises made remain intact through Israel's infidelity and consequent judgment. Even in the worst of times! That divine love and faithfulness was now at work to recreate Israel out of the rubble of exile. Out of death God brings new life.

It is this understanding of God that undergirds 31:7-14. In lyrical, hymnic language, these promises focus on Israel's journey home from exile through the wilderness and on its homecoming (compare the language of Isaiah 35). Words common to the psalms of praise and thanksgiving dominate: sing, shout, proclaim, and praise (31:7). The call is to sing "for" Israel, the chief of nations; it is probably a word to the exiles themselves (as in Isaiah 54:1). They are understood to be a "remnant"; not all of them will return home (and many had been killed in recent events).

Verses 8-9 state the reason for the praise of verse 7: God is going to bring the remnant of Israel back from Babylon ("the land of the north") and from other places where they had been scattered. Notably, those returning home will not consist simply of the healthy and able-bodied. The returnees will include the weak and the disabled and even women who are in labor. The point here is a democratization in the experience of deliverance; those who return will include not simply the leaders and the affluent, but people from all walks of life and in every physical condition ("from the least to the greatest," 31:34; see Isaiah 35:5-6; Micah 4:6-7). A great throng of people! Whatever their status in life they are equally members of the family of God (verse 9).

The return will be a time of joy and gladness, but it will also be a time of weeping (verse 9; see verses 15-20). Joy and weeping often go together at such times of homecoming, especially when those involved remember all the friends and loved ones who have died and are not able to return. God will personally lead them back and comfort them with words of consolation.

To pick up on verse 13, God will turn their weeping into joy and their sorrow into gladness. God will lead them by streams of water through the wilderness (see Psalm 23:2) and along straight paths so that they do not falter or stumble (see Isaiah 40:3). And verse 9 concludes with parental images for God (as also verse 20). If the exiles were wondering about their status with God, the claim is sharply made: they are God's children, God's firstborn (see Exodus 4:22). In spite of all of their failures, they remain the children of God and will share in that inheritance.

In 31:10, all the nations are called upon to listen to this word about God's children; indeed, they are to help broadcast this fact out and about so that everyone will hear of God's work of salvation (see Isaiah 48:20). What they are to proclaim is specified in verse 10b. The God who scattered Israel in judgment is the same God who will now gather them (see 23:3) and keep them as a shepherd keeps his flock.

The reason for this testimony is stated in verse 11 ("for"). Israel's salvation is here anticipated, even in the midst of the worst of disasters. Deliverance from the strong arm of Babylon is linked by the vocabulary of "ransom" (of the firstborn) and "redeem" to Israel's deliverance from Egypt (see Exodus 6:6; 13:14-16; 15:13; see also Isaiah 51:10-11). Indeed, the saving significance of this event will surpass that of the Exodus (see Jeremiah 23:7-8).

In verses 12-13, the people come rejoicing and dancing (see 30:19). As they climb the heights of Jerusalem they will be radiant over the gifts of grain, wine, oil, and the young of flock and herd (see Isaiah 60:5-7). The land which had mourned (Jeremiah 12:4-13; 14:1-6) will once again be productive and provide sustenance for both people and animals. Their lives will become like a watered garden, flourishing and fruitful, and they will never (!) languish again (see Isaiah 58:11).

It is notable that the language of creation is drawn so strongly into this response to the saving work of God. Salvation is not simply for people; salvation is also for the land and for all of its creatures (devastated earlier, see Jeremiah 9:10). The abundance associated with the life of worship and its sacrifices is also picked up (verse 14).

In a remarkably inclusive text (verse 13), the young and old will rejoice, and young women and young men shall dance and make merry. The language of comfort and joy over what God has done dominates this scene of the people returning from exile.