Commentary on Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-28; then 31:31-34
This week we enter one of the few periods of the North American yearly calendar when we practice open expressions of thanksgiving.1
On the lectionary calendar, we fast-forward from last week’s passage of Isaiah 6 during the late eighth century BCE to the reign of Jehoiakim during the early sixth century BCE. Many of the fears of the eighth century have befallen on Judah, though partially delayed in time, and executed through the Babylonians and not the Assyrians.
Once again, God addresses this crisis through a prophet. Jeremiah is commanded to write the words onto a scroll to preserve these texts for future generations to look back at the calamity as an impetus to their repentance and divine forgiveness. Obediently, Jeremiah calls on his scribe Baruch to record the words of the Lord.
This passage models a major transition of revelation. Archaeological evidence suggests that ancient Judah is witnessing a growing literacy, thus it is natural that God would utilize newer forms of communication. Whereas two centuries earlier in Isaiah 6, an angelic being touches the lips of Isaiah with a hot coal, now, the command is to write the prophetic word. One can consider the differences between the preservation of national narratives through oral tradition versus written practices. Jeremiah understands that these very words can have value beyond the present generation.
Because of Jeremiah’s banishment from the temple, he sends Baruch to read the words of the scroll during the midst of a fasting ceremony. Both the space and time are set for a redemptive reading of the words of the Lord.
But when the scroll is read to the court, this time by Jehudi, the response to the word of God is telling. The king is perhaps too consumed with his own luxuries to understand the precariousness of the situation. Jeremiah 36:22 expresses a particularly biting indictment of those of us who enjoy privilege: “Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month or December), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him.” If we enjoy positions of power in regards to our gender, ethnicity, class, marital status, etc., we must take care that such privilege does not overshadow our own ability to listen to God’s Word.
King Jehoiakim’s response, though deplorable, is not surprising in that the destruction of the prophetic words is natural for a ruler who is both paranoid and massively self-absorbed. This is one of the earliest recorded narratives of “book burning” to suppress an ideology. But as in most cases, this book burning is not a terribly effective strategy for ideological control. Instead of eliminating the word of God, Jeremiah 36 shows that it is more powerful and lasting than the actions of a narcissistic king. The words of Jeremiah continue to find power two millennia later. King Jehoiakin is merely a footnote as a disobedient king.
But the destruction is not total. Before the fall, Jeremiah has prophesied about a new covenant. Jeremy 31 is part of the book of consolation, as named by biblical scholars, because it thematically builds on hope rather than the condemnation that characterizes much of the book of Jeremiah. In the midst of the Babylonian takeover of Zion, Jeremiah’s consolation culminates in a new covenant with the following characteristics:
- Inclusive, not divisive (Jeremiah 31:31) — It includes both the northern and southern kingdoms. This is a remarkable break from the tensions and outright animosity between the two kingdoms, which continued through the life of Christ (John 4:4-26); the participants explicitly include the “least to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:34).
- Lawful, not lawless (Jeremiah 31:33) — The new covenant will build on the Torah of God. Now, the people have a new strategy for staying faithful to God. Pursuant to the Jeremiah 36 episode, it will center on the written word. It is better to think of a Torah in the sense of God’s “teaching,” rather than New Testament constructs of Torah as legalism. Torah was an expression of how the community could maintain covenantal fidelity.
- Divine, not human (Jeremiah 31:33) — Whereas the older covenant was broken by the people, God pre-empts this possibility by making Himself the primary agent of the new covenant. Note the first person emphasis, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God.”
- Relational, not distant (Jeremiah 31:34) — The earlier covenant was intimate in that it involved a God who “takes by the hand” and the metaphor of marriage. The new covenant incorporates these features in that they will fully know the Lord in both intellectual acknowledgement, but also inclusive in the intimate ideals that they will know the Lord and be known by Him.
Most significantly, the new covenant is indeed new! The cloud of sin no longer hangs above the community. For God declares, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” With the freedom from sin, the people can now move forward in their relationship with God.
This new covenant is much more protective and lasting. In the midst of the Babylonian sufferings, it enables the faithful to be grateful to God. Although politically oppressed, with little economic hope and an unknown future, the covenant of God brings rise to thanksgiving to all.
- Commentary first published on Nov. 20, 2016.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God, whose fondness for humanity knows no limit,
Write your word upon our hearts, so that we need no scroll, no book, no script to know that you love us. Show us the power of your covenant, that you will be faithful to us, even when we fail to remain faithful to you. For the beauty of your word inscribed upon us, we pray, in the name of the one whose body and blood became your new covenant with us, Jesus Christ, our redeemer. Amen.
He is king of kings, Alice Parker