Commentary on Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-28; 31:31-34
From the very beginning of his ministry, Jeremiah was “appoint[ed] . . . over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10; see 18:9; 24:6; 31:28; 45:4).
In today’s lectionary reading, chapter 36 focuses on God’s judgment — plucking up and pulling down, destroying and overthrowing. God’s restorative work — building and planting — is in view in 31:31-34.
Of all the prophetic books, Jeremiah probably has the most complex editorial history. We do not need to review the possible details. Suffice it to say that Jeremiah’s vision of a hope-filled future for God’s people is found in chapters 30-33, which are followed by further accounts of judgment. This arrangement may have resulted in part from the story we hear in chapter 36.
In particular, the first scroll of prophecy (verse 2) that Jehoiakim destroyed (verse 23) may have consisted largely of what is now Jeremiah 1 through 25:13. The second scroll, which duplicated the first with the addition of “many similar words” (36:32), may account for the larger Book of Jeremiah we now have (or at least have been part of the growth of the book).
In any case, the Book of Jeremiah, like Isaiah and Ezekiel and many books of The Twelve, juxtaposes judgment and hope. This juxtaposition is very significant theologically because it suggests that God’s “anger and wrath” (verse 7) do not involve God’s attempt simply to punish or get even. Rather, as chapter 36 makes clear, God’s will is for things to be set right by the people’s repentance and obedience (verse 3; see verse 7).
In short, God’s actions are always motivated by love. Punishment is never what God wants to do or what God wills to happen. Rather, punishment is what results when God’s will is not done. Of course, the Book of Jeremiah (along with the entire prophetic canon) makes it clear that the people and leaders of Israel and Judah frequently do not do God’s will; and Jeremiah 36 is a prime example of Judah’s leadership choosing not to follow God’s word (note that “word” or “words” occurs sixteen times in chapter 36).1
The chronological note in verse 1 is important, setting the episode in 605 BCE just as Babylon had consolidated its power. At this crucial junction, God is giving Judah one more chance to repent. But it is not to be. Indeed, Jehoiakim’s response — cutting to pieces and burning the scroll (verse 23) — is perhaps as blatantly disrespectful of God’s word as one could possibly be. Jehoiakim is not about to obey.
The details of the episode poignantly recall the quite different response to God’s word that Jehoiakim’s father, Josiah, demonstrated (see 2 Kings 22-23). When Shaphan brought a newly discovered scroll to Josiah, he responded with penitence and obedience. When Shaphan’s grandson, Micaiah (Jeremiah 36:11), is instrumental in calling Jehoiakim’s attention to Jeremiah’s scroll, the king responds with disdain and contempt.2 Not only does he destroy the scroll, but he also orders the arrest of Jeremiah and Baruch; “But the LORD hid them” (verse 26). God and God’s word will not be silenced (verses 27-28).
Chapter 36 only hints at the content of the scroll (see verse 29); but if, as suggested above, the first scroll is now preserved as Jeremiah 1-25, then we can understand why Jehoiakim was not pleased. The king would certainly have viewed Jeremiah as an unpatriotic nay-sayer who was undermining the morale of the nation and, at least indirectly, aiding and abetting the enemy when he warned of Jerusalem’s destruction by the Babylonians. Then too, the first scroll apparently contained some very pointed and unflattering comparisons between Jehoiakim and his father (see 22:11-19). Jeremiah’s intent, of course, was not simply to criticize, but rather to reform. Unfortunately, Jehoiakim remains unmoved. The results will be disastrous for him and for his people (36:29-31).
But the story will not end with Jehoiakim’s demise and Jerusalem’s defeat. Of the material in the hope-filled chapters 30-33, 31:31-34 is perhaps the clearest and certainly the most well-known affirmation that God’s intent was not to punish but rather to reform and restore. Like both Isaiah and Ezekiel that surround it, the Book of Jeremiah employs the language and conceptuality of newness to describe what might be called, to borrow a contemporary phrase, God’s “restorative justice.”
Isaiah discerns that God is doing “new things” (42:9; see 43:19), including the creation of “new heavens and a new earth” (65:17). Ezekiel describes God’s gift of “a new heart . . . and a new spirit” (36:26). Jeremiah envisions “a new covenant” (31:31; see also the “new thing” of 31:22), although as in Ezekiel, the newness involves some heart treatment.
Not coincidentally perhaps, 31:31-34 is immediately preceded by an echo (verse 28) of 1:10 that first mentions God’s building and planting. Obviously, the original covenant had been broken — not by God but by the people’s disobedience. Like the original covenant, the new covenant involves torah (verse 33, NRSV “law”); and here is where God performs a sort of heart surgery, putting the torah (better translated as “Instructions,” as in the Common English Bible) inside, inscribed on the heart (compare 17:1, which indicates the need for such a procedure).
Verse 33 concludes by rehearsing the basic covenant formula (see 30:22; 31:1; Ezekiel 36:28; Hosea 1:8, 10), while verse 34 envisions the restoration of genuine and enduring relationship between God and God’s people — that is, the knowledge that had been so desperately lacking (see 2:8; 4:22; 5:4; 8:7; 9:3; Hosea 4:3; 6:6). As verse 34 makes clear, the possibility of newness is grounded in God’s grace.
It always is! And so while 31:31-34 is not a prediction of Jesus, it is understandable that the early Church borrowed the language of a new covenant to describe the grace experienced in Jesus (see Matthew 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:25; see also the more problematic Hebrews 8:8-13; 9:15-22; 10:16-17, which suggest that the new covenant was initiated only in Christ rather than recognizing a sharing in a new covenant already established between God and God’s people, as Paul seems to suggest in Romans 9-11).
1 See John M. Bracke, Jeremiah 30-52 with Lamentations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 57.
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.
Here is bread ELW 483
When twilight comes ELW 566
Praise, my soul, the king of heaven ELW 865, H82 410, UMH 66
He is king of kings, Alice Parker