Fifth Sunday in Lent

An act of God’s pure grace

Mural of silhouette girl reaching out; birds flying upward
"And I, when I am lifted up ... will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 21, 2021

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34



“You’ve got to have heart.” – Coach Jimmy McGinty, The Replacements.

Some biblical passages are difficult to preach because they are obscure. (That may have been the case with last week’s reading from Numbers 21.) Other biblical passages are difficult to preach because they are familiar, and we therefore “know” what the text means before we start preaching it.

That is the problem with today’s reading from Jeremiah 31. We “know” that Jeremiah’s prophecy looks forward to the New Testament church. We “know” that the new covenant refers to Jesus and his birth, life, death, and resurrection. We “know” therefore that the primary message of this text is to justify the theological conclusion that the New Testament church has replaced ancient Israel in the economy of salvation history. And because Jeremiah 31:31-34 is quoted several times in the New Testament (completely in Hebrews 8:8-12; partially in Romans 11:27; Hebrews 10:16-17; by way of allusion in Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, and John 6:45), for many Christians this meaning of our text is already and definitively known.

But that isn’t the message of this text in its ancient (late 7th century BCE) context.

Jeremiah 31 belongs with chapter 30, and these two chapters are often identified as the “Book of Consolation” or the “Book of Comfort” in the Hebrew version of Jeremiah.1 It is clear that these chapters have the Babylonian Exile in view, but there is some question as to whether the Exile has already happened (as with Second Isaiah) or is still on the temporal horizon. No matter how that historical question is answered, the text clearly envisions the period of time after the Babylonian Exile is over and the Hebrews are returned back to Palestine.2

What will happen then?

The return from exile will issue in a “new covenant” (berit chadashah), which according to verse 32 will “not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors.” It is often noted that this is the only place in the Hebrew Bible that mentions a “new covenant.”3 And this new, future, covenant is being compared to the old, existing, Mosaic covenant which they broke (heperu) even though the Lord was their husband (baalti bam).4

This isn’t the first time the concept of the broken covenant is broached in Jeremiah; In Jeremiah 11:10, Jeremiah proclaims that “the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken (heperu) the covenant that I made with their ancestors” and in Jeremiah 22:9, the nations affirm that Judah and Jerusalem are no more “because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshiped other gods and served them.”

The old, Mosaic covenant was conditional and transactional, as stated most bluntly in Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26. Both texts promise protection and blessing as the consequence of obedience, but judgment and ultimately exile as the consequence of disobedience. In Jeremiah’s view, and in the view of the other prophets, the exiles of the Northern Kingdom (721 BCE) and the Southern Kingdom (586 BCE) are God’s just punishment for the disobedience and idolatry of God’s chosen people.

But the new covenant that will follow the return from exile will not be conditional and transactional, full of rules that can be broken or followed insincerely from a sense of obligation or duty. Instead, we read in verse 33 that “I (that is, the Lord) will put my law (torati) within them, and I will write it on their hearts (libbam).”5 Note that the newness of this covenant is not its content but its internalization.6

Verse 34 gives us the result of this internalization of God’s covenant demands: there will be no need for religious leaders or teachers because everyone will know God “from the least to the greatest,” a Hebrew idiom for universality.7 Everyone will know God because God will forgive their iniquities (see also Jeremiah 33:8; 36:3) and not remember their sin anymore. That is a striking reversal from earlier statements by Jeremiah, such as what we find in Jeremiah 14:10 (“now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins”).

This section closes with the saying “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”8 The old, Mosaic covenant envisioned a relationship with God that was grounded in God’s act of liberating the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. That model was taken up by Second Isaiah, who viewed the return from the Babylonian Exile as a new, or second, Exodus.

Jeremiah’s new covenant goes in a different direction. There is no new act of political liberation that is in view here, but simply and only a divine act of forgiveness that in and of itself creates the new covenant that will be written on the hearts of the Hebrew people.9 In this new covenant, obedience to God’s Torah, and acting in accordance with God’s will, become part of our internal character and hence something that happens automatically and without conscious thought or effort.

Thus, the people now in exile can look forward to being part of a community of faith that is forgiven as an act of God’s pure grace; whose relationship to God is not formal and transactional, but like that of a married couple in which everything that is done and every word that is spoken supports their partner and their relationship; and where the formal trappings of traditional religious hierarchy are no longer needed.

The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth put it this way: “‘I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts’ (Jeremiah 31:33). This and this alone is the basis of the love which is the fulfilment of the whole Law. And as God does this [God’s] Law, in virtue of which love is expected of [us], is the Law of the Gospel.”10

Notes

  1. See R. P. Carroll, Jeremiah (Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 568-70; W. Holladay, Jeremiah 2 (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 148; W. McKane (Jeremiah 2 [International Critical Commentary; Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1986], 749-51). Others see this as including chapters 30-33, as found in J. A. Thompson, Jeremiah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).
  2. The Jewish Study Bible notes on verse 31 (“here it refers to the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile and the reconstruction of the Temple.”). In context, Jeremiah has the restoration of both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms in mind, as the reference to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” in verse 31 clearly shows.
  3. See Carroll, Jeremiah, 610; Thompson, Jeremiah, 579; Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:1088. On the wider canonical context for the idea of a coming new covenant, see the New Jerusalem Bible notes to this section.
  4. There are a couple of points the interpreter should be aware of in verse 32. The first is the unusual syntax of the second occurrence of the relative pronoun ‘asher (see Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 197-98); the second is the dual meaning of the verb b’l, which carries both the sense of “to be husband to” and “to be lord over” (see for example, Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, 127; Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 2:181-82; New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1:682; Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 2:237). The Septuagint has a different reading (elemesa, “I was unconcerned,” for the Masoretic Text ba’alti), a reading also present in Hebrews 8:9 (for discussion see Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 6:577-78).
  5. Compare, for example, Jeremiah 17:11 (“The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts”) for a similar metaphor used negatively. For the Ancient Near East background to this image, see The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible note on verse 33.
  6. For example, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament 4:237 (“The massive ‘new thing’ of this passage is the interiorization of religion”); Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 198 (“Yahweh’s new action will bring about a new situation wherein the people will obey freely and gladly, and rebellion will be a thing of the past.”).
  7. In this context, whether this is a reference to chronology (youngest to oldest) or social stratification (lowest to highest) is irrelevant.
  8. See also Jeremiah 24:7; 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 14:11; 37:27; Zechariah 8:8; and with the second person pronoun “your” instead of the third person pronoun “their,” Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; Ezekiel 36:28.
  9. Compare Jeremiah 24:7 (“I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart”), which proclaims a similar message but includes the notion of repentance, which is lacking in Jeremiah 31.
  10. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Volume 4, Part 2), 782-83; similarly, McKane, Jeremiah 2, 820. A lengthier exposition can be found in Church Dogmatics (Volume 4, Part 1), 32-34.