Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34
Jeremiah is not known as a prophet of hope and good news. This may be why his words here seem to carry so much joy. This week’s reading comes from “The Little Book of Consolation” in Jeremiah 30–31.
The text focuses on the covenant between God and the people. Here on the Fifth Sunday of Lent would be a good time to review the covenant and understand why and how it was made and broken.
The first covenant with the people goes back to Sinai. Before the Ten Words, or Commandments, are given, the covenant is formed in Exodus 19 when God tells Moses to say the following to the people: “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the Israelites: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’” To which the people respond in verse 8, “Everything the LORD has spoken we will do.” But we know that the words are barely out of their mouths when their promises are broken.
Indeed, it is hard to know which covenant the people in Jeremiah broke, for their record of covenant-keeping is poor. We are not even out of the book of Exodus before the Sinai covenant is ruptured in chapter 32, necessitating another one in Exodus 34:10. As we saw last week, the people in the wilderness complain against Moses and God, and the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings are full of the narratives of the people collectively and individuals breaking their covenant with God by turning away.
The prophets speak of how the people have broken the covenant (Isaiah 24:5; 28:15; Jeremiah 22:9; Ezekiel 16:59; Hosea 6:7; 8:1; Zechariah 11:10) and how God continues to restore it (Isaiah 54:10; 55:3; Ezekiel 37:26). These are the texts that directly speak of the covenant, but there are multiple examples of the broken relationship that do not use the word “covenant” but imply it, such as Hosea 11:1–11.
So to be clear, there is nothing “new” about what God is doing here. God has done it over and over. In Hosea 11, we eavesdrop on God’s thoughts at times like this. God questions God’s self and asks how God can give up on this people, and then God’s heart twists and writhes with pain, and God’s compassion grows for these stubborn people, and God cannot destroy them, for “I am God and no mortal” (verse 9). God continues to make a “new” covenant with the same old people!
Much has been made of this “new” covenant being “within them” and “written on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33), and some see this as superior to the law written on stone tablets. Indeed, 2 Corinthians 3:3 implies this understanding, but we should go to great lengths to avoid supersessionism here.
The “new” covenant written on their hearts may result from the destruction of the Temple and the Holy of Holies. The people need a way to remain God’s people without the worship space and its sacred artifacts. The tablets are destroyed, but that does not mean their destruction alters the relationship between God and the people.
As noted above, the covenant was made when the people responded in Exodus 19, “Everything the LORD has spoken we will do.” The stone tablets are superfluous. They may represent the tradition of the king’s laws being written on a stele, as with Hammurabi. The covenant is not about stone tablets but the relationship with God and the people. With the stone tablets gone, the covenant will remain as it did before, in each person. This covenant is not “new” in any way other than the people having broken the covenant again, and God must forgive to continue the relationship.
The point of this week’s text is appropriate for the wilderness generation, the exile generation, and all other generations from Sinai until today. God continues to make new ways when we break our promises. Ironically, we are still the same people we encounter in the Bible, and God is the same God. God continues to “forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more” (verse 34). God has literally hurt, bled, and died for this relationship. God could ask us, “What have you done for this relationship?”
Lent is a time of reflection, and this text provides us with a long look at what used to be called heilsgeschichte, or salvation history. While the criticisms that it is not technically history are correct, the long arc of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness in this theology still applies. We can get used to God’s grace and forgiveness. It is as sure as spring following winter. But last week’s Old Testament lesson threw us when God did not act according to plan. And that text serves as a reminder here that we should never take God for granted. Let us give thanks for God’s gifts to us and remember to act as if we are people with a covenant written on our hearts—because we are.