Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34
In the first chapter of this book six verbs define the ministry of Jeremiah: pluck up, pull down, destroy, overthrow, build and plant (1:10).
Throughout much of the book, the prophet has plucked up, pulled down, destroyed and overthrown as he accused the people of violating the covenant that God had established with them (especially chapter 11). Beginning in chapter 30, the so-called book of consolations, the prophet builds and plants (31:4). These words, whether from the historical prophet or not, were most relevant to the dispirited exiles who desperately needed to be built up.
Among the consolations were the promises that God would relent of anger (30:24) and return the people to their home (31:8). God’s love and faithfulness will be manifest (31:3). The people will experience prosperity (31:5) and joy (31:13). All of these are comforting promises to people who need to hear a good word. Such promises would be remarkable enough just by themselves. However, this particular passage promises even more.
Here, Jeremiah promises a new covenant between God and the people. The offer of a renewed covenant is itself a manifestation of God’s forgiveness. These words here push the promise even deeper and in a new direction. Through the words of the prophet, God promises to write the law on the hearts of the people.
Even if God restores the people to the land, enables them to experience prosperity and joy and shows love to them again, that will not be enough. Something must change within the people themselves. Here God promises to heal them from the inside out. God will change not only their outward circumstances, but their very hearts.
The passage contains some technical language that can be unpacked. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. God is in the position of determining the conditions of the agreement. Usually a covenant involved promises from the superior party in exchange for the proper response from the other party. Here God takes responsibility even for the response from the people. God will empower the people to uphold their end of the agreement.
The word for law can also be translated as teaching or instruction. The usual translation of law is technically correct, but does not carry the sense of grace that the translation “teaching” conveys. The “law” teaches the people how to live in harmony and stability.
As Augustine suggested, the law teaches us how to love. Psalms 19 and 119 reveal the proper attitude toward the law. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7). Psalm 119 proclaims that the law is a delight leading to success, even in competition and conflict (Psalm 119:98). Jeremiah recognizes that something deep within us resists the law and teaching of God. We embrace the foolishness of resistance to God’s will. By writing the law/teaching on our hearts, God will bypass that resistance, enabling us to experience the delight, prosperity, joy and harmony that the law provides.
Along with the author of Psalm 51, who implored God to create a clean heart within him and put a new, upright spirit in him, Jeremiah and the psalmist knew that change comes only from the inside out. But, God must take the initiative. We are not as wise as the psalmist so we ask for God to work within us. The psalmist asked only on his own behalf, whereas the prophet envisions God writing the law on the hearts of the whole community. Only when the whole community relishes the law/teaching of God can everyone live in harmony and peace.
This is the reading for the last Sunday in Lent. It may be a time when we are most aware of our inability to follow God’s teachings and God’s will. If we have been trying to use Lent as a genuine time to grow in obedience, we will realize our weakness and powerlessness to be what God calls us to be. If we have let Lent slip by without a thought to our spiritual growth, then we know we are unwilling even to make the effort.
This promise of God doing for us what we cannot or will not do on our own can then become a welcome word of refreshment. God will write the law on our hearts. Our growth, our sanctification is not all up to us.
We might ask what the prophet had in mind for this passage. When did he think that God would act in this way? Did he think that God’s initiative to write the law/teaching on our hearts would be part of the return from exile? Did he have any eschatological expectations? Did he simply hold out a promise of God’s sanctification, knowing our weakness and God’s power?
We do not have definite answers to those questions. We can affirm only that our obedience is God’s will for us. God will accomplish God’s purposes. We claim the gift of the resurrection when God will accomplish God’s will for us and for all creation.
We are most ready to hear these words when our own efforts are exhausted. When we are weary of our inner turmoil we are ready to hear Jeremiah. When we are weary of broken relationships and the uncertainty of trusting others, we are ready to hear Jeremiah. When we are weary of our intermittent relationship with God, occasionally close but more likely far away, we are ready to hear Jeremiah. If we have tried to shake off a bad habit or we are tired of trying to improve ourselves, we are ready to hear Jeremiah.