First Sunday of Advent

It is YHWH who has made them right again

Fig leaf budding out
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November 28, 2021

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16



This lectionary reading introduces the season of Advent, when Christians await the birth of God’s messiah. In certain respects, the message is straightforward, since it quite obviously touches on the fulfillment of God’s promise to raise up a Davidic descendent once again. But why is this promise good news? 

In Jeremiah 33:14-16, Jeremiah’s world is in a state of collapse. Jeremiah himself is in prison for preaching that God would deliver the kingdom into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar for their failure to keep the covenant with YHWH. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Jerusalem desperately attempt to protect themselves from Nebuchadnezzar’s inevitable invasion. 

In an ironic reflection of Jeremiah’s commission to “pluck up and tear down,” the inhabitants of Jerusalem tear down their own houses in a vain attempt to save the city. In effect, they are destroying the city in order to save it. God’s message to Jeremiah concerns this people at this particular moment. Hidden within these desperate events is God’s abiding faithfulness to Israel.  Indeed, God is already preparing to raise up a “righteous branch,” a descendant of David, and Jerusalem and Judah will be restored. 

What is startling is the brevity of the text’s account of the Branch and his work: “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33:15). Other messianic texts like Isaiah 11:2-9 extol the new king’s wisdom, counsel, and strength, often in hymnic and mythic language (see, for example, Psalm 72). Even the parallel text in Jeremiah 23:5-6 says more about this new king. This latter text from Jeremiah may have already existed before Jeremiah 33 was written, and it may be the “good word” or promise which God now promises to fulfill in Jeremiah 33:14-16.1 In Jeremiah 23:5-6, the righteous branch will “reign as king and deal wisely;” and the deliverance of Judah and Jerusalem are explicitly tied to the period of his reign. In addition, the Branch is given a new name: “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6).

By contrast, Jeremiah 33:15 speaks only of the Branch’s fulfillment of justice and righteousness while omitting any reference either to his reign or his wisdom. The emphasis on justice and righteousness is therefore important, and preachers may well wish to develop this theme. Throughout the Bible, the phrase “justice and righteousness” refers to the maintenance of what we might today call social justice, a concern to establish equitable social and economic conditions for the well-being of all in society.2

In the ancient world, justice was not an abstract concept. It was always a personal practice of care and attention to the needs of others, in particular the vulnerable ones such as widows, orphans, and strangers. The king was the exemplar of this ideal because he was the agent of divine justice and righteousness. Preaching this text during Advent would provide preachers a welcome opportunity to consider how Jesus’ own lowly birth prepares him to proclaim a transformative vision of justice and righteousness. 

At the same time, this very brevity might suggest that the good news of this text lies elsewhere.  When one compares the Branch of 33:14-16 with his portrayal in Jeremiah 23:5–6, one is struck by how little is actually said about this new ruler. When, for example, the new name, “He is our righteousness,” is assigned to Jerusalem instead, it becomes clear that the real focus of this text is not on the Branch so much as on what YHWH will do for Israel and Judah. Although the difference is subtle, the overall emphasis in Jeremiah 33:14-16 is to underscore YHWH’s gracious commitment to promises that appear to have been rendered null and void by their rebellion. Despite the destructiveness of their ways, Jerusalem’s new name will declare that it is YHWH who has made them right again.

In this little text, God’s good word—what we might easily call the gospel—resides in the emphasis on what God does to cause the Branch to spring up.  This metaphor drawn from the plant world is an important symbol of hope when all is lost. Just as saplings grow out of dead stumps, even a dead dynasty can be restored. But, unlike the natural processes underlying this metaphor, the regeneration of the House of David is not “natural,” nor is it inevitable. Human families and dynasties can and do die out; destroyed and dismantled cities cannot and do not reassemble themselves.  Instead, since it is YHWH who causes the branch to spring up, this regeneration is a sign of God’s characteristic faithfulness to Israel and, more particularly in Jeremiah 33, to David.

In the verses following this lectionary reading in Jeremiah 33, God’s covenant with nature underscores this point: “If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed times, only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken” (Jeremiah 33:20–21a). If the book of Jeremiah emphasizes anything, it is that these people, not to mention its kings, know how to break covenants. By Jeremiah’s account, time and again Israel and Judah could and did break their covenant with God to their own lasting injury. Yet here God wagers, rightly, that they cannot hope to damage God’s covenant with the created order. 

Here, then, is the mystery: God’s promises to God’s people are as reliable as day following night. That fact fundamentally changes the meaning of Jerusalem’s self-destruction. Because God is faithful, the dead end of Judah’s rebellion against God becomes the starting point for God’s new work. Where they have torn down, God is already preparing to build up. What they have plucked up, God will certainly cause to grow again. 


Notes

  1. Robert Carroll, Jeremah: A Commentary (OTL; Philadelphia; Westminster Press, 1986), 637.
  2. Walter J. Houston, Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament (London, New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 60–61. The discussion of justice and righteousness in this paragraph is indebted to Houston’s insightful study.