Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34
Reformation Sunday draws our attention to God’s ongoing work of renewal in the church, to the unmerited gift of divine grace that cannot be bought or sold, and to a history of courageous response to that free gift, embodied in reformers who have been willing to challenge abuses within the body of Christ.1
Jeremiah’s declaration of God’s renewed covenant, enfleshed within the very guts of God’s people and written on their hearts, surprises with visceral and vital imagery of intimate knowing and belonging.
God says: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). What will it mean for the people of God to carry the law within their bodies? God’s own will and teaching will become their electromagnetic signature, radiating from within, setting the rhythm for all that they do.
What do we know about our hearts? We know that with each heartbeat blood courses through our bodies, delivering to each cell and organ the nutrients and oxygen they need to thrive. With each beat blood returns to the heart, so that it may be pumped through the lungs to be filled with oxygen once more. The heart’s beating is the pulse of life within us.
The ancient Israelites understood the heart as a faculty. They knew the heart as the seat of will (Jeremiah 7:24), invention (Jeremiah 14:14), reasoning, discernment, and judgment. In 1 Kings, when Solomon asks God for “an understanding mind … able to discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9 NRSV), he has requested, in the first phrase, “a hearing heart” (lev shomea’ 1 Kings 3:9). Later, God’s gift to Solomon is described as “very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding” (1 Kings 4:29 NRSV). In Hebrew, the last phrase is rechov lev: “wideness of heart.”
These metaphors emphasize the capacity to receive, respond, grow, and hold a wisdom that only God can give.
Perhaps the people of Israel and Judah felt the heart quicken with insight or resolve, seize with worry, settle with peace, and deduced from these sensations that this beating organ was bound up in human thought, awareness, memory (e.g., Jeremiah 3:16, 28:50), and decision-making.
They also understood the heart’s powerful link to emotion. Earlier in the book of Jeremiah, his prophetic word exploded from the painful awareness of his heart’s response to the distress of his people: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war” (Jeremiah 4:19 NRSV). On another occasion the prophet declared that he ate God’s words and they became the delight of his heart (15:16); later still, Jeremiah confesses that God’s word rages in his heart like a fire (20:9).
Indeed “heart” (Hebrew lev and levav) is a word that Jeremiah uses again and again — 65 times in all, more frequently than does any book of the Hebrew Bible apart from Psalms and Proverbs. This prominence highlights an important theme in Jeremiah, namely the embodied awareness, thoughts, disposition, choices, and actions of God’s people. Their hearts embody their intentions (5:24), guilt (Jeremiah 17:1), and punishment (4:18).
When God will write God’s law upon the hearts of the people, their hearts will embody and empower the true relationship they share with God and one another. This relationship will be characterized by a deep and abiding knowledge of God’s will and by an intimacy that defines each in relation to the other.
This interior and intimate knowledge of God does not shift the focus from community to individual. Rather, it unites and renews the community as God’s people. They are still bound in covenant with God precisely as a people, as a community sharing past, present, and future. Within the biblical canon, God’s promise to be the God of Abraham’s children is first articulated in Genesis (17:8).
Here, too, the context is covenant. God’s promise accompanies the command that, through circumcision, the male members of Abraham’s household will incise this covenant in their flesh. This focus on shared, embodied obedience helps us to recognize, on Reformation Sunday, the corporeal and corporate dimensions of the renewed covenant God promises in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
In her book, The Body, Lisa Blackman summarizes insights of anthropologist AnneMarie Mol on the ways our bodies extend beyond our perceived self:
…the body is not bounded by the skin, where we understand the skin to be a kind of container for the self, but rather our bodies always extend and connect to other bodies, human and non-human, to practices, techniques, technologies and objects which produce different kinds of bodies and different ways, arguably, of enacting what it means to be human.2
This understanding of the body as interconnected, extending beyond perceptible boundaries of skin, helps us to understand how the interior transformation God promises is not bounded by its location. The heart’s law is not a private matter. The new, or perhaps more accurately, renewed, covenant God promises joins God’s people not only to God, but also to one another.
Even as we anticipate and live into this renewal, Reformation Sunday also invites attention to persisting divisions within the body of Christ. Ancient Israel knew division as well. First Kings reports that, after Solomon’s death, his son’s abusive and exploitative rule led the united kingdom of Israel to split, resulting in two nations: ten northern tribes, called Israel, and two southern tribes, called Judah (1 Kings 12).
Now centuries later, long after the northern kingdom had fallen and in anticipation of the southern kingdom’s demise, God promises through Jeremiah to make a new covenant with Israel and Judah together (31:31). Placing the law within God’s people creates condition for unity, as God later declares: “I will give them one heart and one way” (Jeremiah 32:38). This unity is a gift from God’s own heart and life: God promises to plant God’s people in faithfulness, “with all my heart and all my soul” (32:41).
1 Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 26, 2014.
2 Lisa Blackman, The Body (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 1, citing AnneMarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).