Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34
Jeremiah is a prophet whose words were focused primarily on the critical period in the history of Judah in the late 7th and early 6th century BCE. This was the time when the small kingdom of Judah witnessed the end of the Neo-Assyrian empire, a brief interval of Egyptian control, and the dominance of the Neo-Babylonians. For the people of Judah, this was the time they faced the loss of political independence and the final fall of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah.
The prophet’s commission reflects the tumultuous times in which he worked (1:1-19). Jeremiah is called to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). In a nice turn of phrase, Walter Brueggemann writes that Jeremiah is the prophet called “to speak Judah into exile and out again.”1 The majority of Jeremiah’s ministry focused on the entrance into the exile, the “plucking up and tearing down.”
In “The Book of Comfort” (Jeremiah 30:1-33:26) the prophet’s task is the “building and planting” (31:28). Having prophesied that the people will go into exile because of their faithlessness to the covenant they made with God, the prophet in these chapters speaks of the other side of the exile. He promises: “But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob … for I am going to save you from far away … Jacob will return and have quiet and ease, and no one shall make him afraid” (30:10-11). And in verse 18: “I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob, and have compassion on his dwellings.” Considering the fury and the grief of the previous chapters, these promises are striking. More striking still is the following statement: “And you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (verse 22). For that to happen, the breach between the people and their God must be repaired. The broken covenant must somehow be reformed.
A closer look at 31:31-34
Our lectionary reading is part of “The Book of Comfort” and its theme is restoration. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is one of the five oracles of restoration in 31:23-40. Each of these five oracles looks to the time when Israel and Judah are both reconstituted within the land—settled back into the cities and towns and countryside that have been racked by war—and their connection with God renewed—a connection broken by the people’s failure to honor the covenant God made with them. Interestingly, there is no mention in any of them of the devastation of the land nor of the exile itself. In the previous chapter, these themes featured prominently. The oracles of 31:23-30 look only to the return and renewal.
The restoration of the covenant between God and the people is an essential element of the people’s restoration. With the covenant broken, Jerusalem is in ruins and some of the population in exile: “I have dealt you the blow of an enemy; the punishment of a merciless foe, because your guilt is great, because your sins are so numerous” (30:14b). The relationship between the people and their God was understood to have prerogatives—divine protection and blessing—and responsibilities—the people were to follow God’s instruction, the torah. The people’s failure has led to a terrible breach, and God has punished the people according to the terms of the covenant. The only way forward is for the covenant to be remade somehow.
The oracle in our lectionary reading lays the foundation for the people’s renewal; God is going to make a “new covenant” with the people.2 The prophet recalls the making of the old one “the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” and its breaking (verse 32) and contrasts that to the making of the new one: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days … I will put my law (torah) within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (verse 33).
Note that the key distinction between the old, broken covenant and the new one is not content. The use of the word torah to describe that which will be written on the people’s hearts indicates that the terms of the agreement, the expected behaviors, will not change. The torah is the torah, and Jeremiah’s loyalty to the law has been unwavering throughout these writings (see 2:8 and 6:19, for example). What is changing is that this new covenant will be inscribed on their hearts rather than on some external object. It won’t be material to be taught by the old to the young for “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (verse 34). It won’t need to be taught at all. The law will be part of each person’s internal makeup. With this new covenant, God has forged a way for the bond between Israel and God to be renewed and to deepen.
Both the old and the new covenants had the grace of God as their foundation. In the first covenant that grace was expressed in their miraculous escape from Egypt, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). In the second, it is expressed in God’s willingness to make a second covenant with the people who broke the first, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). To a people shattered by war and exile, these words of hope are offered as a restorative balm. The broken covenant is not the end of their relationship with God. With God, they can begin again.
This is a powerfully hopeful text, but to be true to it, a preacher ought to be very clear that, while it was radically different in its location, the new covenant was absolutely the same in its content as the old covenant. There was still the expectation that the people would reflect, by their behavior, their relationship with God. That is, they would know God and reflect God’s concerns for justice and righteousness in the way they lived. The role of torah, whether it was internal or external to the person, was always to guide the people so that they might know God and live accordingly.
A possible avenue for preaching might be to reflect on the fact that the covenant was meant to change the people’s hearts, and our relationship with God is meant to change ours. The connection between prayer and service might be a helpful point to make. In her wonderful book, The Breath of the Soul, Sister Joan Chittester writes, “Prayer is meant to change our self-centeredness into community that having prayed the Our Father, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done,’ we spend our lives doing something to bring it.”3 And the assurance of God’s grace is with us always as we work to live faithful lives.
- Walter Brueggamnn, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 27.
- This “new covenant” is the source of the designation “New Testament” for the Christian scriptures.
- Joan Chittester, The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer (New London, CT: Twenty-third Publications, 2009), 73.