Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34
Jeremiah 31:31-34 is an arresting set of verses.
Out of context, their familiarity often mutes their impact and audacity. Prophetic denunciation, a dominant part of the book of Jeremiah, is upended in these four verses. The future, termed “days are coming,” is unconditionally good. No more threat; no more summons to repent; no more “if” hung before the future.
The images used to convey this unconditional promise of future restoration and wellbeing are startling. Think of the audacity in the closing metaphor: divine amnesia! “I will remember their sin no more.” Or, the end of the teaching profession: “No longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord.'” This condition is not limited to the spiritual or social elite; rather all will know the Lord, from the least of them to the greatest. This is the priesthood of all believers long before the New Testament or the Reformation.
The remarkable future announced in these verses, however, can turn into sentimentality if their context is not observed, specifically their theological context. The words are addressed to those who have heard the calls for repentance and ignored — or worse, actively resisted — them. The covenant people have insisted on not being the covenant people. The book of Jeremiah is particularly forceful in condemning the elites — priests, prophets, and kings — for this resistance and for subsequently misleading the community at large. The promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34 is not sentimental; it is profoundly disruptive to the prior disobedience and its consequences.
Memory and remembering form one metaphorical set of terms for exploring what theologically precedes Jeremiah 31:31-34. As early as Jeremiah 2 the Lord remembers the early devotion of the people in the wilderness. Quickly, however, that devotion dissolved and, when trouble arose, neither the ancestors in general nor the priest in particular asked, “Where is the Lord?” (2:6,8).
To ask that question would have been a sign of remembering. Instead, they turned from God and toward options that were empty and unable to sustain them (2:13). They refused to serve God (2:20), and consequently the covenantal relationship was broken. The reciprocity of “my God, your people” or “your God, my people” was broken. Once that reciprocal relationship was broken, social injustice and exploitation set in. Society became tiered to preserve privilege and to advance economic interests. This led to an instability that no amount of coalitions and alliances could hold in place. North (“Israel”) and South (“Judah”) split; the widow and orphan are abused. Jeremiah 17:1 comes to this dismal conclusion: “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts, and on the horns of their altars.”
Israel and Judah’s lack of remembering and the destructive behavior accompanying it is met with God’s remembering — not the long-gone, early devotion of the people, but their iniquity. Even their late-coming, pleading return to God is rejected. Jeremiah 14:10 announces, “The Lord does not accept them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.” Here, God’s remembering severs the relationship rather than reconnecting it.
When the people lock themselves into not remembering God (not merely disregarding God, but actively rebelling and moving elsewhere) and God locks into remembering their sin (no longer attempting to discipline them into obedience), then the result is exile. The exile may be physical displacement as it was for three waves of deported elites (see the tally in Jeremiah 52:28-30). For those who remained in the land, the book of Lamentations provides ample indication of how devastating life was in the aftermath of Babylon’s several invasions. The exile of displacement within the land was as disruptive as the exile of deportation from the land.
Could God’s not remembering become as entrenched as that of God’s covenant people?
The answer is no; God is not like the people of God. But that response is not easily given. Jeremiah 30-31 is commonly called the “book of consolation,” but it starts with reminders of Israel and Judah’s condition. There are cries of panic and terror, and there is no peace (30:4). Someone needs to rescue Jacob, for Jacob has lost all capacity. Furthermore, the wound of the people is incurable (30:12 — no summons to repentance can cure this condition!). Yet, the incurable wound will be cured by God (30:17). Currently, Rachel is weeping and Ephraim is pleading (31:15,18). Yet even in forsaking (called “the storm of the Lord” and “wrath going forth,” 30:23), God still holds onto another memory: “Is Ephraim … the child I delight in? As often as I as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him” (31:20).
God’s memory leads to a yearning heart. And, when God’s heart yearns for God’s people, the status quo of an incurable wound, Babylonian tyranny, and a destroyed, fractured community cannot stay in place.
There is yet one more obstacle that must be overturned and that is the sense that the exilic wound is deserved and thus it is permanent (31:29). Remembering iniquity, while accurate, can lock one in despair: our parents sinned, and we are doomed — they ate sour grapes, and our teeth were set on edge. The biblical text refuses such a fixed future: each will die for their own iniquity (31:30). But while that unlocks one from the tyranny of the past, it does not actually comfort one with regard to the future. Might the people simply repeat the past and then die like those before them? The cycle must be broken. Comfort is not merely having a second chance in the hope that one will not repeat the cycle. Rachel needs her children back, building and planting needs to occur, and incurable wounds need healing.
God remembers and yearns; God has mercy and forgets! The iniquity of the despairing community will not prevent or overturn God’s covenantal faithfulness. God even overturns God’s own response to the people’s unfaithfulness. God’s storm must end, and wrath must stop coming. God does not promise merely to be indifferent to iniquity. Rather, God promises an end to iniquity, to alter the human heart, make exhortation unnecessary, and restore the breaches in the community. The promise even moves beyond always being reformed to being made new with no possibility of reversal — a covenant with no possibility of unfaithfulness. God’s fidelity will make us permanently faithful. Reformation completed!