Second Sunday of Christmas

Chapters 30-33 constitute a distinct section of the book of Jeremiah, traditionally known as Jeremiah’s “Book of Comfort” or “Little Book of Consolation.”

January 4, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

Chapters 30-33 constitute a distinct section of the book of Jeremiah, traditionally known as Jeremiah’s “Book of Comfort” or “Little Book of Consolation.”

The date and origin of this material are unclear. However, the narrative in chapter 32 suggests that the core of chapters 30-33 could have originated with Jeremiah himself, at a point when Jerusalem was about to fall (587 B.C.E., cf. 32:1). Other scholars theorize that this material is largely the result of an exilic redaction. In any case, it is clear that the hope-filled perspective of chapters 30-33 stands in marked contrast to what precedes in chapters 1-29 and to what follows in chapters 34-52 (especially 34-45). While judgment oracles characterize most of the book, the defining phrase of chapters 30-33 is “restore the fortunes” (cf.30:3 and 33:26, where the phrase forms an envelope-structure for the section; see also 30:18; 31:23; 33:7, 11; Psalm 126:1, 4). God will orchestrate a great reversal, so that destruction gives way to restoration, exile becomes homecoming, and grief is replaced by joy. Our text, 31:7-14, clearly shows this great reversal in action, to the point that it is later revealed as “a new covenant” (31:31).

The characteristic accents and aspects of the great reversal are evident here. Verse 7 begins by inviting joy or “gladness.” Indeed, the Hebrew root involved occurs twice more in verse 13 (“rejoice” and “gladness”), thus enveloping most of our unit. Thus, joy encompasses the more elaborate articulations of homecoming (verses 8-10), and restoration (verses 11-12).

The phrase “chief of the nations” (more literally, “head” or “first of the nations”) also occurs in Amos 6:1. Amos uses it sarcastically in an oracle which plays ironically on the term “first” (cf. Amos 6:7, “the first to go into exile”). But in Jeremiah 31:7, the evaluation is genuine, a prelude to the proclamation of the return from exile.

Verses 8 and 9 recall Isaiah 40-55, suggesting that the return from exile will be a new exodus, even better than the first. It will include those who would be hard pressed to make the trip (31:8). Furthermore, there will be no shortage of water (31:9; see Exodus 15:22-25; 17:1-7), and there will be “a straight path” rather than detours and wandering for forty years (31:9).

The final affirmation of this section, “for I have become a father to Israel,” evokes Jeremiah 3:19, where God says, “I thought you would call me, My Father.” But the people did not do so (cf. 3:20-22). That God will become their father anyway is remarkable testimony to the character of God.

The language and imagery continue to be reminiscent of the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah. For example, consider:

  • the address to the “nations” and “coastlands” (31:10; cf. Isaiah 41:1; 49:1)
  • the metaphor of a shepherd (31:10; cf. Isaiah 40:11)
  • the use of the word “redeemed” (31:11), frequent in Isaiah but rare in Jeremiah (only here and 50:34)
  • the appearance of the phrase “watered garden” (31:12), which occurs elsewhere only in Isaiah 58:11
  • the theme of “comfort” (31:13; cf. Isaiah 40:1; 49:13; 51:3, 12; 52:9).
    Lastly, the theme of homecoming (31:10) gives way to restoration in verses 11-12, and celebration in verses 13-14.

In his commentary on Jeremiah, R. E. Clements introduces chapters 30-33 by pointing out “that so far as Old Testament prophecy is concerned the message of God was not regarded as a series of abstract theological propositions but rather the positive declarations of God’s purposes for his people.”1  Given that the bulk of Jeremiah consists of unrelenting announcements of judgment, it is imperative to attend to chapters 30-33 as a series of “positive declarations of God’s purposes for his people.” In short, what God wills for God’s people is life, including what is always necessary for human life. God desires for the people a place to live securely (thus the theme of homecoming in 31:8-10), and resources for daily sustenance (thus the themes of restoration and goodness in 31:11-12, 14). And life as God intends it should be received with joyful praise (31:7, 13).

In other words, judgment in a positive sense is never what God wills. Accordingly, prophetic judgment is the announcement of the destructive consequences which will exist when God’s will is not done. The prophet Jeremiah bore the painful burden of having to announce judgment upon the nation and people whom he loved, on account of their failure to respond faithfully to God and to pursue God’s purposes. (see Jeremiah’s “Confessions” or laments in 11:18-20; 12:1-4; 15:15-18; 17:14-18; 20:7-18, which express the pain of Jeremiah’s vocation). The “positive declarations” of chapters 30-33 do not cancel the judgment, but they do articulate what God willed (and wills) for God’s people all along!

The fact that God stayed faithful to a people who had turned away from God means that the “new covenant” (31:31) is grounded in grace (cf. 31:34, also 31:3, 20). As suggested above, God will be the people’s father even when they refuse to address God as “My Father” (cf. 31:9 and 3:19). This is grace, manifest as “everlasting love” (31:3), “faithfulness” (31:3), and “mercy” (31:20).

For Christians, the ultimate among the Bible’s “positive declarations of God’s purposes” is the Incarnation. From the beginning, God’s “Word” (John 1:1; the English cognate of the Greek word would be “logic”−that is, purpose!), or “Purpose,” has been “life” (John 1:4). And the enfleshment of God’s eternal Purpose was a revelation of “grace and truth” (John 1:14), from whom “we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Therefore, it makes good theological sense during the season of Christmas, the Festival of the Incarnation, to read simultaneously Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1:1-18, the Gospel Lesson for the day. . Both put us clearly in touch with the life which God wills, and which results from the amazing, unfailing grace of God.

1R. E. Clements, “Jeremiah” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), 176.