19th Sunday After Pentecost
October 20, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
As with most other prophetic readings, in fact with most biblical readings, both the literary and historical context are important in properly hearing and understanding the message of the text. This reminder may even be more important in this reading, as we have seen in some other readings from Jeremiah, because of particular New Testament uses of this text. It is also important because of the way Christians have tended to read the text Christologically. Keeping that caution in mind in approaching this passage does not eliminate any Christian reading of this text, nor does it suggest that any Christological reading is necessarily wrong. The text can certainly speak to us as Christians. However, in order to hear this text, as opposed to later interpretations of it through the lens of succeeding historical events or in light of later developed theological systems, we need to focus on what this reading communicates in the Old Testament context of the book of Jeremiah.
There is also a positive aspect of this caution. Understanding this text as the word of God in a particular historical context, and as preserved by the community of faith in a certain literary context, may actually give us some deeper insight into how to hear the New Testament and later Christian use of the text theologically. And it might even give us some new insights into aspects of theology, how we talk and think about God, that may not be quite so obvious when this reading is domesticated into a larger theological system.
This reading is located with the section of the Book of Jeremiah known as The Little Book of Consolation (chs. 30-33). This is simply a term used to note that the subject matter of these chapters has shifted decidedly from Jeremiah's 40 year ministry of proclaiming judgment by means of the Babylonian invasions to a concern with the future restoration of the people beyond the impending exile (for more information on this collection of material, see the Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16; see also on 31:27-34; 32:1-3a, 6-15).
This title for this section also reveals that some scholars see this portion of the book of Jeremiah as coming from a later time than the prophet himself. Usually, scholars attribute it to the post-exilic community as they began to understand Jeremiah's message and elaborated on the themes of hope and restoration, and then organized the Jeremiah traditions theologically around the idea of restoration and obedience to torah. The person or group that collected and edited this material is generally referred to as the Deuteronomist, reflecting the similarity of perspectives between them and the final form of the book of Deuteronomy. These similarities are especially evident in this reading with the emphasis on covenant (for example, Deut. 5:2-3), the language of the heart (for example, Deut 4:29; cf. Jer 29:13), and the concern with proper faithfulness to God based on love and commitment that goes beyond legal restraint (for example, Deut 6:4-9).
However, like other portions of Jeremiah, especially within this section of the book, scholars are divided on which parts come from the prophet himself and which are later interpretations by the community. Fortunately, as in those other passages, we do not have to decide these issues to understand this reading within the context of the book of Jeremiah. Even if some of this material, or even all of it, comes from the later community as it reflected on its own future, it is clear that it continued to unfold the message of Jeremiah for the community of Faith through and beyond the Exile. That suggests that the authority of this material does not lie in who wrote it, but in what it says about God that the community understood to be God's word (see Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture). That is also why we can refer to this material in terms of "Jeremiah said" without implying anything one way or the other about authorship in our modern sense of the term.
In interpreting our reading, this also suggests that no matter what the origin of these chapters, they cannot be removed from their context within the book of Jeremiah without doing serious theological damage to their message. It is crucial that these chapters of hope and promise of a new future remain directly and intimately tied canonically to the preceding preaching of Jeremiah that proclaimed judgment on sin and called the people to return to God. We cannot take them from that context, whether to Christianize them or to solve historical issues of origin and sources of the text or simply to talk about hope and renewal as an abstract principle, without first seeing them in the context of, indeed the climax to, Jeremiah's 40 year ministry. To do so is to risk making them say something that the community of faith who preserved them did not say. And it risks casting God's promises of a future as too cheap a grace that does not take seriously the endings out of which this community of faith experienced that grace. As we shall see, this is an important aspect of the theological message of this text.
The historical context of this reading was a tragic time in Israel's history. Since the rise of Assyria in 745 BC, world events had spun out of Israel's control. There had been a few brief times when good Israelite leaders and a vacuum in world history had allowed the kingdom of Judah to retain some control of its own destiny (see the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah). But more often the tiny nation had been a mere pawn in the hands of larger empires. Fiercely independent and nationalistic yet plagued by weak and vacillating leaders, Judah had played a dangerous game of trying to secure her own existence by playing off rival powers against each other (see the reign of Jehoiakim). Yet as the prophets had been warning since the time of Amos (745 BC), to try to do so without consideration of faithfulness to God who had brought the nation into existence in the first place, was nothing short of sinful folly (for example, Jer. 2:17-19).
The end of Judah was near. With all her allies reduced to vassals or weakened by internal strife, Judah was left virtually alone to face the new world Empire, Babylon. And yet, foolish leaders still had tried to fight the Empire, assuming that at the last minute, God would rescue them as he had from Assyrians during the reign of Hezekiah. But Jehoiachin and Zedekiah were not Hezekiah. And Jeremiah's message to Jehoiakim had been different than Isaiah's had been to Hezekiah. Jeremiah had repeatedly told the people and the kings for 40 years that unless they truly repented and changed their attitudes toward God, this time they would not survive. Yet, still they refused to respond to God.
The Babylonians had come in 598 BC and would come again in 586 to destroy the country and the city totally (see The Rise of Babylon and Exile, especially Zedekiah and the End of Judah). These chapters are set between these two Babylonian invasions. Historically, Judah's time was short.
It was into this crisis that Jeremiah brought some of the most powerful messages of hope in Scripture. Again, we should not divorce these from his emphasis on the long period of Israelite refusal to respond to God, nor should we see any of this apart from the judgment that Jeremiah saw as an inevitable result of the people's and nation's sin. Yet, there is something important we learn about God here.
Chapter 31 unfolds as a series of sayings organized around the theme of promised restoration. The entire chapter is governed by the concept of covenant, introduced with a heavily laden theological expression of that idea in verse 1: "I will be the God of all the families of the earth, and you shall be my people" (in a slightly different form in 30:22 and in the more typical form in 31:33). This is known as the covenant formula, a typical Old Testament way of expressing the relationship between God and Israel: as God had revealed Himself to them as God, they were called to acknowledge him as God and respond in faithfulness to him as his people (for more on the covenant formula, see Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14, especially the section The Text). In the context of exile, this formula would take on tremendous significance as a framework not only to express God's grace, but also in calling people to response and accountability to that grace.
The phrase "at that time" that introduces this chapter (31:1), as well as the three occurrences of the phrase "days are surely coming" (vv. 27, 31, 38), have led some to conclude that this passage is eschatological, referring to some indeterminate "end" time in the future when God will restore his creation. However, that is too broad a meaning for this text, and reflects much later developments of the concept of eschatology or "last things." While some of the later post-exilic and Christian community tended to express the theology here in such terms, this reading is firmly tied to history. While it is not about "last" things or the end of history, it is clearly future oriented, the expectation of God's work within the historical life of the Israelite community. That may not exhaust the possibilities of application of this reading, but they must surely begin here.
Although we have noted that chapter 31 is connected by common themes and expressions, this reading divides into two sections clearly marked by the introductory phrase "days are coming" (27-30, 31-34). The first section uses a series of three metaphors to describe the turn from judgment to hope.
The imagery of sowing is likely borrowed from Hosea who had used the metaphor in a word play on the name Jezreel ("God sows") to talk about God's future restoration of his people (Hos. 1:10-11, 2:21-23; cf. 14:4-7). Hosea had used the metaphor in conjunction with the covenant formula to describe the nature of the restored relationship between God and Israel (Hos. 2:23). It is likely no accident that Jeremiah picks up the metaphor here in the same covenantal context. Also in Jeremiah, sowing is related to the metaphor of planting, one of six governing word themes that are woven throughout the book (along with build and the words, pluck up, tear down, destroy, and overthrow; see Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10). In such an arid land, the metaphor of growing plants always carried with it positive connotations of blessing and the stability of life represented by a stable food supply. Here the metaphor of sowing serves to point to a future where there will again be stability in the land (see the Commentary on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15).
The second set of metaphors in this section returns to the same grouping of six terms noted above that serve as governing themes throughout the book. These themes were used to shape Jeremiah's call narrative (1:10), and singly or in pairs have been used at key junctures throughout the book (e.g., 2:21, 12:14-17, 24:6, 29:5, 31:40, 42:10). Here for the first time since that opening passage all six of them are used together (five were used in 18:7-9). In addition, the metaphor of watching, used in the opening call narrative in a symbolic vision to assure Jeremiah that God's word to him was reliable (1:11-13), is again picked up here (v. 28).
The combination of these metaphors in this reading clearly signals a theological climax in the book. It is not so much that the themes of planting and building are suddenly introduced into Jeremiah's preaching, although there is certainly the suggestion that his message will now shift to an emphasis on building and planting. It is more a theological confession that this time in Israel's history, as the Israelites faced the darkest hour that they had experienced since escape as slaves from Egypt, God's word is about the future and hope.
There is no joy expressed at Israel's impending calamity. In fact, later passages have God apologizing for the Exile (42:10). There is a realistic view of history here. Yet, the message of building and planting goes far beyond any future inherent in historical possibilities that anyone could foresee. It is this dimension that is underscored by the reference to God "watching" over the people, just as he had watched over his word to Jeremiah.
The third metaphor is actually a reference to a proverb (v. 29) that observed, from a different perspective, that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children (Exod. 20:5, Deut 5:9). This is not a legal formulation, but an observation about life, how the consequences of certain behavior, of sin, works out in succeeding generations. Our modern experience with crack babies and abusive behavior, to use just two examples, more than confirms the truth of the proverb in life. But that way of thinking is challenged here, at least as it applied to the situation of exile.
It is easy to imagine the despair that could have arisen by taking Jeremiah's preaching to heart. He had been proclaiming the destruction of the nation because of the sins of the fathers, the refusal of the people over a period of several generations truly to repent and return to God. He had even concluded that the people were so accustomed to sin that they not only would not change but could not change (e.g., 13:23).
If they believed him, and they would believe him after the city was destroyed, then the despair would come in realizing that since Jeremiah was right in assessing them they had little hope of ever becoming God's people. Even if there were a future, what would prevent the same thing from happening again? If the consequences of the sins of the fathers, and their own sins, worked out into the future, what hope could they have in that future of ever being faithful to God? And what difference would it make anyway if they would be burdened with the cycle of consequences created by the parents and grandparents?
Jeremiah addressed this issue simply by rejecting this proverb in this situation (compare Ezek. 18:1-32). His comments were not an attempt to define sin legally or systematically. They are a simple assertion that the future, God's future, will be enough different from the past that the "curse" of the consequences of sin would be broken. Whatever newness might lie on the other side of exile, it would be a newness in which the people would be accountable for their own response, unburdened by the worry of the legacy of sin that they had been handed. The future would indeed be enough different from the past that it truly would be something new. And they would have a genuine chance of faithful response to God's new future.
The second section of our reading is in response to this dimension of newness. Again, one can almost hear the people asking, "In what way will it be new?" The text does not address as many dimensions of that question as we might like, and we will have to be careful not to impose our questions on the text. Yet, it is a fair question to ask.
Jeremiah promised a new covenant that in some way would be different from the covenant that had been in force since Sinai (vv. 31-32). Here we need to recall that the concept of covenant was not viewed in the Old Testament in legal terms. Even though the historical and cultural background of the concept of covenant was most likely international treaties in the Ancient Near East, a strictly legal understanding of such relationship is much more rooted in concepts that came through Roman law than it is in the Old Testament and its world. Covenant was a metaphorical way to describe the relationship between God and the people in terms of mutual interaction. God revealed himself to the people ("I will be your God") and expected the people to respond to that revelation with worship and faithfulness ("you shall be my people").
The breaking of covenant (v. 32), then, was not the violation of a law that required a legal penalty, but the disruption of a relationship that needed healing and restoration. Here in Jeremiah, as in much of the material in the Old Testament influenced by the post-exilic Deuteronomic perspective, "law" (actually torah, "instruction") and "covenant" are used almost interchangeably. This suggests that relationship with God was not defined in terms of torah, but that torah was defined in terms of relationship with God.
The metaphor of marriage that is introduced in the middle of this saying by the use of the term ba'al, "husband" (v. 32), confirms that the picture being drawn here is of a relationship between God and the people that has gone horribly awry. The people have been unfaithful, have not responded appropriately in that relationship. It is interesting that Jeremiah as well as Hosea, from where some of the images of this very reading are drawn, used the metaphor of marriage in much the same way. They both described Israel as an unfaithful wife who valued her life of prostitution more than she valued her husband (Hos. 1-3, Jer. 3:20). As that was played out in Israel's history in terms of the fertility religions of the Canaanites, it became an especially appropriate way to talk about the magnitude of their sin in terms of broken relationship.
In this sense, the old covenant was gone, the relationship destroyed. It could not be resurrected as if nothing had happened, certainly not by the people who had destroyed it. A new covenant would imply a new relationship that would somehow differ from the old relationship. If the problem was a failure of relationship and not legal violation, then the remedy would need to be in the direction of restoration of relationship rather than legal consequences. They did not need another law or a different law; they needed a change of heart that would allow them to respond appropriately and faithfully within the relationship to which God has already called them, and to the instructions he had already given them for living in the world as his people. The newness needed to come at the point of this change of heart, not with more or better laws.
It is in terms of this relationship between God and the people that the heart language becomes significant here. In both Hebrew and English, certain words can represent larger concepts, or concrete terms or ideas can represent more abstract ones. As in English, it is common in Hebrew for parts of the body to represent certain emotions or feelings or aspects of human experience. So, nose can represent anger, right arm can represent strength, and throat can communicate greed.
However, the term heart in Hebrew has a wider range of metaphorical meaning than it carries in English. In English, heart usually refers to an emotion, such as love or compassion or even grief (heartsick). It can also have that meaning in Hebrew in some cases (for example, Gen. 6:6). However, it also frequently carries with it the meaning of will or intention (for example, Gen. 6:5). So, for example, to "love the Lord your God with all your heart" (Deut. 6:5-9) is to make a conscious, willful decision to pursue that course of action and put it into practice in living, not just to have a good warm feeling about God.
It is in this sense of willful and intentional action that the heart language is used in this passage. The problem of the people had been that they had grown so accustomed to sinning that they had lost the ability to choose any other course of action. It is to this problem that attention is directed here.
Two aspects are crucial to understand at this point. First, as the final section of this chapter makes clear, the future that is envisioned here is a historical future (vv. 38-40; note that this is the only other section besides our reading in this chapter introduced by the phrase "days are coming"). That is, it is not a vague hope about an unknown and unknowable future, but is cast in the concrete reality of return to the land and the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem. For that to occur, there would have to be a significant action of God that went beyond the ending of the present, something on the analogy of the exodus, yet going beyond it. Repeating the exodus would not be enough, since their response to that revelation of God had not produced the appropriate relationship or response. Any future they would have would have to be grounded in God again revealing himself in history but within the framework of the ending of the exile that had been brought about by intentional rejection of God (Jer 32:36-41).
The second aspect here is the strong emphasis on forgiveness of sin. Again, this should not be seen as strictly a forensic concept of pardon for legal transgression, but within the context of broken relationship against the background of exile. It is a willingness to forgive offenses for the sake of the relationship, much as Joseph was willing to forgive the treachery of his brothers for the sake of his love for them and his father (Gen 50:17; cf. Matt 6:12-15 or Luke 15:21-24).
But there is a dimension to God's forgiveness here that goes beyond what we might expect from our more modern practically and systematically developed perspectives. The forgiveness God extends here is not conditioned upon anything that the people do. There is no repentance required, no sacrifice to be offered, no prayer to be said, not even an acknowledgment of God to be offered as a condition of the forgiveness. It is simply stated unequivocally and unconditionally: "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." It is this forgiveness that is the basis for their new knowledge of God that is written on the heart.
These two dimensions come together to form the dynamic of the new covenant. The forgiveness from God would work out in the concrete reality of a restored people. And in that process, the people would come to "know the Lord." The word "know" in Hebrew is significant. It represents far more than intellectual or factual knowledge, and can include the most intimate of relationship, the knowing of another person that comes from mutual commitment and experience. It is in this sense that the word "know" in Hebrew can be used even of intimate sexual relations between a husband and wife (for example, Gen. 4:1).
The Israelites came to "know" God in the exodus because of what he did (Exod 6:6-7). Yet, they had somehow reached the point where they no longer knew God (Jer 4:22, Isa 1:3). Now they were faced with the ending of the nation that had eventually emerged from the exodus. And yet God has not abandoned them as his people. He had promised that he would again act in their history so that they might again come to know God!
Here is the new element of this new covenant that goes beyond the covenant at Sinai that followed the exodus. The exodus defined God as a God who hears the cries of oppressed slaves, who is willing to choose and create for himself a people and give them a mission in the world. But the return from exile would go even further. That would reveal a God who is merciful and gracious even to his own people who have rejected him. He is a God of second chances, who is willing to commit himself to these people beyond their sin, rebellion, and self-centeredness. Where grace and compassion for oppressed slaves and faithfulness to the promises made to the fathers marked the exodus, forgiveness, unconditional and unqualified, is the new element here that goes beyond the exodus.
It is this revelation of God as one who is willing to give the people a second chance after their abysmal failure that would become the grounding for the new covenant. It is this dimension of God that will write the law on their hearts and call them to respond. Here there is expectation that such mercy and graciousness that offers a second chance even when it is not deserved will result in a willingness to be faithful to God. The goal is that the people would be willing and eager to follow torah because they will have made the decision to respond to this God of grace and forgiveness from the heart.
Of course, there is much more to be said about the nature of their response. This is not an antinomian perspective that replaces the need for observing torah with an unqualified forgiveness that is unrelated to actions. There were still consequences for sin. And they would still have to respond in a faithfulness that took torah seriously as God's will for humanity. There is no abandoning God's instructions here, just as there was no attempt to do so with Jesus (Matt 5:17) or Paul (Rom 8:4). The concern here is with motive and intention of the heart that would allow them to be faithful to God through torah.
This reading proclaims that God would act in history beyond exile in such a way that the people would again come to know that God is God, and in knowing would be able once again to respond in faithfulness to him. That action would be the concrete reality of return to the land and the rebuilding of the city. This is the heart of the new covenant here, grounded in historical event, yet unfolding into relationship with God. The new covenant following the exile shared this aspect with the old one at Sinai that was broken. And it would share it with the still later new historical event of the Incarnation.
Theologically, this is an example of the concept of prevenient grace whereby God grants to humanity a grace that precedes any response they might make to him, and actually enables that response since they have themselves lost the ability to respond. On a different level theologically, this reading establishes that forgiveness from God, the willingness of God to reestablish a broken relationship, is not something that must be sought or earned. God already grants it as an unconditional expression of who he is as God. It is unconditional in the sense that there are no prerequisites for it. However, that unconditional forgiveness is only the grounding for the response of faithfulness to torah that will work out in every aspect of human life (see Torah as Holiness: "Law" as Response to Divine Grace). But it begins with God, at the very point of total human inability. That is what makes this reading such a powerful expression of hope.
It is tempting here to fall into an interpretive pattern of promise-fulfillment in preaching and simply jump to immediate connections of this passage with New Testament texts that speak of a new covenant or that even specifically use this passage as a promise of the coming of Jesus (for example, Heb. 8:6-13). As noted earlier, this is not to suggest that those connections are invalid or that we cannot track the theology of Jeremiah into the New Testament. But if we are to preach from Jeremiah rather than, for example, Hebrews and only use Jeremiah as a prelude, we need to be careful that we do not too quickly subsume this reading to another.
This text is basically about God and his willingness to work with humanity even in the face of recalcitrance, even sinful rejection of him as God. From this perspective, various Preaching Paths may unfold that have this theme at the center.
We see here a portrayal of God that emerges in greater depth and detail than before in the Old Testament, a God who is willing to forgive when there is no basis for forgiveness other than his love and his own desire to restore a broken relationship. Many times throughout the biblical traditions up to this time, God had responded to sin with grace. Beginning in the Garden of Eden, God had demonstrated a willingness to do less than his own word had allowed him to do. That choice of grace and forgiveness instead of immediate punishment that reflected the sin had tracked throughout the rest of the biblical stores from Cain and Abel through the Flood to Abraham, from Moses to David to the Chronicler's account of the conversion of Manasseh. God's actions in history had been marked by a willingness to forgive and move beyond sin.
Yet, this case was different. This was God's own chosen people, whom he had created in the world to be his people, whom he had called to life a live that reflected who he was as their God. And yet they had failed. Not once, but across centuries. There was no precedent for this occasion. And so there was no guarantee that God would still be gracious and forgiving. With the relationship between God and his people broken so badly, there was no reason to believe that there was anything that could restore it.
And yet the nature of God as a God who is willing to go to great lengths to restore that relationship is clearly proclaimed here. God's forgiveness is simply from the perspective of starting over again. There is no punishment that will suffice, no penance that would be appropriate, no effort that could achieve what God has freely offered to these people. There will still be exile. The consequences of sin will work out. But there is a forgiveness that awaits in the midst of exile that does not come because of exile. This forgiveness comes simply because God chooses to offer it, with no prerequisites and no preconditions. God's choice for these sinners is nothing short of him simply saying, "I will forgive."
And that forgiveness creates newness in the lives of people, even to a transformation of their heart. It is Jeremiah that had earlier proclaimed how radical this newness could be. For years he had described the sins of the people in the most vile, sometimes even vulgar language imaginable, comparing them to a prostitute plying her trade on the streets. And yet, Jeremiah can turn and talk of Israel restored by God as the virgin (31:4, 21). That is the kind of newness that God brings!
This does not mean that God approves of sin, or that sin is not a serious matter. Sin does bring exile. But that exile is not the end. Sin and failure do not derail God's purposes for relationship with his people. Sin is destructive. But it is not beyond God's ability! These people are not locked into a closed future because of sin. Sin is not the final word, because God is God!
There is a needed caution here that we do not too easily apply this text to our modern individualistic ways of thinking and suppose that it only applies directly to us on that personal level. That would be to misuse the text. But there is certainly something we learn about God here that suggests, if only by analogy, that he is the kind of God who can and will work in similar ways in the lives of people today.
We learn here that God makes the first move toward reconciliation of his people to himself. When they cannot do what is necessary to rebuild a shattered relationship, God does it for them. God provides the means by which people can respond faithfully to him. Perhaps, even though he was speaking about the impossibility of keeping God's law, that is what Paul had in mind when he wrote (Rom 8:3-4):
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
This is another expression of the lengths to which God would go in reconciling to himself a wayward humanity who cannot on their own do anything to deserve God's love. And as God works out that reconciliation in human history in being their God, there is the expectation that the people's response will also work out in their own history in changed hearts and changed lives as they accept that forgiveness and let it transform them from the inside out.
From here, it is not too difficult to see the foundations being laid for understanding the later expression of the same nature and character of God in the Incarnation, with the same expectations. We do not have to disparage the Old Testament or the developing Jewish tradition following the exile in order to make that connection. We only have to realize as Christians that in Jesus we again witness the same God at work again in history, revealing himself as a God who is not willing that any should perish, but that all people should be reconciled to himself. And we know how far he would go to make sure that we understand that forgiveness is available to us.
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