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THE BOOK OF COMFORT: THE BROAD CONTEXT
Chapters 1-29 constitute stage one of God’s redemptive plan for Judah and Israel. In those chapters, Jeremiah prophesied the punishment that Judah and Israel would endure for their sins.
Chapters 30-33 constitute stage two of God’s redemptive plan for Judah and Israel. These chapters are known as “The Book of Comfort” or “The Book of Consolation.” They promise restoration for Israel and Judah (chapter 30)—the joyful return of the exiles and a new covenant (chapter 31)—the assurance of the people’s return (chapter 32)—and healing after punishment and the establishment of a righteous branch (chapter 33).
Chapters 46-51 are composed of prophecies of judgment on foreign nations.
JEREMIAH 30:23-24: THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT
23 Behold, the storm of Yahweh, his wrath, has gone forth, a sweeping storm: it shall burst on the head of the wicked. 24The fierce anger of Yahweh will not return, until he has executed, and until he has performed the intentions of his heart. In the latter days you will understand it.
While these verses are not in our reading, they lead into it—in particular the last phrase, “In the latter days you will understand this” (v. 24b). Verses 23-24 are virtually identical to Jeremiah 23:19-20. However, in chapter 23, they were used to distinguish between the optimism of false prophets and Jeremiah, who was prophesying judgment. In chapter 30, the emphasis changes to restoration—restoration having become possible because of the earlier judgment (Bracke, 10).
Chapter 30 is part of the Book of Comfort and promises restoration for Israel and Judah. It includes references to God’s wrath (v. 23) and fierce anger (v. 24), but says that these are coming to a close. The people have endured the “storm of Yahweh” and the “sweeping storm” (v. 23) for decades. Yahweh has “performed the intentions of his heart” (v. 24)—the punishment of Israel/Judah.
However, punishment was only a means to an end. While justice required punishment for Israel/Judah, the Lord’s grand purpose was not punishment but redemption. Their punishment was like a refiner’s fire, intended to purify rather than to destroy (Malachi 3:2b-3). The Lord (through the prophet) says, “In the latter days you will understand it” (v. 24b). That provides the lead-in to the following phrase, “At that time” (31:1).
JEREMIAH 31:1. I WILL BE THE GOD OF ALL THE FAMILIES OF ISRAEL
1 At that time, says Yahweh, will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
“At that time, says Yahweh” (v. 1a). This phrase refers back to “In the latter days you will understand it” (30:24b). It indicates a time in the future—the near future—when God will do wondrous things.
“will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people” (v. 1b). This verse foresees the reunification of Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom)—separated since the time of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:26-33).
JEREMIAH 31:2-3a. THE PEOPLE FOUND FAVOR IN THE WILDERNESS
2 Thus says Yahweh, The people who were left of the sword found favor in the wilderness; even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest. 3a Yahweh appeared of old to me,
“The people who were left of the sword” (v. 2a). This refers back to the time when the Lord delivered Israel from its captivity in Egypt. Israel was being pursued by the Egyptian army, which intended force it back into captivity. In particular, this verse suggests the deliverance that Israel experienced at the Red Sea, where the Lord parted the sea to allow Israel to escape—and brought the waters back together to drown Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14-15).
However, that deliverance from slavery also serves as a metaphor for the deliverance that the Lord plans to implement to free the Hebrews from their current captivity in Babylon. In other words, we don’t have to decide whether the Lord is talking about the Exodus or the Babylonian exiles. Both are true here.
“found favor in the wilderness” (v. 2b). The Lord made it possible for Israel to survive in the wilderness. The Lord guided Israel by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). The Lord provided manna to feed them (Exodus 16). The Lord provided water from a rock (Exodus 17; Numbers 20). The people of Israel survived, literally, by the grace of God.
But the grace that they experienced in the wilderness was more than just physical. During their wilderness journey, they received the law and became the Lord’s covenant people. The wilderness was the soil in which their relationship to God grew. In the wilderness, they learned the lessons of faith and the pain of unfaith.
The grace that Israel experienced in the wilderness during the Exodus serves as a metaphor for the grace that the Babylonian exiles will experience in exile—and also when they are finally permitted to cross the wilderness to return to Jerusalem.
“even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest. Yahweh appeared of old to me” (vv. 2c-3a). “The ‘rest’ that Israel sought included having a place to call one’s own, that is, an end to wandering and freedom from threats” (Craddock, 243).
Most scholars see verses 2-6 as referring to the northern kingdom rather than to the combined kingdom of Israel and Judah, which was also known as Israel—based on the mention of Samaria in verse 5 and Ephraim in verse 6. Samaria served as the capital of Israel (the northern kingdom). Ephraim was one of the ten tribes of Israel.
However, there is a good deal of ambiguity on that point. “When Israel sought for rest” (v. 2c) could easily refer to the nation Israel in the Exodus—prior to the division of the kingdom. And it could also serve as a metaphor for the appearance of the Lord to reunited Israel after the Babylonian exile has come to an end.
The word Israel is confusing in this chapter, because it sometimes clearly refers to the northern kingdom (vv. 27, 31)—and sometimes clearly refers to the combined kingdom of Israel and Judah (v. 33)—but often is ambiguous. Huey thinks of verses 2-22 as referring to the northern kingdom—verses 23-26 to the southern kingdom—and verses 27-40 describing the “coming days of blessing for both Israel and Judah” (Huey, 267)—but others would divide the verses somewhat differently (Thompson, 564).
Fretheim outlines a series of parallels between the exile and the Exodus (Fretheim, 428):
• Survived the sword.
• Experienced God’s favor in the wilderness.
• Seek rest.
• Plant vineyards.
• God’s appearance.
• Go up to the house of the Lord.
• Become one people.
JEREMIAH 31:3bc: I HAVE LOVED YOU WITH AN EVERLASTING LOVE
3b Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love: 3c therefore with loving kindness (Hebrew: he·sed)have I drawn you.
“I have loved you with an everlasting love” (v. 3b). Earlier, the Lord promised to maintain “covenant and loving kindness with them who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9). Now Yahweh says that he has loved his people with an everlasting love.
“therefore with loving kindness (he·sed) have I drawn you“ (v. 3c). There are other Hebrew words (‘aman and emunah) more commonly translated faithfulness. The word he·sed is has a rich variety of meanings—kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, and love. “When applied to Yahweh, hesedis fundamentally the expression of his loyalty and devotion to the solemn promises attached to the covenant…. Though the majority of the occurrences of hesed are translated ‘steadfast love,’ there are undeniable elements of ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness’ that underlie each of these occurrences” (Renn, 633-634).
So both parts of this verse (3b and 3c) tell of God’s unending love.
JEREMIAH 31:4-5. AGAIN WILL I BUILD YOU, AND YOU SHALL BE BUILT
4 Again will I build you, and you shall be built, O virgin of Israel: again you shall be adorned with your tambourines, and shall go forth in the dances of those who make merry. 5 Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy its fruit.
In Jeremiah’s call, the Lord appointed Jeremiah over nations “to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). The first four infinitives had to do with tearing down, the concern of chapters 1-29. The last two infinitives, “to build and to plant,” had to do with creation or restoration. It is restoration that is the concern of chapters 30-33, the Book of Consolation. We see these two restorative words in these verses (“build” in v. 4 and “plant” in v. 5).
Note the threefold use of the word “again.” “Again will I build you” (v. 4a). “Again you shall be adorned with your tambourines” (v. 4b). “Again you shall plant vineyards” (v. 5a). The Lord has done these things before. He has built the nation Israel. He has given Israel cause for rejoicing. He has made it possible for Israel to plant vineyards and to prosper. Now he will do it again.
“Again will I build you, and you shall be built, O virgin of Israel” (v. 4a). Earlier, the Lord called Israel “desolate” and talked about her dressing provocatively in a vain attempt to attract lovers (4:30). Now he calls her “O virgin of Israel.” There can be only one explanation for the change. The plucking up and pulling down and destroying and overthrowing that were characteristic of chapters 1-29 have, by the grace of God, purified Israel so that the Lord can once again call her virgin. Now that she has been torn down to her foundations, the Lord will build her once again, and she shall be built—built well—built anew from the ground up.
“again you shall be adorned with your tambourines, and shall go forth in the dances of those who make merry” (v. 4b). Earlier, the Lord said, “I will cause to cease…the sound of mirth and the voice of gladness” (7:34; see also 16:9; 25:10). Now that Israel has been purged of her sinfulness and forgiven for her sins, she will go forth in rejoicing once again.
“Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (v. 5a). Earlier, the Lord said, “Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trodden my portion under foot, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness” (12:10). Now Israel will be permitted to restore the vineyards.
These vineyards are a means by which people are sustained physically, but they also serve as a metaphor for life and vitality—for prosperity—for the Lord’s favor.
“the planters shall plant” (v. 5b). When Israel entered the Promised Land after their forty year stint in the wilderness, it found a land of milk and honey (Numbers 13:27)—”a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey” (Deuteronomy 8:8)—a land where grapes grew so large that it took two men to carry one cluster (Numbers 13:23). But after returning from the exile, they will find a desolate land. They will have to replant.
“and shall enjoy its fruit” (v. 5c). The law forbids the people to eat the fruit of the vineyards for three years. The fruit from the fourth year is to be dedicated to the Lord. Only in the fifth and subsequent years will the people be permitted to eat the fruit (Leviticus 19:23-25).
This verse, then, promises that these people can replant with the assurance that they will be around to enjoy the fruit five years later. This is the Lord’s promise of a secure and prosperous future.
JEREMIAH 31:6. ARISE, AND LET US GO UP TO ZION
6 For there shall be a day, that the watchmen on the hills of Ephraim shall cry, Arise, and let us go up to Zion to Yahweh our God.
“For there shall be a day, that the watchmen on the hills of Ephraim shall cry” (v. 6a). Sentinels usually stand guard to warn of an approaching enemy or of intruders in the vineyard—but that will not be their purpose here.
Ephraim is one of the ten tribes of the northern kingdom.
“Arise, and let us go up to Zion to Yahweh our God” (v. 6b). Zion is Jerusalem, the city where Solomon’s temple was located—the city where the exiles will rebuild the temple when they are finally allowed to return to their homeland.
These sentinels will not call out to warn of an enemy or an intruder, but will call people to worship. The fact that these Ephraimites (from the northern kingdom) will call people to go to Jerusalem (in the southern kingdom) to worship God stands as a symbol of the new unity that Israel will enjoy. There will no longer be north and south, but only the people of God.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bracke, John M., Westminster Bible Companion: Jeremiah 30-52 and Lamentations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000)
Clements, R. E., Interpretation Commentary: Jeremiah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Fretheim, Terence, E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2002)
Harrison, R.K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah & Lamentations, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Jeremiah, Lamentations, Vol. 16 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993)
Keown, Gerald L.; Scalise, Pamela J.; and Smothers, Thomas G., Word Biblical Commentary: Jeremiah 26-52 (Dallas: Word Books, 1995)
Martens, E. A., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Jeremiah (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1986)
Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Stulman, Louis, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Jeremiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Thompson, J.A., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Jeremiah(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan