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THE BOOK OF COMFORT: THE 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 31:1-26 pictures a joyful return of the exiles to their homeland. Their punishment is ended. Their future is secure.
Our text from chapter 31 is at the heart of the Book of Comfort.
JEREMIAH 31:27-28: SO I WILL WATCH OVER THEM TO BUILD AND TO PLANT
27 Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of animal. 28 It shall happen that, like as I have watched over them to pluck up and to break down and to overthrow and to destroy and to afflict, so will I watch over them to build and to plant, says Yahweh.
“Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of animal” (v. 27). Earlier, Yahweh said, “Behold, my anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on man, and on animal, and on the trees of the field, and on the fruit of the ground; and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched” (7:20). Yahweh also said, “I will strike the inhabitants of this city, both man and animal: they shall die of a great pestilence” (21:6; see also 9:10; 12:4).
Now we have Yahweh’s promise that the life that has been quenched, both human and animal, will be restored. Yahweh who brought life into being from the dust of the ground will work another creative miracle.
“It shall happen that, like as I have watched over them to pluck up and to break down and to overthrow and to destroy and to afflict, so will I watch over them to build and to plant, says Yahweh” (v. 28). This is in keeping with Jeremiah’s original call. Yahweh said, ” Behold, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). The first four actions were destructive, but the last two are restorative.
At the time that this word is received, Israel (the northern kingdom) has ceased to exist and Judah lay in ruins. Restoration is desperately needed.
Note the parallels between the infinitives in Jeremiah’s call (1:10) and 31:28:
• “to pluck up”
• “to break down”
• “to overthrow”
• “to destroy”
• “to build”
• “to plant”
Verse 27 tells us that the building and planting have to do with life, human and animal, rather than just buildings or cities.
It is Yahweh who makes this promise, so the people need not fear that it might not happen. Also, as they look back on these days in future years, they will remember that the building and planting did not happen of their own accord, but were foretold in advance by Yahweh.
JEREMIAH 31:29-30. BUT EVERYONE SHALL DIE FOR HIS OWN INIQUITY
29 In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. 30 But everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge
“In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (v. 29). In this proverb, “eaten sour grapes” equates to sin and “teeth are set on edge” equates to suffering.
This is surely a well-known proverb, because we find it repeated word for word in the book of Ezekiel (18:2). Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel mention the proverb only to say that it will lose currency in Israel because Yahweh will hold individuals rather than the community accountable for their sins.
There is a tension here, because Yahweh also said, “you shall not bow yourself down to them, nor serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5; see also Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9).
We have seen children suffer for the sins of the parents. It happens yet today. Some children suffer because their parents neglect or abuse them. Some children suffer because their parents abuse alcohol or drugs. Some children suffer because their parents get involved in extramarital affairs that result in broken homes. The number of ways that children suffer for their parents’ sins is practically endless.
Perhaps the resolution of this tension is to say that Israel’s children will suffer for the sins of their parents (microcosm), but it will not happen on a national level (macrocosm).
But, then, in 70 A.D. the Romans will destroy Jerusalem and kill thousands of its inhabitants. Perhaps the resolution of this tension is to say that the inhabitants of Jerusalem will suffer for their own sins rather than the sins of their parents.
However we deal with this tension, the preacher needs to be aware of its presence and needs to avoid spouting platitudes—trite statements that cannot bear close examination.
“But everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge” (v. 30). This is not a promise that sins will not have consequences. Those who eat sour grapes (those who sin) will find their teeth set on edge (will suffer)—but they will suffer for their own sins, rather than for the sins of their parents. The idea here is that each generation will be held accountable for its own sins.
In Ezekiel’s treatment of this proverb, he defines righteousness and promises that righteous people “shall surely live” (Ezekiel 18:3-9). He then says that a child, witnessing evil behavior on the part of his father, can choose not to do evil. If the child chooses not to do evil, the child will not die, but the evil father will die (Ezekiel 18:14-18). That chapter closes with the words of Yahweh, “Turn yourselves and live” (Ezekiel 18:32).
JEREMIAH 31:31-32. I WILL MAKE A NEW COVENANT
31 Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was a husband to them, says Yahweh.
“Behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah” (v. 31). This is the only place in the Old Testament where the phrase, “new covenant” appears.
Yahweh punished both Israel and Judah—the whole people of God. Now Yahweh promises to make a new covenant with both Israel and Judah—the whole people of God. Yahweh gives no time-frame in which this will happen, but implies that it will happen soon enough that these exiles—not just future generations—will see the promise of restoration realized in their lifetime.
In the past, Abraham and Moses interceded with God for the salvation of the people (Genesis 18; Exodus 34), but Yahweh specifically prohibited Jeremiah from interceding for these people (11:14). Yahweh will make this new covenant with the people on his own initiative.
Fretheim (450) lists the ways that the new covenant is different from the old covenant:
• The new covenant is based on a new salvation experience—deliverance from exile.
• The new covenant cannot be broken.
• The new covenant has a unilateral character. Yahweh has not set conditions.
• Under the new covenant, everyone will know Yahweh.
• Under the new covenant, they will sin but will not have evil hearts.
In the past, there were various attempts at covenant renewal (Exodus 34; Joshua 23-24; 1 Samuel 12; 2 Chronicles 29-31, 34:3-7). However, the weight of sin caused even these well-intentioned renewals to fail. However, the new covenant that God makes with the house of Israel and the house of Judah will not fail, because Yahweh will insure its success.
“not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (v. 32a). There is an analogy here between the Israel which Yahweh brought out of slavery in Egypt and the Israel which Yahweh is now bringing out of exile in Babylon.
The covenant referred to here is found in Exodus 19:1 – 24:11. It includes the Ten Commandments and other provisions of the law. In that covenant, Israel’s part of the bargain was to keep the law as a way of being faithful to Yahweh.
“which my covenant they broke, although I was a husband (ba·’al) to them, says Yahweh“ (v. 32b). Israel broke the original covenant by its repeated disobedience—by unfaithfulness to Yahweh—by going after other gods (11:1-17). With the original covenant in tatters, the Israelites are helpless to restore it. Only a new covenant can save them. Therefore Yahweh is taking the initiative to establish the new covenant.
The word, ba·’al, means owner or lord or husband. In most cases where it is used in the Old Testament, it is a general reference rather than pointing to a specific husband. However, in this verse and in Isaiah 54:5, it refers to Yahweh as Israel’s husband (Renn, 504). Yahweh wanted to be Israel’s husband (ba·’al), but Israel made the mistake of going after other Baals.
JEREMIAH 31:33-34 IN THEIR HEART WILL I WRITE IT
33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: 34 and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Yahweh; for they shall all know me, from their least to their greatest, says Yahweh: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Yahweh”(v. 33a). Earlier, Yahweh said that he would make a new covenant “with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (v. 31). Now he fuses those two entities into one people of God—”the house of Israel.”
“I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it” (v. 33b). The first covenant was written on tablets of stone and parchment scrolls. This time Yahweh will write the covenant on the hearts of the people. The people of that time and place did not think of the heart as the center of the emotions (which was focused, instead, in the bowels), but as the center of the volition or the will—the center of decision-making.
Earlier, Yahweh said, “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of your altars” (17:1). That imagery illustrated the hardness of Judah’s heart—the indelible quality of their sin, which was engraved by an iron pen and a diamond point—and the intractability of their determination to ignore Yahweh and to go their own way.
Now Yahweh proposes to write his law on their hearts. We might wonder how Yahweh could hope to write his law on hard hearts on which sin was already so deeply engraved. Would he overwrite the already inscribed sins? Would he erase the sins and start anew? Ezekiel tells us that he will give them a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). He will inscribe the law on their new heart.
When these people receive their new hearts inscribed with Yahweh’s law, it will become part of their being. It will be their internal compass guiding their every action.
“and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 33c). This has been Yahweh’s goal all along. Yahweh has not asked much of these people. He asked only that they have no other gods—that they not make any idols (Exodus 20:3-4). There were other laws—lots of them—but those laws served only to insure their well-being and their faithfulness to Yahweh. However, the people chose not to be faithful—chose to go after other gods. As a result Yahweh said, “Therefore Yahweh does not accept them; now he will remember their iniquity, and visit their sins” (14:10).
But Yahweh never intended that to be his final word. The punishment was to secure their repentance. Yahweh has made his point. Now, by inscribing his law on their hearts, Yahweh will make it possible, finally, to meet the original goal—to be their God and to have them be his people.
“and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Yahweh; for they shall all know me, from their least to their greatest, says Yahweh” (v. 34a). The two mentions of the word “for” (vv. 34a, b) introduce the two reasons that no one will need to teach one another or to say, “Know Yahweh.”
“for they shall all know me” This is the first reason. Having the law written on their hearts is a great leveler. No longer will the people be dependent on a religious elite to teach the law—to interpret it for specific applications. “Intermediaries like Moses, priests, prophets, teachers, (will) no longer be needed to instruct people” (Thompson, 581). Everyone will know Yahweh, from the least to the greatest.
“for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more” (v. 34b). This is the second reason. “Absolution of sins comes with no strings attached” (Stulman, 274). Of all the promises of this text, this is the greatest.
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)
Bright, John, The Anchor Bible: Jeremiah (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1965)
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)
Goldingay, John, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
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)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
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, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan