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 31:1-6. THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT
Verses 1-6 tells of a wonderful time when Yahweh “will…be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people” (v. 1). It says that they will find “favor in the wilderness” (v. 2). The Lord affirms his love and faithfulness for Israel (v. 4). It tells of people celebrating with tambourines and dance (v. 4)—and planting vineyards and enjoying the fruit (v. 5). It tells of Ephraim (of the northern kingdom) calling people to worship in Zion (the southern kingdom)—a vision of a kingdom united once again.
Verses 7-14 include two separate oracles or poems, introduced respectively by “For thus says the Lord” (v. 7) and “Hear the word of Yahweh” (v. 10). In verses 7-9, the Lord is speaking to Israel. In verses 10-14, the Lord is addressing the nations (but probably with Israel overhearing).
JEREMIAH 31:7-9. SING WITH GLADNESS
7 For thus says Yahweh, Sing with gladness for Jacob, and shout for the chief of the nations: publish, praise, and say, Yahweh, save your people, the remnant of Israel. 8Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth, along with the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her who travails with child together: a great company shall they return here. 9They shall come with weeping; and with petitions will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by rivers of waters, in a straight way in which they shall not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn..
“For thus says Yahweh” (v. 7a). This introduces the new oracle—a message from the Lord, communicated by the prophet.
“Sing with gladness for Jacob, and shout for the chief of the nations” (v. 7b). The Lord must surely be speaking tongue-in-cheek when he calls Jacob-Israel “the chief of nations.” Israel experienced its heyday under Kings David and Solomon, and has been in decline ever since. For several decades, they have suffered in exile—slaves in a foreign land. We would expect the Lord to call them “the least of nations,” because, to all appearances, that is what they are.
But there is more to Israel than meets the eye. Long ago, God covenanted with Abram to make of him a great nation and to make him a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). Later, God promised David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
At the moment, Israel might be in shambles, but the Lord’s promises are still intact. The Lord has allowed Israel to suffer to purge it of its sinful ways. Once Israel has seen the light, the Lord will turn its suffering into rejoicing.
“publish, praise, and say, Yahweh, save your people, the remnant of Israel” (v. 7c). Note the order here:
• Proclaim. Tell people about the Lord.
• Praise. Praise the Lord for his tender mercies.
• Petition. Ask the Lord for salvation.
This is a powerful model for prayer yet today.
“the remnant of Israel” (v. 7c). The word “remnant” is important in both Old and New Testaments. The concept (if not the word itself) is introduced with Noah and the flood. In that story, God destroyed the evil populace, but saved righteous Noah and his family (Genesis 6-9). In that instance, Noah and his family constituted the remnant—the righteous nucleus preserved by God to repopulate the world.
The idea behind the remnant is that God is faithful even when people are not. The people’s apostasy does not nullify God’s promise. God sometimes imposes a harsh penalty for sin, but that is for the purpose of purifying rather than destroying.
The prophets had a great deal to say about the remnant:
• Amos prophesied that a remnant would survive the Assyrian exile (Amos 3:12; 5:3, 15; 9:11-15).
• Isaiah delivered the message to King Hezekiah, “The remnant that has escaped of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem a remnant will go out, and out of Mount Zion those who shall escape. The zeal of Yahweh will perform this” (2 Kings 19:30-31). Isaiah also spoke of the remnant as the stump of an oak and a “holy seed” (Isaiah 6:13).
• Speaking to a people in exile, Jeremiah promised that the Lord would “gather the remnant of (his) flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and (would) bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (Jeremiah 23:3). He also said that God would make a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah—a covenant written on their hearts. God promised, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
• Ezekiel reported the Lord saying, “Whereas I have removed them far off among the nations, and whereas I have scattered them among the countries, yet will I be to them a sanctuary for a little while in the countries where they have come. Therefore say, Thus says the Lord Yahweh: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel” (Ezekiel 11:16-17).
• Zechariah reported that “two parts in it will be cut off and die; but the third will be left in it ” (Zechariah 13:8). He went on to say that the remaining one-third would be put into the fire to “refine them as silver is refined, and will test them like gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will hear them. I will say, ‘It is my people;’ and they will say, ‘Yahweh is my God'” (Zechariah 13:9).
“Behold, I will bring them from the north country” (v. 8a). Earlier, God said, “I will bring evil from the north, and a great destruction” (4:6; see also 5:15-17; 6:22). Next followed the destruction of Jerusalem, the death of many of its inhabitants, and the enslavement of most of the rest in Babylon. Now, however, God is promising to reverse their circumstances. They journeyed north into Babylon—into slavery. Now God will bring them home from the north. The road to exile will become the road to freedom. The road of judgment will become the road of deliverance.
Geographically, Babylon is east of Israel rather than north. However, the armies invading Judah would have come from the north, having followed the Euphrates River northwest to a point north of Damascus—and then marching from the north into Judah.
“and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth” (v. 8b). God will not only bring these people back from Babylon, but will also bring back people who have been scattered to other parts of the world as well.
“along with the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her who travails with child together”(v. 8c). Transitions are hard—even good ones. When the Israelites finally get permission to return to Jerusalem, they will face a long journey. When they get to their destination, they will find only the ruins of a city. They will face many challenges.
The blind, the lame, and the pregnant are the kinds of people who usually “get lost in the shuffle”—who fall by the wayside in any major transition. But, as the prophets have made known, God has a special affection for people like this—and God expects people to take care of people like this (Leviticus 19:14; Deuteronomy 27:18).
“a great company shall they return here” (v. 8d). Note that it says “a great company” rather than “a company of the great.” The group returning to Jerusalem will be large, but nothing is said about a great leader who will organize the journey. There will surely be priests and other distinguished personages in the group, but nothing is said of them here. It will be the Lord who will lead them (v. 9a). It will be the Lord who will take care of their care and feeding—and their redemption.
“They shall come with weeping” (v. 9a). We aren’t told whether they will weep with tears of sorrow or tears of joy. Both seem likely. Some would weep in remembrance of the loss of Jerusalem and their homeland. Some would weep in remembrance of those who died many years earlier. Some would weep for the years they spent in Babylon—years when they were unable to till their own land or care for their own vineyards or build their own houses. Those were years that they could never recover—years of hardship and humiliation.
But many would weep in joy for their freedom—for the prospect of returning to their homeland—for the future that they would suddenly be free to pursue.
“and with petitions will I lead them” (v. 9b). Whether they are weeping for sorrow or for joy, God will comfort them on their journey home—a journey for which he will provide the needed leadership.
“I will cause them to walk by rivers of waters” (v. 9c). In that dry land, a brook of water would be precious—would give life to all that it touched. Trees and grass would grow along its banks. Animals would come to drink. People would find shade there—and water to drink—and water to bathe.
To return home while walking by brooks of water would be quite a contrast to their earlier journey from Egypt to the Promised Land—a journey through the desert wilderness where they were sometimes dependent on miracles to procure water from a rock (Exodus 17:1-7).
“in a straight way in which they shall not stumble” (v. 9d). A straight path would be quite a contrast to their earlier Exodus journey. In that earlier journey, they wandered for forty years in the wilderness before finally reaching their destination. That will not be the case this time.
The “straight way” will surely be as true spiritually as geographically. They have stumbled spiritually before, and that has caused them great pain. They need the Lord’s help to avoid stumbling again.
“for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn” (v. 9e). This is the justification for God’s special treatment of Israel. God is Israel’s father. Ephraim is God’s firstborn.
According to Jewish law, the firstborn has preference over other children. The firstborn is to receive a double portion of the inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). God claims all firstborns, whether animal or human. Firstborn animals must be redeemed or sacrificed, and firstborn sons must be redeemed (Exodus 34:19-20).
The idea behind this preference is that parents tend to dote on their firstborn more than on subsequent children. By claiming the firstborn, God reminds us that he is the source of all blessings and can claim ownership of everything. It also highlights that God wants us to honor him with that which is most precious to us—not something of lesser value.
But God sometimes chooses to work through a younger child instead of the firstborn. God chose Jacob rather than Esau to carry the lineage through which he blesses us (Genesis 25:23). God chose David, Jesse’s youngest son, to become Israel’s greatest king (1 Samuel 16).
That was also true of Ephraim. Manasseh and Ephraim were the two sons of Joseph, with Manasseh being Joseph’s firstborn. However, before his death, Joseph’s father, Israel (earlier known as Jacob), blessed Joseph’s sons. Joseph brought them to Israel in proper order so that Manasseh would receive the firstborn’s blessing. However, Israel laid his right hand on Ephraim rather than Manasseh. When Joseph sought to correct him, Jacob said, “I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19). Jacob “set Ephraim before Manasseh” (Genesis 48:20). Ephraim became, for all practical purposes, the firstborn.
This verse is significant in that it assures the people of Israel that God is their father and they are God’s firstborn (see also Exodus 4:22).
JEREMIAH 31:10-14. HEAR THE WORD OF THE LORD, O NATIONS
10Hear the word of Yahweh, you nations (Hebrew: go·yim), and declare it in the islands afar off; and say, He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as shepherd does his flock. 11 For Yahweh has ransomed Jacob, and redeemed him from the hand of him who was stronger than he. 12 They shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow to the goodness of Yahweh, to the grain, and to the new wine, and to the oil, and to the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all. 13 Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old together; for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow. 14 I will satiate the soul of the priests with fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, says Yahweh.
“Hear the word of Yahweh, you nations” (go·yim) (v. 10a). This introduces a new oracle—addressed this time to the nations—the go·yim—Gentile nations that earlier interpreted the Babylonian victory over the Jews as evidence that Babylonian gods were more powerful than Yahweh.
“and declare it in the islands afar off” (v. 10b). The word “islands” (“coastlands” in some translations) is often used to refer to distant Gentile nations. The idea here is that the Gentile nations are to proclaim as widely as possible the word that the Lord is about to pronounce.
“He who scattered Israel will gather him” (v. 10c). It was Yahweh—not the Babylonian army or Babylonian gods—who scattered Israel. The Lord’s purpose was to purify Israel in the fire of suffering—not to destroy it. That has been accomplished. Now the Lord will gather Israel to restore it as a nation once again.
“and keep him as a shepherd a flock” (v. 10d). Shepherding was an important but lowly occupation. However, the responsibility of shepherds to care for their sheep served as a metaphor for more exalted personages—priests and kings. People in these positions were to use their power for the benefit of the people rather than for their personal benefit. However, they frequently failed to do this (10:21; 13:20; 23:2-3; 25:34-38), and that contributed mightily to Israel’s troubles.
But God is a faithful shepherd (Psalm 23). The people can depend on God to lead them faithfully—to protect them and to see that they have the provisions that they need to live. God will also raise up good shepherds to shepherd the people so that “they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed” (23:4).
“For Yahweh has ransomed Jacob, and redeemed him” (v. 11a). These two words, “ransomed” and “redeemed,” are often used together. Redemption involves bringing liberty to a captive, usually through the payment of ransom. A person could redeem a slave by paying the owner a ransom to free the slave. In situations where an impoverished person sold himself into slavery or sold family lands, Jewish law obligated other family members to pay the ransom (when possible) to free their family member or to restore the family lands to family ownership (Leviticus 25:25-26, 48-49).
Deuteronomy speaks of the Lord as redeeming Israel from slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:8; 9:26; 15:15; 24:18). Now the Lord is redeeming Israel from slavery in Babylon.
“from the hand of him who was stronger than he” (v. 11b). Babylonia was a great power. Israel, by comparison, was tiny and weak. Israel had no hope of freeing itself from Babylonia—just as it had no hope earlier of freeing itself from Egypt. Only the Lord could give them freedom.
“They shall come and sing in the height of Zion” (v. 12a). Zion is the mountain on which Jerusalem was built. These exiles have been in Babylon for half a century. Most have never seen Jerusalem, but have only heard their parents talk about the grand city that the Babylonians ruined. Jerusalem had become a beautiful image that floated just beyond reach. To have the opportunity to return to Zion would indeed spark enthusiasm to sing aloud as an expression of joy.
“and shall flow to the goodness of Yahweh, to the grain, and to the new wine, and to the oil, and to the young of the flock and of the herd“ (v. 12b). They would be joyful, too, at the prospect of a great banquet provided by the Lord. Grain, wine, and oil would provide an ordinary meal, but the young of the flock and herd would put tender meat on the table—the kind of fare enjoyed by most people only on special occasions.
“and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all“ (v. 12c). In that dry climate, a watered garden would be an oasis—a green jewel set on a field of brown. If you have traveled through arid lands where irrigation is practiced, you have seen a watered garden. In some cases, the water comes from a long sprinkler-arm traveling around a pivot-point that is the source of water. In those cases, you will see a perfect circle of green resting on a field of brown. The green circle represents life and prosperity. The farmer who has access to water for irrigation has reason to rejoice.
“Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old together“ (v. 13a). “These words clearly reflect a transformation and the sort of joy which can be experienced only by those who have known the intense opposite” (Pilkington, 434). Consider that statement for a moment. Think of the joy of concentration camp inmates set free by allied soldiers toward the end of World War II. Think of the joy of sailors adrift on a life raft for days and finally seeing a rescue ship headed their way. Consider the joy of a person dying of thirst and finding an oasis. Consider the joy of a person raised in poverty who has become rich. It is that kind of joy that these exiles will experience when the Lord enables them to return to their homeland. They will dance and make merry—of course they will.
“for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow“ (v. 13b). Mourning involves ritual as well as emotion. The Lord earlier told the people to forego mourning rituals, because “I am going to banish from this place, in your days and before your eyes, the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride” (16:5-9). Now the Lord not only rescinds that order, but also promises to turn their mourning into joy—to turn their sorrow into gladness.
“I will satiate the soul of the priests with fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, says Yahweh“ (v. 14). Jeremiah has been critical of priests who failed in their religious duties (2:8, 26; 5:31; 6:13; 8:10; 13:13; 14:18, etc.). However, that does not mean that there should be no priests, but only that the priesthood should not be perverted.
In the future, priests and people alike will prosper. Since priests are dependent on the offerings of worshipers, they will eat well when others are eating well.
The law prescribes that the fat of the offerings is to be burned as the Lord’s portion of sacrifices. Priests are to get the right thigh as their portion. However, in this context, “fatness” is probably another word for prosperity (Thompson, 572).
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.
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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)
Huey, F. B. Jr., New American Commentary: Isaiah, 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, PA: Herald Press, 1986)
Miller, Patrick D., The New Interpreters Bible: Jeremiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Pilkington, Christine E., 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)
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