14 June 2014

Jeremiah 31:31-34

"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." (v.33)


There are a number of covenants between God and the people of God in the Old Testament. There is the covenant between God and Noah after the flood, and by extension with all humanity (Genesis 9). There is the covenant with Abraham and his successors (Genesis 17:1-8). There is the covenant made on Sinai with Moses as he leads the people through the wilderness to the Promised Land (Exodus 19:1-9), and it is this covenant that is "the covenant that I [God] made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt".

Some covenants were unconditional, they stood irrespective of the response and behaviour of the people. Others were conditional upon the people keeping the requirements of the covenant. The covenant made on Sinai and referred to in this passage is a conditional one, and the people have broken it because they have failed to keep their side of the commitment. Despite God's forbearance, time and time again, the people failed to meet their obligations, with the result that the covenant lapses and the people find themselves in exile.

What is needed is a new covenant and one that the people cannot break. Like the old covenant it will be made with the 'house of Israel' - in other words, with the people as a whole. As with the old covenant, in the new one "I will be their God, and they shall be my people". And like the old covenant, it will be based on law.

However, the fundamental difference will be that in the new covenant God "will put my law within them, and [I] will write it on their hearts". To the Hebrew mind 'the heart' does not refer to the emotions but to the thought and the will. The people will be given a mind and a will to keep the law and obedience will come naturally to them. Because it will be natural to them it will no longer need to be taught and learnt.

There are some important New Testament echoes to this passage. Paul's account of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11) and Luke's account (Luke 22) refer to the cup of wine as "the blood of the new covenant"; interestingly, Matthew and Mark don't use the word 'new'.

To Ponder

  • To what extent is there something in the human make-up that, despite our best efforts, we seem incapable of overcoming?
  • How might this passage interpret and be interpreted by John 15, where Jesus talks about the vine and the branches, abiding in and coming to make a home with the believer?

Bible notes author

The Revd Peter Barber

Peter Barber is an ordained Methodist presbyter currently serving as the chair of district for the Chester and Stoke-on-Trent District of the Methodist Church in Britain. Previously he has served in circuits in Cornwall, Aberystwyth, and Harpenden.