23 March 2015

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)

Psalm: Psalm 128


In his prophetic work, Jeremiah consistently announces God's judgement on the Kingdom of Judah. Much of the book, in fact, highlights the imminent demise of the kingdom, which included the holy city of Jerusalem and the Temple. The first 29 chapters of Jeremiah are not prophecy in the sense of telling the future. Instead, the prophetic voice strives to explain why God's people are struggling amidst their anxious historical circumstances.

Judah was a small kingdom that sat between the greater powers of Assyria to the north, Egypt to the south, and the rising Babylonian empire to the east. Having possession of that piece of land was strategic for the Babylonians in their efforts to make their neighbours submit to their military might. The Babylonians invaded Judah around the year 597BC. Jeremiah proclaims that God will allow the coming Babylonian onslaught to destroy Judah. In fact, one cannot help but see similarities in the prophetic statements of Jeremiah and Isaiah. Both proclaim God's judgement and just prosecution of God's people for their disobedience and unfaithfulness, and both promise a future restoration of God's people.

According to Jeremiah, the people have strayed from the Covenant - the agreement God made with their forefathers at Sinai (see Jeremiah chapter 11). They have not kept the law. They are cautioned not to worship other gods (such as Jeremiah 25:6), which may indicate that they were engaging in the worship of idols or of local pagan gods. In chapter 23, Jeremiah announces "woe" on those who have responsibility for shepherding the people (presumably religious and political leaders) but who have misled them into disobedience. God will appoint a new shepherd over them; one who will lay down himself for the sake of the sheep.

Chapters 30-33 hold promises of restoration that amidst the long delineation of the people's unfaithfulness to God and to their own identity as God's people. Today's passage stands out because it describes God's faithfulness to a disobedient and unfaithful people. The reference to covenant here is significant. A covenant is an agreement between at least two people or groups of people that explains each party's responsibilities in the relationship. Unlike some familiar covenantal relationships today, such as marriage, biblical covenants are often not between equals. God initiates covenants and fulfils God's responsibilities; the people, in turn, are to obey the law.

Torah or law in this context refers to more than a set of rules. Law connotes a way of life. The people will accept a new way of life. They will not become faithful on their own or solely as a result of the disruption they will experience. God will enable them to become faithful. The new Covenant that God makes with them will not be written in law books that they can ignore, but upon their hearts. The law will be a part of them, as close to them as their own breath. It will shape their actions in the world. The new covenant will become their way of life.

Christians might recognise the language of 'new covenant' from Holy Communion liturgies. The words of institution spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper refer to the cup of wine as "the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20). The implication is that, through his death and resurrection, the new covenant promised in Jeremiah is fulfilled in Christ.

To Ponder

  • What does it mean for you to be faithful to God?
  • In what ways does God enable or empower our faithfulness?
  • In what sense does Jesus' suffering relate to the new covenant?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Cindy Wesley

Cindy Wesley is the director of studies at Wesley House in Cambridge. She is responsible for the life of the chapel and for advising students about their courses and modules.