Jeremiah 31: 1-14: The Poet’s Hope
At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
2 Thus says the LORD:
The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3 the LORD appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5 Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.
6 For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.”
7 For thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.”
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the LORD.
Chapters 30 and 31 are together a part of the book of consolation in Jeremiah and they along with the chapters that follow are brought together by the editor of the book (remember Jeremiah is assembled in a non-linear fashion jumping throughout times of his ministry) as the heart of the prophet’s hope. Where one places these chapters in Jeremiah’s story matters greatly for how you understand the prophet. If, like Rabbi Lau, you place these chapters at the beginning of Jeremiah’s calling (Lau, 2013, pp. 22-28) you see him ending his ministry in a place of hopelessness. It may reflect a personal bias to want to see hope at the end of the story, but I tend to see this emerging, much like what is often referred to by scholars as second Isaiah (Isaiah beginning at chapter 40).
These chapters are some of the more familiar chapters of Jeremiah, probably because they are the most hopeful. Although Jeremiah probably has a framework for understanding the way God is at work in the world Jeremiah does not write as a systematic theologian but more as a poet and a prophet. As Brueggemann states eloquently:
Clearly the prophet is not a systematic theologian, but a poet who lives very close to the hurts and hopes of God’s own heart. It is God’s heart made visible here which gives Israel a new chance in the future. (Brueggemann, 1998, p. 282)
And as a poet, Jeremiah lapse into the language like that of the Psalmist, recasting the events of the Exodus and pointing toward a new future on the other side of exile. God’s judgment is not to be misunderstood as an abandonment of God’s faithfulness. The current time of mourning and lamenting is not the permanent state, dancing and rejoicing will return. The experience of ending will make a place for a new beginning. The lame and the blind, those with children and those in labor, the weeping: all those who have been looked upon as weak and worthless in the eyes of the nation will be brought back to a place where they are valued by God. A new day will dawn, a new beginning and there will be an abundance where now the people know scarcity and deprivation. Even Ephraim, northern Israel gone into exile many years earlier than Judah will know the return and the Lord will reunite the long divided nation.
It is the language of poetry and utopia, projecting a future that is not there which can be dreamed and hoped for and infects the present of hopelessness with new possibilities. Does it ever occur exactly as the poet sees, if we look at second temple Israel we would have to honestly answer no, at least not in the way that many envisioned. Yet, if this is from the time of the exile, the prophet was able to emerge from the desolation of despair brought on by the destruction of the world around him into the hope of a new future under the promise of God.
Jeremiah 31: 15-22: Wiping Away Mother Rachel’s Tears
15 Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
16 Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future, says the LORD:
your children shall come back to their own country.
18 Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading: “You disciplined me, and I took the discipline;
I was like a calf untrained. Bring me back, let me come back, for you are the LORD my God.
19 For after I had turned away I repented; and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was dismayed because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”
20 Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him, I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the LORD.
21 Set up road markers for yourself, make yourself guideposts;
consider well the highway, the road by which you went.
Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities.
22 How long will you waver, O faithless daughter?
For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth:
a woman encompasses a man.
Continuing on with the poetic recasting of the present in terms of the past, Jeremiah harkens back to the ancient figure of Rachel, the favored wife of Israel and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin (and because of this associated with Northern Israel or Ephraim). She takes on a representative role mourning the lost generations of the children of Israel who have seen so much war and desolation, heartbreak and homelessness. Like a mother grieving the loss of a child who is inconsolable she represents the people who have lost their identity, loved ones and many of them perhaps their children as well. Rachel’s grief also plugs in to the grief of both the prophet and God. God takes on a fatherly type identity with the people of Israel, and the people of Israel take on the role of the prodigal son who the father is waiting to welcome home. The road for Israel to return is poetically opened in the words of the prophet and yet, as will happen among the people when the opportunity comes to return under the Persian empire, the is a reluctance. God shows an openness to do something new out of the desolation of the past and the present and to create hope in a time of hopelessness.
For Christians this passage of Jeremiah has a second recasting when it is placed by Matthew into the story of King Herod the Great’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,
Matthew 2: 16-19
The evangelist Matthew, like Jeremiah and many other faithful Jewish people before him goes back into the language of the story of God’s interaction with Israel to make sense of events in his own time. Here, appropriately, Matthew is able to find hope in the senseless violence of a king. Matthew is also very keen to tell the story of Jesus intentionally as the story of the people of Israel and finding points of resonance between the scripture and the story of Jesus. In neither case does the hope for the future erase the disaster of the past or the present of the stories, but rather it points to a reality that the disaster is not the final answer.
Jeremiah 31: 23-30: From Blessing to Curse
23 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its towns when I restore their fortunes:
“The LORD bless you, O abode of righteousness, O holy hill!”
24 And Judah and all its towns shall live there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks.
25 I will satisfy the weary, and all who are faint I will replenish.
26 Thereupon I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.
27 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28 And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. 29 In those days they shall no longer say:
“The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
30 But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
The poetic language of reversals continues in this vision of return where the God of Israel restores the fortunes of the people who seem to have lost everything. The city of Jerusalem and specifically the temple are blessed again. Judah is now safe and secure, farmers return to their fields to bring in the harvest, shepherds have returned to the pastureland. Israel and Judah are replanted and growing healthily and God is watching over the growth. For it seems, perhaps the nightmare the prophet has lived has come to an end and the prophet can finally rest peacefully. No longer will the current generation bear the weight of the unfaithfulness of the previous generations, but now there is the chance for a new beginning where they will have a new chance at a new beginning in their covenant with God. It is the language of new beginnings, but it is always a beginning in a relationship, in a covenant with the God who desires nothing more than to be their God and for them to be God’s people.
Jeremiah 31: 31-34: The Torah Written on their Heart
31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 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. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
For Christians, this is the most commonly heard piece of Jeremiah with its image of the law written on the heart and new covenant. Because it is so familiar and so often heard extracted from the wider context of Jeremiah it is often easily applied to either a supercessionist (Christians as the new covenant, the Jewish people as the old covenant-highlighted by the use of Old Testament, New Testament) or particularly for American Christians steeped in individuality, a very individualistic and judgmental reading. Jeremiah is writing this to the Hebrew people in exile about the opening and hope that God has granted them for a new beginning, a new start in their covenant relationship. It is a new start where the past is forgiven, the law is known by all and written on their heart rather than being the prerogative of the elite (kings and priests) to verbalize. Knowledge and access to God is also no longer restricted to the priests but now all are enabled to know the Lord.
That doesn’t mean that these words are meaningless for Christians, as those grafted onto the olive tree, to use the Apostle Paul’s evocative image in Romans 12, we too are brought into this covenant relationship in a new way. Our being grafted in does not eliminate the natural branches, but just as Jeremiah’s language talks about is entirely the prerogative of the God who cares for God’s covenant peoples. Just as Matthew was able to interpret the words of Jeremiah 31: 15 to reflect the needs of his time we also are able to hear Jeremiah’s words and the similar images in Ezekiel as opportunities where God’s covenant can become as natural as the heartbeat that makes our lives possible and we can all have access to the God who makes new beginnings possible, from the greatest to the least.
Jeremiah 31: 35-40: The Expansion of the City
35 Thus says the LORD,
who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar– the LORD of hosts is his name:
36 If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever.
37 Thus says the LORD: If the heavens above can be measured,
and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will reject all the offspring of Israel because of all they have done, says the LORD.
38 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. 40 The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.
The hope for home is a powerful hope. Jeremiah’s images of hope are grounded in a physical place, the city of Jerusalem and the territory of Judah and here the concrete image of the city being rebuilt and God now dwelling in the midst of the city again. In the midst of this image of the city which is rebuilt bigger and better than before is the promise of God’s unfaithfulness. Finally God’s wrath has passed and is overtaken by God’s love which is greater. God has never stopped loving the people, never abandoned them and it is only in the unmeasurable could be measured, the unending would end that God would abandon the covenant people. The poetry brings together the past and the future longing for the dreams of what will be emerging out of the ashes of the nightmare of the recent past. The God of new creation is opening the eyes of the prophet to see something new and finally the long years of despair give birth to hope and promise.