In Jeremiah 31, we’re presented with a passage that appears later on this fall in the lectionary. But we’re talking about it now in our Keukabiblia Bible study! In verse 31, here’s the prophet, speaking under the influence of the divine: “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.”
What is this new covenant? As a Christian, I’m familiar with the interpretation that telescopes this ahead six centuries to the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Still, how does this speak to Jeremiah and his audience? Are we to believe that it means nothing to them? If we can wrench it from its context, then why is Jeremiah risking life and limb to speak these words? (I should also note that I have similar complaints regarding the way the book of Revelation is treated.)
In his book, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, Walter Brueggemann says, “The ‘old’ covenant belongs to that Israelite community which though its sustained disobedience forfeited covenant with God, even as it lost the city of Jerusalem. The ‘new’ covenant now wrought by God also concerns the Israelite community. This is the community formed anew by God among exiles who are now transformed into a community of glad obedience.” (292)
This seems to fit with Jeremiah’s agenda. Up to this point in the book, we’ve heard warnings about impending invasion and exile by the Babylonians. Now, in chapters 30 and 31 (some extend it to chapter 33), we have the so-called “Book of Comfort.” The prophet is stating that the worst is almost past. God is about to do a new thing. But it’s not because the people—including those in exile—have done something to bring this about. It is a completely voluntary act on God’s part; it’s an act of grace.
Again, Brueggemann: “All the newness is possible because Yahweh has forgiven. Indeed, beginning again in and after exile depends upon Yahweh’s willingness to break out of a system of rewards and punishments, for the affront of Israel and Judah could never be satisfied by punishment. God has broken the vicious cycle of sin and punishment; it is this broken cycle that permits Israel to begin again at a different place with new possibility. This is an uncommon statement, utterly Jewish, utterly grace-filled; upon it hangs the whole of reconstituted Judaism out of exile. Jewish faith is deeply rooted in forgiveness.” (294)
“It is of course possible to read this in terms of Jewish triumphalism, but such is not the intent of the text. Indeed, the text invites Jews (and belatedly Christians and others) to stand in grateful awe before the miracle of forgiveness, to receive it, and to take from it a new, regenerated life. Thus the promise occasions no arrogance or pride, but only genuine gratitude.” (295)
Imagine how our world would look if we lived lives of grateful awe before the miracle of forgiveness!