© 2008, American Journal of Biblical Theology
The ministry of Jeremiah took place during the fall of the southern kingdom of Judah to Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon. Though God had called Israel to Himself as an ancestral family of priests to the world, they had turned away from God as their relationship with Him was exchanged for the secular and pagan culture in which they were immersed. They played the religion game by declaring their righteousness based upon their ancestry and their definition of "keeping the law" while having no interest in obedience to God. They built altars to the pagan gods where they took part in its sensual worship practices while they persecuted anyone who would point out their error. Shortly after the reign of King David, Israel divided into two kingdoms when the son of Solomon vowed to increase the oppression of the people. The other tribes of Israel broke away from Judah to form the northern kingdom. All of the kings of the northern kingdom led the nation away from God. Their apostasy resulted in their destruction as a nation by Assyria in 722 B.C. The southern kingdom of Judah had a few kings who tried to bring the nation to obedience to God, the last being Josiah. By Jeremiah's time the nation had again, finally, and fully, fallen away from God.
God's promise to Abraham included a promise that He would give them the land of Canaan, but that promise was conditional upon their obedience to Him. The consequence of their disobedience was the annihilation of northern Israel by Assyria where that nation was destroyed and removed from the land. The apostasy of Judah would result in the same punishment. Nebuchadnezzar had already overrun Judah, but was more concerned at this time with his other military campaigns. Soon, however, Nebuchadnezzar would be free to focus on this rebellious nation of Judah and would lay the nation and Jerusalem to siege, destroy the temple, and take 10,000 of its more influential and skilled people off to Babylon. The nation of Judah would cease to exist. The remnant that remained behind would be scattered, with many going to Egypt to flee the pestilence and famine that come from the destruction of a nation's infrastructure.
God's judgment upon the sons of Israel for their apostasy would be completed. Israel would no longer inhabit the promised land of Canaan.
When we look at the description of God in the Old Testament, it is easy for us to come away with the idea that He is a different God than the one we learn of in the New Testament. Some commentators say that the God of the Old Testament is one of judgment and wrath, while the God of the New Testament is one of love and grace. However, the change that takes place after the fall of Israel is not a change in God, it is a change in the covenant that God made with man. God is a Holy and Just God, and He always provides a consequence for sin. The nation of Israel had rejected God, killed His prophets, and gone after other secular and pagan gods. Israel had broken the covenant, and if God is to be God, His response must be to remove them from the land of the Abrahamic covenant. It is because of the apostasy of Israel that we see the judgment and wrath of God in action.
If the Old Testament, the Old Covenant, teaches us one simple lesson it is this: we cannot attain righteousness without God's intervention. When given a choice, the natural man will always choose sin. When obedience to a set of rules is required, we will always break the rules. Man's pride and self-will always turns him away from God.
The first thirty chapters of Jeremiah describe his declaration of the fall of Judah. It is a detailed revelation of the immanent destruction that is to come, with a clear description of the reason behind it. It was a message that was fully rejected by the leadership and people of Judah, a rejection that sealed their demise. However, Jeremiah's prophesy takes a significant turn when we get to chapter 31.
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of beast.
Like a ray of sunshine breaking through the storm clouds, a new prophesy is revealed to Jeremiah, presumably in a dream. Despite the apostasy of the nation, God has a plan for its redemption. The forgiveness of the nation for its wickedness would someday be realized when God would again intervene and give the nation the opportunity for repentance. Jeremiah describes this time as one when God would "sow" the house of Israel with both man and beast. The metaphor of sowing brings to mind the planting of the seed, the maturation of the plant, and the coming, bountiful harvest. Where Israel would soon be devoid of both man and beast as the result of its destruction by the Babylonians, a time would come when God Himself would sow a new Israel.
And it shall come to pass, that like as I have watched over them, to pluck up, and to break down, and to throw down, and to destroy, and to afflict;
It is God who is sovereign, and not man. The kings of Israel and Judah basked in their own sovereignty, fully forgetting that it is not they who are in control of the affairs of the world, but God. God "watched over them" as they engaged in their godless intrigues that would bring His judgment upon them. Five verbs are used to describe God's response to the rebellion of His children of the covenant.
To pluck up. This verb refers to the uprooting a plant from the ground. The Jews thought their roots in the land could not be broken. They thought that their ancestry and their possession of the law gave them an unshakable security that could not be realized by their pagan neighbor nations. This false security left them free to sin all the more. They failed to see how simple it would be for God to uproot them. Even when Judah had witnessed the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, they did not think it could happen to them. In their arrogance not only did they reject God's purpose of love for mankind, they rejected it for their own brothers, thinking that God was only concerned about their tribe of Judah. This thinking that God is rooted only in one's own small group is still common today.
To break down. Just as Israel thought its roots ran imperviously deep, it thought that through its ancestry it was equally impervious as a nation. Such an arrogance was even seen as laughable by its more militant neighbors who always saw Israel as a pesky and rebellious group of people, but never as a military world power. It was God who blessed Abraham, and God was true to His promise to give to him a vast number of descendents because of his faith. In similar arrogance, the Jews thought that it was they who were that number because of physical ancestry. However as easily as God could uproot them from the land, he can also break down the power of their ancestry as He includes in it, not those of Abraham's physical line, but those of Abraham's line of faith: all of those who place their faith in Him would become the children of Abraham. God would break down the ancestral nation.
To throw down. A subtle difference in this verb recognizes the Jew's assumption of lofty religious authority. Remembering God's intervention on their behalf in the past, they declared themselves "chosen people" who could not be brought down by any force of man. To "throw down" is to throw one down from a position of authority. The authority that the Judean kings thought they held would be thrown down. Likewise the authority that the people of Judah thought they had because of their "special connection" to God would also be thrown down.
To destroy. Uprooted from the land, the authority of their ancestry broken down, their kingdom thrown down, God would also be the overseer of their destruction as a nation. A good translation of this verb is "annihilation." This brings to mind total destruction.
To afflict. The loss of the infrastructure that they had enjoyed for so many years would result in the collapse of their economy and the destruction of the harvests that they had been given when they entered the promised land so many years before. The result would be famine and starvation.
This is quite a list of consequences of Judah's sin. God "watched over them" during this time as it was He who allowed these things to take place. Still, it was the people of Judah who hold full responsibility for these events. Jeremiah pleaded with the people to refrain from rebellion against Babylon, but they would not listen. They again rejected God's word for them, rebelled against a far superior Babylonian nation who then came in and fully destroyed the nation.
... so will I watch over them, to build, and to plant, saith the LORD.
As much as we might come to see God as a God of wrath and judgment, we must be reminded that the wrath and judgment we see is not as much God's nature, as it is His response to sin's nature. God is and always has been a God of love and grace. He has shown us, through the experience of the Jews, that we cannot become righteous on our own. We cannot be perfectly obedient to God, and left to our own devices we will always sin. However, even in the depth of Judah's demise we see God's love and grace shine out like a ray of hope in the midst of the storm. God has a plan in place to restore His people to Himself. Unlike the conditional promise of land, God's promise of the innumerable descendents was sure. When the physical progeny of Abraham would fail to remain faithful to God, He would simply rebuild a new nation, a "New Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12)."
In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.
One of the ways the Jews avoided taking responsibility for the consequences of their own sin was to blame it on their parents. This phrase concerning the sour grapes and teeth on edge was a common and idiomatic part of their daily lives. It was a constant reminder that any suffering they experienced (teeth set on edge) was the result of their ancestors who "ate sour grapes," a euphemism for willful sinning.
But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.
Though the idiom was a fabrication of Jewish tradition, and not the teaching of God, it will be clear in the New Jerusalem that each person is responsible for their own actions. Each person who chooses to eat the sour grapes of sin will suffer the consequences of that choice. One will no longer be able to blame the consequences of their own sin on their fathers, grandfathers, and ancestor. Each person will answer to God for their own choices.
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
The house of Judah and the house of Israel refer to all of the descendants of Abraham. The covenants that God made with mankind are described in a manner similar to that made by a conquering king. Referred to as a suzerain covenant, it is one where the covenant is made by the conquering king who retains all sovereignty as he sets forth the rules of the agreement. It is from this "new covenant" that we obtain the name of the "New Testament." Since God has made no other covenant with man since those made with ancient Israel, one would have to reject the New Testament as this new covenant in order to reject the gospel. One would also have to reject the description of that covenant that Jeremiah is about to provide. Jeremiah's description of the New Testament is so complete and so accurate that some have tried to argue that the book had to have been written in the first century A.D.
One of the features of a new covenant is that it replaces the old one. Some New Testament advocates have used this point to reject the Old Testament as no longer holding authority in the Christian life. However, Jesus clearly taught that He did not come to replace the covenant of the law and the prophets but to "fulfill it" (Matt. 5:17). The New Covenant is a fulfillment of the Old. It is the completion of God's plan of salvation for mankind.
Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
Jeremiah then goes on to describe some of the properties of this new covenant that God would make with man. First of all, he states that this covenant would not be made under the authority of the old. The old covenant was made with Israel when God led them out of the bondage of Egypt and even though God stood with them, the children of Israel broke that covenant. This new covenant would be a fresh start that would not be like the old. It would not be limited by any of the properties of the old covenant. The most significant part of this new covenant to the Jews is that this new covenant will no longer be limited to Israel. This new covenant would not be made with their fathers who agreed to the old covenant, and have long since passed. This new covenant must be ratified in an entirely new way, one that the Judeans cannot even conceive of, one that would require a miracle to turn around such a decadent and apostate people.
But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
"The Law" was the foundation of Jewish theology. It was through the keeping of the law that the Jew thought he was righteous. Over time, the law had been interpreted and reinterpreted, applied, and reapplied, to the point that there was little distinction between the law and Jewish tradition. Ironically, the original law had been set down by God to protect the people from sin, yet they had perverted the law to the point that it became their god and in itself replaced God as the authority in their lives.
What God would do in this new covenant is a radical concept. The Jews saw their law as a written document that consumed thousands of pages of writing. Under the new covenant, this law would no longer be recorded on the ancient scrolls, but would be written in the hearts of the faithful. When one comes to faith in God under the new covenant, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in the heart, or the "inward parts." The Christian does not have to go running to the books of Old Testament law every time it is necessary to make a decision as to whether something is right or wrong. The scriptures are no longer a book of law to the Christian. Though the law exposes sin, under the new covenant justification will come by faith (Gal. 3). The power of the law to condemn is destroyed by the new covenant. People of faith will simply know the truth and the truth will set them free of the power of the law (Rom. 8:2, John 8:32).
And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD:
One of the most profound differences between the old covenant and the new is the nature of the relationship that the "righteous" have with God. Under the old covenant one neighbor taught another neighbor about God, but neither had a relationship with God. When a Rabbi would teach a congregation of Jews they would discuss the attributes of God, His law, the history of the Jewish people, and even His promise of a Messiah. However they did not and could not know a relationship with God because they lacked faith in Him. Any quick review of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews reveals an important truth about righteousness: salvation has always been and always will come from faith, and not by the keeping of the law. Those who were found righteous under the old covenant were those who, through their faith in Him, loved God. It was not necessary to teach Abraham to "know God." Abraham knew Him.
Likewise, under the new covenant it is not relevant for one Christian to demand of another to "know God," for the very nature of a true believer is the knowledge of God. Once the Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of the believer, the task is not to know God, but to know Him more, to learn more of His will and purpose in one's life, and to strive for a life of obedience. However, even the most ardent effort of obedience will still not lead to a sinless life. God's plan under the new covenant goes further than placing His law into the hearts of the faithful.
... for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
One could probably argue that this is one of the pivotal verses in the Old Testament. It is certainly the pivotal verse in the testimony of the prophet Jeremiah. The life of the Jew was characterized by iniquity. However, even the life of the most sincere and devout Christian is not without sin. Without forgiveness we are doomed. Under the new covenant God promises to forgive the iniquities of the faithful, a forgiveness that is so complete that sin will never be brought as an indictment for condemnation again. A Christian cannot live a life that is free of sin. However, a Christian can have the peace and joy of knowing that their sin no longer has the power to condemn them to an eternity that is separated from the love of God.
Of course, sin still carries with it its own intrinsic consequences. Much of the suffering that people experience today is a consequence of their sin, or the impact of the sin of another. We will not escape the power of sin to destroy as long as we are on this side of heaven.
The scriptures clearly teach that this new covenant is the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. Under the old covenant it was necessary for blood to be shed in order that sin be forgiven. Someone had to pay a price for sin. The old testament illustrated this through the shedding of the blood of an innocent and spotless lamb. Consequently, the New Covenant still came with a price. Blood had to be shed. However, this time an illustration through a lamb would not do. Under the New Covenant, Jesus would be the spotless and innocent Lamb of God who's blood would serve as the final sacrifice. It would be through the blood of Jesus that all mankind, under the old covenant and under the new, would find forgiveness. Those who had faith in God before the cross of Golgotha found forgiveness in Jesus, the Messiah who they yearned for. Those who have found faith in God after the cross likewise find forgiveness because of Jesus' vicarious sacrifice. It is only through the cross that forgiveness is found, a forgiveness that is offered to all people who will place their faith and trust in God.
If any lesson can be learned from the experience of 1200 years of Jewish apostasy, it is that man cannot be justified before God by keeping the law. We simply cannot do it. Though we may hope to be considered righteous by God because we are "good", it is the truth that no person is good (Mark 10:10) and all people who have ever lived have sinned and come short of God's standard of perfection (Rom. 3:23). To break any tenet of the law is to break the law, leaving one a law-breaker who is doomed to separation from God for eternity. It is only in the wonderful and full forgiveness that comes though the new covenant that man can be saved. However, people still reject God's offer of grace, his offer of salvation that we have done nothing on our own to deserve.
Under this new covenant, salvation is found through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The New Jerusalem now stretches far beyond the boundaries of the progeny of Abraham, and indeed, God's promise that through Abraham all nations would be blessed has come to pass. All people now have the opportunity to come to God in faith, acknowledging their sin, and finding full and complete forgiveness as God puts His word in their hearts through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. With such an offer, why would anyone refuse?