Sometimes it is not just what you say that matters, but when you say it. Take the words I and do, for example. These two simple words are used all the time. They do not seem to matter very much. One time they really do matter is when they are used in a wedding. With those two simple words— “I do”—a husband and wife enter into a lifelong, life-or-death covenant with one another, binding themselves to one another for poverty as well prosperity, illness as well as health, sorrow as well as joy.[i]
Most people are confused when it comes to the difference between a covenant versus a contract. Some use the terms interchangeably, however God deals with His people based on a covenant. What is amazing is that as human beings we were unable to keep the Old Covenant, so God, who is so loving and faithful, created a New Covenant based upon better promises and provisions so that we become empowered to keep it. It was Jeremiah that revealed to them later in his prophetic ministry this beautiful expression of love.
The days are coming, declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the LORD.
This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time. I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the LORD. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.[ii]
The New Covenant is a fulfillment of that promise. God would help us internalize and empower us to know Him and be able to obey His word. However, the context of the story of Judah’s imminent exile is because they disregarded God’s laws and embraced the idols of the people in the land. As most of the prophets proclaimed, the story of God’s people is a trail of broken promises, while God continued to be faithful to His pledge to His people. However, there is a cost to neglecting our part of the covenant. In Jeremiah 11, we will find a formal charge against the people because of their perpetual violation of their covenant with God. We will see in Jeremiah that the terms of the covenant were consistently being broken by the people. There is a sense that the prophets were God’s attorneys bringing His case against His people for their violation of the covenant. We may be thinking, so what does this have to do with us? Just like God’s people under the Old Covenant, as believers in Jesus Christ, we are in a covenant relationship with God and there are also things that we need to consider. Often Christianity is presented in such a way that God is responsible for everything, and we are simply recipients of all these amazing blessings. Yet a more careful study of the New Testament will reveal to us that we also have certain conditions or responsibilities toward God and others that need to be fulfilled for us to fully experience all the benefits of this relationship with God. This is not designed to negate grace or create a legalistic understanding, but unfortunately today, our understanding of grace has been skewed. We act as if we are allowed to serve God on our terms. We have embraced the culture’s consumer mentality. We take what we like from God’s provisions and often leave the challenges as if they are optional. In essence we invert the role of God and others, where we see God and others serving us, rather than being called upon to serve God and others. As I was considering this text, I had an epiphany that we also have responsibilities in the New Covenant. One of the more notable areas is the instruction Jesus is about to leave the disciples regarding their mission, but also their covenantal responsibilities.
Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.[iii]
We also discover covenantal language in Ephesians 1, where we read how God has made amazing provisions for believers. Consider the amazing provisions and promises of God toward followers of Christ, namely the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, being adopted into His family, and every spiritual blessing in heavenly places. In Matthew 28, we are told that God will always be with us. Yet, we also see that we have covenantal responsibilities. We are to go, make disciples, baptizing people, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded. Are we going? Are we making disciples? Are we obeying all that Jesus has taught us in His word? There should be within each of our hearts a strong desire to do God’s will by obeying God’s word. In Jeremiah 11, we see the results of what happens when God’s people violate His covenant.
THE FIRST RESULT OF A BROKEN COVENANT IS THE FORMAL CHARGE AGAINST THE VIOLATORS
Here we can imagine a courtroom scene where charges are being laid. The charges are addressing the people’s indifference to their covenant responsibilities. In other words, they ignored and disobeyed what God was asking of them. In the place of obedience to God’s commands, we see them following the stubbornness of their own hearts. Jeremiah is going to explain the terms of the covenant or agreement that the nation had made on Mount Sinai under the leadership of Moses. This had, in recent history, been reinforced under King Josiah. It was a binding arrangement. We read in both Leviticus (cf. Lev. 26) and Deuteronomy (Deut. 27-29) both the blessings from God in complying with the arrangement and the curses for disobedience to their covenant with God.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:
Listen to the terms of this covenant and tell them to the people of Judah and to those who live in Jerusalem.[iv]
This is God’s message to the people that is being conveyed through Jeremiah. Jeremiah is simply the messenger.
Tell them that this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Cursed is the man who does not obey the terms of this covenant — the terms I commanded your forefathers when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the iron-smelting furnace.’ I said, ‘Obey me and do everything I command you, and you will be my people, and I will be your God.[v]
Notice that the covenant was conditioned on people’s part that they would obey what God had commanded them and the result would be God’s promise of the land.
Then I will fulfill the oath I swore to your forefathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey’—the land you possess today.”
I answered, “Amen, LORD.”
The LORD said to me, “Proclaim all these words in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem: ‘Listen to the terms of this covenant and follow them.
From the time I brought your forefathers up from Egypt until today, I warned them again and again, saying, “Obey me.”
But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubbornness of their evil hearts. So I brought on them all the curses of the covenant I had commanded them to follow but that they did not keep.[vi]
God was faithful and they were now living in the land. God had told them very clearly that once they came into the land that they were to rid it of all the idols.
On the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho the LORD said to Moses,
Speak to the Israelites and say to them, ‘When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols, and demolish all their high places; But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from you, those you allow to remain will be like barbs in our eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.
And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.[vii]
What had God planned to do with the Canaanites in the land? He planned to displace and destroy them. This is now what was about to happen to the people living in Judah; God’s own covenant people. So, what is the difference between a contractual arrangement and a covenantal one? One writer states:
The main difference between covenant and contract is that when someone violates any of the agreements, a covenant stays intact even if one of the parties breaks the agreement. However, if one of the contracting parties breaks the contract it becomes void. While covenants are a form of contract, they are not regarded in the same way as other contracts and are not based on the same principles.
In its most basic sense, a covenant refers to the promise to participate in or refrain from performing a certain action. A covenant was differentiable from an ordinary contract by the presence of a seal. A covenant may be stated both negatively or positively. A negative covenant refers to a law that prohibits an individual from engaging in a particular act. On the other hand, an affirmative covenant refers to a law that allows permission to engage in a specified action.[viii]
It is interesting that the Hebrew word for covenant is ‘Berith,’ which means ‘to cut.’ If we look at the covenants both in the Old Testament and New Testament, we find common denominators. Usually there is a meal involved, but also there is a sacrifice given as well. In the Old Testament we see that animals were slain, but in the New Testament, it is the life of Jesus that is given in order for us to experience a union with God.
For this reason, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living.
This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood.
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.[ix]
To understand the significance of covenant we need to go all the way back to Genesis, where we see God’s covenant with Abram.
So the LORD said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.
Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.
When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch [symbol of the presence of God] appeared and passed between the pieces.
On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…[x]
The covenant ritual resembles that of Jeremiah 34:18. In its full form, probably both parties would pass between the dismembered animals to invoke a like fate on themselves should they break their pledge. Here, however, Abram’s part is only to set the scene and guard it from violation.[xi]
What we learn from this action is that the violator of the covenant would experience death, and that’s exactly what happened, but in our case God died for us, even though we violated the covenant.
THE SECOND RESULT OF A BROKEN COVENANT IS THE INESCAPABLE PUNISHMENT THAT COMES
Apart from genuine repentance, where we turn from our neglect, indifference or just plain disobedience to God, we will suffer the consequences of our sin. Yet, this was not without repeated warnings. We need to understand that part of the terms of the covenant is that it speaks of both the blessings and the curses involved.
A. Terms of the Covenant
Here we see why they were under the curse. They had sinned against God by violating their covenant with Him. They had disobeyed the agreement. The had served other gods in violation of the greatest commandment.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD you God, am a jealous God,[xii]
We often misunderstand the statement that God is a jealous God as being somewhat petty or insecure, but the reality is that God desires, like in any marriage, an inclusivity and intimacy with His people. A healthy, loving marriage is the closest analogy of what our relationship with God should be like (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33).
Now Jeremiah points out how they have violated the covenant.
Then the LORD said to me, ‘There is a conspiracy among the people of Judah and those who live in Jerusalem.
They have returned to the sins of their ancestors, who refused to listen to my words. They have followed other gods to serve them. Both Israel and Judah have broken the covenant I made with their ancestors.
Therefore this is what the LORD says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.
The towns of Judah and the people of Jerusalem will go and cry out to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they will not help them at all when disaster strikes.
You, Judah, have as many gods as you have towns; and the altars you have set up to burn incense to that shameful god Baal are as many of the streets of Jerusalem.[xiii]
The conspiracy in the land was the lack of real transformation occurring during the reformation under King Josiah, where we see the physical destruction of the idols in the land (cf. 2 Kings 23:1-28). Though outwardly conforming, once Josiah was killed in battle, the people quickly reverted back to their idolatry. The problem was that idolatry was part of the fabric of their lives for generations.
B. When God does not answer prayer.
The people had vacillated between Yahweh and all the idols in the land and God now refuses to respond to the prayers both of Jeremiah and the people. The only avenue open to them now is genuine repentance.
‘Do not pray for this people or offer any plea or petition for them, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their distress.[xiv]
Here is the irony, that God had been calling to the people for generations and they refused to listen. Now, the consequences of their idolatry is impacting their lives and they are now praying; but unfortunately, God refuses to listen to their prayers for deliverance. What they should have been praying were prayers of repentance. God recognizes that their prayers were not about making changes in their lives but being delivered from the consequences of their sins. That is the nature of remorse. It is people feeling sorry for themselves because of the pain their sins are causing them. They are not sorry for the way the sin has impacted and caused pain in the lives of others, beginning with God and those closest to them. Remorse is often identifiable as it is self-focused.
‘What is my beloved doing in my temple as she, with many others, works out her evil schemes? Can consecrated meat avert your punishment? When you engage in your wickedness, then you rejoice.
The LORD called you a thriving olive tree with fruit beautiful in form. But with the roar of a mighty storm he will set it on fire, and its branches will be broken.
The LORD Almighty, who planted you, has decreed disaster for you, because the people of Israel and Judah have done evil and aroused my anger by burning incense to Baal.[xv]
People falsely assume that ritual sacrifice will negate God’s wrath.
Jeremiah was certainly concerned with obedience to the ancient covenant demands, which was more important than performance of rituals in the temple.[xvi]
What we need to learn is that ‘to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams (cf. 1 Samuel 16:22b).
We often reflect this depreciating attitude toward the goodness of God and others, when we use the approach and attitude that ‘we will ask for forgiveness rather than permission.’ In other words, we go ahead and do what we want to do, and then assume that forgiveness is owed to us. When we act this way, we are presuming on the grace of God and the forgiveness of others. In reality, we are sinning against both.
We also see this attitude in our life of prayer. When we entertain sin in our lives, we cannot expect God to answer our prayers. The Psalmist warns us that if we regard sin in our hearts, God will not listen to our prayer. We cannot have a heart of duplicity and expect God to answer.
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;[xvii]
James also warns us regarding wavering between belief and unbelief.
But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.[xviii]
THE THIRD RESULT OF A BROKEN COVENANT IS THE REJECTION OF GOD’S MESSAGE AND MESSENGER
We have an expression in life that simply stated is, ‘don’t shoot the messenger.’ In being faithful to declare an unpopular message from God, Jeremiah’s life was on the line.
Because the LORD revealed their plot to me, I knew it, for at that time he showed me what they were doing.
I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that they had plotted against me saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.’
But you, LORD Almighty, who judge righteously and test the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance on them, for to you I have committed my cause.[xix]
Warren Wiersbe explains the possible reasons why the religious leaders from his hometown there threatened by Jeremiah and his message.
The conspiracy against Jeremiah (vv. 18–23) grew out of the people’s rejection of God’s Word, for if they had accepted the Word of God, they would have honored His prophet and listened to what he had to say. You would think that the priests in Anathoth would have had more discernment than to listen to the false prophets, but holding a religious office is no guarantee that people possess spiritual wisdom.
The men of Anathoth, Jeremiah’s hometown, plotted to kill him because his message convicted them. Rather than repent, they decided to destroy the messenger. But they had a second reason: as loyal Jews, they felt that his prophecies were harmful to the welfare of the nation. Jeremiah preached impending judgment from Babylon, while the false prophets were declaring messages of peace (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). Jeremiah insisted that the people obey the law and bring their sacrifices to the temple and not to the local shrines (“high places”), some of which were dedicated to idols, and the priests didn’t like that. Jeremiah was pro-Babylon while the rulers were pro-Egypt. In other words, Jeremiah was out of step with his times, and because he was decisive, he had to walk alone.[xx]
God’s response to the threat on Jeremiah’s life is that God will protect him.
Therefore this is what the LORD says about the people of Anathoth who are threatening to kill you; saying, ‘Do not prophesy in the name of the LORD or you will die by our hands’—
Therefore this is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish them. Their young men will die by the sword, their sons and daughters by famine.
Not even a remnant will be left to them, because I will bring disaster on the people of Anathoth in the year of their punishment.’[xxi]
We need to learn to be more concerned about what God thinks than what people are saying and doing. God can protect His own from the schemes of the disobedient.
We are certainly saved and experience the new covenant with God by turning from our sins, believing in the Lord Jesus. We have been changed and empower by God, the Holy Spirit. What this produces within our lives is a desire to bring honor and glory to Jesus. We are called to follow Him, walking as He walked by trusting and in obedience to His word.
Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.[xxii]
Are we serving Jesus by following Him and are abiding in Him? Yet, we all have moments of failure. We all fall under the curse. The good news is that Jesus took the curse for us in order to free us from the penalty, power and ultimately from the presence of sin. But in light of this spiritual freedom, we must live for Him. The apostle Paul reminds us:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use you freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
So, I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.[xxiii]
[i] Philip Graham Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentation: From Sorrow to Hope, Preaching the Word Series,(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2016), 202-03.
[ii] Jeremiah 31:31-34, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011
[iii] Matthew 28:18-20.
[iv] Jeremiah 11:1-2.
[v] Jeremiah 11:3-4.
[vi] Jeremiah 11:5-8.
[vii] Numbers 33:50-52, 55-56.
[ix] Hebrews 9:15-18, 22.
[x] Genesis 15:9-10, 17-18a.
[xi] Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, (Intervarsity Press, 1967), 135.
[xii] Exodus 20:3-5a.
[xiii] Jeremiah 11:9-13.
[xiv] Jeremiah 11:14.
[xv] Jeremiah 11:15-17.
[xvi] John Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 341.
[xvii] Psalm 66:18.
[xviii] James 1:6-8.
[xix] Jeremiah 11:18-20.
[xx] Warren Wiersbe, Be Decisive, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 59–60.
[xxi] Jeremiah 11:21-23.
[xxii] John 12:26.
[xxiii] Galatians 5:13, 16.