One of the most moving experiences in life is to travel to a breath-taking scene. Often the mountains facilitate such an experience. We now arrive in one of those mountain top experiences found in the Old Testament. Jeremiah 31 is one of the most moving and powerful chapters of the Old Testament, where we are about to discover that God is ‘about to do a new thing.’ We discover a broken, divided nation that hears the amazing promise that will one day change the nature of their covenant with God. The introduction of the new covenant moves from a communal agreement to impacting people as individuals. Implied but not stated, God will not only be the God of a unified nation, but God will be God over all nations. He will write His laws in the hearts of people, living with them in an intimate and personal manner. In chapter thirty the amazing promises of God’s restoration of a nation at their lowest point in their history causes great hope and joy. Now in chapter thirty-one we examine further God’s restorative promises, which are beyond anything that could be imagined. It begins with a unified nation. Solomon led the nation into idolatry, which God judged by dividing that nation during the reign of his son, Rehoboam. It was this division that lasted for centuries that God was about to unify after the exile in Babylon. What makes these verses significant to us is that they speak of God’s restorative work in our lives. Sin shatters our lives and creates sorrow and loss. Even the sins of others, when they crash into our world can cause untold pain, but God can restore our lives. Repentance from sin, or forgiveness toward the perpetrators are key ingredients in bringing about this restorative work.
Another experience that brings about restoration is when people are being stretched by God which ultimately produces spiritual growth. There are moments in the life of believers that are a great struggle to endure, one of which is the sense of God’s presence seeming distant, yet God ultimately brings about a new season of renewal. God brings joy after times of weeping. It is true that we generally do not celebrate being disciplined, but there is joy to follow and that is what this amazing chapter speaks of. There will come a time of dancing and celebration that will occur when God brings His promises to fulfillment. God promises that if we respond correctly to His discipline or training in our lives, we will experience three expressions of His grace in renewal.
THE FIRST EXPRESSION OF GOD’S GRACE IN RENEWAL IS COMFORT AND JOY INSTEAD OF SORROW
There is nothing more exciting than to experience unexpected reversal of fortune, from difficulty, pain, and loss to abounding provisions and Divine favor. When we are in a time of struggle we need to remind ourselves of God’s past mercies.
A. The message begins with a reminder of God’s faithful love in their history as a nation.
It was God who fashion them into a nation out of slavery, and cared for them in the wilderness, and ultimately brought them through to a promised land, described as the ‘land of milk and honey.’ This land was to be a place of blessing, a place where God Himself would choose to live among them. Exile speaks of being cast off, divorced, and rejected because of their unfaithfulness over the generations. This led finally to seasons of discipline in order to awaken them. The ultimate expression of that was the exile. Now in exile, awakening to their sin, God gives them a word of hope and reassurance.
At that time,’ declares the LORD, ‘’I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.
This is what the LORD says: ‘The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.[i]
These are reassuring words of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation. Just like the wilderness generation that was delivered out of Egypt and saved from the army of Pharaoh at the Red Sea, so those who survived the seize and military conquest of Jerusalem and were brought to Babylon would build their future hope for their descendants upon God’s promised restoration and return to the promised land. God would now do in exile what He had done to the nation in Egyptian slavery. God would lead them out of their captivity.
Thus God will now do in exile what God did at the outset in Egypt, when God formed a new people out of disparate and hopeless social units. God now explains His motive for doing this great restorative work in their lives. It is an action motivated out of His unfailing, covenantal love.[ii]
The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful.
Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit.
There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.[iii]
The first passage begins by reminding the people of their past, a past which clearly witnessed the grace and the ever present love of God. Here was a God who brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, who protected them from a pursuing Egyptian army, who cared for them at Mt. Sinai ‘long ago’… This is a God who does not change, who is totally dependable, who maintains his hesed, his faithfulness or steadfast love.[iv]
Jeremiah is using geographical locations to speak of a united kingdom. The hills of Samaria, and Ephraim are part of the northern kingdom, but we hear the call to worship by ‘going up to Zion,’ which is the temple mount in Jerusalem, capital of the southern kingdom, but it had also been the capital of the united kingdom. It was also the place where God showed David where to build the temple, where His presence would abide. They would be united by their faith in the LORD.
B. The description of the joyful homecoming of a scattered people.
This is what the LORD says: ‘Sing with joy for Jacob; shout for the foremost of the nations. Make your praises heard, and say, ‘LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’
See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return.
They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside the streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.[v]
This chapter is not prose, but poetry. What an amazing picture Jeremiah is painting into the hearts of these downtrodden people who are living in defeat and exile. Here is the hope that is being expressed to sustain them. Robert Davidson explains it so beautifully.
Now they are to come back as ‘the chief of the nations’ (verse 7); but this is a new kind of greatness. It is the greatness of ‘the remnant of Israel’, the few who survived national disaster and long years in exile, now to be delivered and gathered home again by God. Their new greatness lies in what God has done for them, and in nothing else. They come back, not like a triumphant army flaunting its power, but as ‘a great company’, bringing with them those in need of care and protection, the blind and the lame, pregnant women, women in labour (verse 8). They come back, not in arrogance or self-confidence, but ‘weeping’ and ‘praying’, …. scarcely able to believe what is happening to them as God takes care of their needs and smooths the way before them.[vi]
Is this not a picture of how we come to Christ, like sheep who have gone astray, broken by sin, now awakened and weeping, with prayer, acknowledging our need and embraced by God’s love and empowered by His Spirit to a new life? We who, like the prodigal, have been in exile in the far country, now come home to the Father’s house and are given this amazing grace of restoration.
C. God throws a party for His prodigals.
For the LORD will deliver Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD – the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.
Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.
I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty,’ declares the LORD.[vii]
Here we see that God would deliver (ransom) and redeem them from those who were politically and militarily stronger than them. Like the first exodus, this exodus will bring them back to their promised land where they will experience agricultural bounty. The atmosphere is one of celebration which is reflected as well in Psalm 126.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.
The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.[viii]
The atmosphere is one of celebration. We see them dancing in the streets with joy.
…the priests are specified as receiving God’s abundance. Thus, the priests who survive will reap the reward. This is notable particularly since the priests have received their share of blame for the judgment that will come on Israel because of their sin. …However the point is clear, the entire remnant will enjoy prosperity.[ix]
THE SECOND EXPRESSION OF GOD’S GRACE IN RENEWAL IS THE ENRICHMENT THAT COMES FROM OUR REPENTANT RESPONSE
God’s discipline is designed to bring us to a place of genuine repentance. Repentance is a turning away from our sinful ways and a turning to God. It is a change of mind that leads to a change of action in our lives. We begin walking on God’s path.
This is what the LORD says: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’[x]
Rachel, beloved wife of Jacob, is the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, which make up three of the tribes of Israel, and Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh are taken as Jacob’s sons in his blessings to them. These three tribes are part of the northern kingdom.
Near Ramah, according to one Old Testament tradition, Rachel’s tomb was to be found. She is weeping because she has lost her children. Into her weeping comes a word from God, telling her to dry her tears. Her children are not gone forever; they will return home.[xi]
This is what the LORD says: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded declares the LORD. ‘They will return from the land of the enemy.
So there is hope for your descendants,’ declares the LORD. ‘Your children will return to their own land.[xii]
Ramah is only a few miles from Jerusalem. Jeremiah could hear the weeping of the people as they were being prepared to be taken into captivity. Even as Rachel died in child birth near Ramah many centuries earlier, she bore a son, whom she called Ben Oni, son of my trouble or sorrow. Jacob, however, renamed him, Benjamin, son of my right hand, which means, the son of his strength. God was about to do the same thing, by turning their sorrow into joy. God speaks and tells them that the tears of pain and sorrow would become tears of joy.
‘I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning: ‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf, and I have been disciplined. Restore me, and I will return, because you are the LORD my God.
After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.[xiii]
What now happens is a picture of genuine repentance. There is an acknowledgment of the God’s right action in having to discipline them. There is a recognition of God’s work of grace in restoring back into His favor.
Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him declares the LORD.[xiv]
A. God’s new thing that is about to happen.
Here the metaphor changes from Ephraim as a Son, to Israel, as a wayward daughter.
‘Set up road signs; put up guideposts. Take note of the highway, the road that you take. Return, Virgin Israel, return to your towns.[xv]
You put up signage to help people find the direction to where they need to go. Here we have a picture of the need to make sure that the way home is marked out. It is more than just geography that is being stated, it is rather the moral direction needed to find the way back to a right relationship with God.
But as if to emphasize that the new life cannot and must not be simply the old life all over again, Israel is reminded that she is one who has ‘twists and turned (NEB)…RSV has ‘waver’ – and has been a wayward turncoat of a daughter.[xvi]
How long will you wander, unfaithful Daughter Israel? The LORD will create a new thing on earth – the woman will return to the man.’[xvii]
This is a new thing, but what does it mean? It has been translated in various ways from the woman returning to the man, to protecting or surrounding the man. No one is quite sure what to make of this concept. Was this a proverb in the land, the idea of a role reversal happening? In ancient Israel the man would be the protector, but here it seems something new is happening.
Since Israel is likened to a woman in this oracle (Rachel; Virgin Israel), we might understand this as indicating that Israel has embraced God, thus expressing her repentant attitude that has turned from faithless wandering.[xviii]
B. God’s response to this repentance.
God desires relationship with His creation, therefore He embraces, restores, and blesses us. God’s love, acceptance and forgiveness is evident whenever we see prodigals returning home. Think of the Father’s love toward the prodigal son as told in the parable by Jesus, in describing the heart of God.
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘When I bring them back from captivity, the people in the land of Judah and in its towns will once again use these words: ‘The LORD bless you, you prosperous city, you sacred mountain.
People will live together in Judah and all its towns – farmers and those who move about with their flocks.
I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint.
At this I awoke and looked around, My sleep had been pleasant to me.[xix]
Here is a picture of the renewed state of life after the destruction caused by Babylon, or rather, by their disobedience to God, and the ensuing discipline that stripped all that they were trusting in, away from them. Now shattered and humbled the nation has repented and turned to God. Here is a picture of the new reality which seems like a dream. Even groups like farmers and shepherds who, in the past, had contended with each other are now living in harmony.
THE THIRD EXPRESSION OF GOD’S GRACE IN RENEWAL IS THAT THE REALITY IS BETTER THAN THE DREAM
We have all had surreal moments where what we were experiencing was beyond anything we could have imagined. Yet, in stating that we are going to be introduced to the ‘new covenant’, God is about to do a new thing. This is better than any dream, though it seems surreal.
‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will plant the kingdoms of Israel and Judah with the offspring of people and of animals.
Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,’ declares the LORD.
‘In those days people will no longer say, ‘the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.[xx]
Previously Jeremiah had spoken words that were designed to tear down because of the nation’s misplaced trust in idols, but now the words are designed to build and plant. People had stated the proverb that their current judgments were because of what their parents and forefathers had done. The current generation saw themselves without guilt but rather as victims of sins of past generations.
Are we not living in a similar moment where we are trying to exercise the evils of the past and blame our forefathers for our current dilemma? We cannot see that we are all with fault and that our present course of action is leading us into judgment as a society. Yet, like those ancient people, we need to hear that God addresses each generation for their own sins.
Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes – their own teeth will be set on edge.[xxi]
A. God’s amazing promise of a ‘New Covenant.’
As we go through the Old Testament, a covenant is entered into with God, from Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and the nation of Israel, but each time we witness failure on the part of the human equation. Robert Davidson relates Jeremiah’s anguish:
It is Jeremiah’s repeated complaint that the obligations of the covenant were ignored by the people. They were happy to bask in all that God had given them, but were unwilling to give obedience for which he looked. It is Jeremiah’s bitter experience that no attempt at reformation, however sincere, could remedy this situation. All broke down on the sheer cussedness of human nature. Between what God demanded and what the people could give, there was an unbridgeable gulf. …The new covenant passage claims that the unbridgeable can be bridged, but only from God’s side.[xxii]
‘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,’ declares the LORD. ‘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.’[xxiii]
What makes this covenant so special? That we are able to keep it? No, rather that Jesus kept it. It is His complete obedience and willingness to substitute Himself by becoming our sin offering in order for God’s justice to be satisfied. Then God forgives and acquits us, which means He does not keep a record of our wrongs against us. God then starts working within us. The change that is happening is coming from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.
B. God’s promise to Israel is eternal.
This is what the LORD says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day and who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar – the LORD Almighty is his name:
‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,’ declares the LORD, ‘will Israel ever cease being a nation before me.’
This is what the LORD says: ‘Only if the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth below be searched out will I reject all the descendants of Israel because of all they have done,’ declares the LORD.
‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when this city will be rebuilt for me from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate.
The measuring line will stretch from there straight to the hill of Gareb and then turn to Goah.
The whole valley where dead bodies and ashes are thrown, and all the terraces out to the Kidron valley on the east as far as the corner of the Horse Gate, will be holy to the LORD. The city will never again be uprooted or demolished.[xxiv]
Tremper Longman explains the significance of these texts.
The theological significance of this passage is that Jerusalem will be expanded and the entirety of it will be considered holy, not just the temple precinct. Furthermore, the city will be rebuilt for God… And with keeping with the previous oracle where God affirms his continuing and perpetual commitment to Israel, he promises that the city ‘will never again be uprooted or demolished.’ Indeed, the city is with us to today. However, this promise apparently does not intend to assure an untroubled history, since that city has been the center of strife and turmoil quite often in its long history.[xxv]
What is God saying through Jeremiah to the exiles? That a time of great restoration was about to happen. They would experience a second exodus back to their promised land. What does this mean for us in our day? That the fulness of that covenant was not fully realized until Jesus Christ came into our world. We will experience a life of celebration when we enter into the ‘New Covenant.’ What we discover from the New Testament is that this covenant was only made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, where through repentance from sin and faith in His work of grace on our behalf causes the indwelling life of God to change our very nature. We are reminded of the words of Jesus: “I have come to give life and that more abundant.” Are we willing to embrace God’s plan for our lives or to continue to disregard His call upon our lives? Get ready, for when we come to Him, we enter a joyous celebration.
[i] Jeremiah 31:1-2 The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 282.
[iii] Jeremiah 31:3-6.
[iv] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 78-79.
[v] Jeremiah 31:7-9.
[vi] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, 80.
[vii] Jeremiah 31:11-14.
[viii] Psalm 126:1-3.
[ix] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 206-07.
[x] Jeremiah 31:15.
[xi] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, 83.
[xii] Jeremiah 31:16-17.
[xiii] Jeremiah 31:18-19.
[xiv] Jeremiah 31:20.
[xv] Jeremiah 31:21.
[xvi] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, 84.
[xvii] Jeremiah 31:22.
[xviii] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 208.
[xix] Jeremiah 31:23-26.
[xx] Jeremiah 31:27-29.
[xxi] Jeremiah 31:30.
[xxii] Robert Davidson, Jeremiah, Vol. 2, 88.
[xxiii] Jeremiah 31:31-34.
[xxiv] Jeremiah 31:35-40.
[xxv] Tremper Longman III, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 214.