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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Jeremiah 31



Verse 1


(1) The God of all the families of Israel.—The union of the ten tribes of Israel and the two of Judah is again prominent in the prophet’s mind. He cannot bear to think of that division, with its deep lines of cleavage in the religious and social life of the people, being perpetuated. Israel should be Israel. This is the crown and consummation of the promise of Jeremiah 30:24.

Verse 2

(2) The people which were left of the sword . . .—The main thought of this and the next verse is that the past experience of God’s love is a pledge or earnest for the future. Israel of old had “found grace in the wilderness” (comp. Hosea 11:1). But as the prophet has in his thoughts a new manifestation of that love, his language is modified accordingly. He thinks of the captives that had escaped, or should hereafter escape, the sword of the Chaldæans (there had been no such deliverance in the case of the Egyptian exodus), and of their finding grace in the wilderness that lies between Palestine and the Euphrates. The verses that follow show, however, that the prophet is thinking also of the more distant exiles, the ten tribes in the cities of the Medes beyond the Tigris (2 Kings 17:6).

Even Israel, when I went to cause him to rest.—The verb that answers to the last five words includes the meaning of “settling” or “establishing,” as well as of giving rest; and the whole clause is better translated Let me go, or I will go (the verb is in the infinitive with the force of an imperative, but this is its meaning) to set him at rest, even Israel.

Verse 3

(3) The Lord hath appeared of old unto me . . .—The Hebrew adverb more commonly refers to distance than to time. From afar the Lord appeared unto me. The thought is that of a deliverer who hears the cry of his people in the distance, and then draws near to help them. Jehovah enthroned in Zion, or in the heaven of heavens, hears the cry of the exiles by the waters of Babylon or Nineveh.

Therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.—Some translators render I have preserved (or respited) thee, others I have continued my loving kindness to thee, as in Psalms 36:10; Psalms 109:12; but the LXX., Vulg., and Luther agree with the English Version, and it finds sufficient support in the meaning of the Hebrew verb and in the parallel of Hosea 11:4.

Verse 4

(4) Thou shalt again be adorned with thy tabrets . . .—The implied idea is that of a time of rejoicing after triumphant restoration (the “building” of the previous sentence is more than that of material walls and towers), when the daughters of Israel (as in Exodus 15:20; Judges 11:34; 1 Samuel 18:6; Psalms 68:11) should again go forth with “timbrels and dances,” with tabrets and joy and instruments of music. The “tabret” was a musical instrument of the drum type, somewhat like the Spanish or Italian tambourine, with bells attached to the metal hoop.

Verse 5

(5) Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria . . .—The mention of Samaria shows that the prophet is thinking of the restoration of the northern kingdom, as well as of Judah, under the rule of the true King. In the Hebrew words “shall eat them as common things” we have a singular train of associations. The primary meaning of the verb is to “profane.” The rule of Leviticus 19:23-24, based partly, perhaps, on grounds of culture, partly with a symbolic meaning, required that a vineyard for three years after it was planted should be treated as “uncircumcised” (i.e., that no use should be made of the fruit), in the fourth year the fruit was to “be holy to praise the Lord with,” and in the fifth the planter might take the fruit for himself. So accordingly in Deuteronomy 20:6 we have, as one of the laws affecting war, that if a man had planted a vineyard and had not made it common—the same word as that used here—i.e., had not got beyond the fixed period of consecration, he might be exempted from military service, lest he should die and another eat of it. Compare also Deuteronomy 28:30, where the English “gather” answers, as the marginal reading shows, to the same verb. What is meant here, therefore, is, in contrast with the chances and changes of a time of war, that the planters of the vineyard should not be disturbed in their possession of it. They should not plant, and another eat thereof. (Comp. Isaiah 65:22; Deuteronomy 28:30.)

Verse 6

(6) The watchmen upon the mount Ephraim shall cry . . .—The special fact is given as the ground of the previous prediction. The two kingdoms should be united, and therefore the possession of the vineyards should be undisturbed. The city of Samaria stood on one of the mountains of Ephraim. The “watchmen” may be either the sentinels stationed in the towers of the city, or, more probably, those that were on the look-out for the first appearance of the crescent moon as the signal for the observance either of the Passover or the new-moon festival. What follows is all but decisive in favour of the latter view. What is implied is that the rival worship in Bethel and in Dan, which had so long kept the ten tribes of Israel from the Temple at Jerusalem, should cease, and that from the mountains of Ephraim there should be heard the cry which, with a solitary exception in the reign of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 30:11; 2 Chronicles 30:18), had not been heard for centuries—“Let us go up to Zion.” The long schism which had caused the ruin of the nation would at last be healed. Unity of worship, at once the ground and symbol of national unity, should be restored.

Verse 7

(7) Shout among the chief of the nations . . .—Better, Shout over the head of the nations, i.e., over Israel. It would seem from Amos 6:1 as if this was a title specially claimed by the kingdom of the Ten Tribes. (Comp. Exodus 19:5; Leviticus 20:24; Leviticus 20:26; Deuteronomy 7:6; Deuteronomy 26:19.) The prophet, in his vision of the future, calls even on the heathen (see Jeremiah 31:10) to rejoice in the restoration of the remnant of Israel, and pray for their prosperity. In “deliver” we have the same verb as in the “Hosanna” of Psalms 118:25, Matthew 21:9. The old bitterness of feeling was to pass away, and heathen and Israelite were to join together in a chorus of praise and prayer. The thought is the same as that of Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 60:3.

Verse 8

(8) And with them the blind and the lame . . .—The vision of restoration continues, and the prophet sees in the spirit the great company of those that return. Even those who are commonly left behind in such an expedition, as incumbrances hindering its march, the blind, the lame, the women with child or in the very pangs of childbirth, will be seen in that company. None shall remain behind. They are to come from the land of the North, the wide range of the term covering the exiles both of Judah in Babylon and of Israel in the cities of the Medes. For “the coasts of the earth” see Note on Jeremiah 25:32.

Shall return thither—i.e., to the land of Israel, as the goal of the company of travellers.

Verse 9

(9) They shall come with weeping . . .—The present version agrees with the Hebrew punctuation, but a slight change would give, They shall come with weeping and with supplications; I will lead them; I will cause them to walk . . . The procession of those whom the prophet sees with his mental eye is that of those who weep tears of sorrow for the past, of joy for the present, and pour out prayers for the future. Of this we have a partial fulfilment in the memorable and touching scene brought before us in Ezra 3:12-13. A hand which they do not see shall lead them by the “rivers of waters,” both literally and figuratively. (Comp. Isaiah 35:7-8; Isaiah 43:19; Isaiah 48:21; Isaiah 49:10-11, for like promises.)

Ephraim is my firstborn.—Ephraim stands here, as often elsewhere (e.g., Hosea 11:3; Hosea 11:12; Hosea 13:1; Hosea 13:12) for the whole northern kingdom of the Ten Tribes, of which it was the most conspicuous member. The term “firstborn” is used, as an echo of Exodus 4:22, as marking out Ephraim as the object of the special favour of Jehovah, the birthright of Reuben having been transferred to the sons of Joseph (1 Chronicles 5:1). The prominence of Ephraim over the other tribes is conspicuous throughout the whole history (Judges 12:1-3). The prophet apparently recognised it as taking its place once more in the restored unity of the people, when the king should be of the house of David, Jerusalem the centre of worship, Ephraim the leading tribe. (Comp. the contemporary prophecy of Ezekiel 37:19.) It is not without interest to note how the northern prophet looks to Judah as more faithful than Ephraim (Hosea 11:12), while Jeremiah turns from the sins of the princes and priests of Judah to look with hope on the remnant of Israel.

Verse 10

(10) Declare it in the isles afar off . . .—The “isles” appear here, as in Psalms 72:10, Isaiah 40:15; Isaiah 41:1; Isaiah 49:1; Isaiah 66:19, as the vague representative of the distant lands of the west—sometimes (as in Numbers 24:24; Jeremiah 2:10) with the addition of Chittim. Of the isles so referred to, Cyprus and Crete, so far as any definite localities were thought of, would probably be most conspicuous. Both the “nations” and the “isles” represent the heathen whom the prophet calls to join in the praises offered by Israel.

Verse 11

(11) For the Lord hath redeemed Jacob . . .—Of the two verbs “redeem” and “ransom” here used, the first expresses the act of setting free, the other that of acting as the goel, or nearest kinsman, who was not only the liberator, but the avenger of those to whom he stood in that relation. (Comp. Numbers 35:19; Deuteronomy 19:6; 2 Samuel 14:11; Isaiah 59:20; Psalms 19:14.) The idea of a “ransom,” however—i.e., of a price paid for freedom—does not lie in the Hebrew word.

Verses 12-14

(12-14) Therefore they shall come and sing . . .—The vision of return culminates in a picture of the prosperity of the restored kingdom. The “goodness of the Lord” is, as in Hosea 3:5, the attribute on which the prophets love to dwell, as shown in all forms of outward abundance. The picture, always among the brightest which an Eastern mind can draw, of a “watered garden” (comp. Isaiah 51:3; Isaiah 58:11; Genesis 13:10) should be but the symbol of the continuous joy and freshness of their life. The dances of joy, as in the days of Miriam (Exodus 15:20), and Jephthah (Judges 11:34), and David (1 Samuel 18:6), should take the place of lamentation. It will be noticed that in all these instances, the dancing company consists of women only. Sacrifices should be offered in the thankfulness of a prosperous people, beyond the utmost expectations of the priests, who had the right of eating of the victims’ flesh. Young and old, priests and laity, should rejoice together.

Verse 15

(15) A voice was heard in Ramah.—The sharp contrast between this and the exulting joy of the previous verse shows that we are entering on a new section which repeats in altered form the substance of the foregoing, presenting in succession the same pictures of present woe and future gladness. The prophet sees first the desolation of the captivity. Rachel, as the mother of Joseph, and therefore of Ephraim, becomes the ideal representative of the northern kingdom. Her voice is heard in Ramah (possibly, as in 1 Samuel 22:6, Ezekiel 16:24, and in the Vulgate here, not as the name of a locality, but in its general meaning, from a mountain height) weeping for the children who have been slain or carried into exile. When used elsewhere as a proper name, the noun always has the article. Here it stands without it. If Ramah be definitely one of the places of that name, known fully as Ramathaim-zophim (1 Samuel 1:1; 1 Samuel 1:19), it is probably that within the borders of Benjamin (Joshua 18:25), not far from Rachel’s sepulchre (1 Samuel 10:2). She, even in her grave, weeps for her children. The mention of Ramah in Isaiah 10:29 seems to indicate that it was the scene of some special massacre in the progress of the Assyrian invader, in the reign of Hezekiah; and Jeremiah may possibly refer to it, as well as to some later atrocity, in connection with that of the Chaldæans (comp. Jeremiah 40:1), over which Rachel, in her sepulchre near Bethlehem, is supposed to weep. Possibly also the meaning of the name Rachel (= ewe) may have added something to the force of the prophet’s description. He hears the cry of the ewe on the hill-top bleating for her lambs. The passage has gained a special significance as being cited by St. Matthew (Matthew 2:18), as fulfilled in Herod’s massacre of the infants of Bethlehem. On the nature of this fulfilment see Note on Matthew 2:18.

Verse 16

(16) Thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord.—Literally, there-shall be a reward for thy work. The words are a reproduction of the old prophecy of Azariah, the son of Oded (2 Chronicles 15:7). Rachel, personifying the northern kingdom, perhaps even the collective unity of all Israel, is thought of as labouring in the work of repentance and reformation, as with a mother’s care, and is comforted with the thought that her labour shall not be in vain. This seems a more satisfactory interpretation than that which refers the “work” of the weeping Rachel to the travail of child-birth.

Verse 17

(17) And there is hope in thine end . . .—Better, There is hope for thy future. The words are the same as in Jeremiah 29:11, where the English version has “an expected end.” The hope here is defined as that of the return of Rachel’s children to their own border—the return, that is, of the Ten Tribes from their captivity.

Verse 18

(18) 1 have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself.—The prophet’s thoughts still dwell upon the exiles of the northern kingdom. They have been longer under the sharp discipline of suffering. By this time, he thinks, they must have learnt repentance. He hears—or Jehovah, speaking through him. hears—the moaning of remorse; and in that work, thought of as already accomplished, he finds a new ground for his hope for Judah. Ephraim at last owned that he had deserved the chastisement of the yoke that had been laid on him.

As a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke.—The comparison is the nearest approach in the Old Testament to the Greek proverb about “kicking against the pricks” (Acts 9:5; Acts 26:14). In Hosea 10:11 (“Ephraim is as an heifer that is taught “), which may well have been in Jeremiah’s thoughts, we have a like comparison under a somewhat different aspect. The cry which is heard from the lips of the penitent, “Turn thou me . . . ,” is, as it were, echoed from Jeremiah 3:7; Jeremiah 3:12; Jeremiah 3:14, and is reproduced in Lamentations 5:21.

Verse 19

(19) After that I was turned.—The words have been referred by some commentators (Hitzig) to the previous turning away from God—the apostasy of Ephraim; but the repetition of the word that had been used in the previous verse makes it far more natural to connect it with the first movement of repentance. The “smiting upon the thigh” is, like the Publican’s “smiting on his breast” (Luke 18:13), an Eastern expression of extremest grief. So in Ezekiel 21:17 we have the “smiting of the hands together” as a symbol of anger, which is also sorrow. In Homer (Odyss. xiii. 193) we have the very gesture here depicted—

“And then he groaned, and smote on both his thighs

With headlong hands, and so in sorrow spoke.”

The reproach of my youth—i.e., the shame which the sins of his youth had brought upon him.

Verse 20

(20) Is Ephraim my dear son?—Literally, a child of delight—i.e., fondled and caressed.

Is he a pleasant child?—We have to ask whether an affirmative or negative answer is implied to these questions. On the former view, the words express the yearning of a father’s heart towards the son whom he still loves in spite of all his faults. Jehovah wonders, as it were, at his affection for one who has been so rebellious. On the latter, they give prominence to the faults as having deprived him of all claim to love, even though the father’s heart yearned towards the prodigal in pity. The former gives, beyond all doubt, the best meaning. In every word, whether of reproof or invitation, there was implied a loving remembrance.

For since I spake against him.—Better, As often as I speak to him. The preposition can hardly have the meaning of “against,” for which Jeremiah uses different words, and implies rather (as in the “communed with” of 1 Samuel 25:39; “When she shall be spoken for,” Song Song of Solomon 8:8)—speaking with a view to win. By some commentators (Ewald) the word for “speak” is rendered “smite,” but the ordinary rendering gives an adequate meaning. The original gives both for “earnestly remember” and “surely have mercy” the Hebrew idiom of reduplication—Remembering, I remember; pitying, I pity. The thought expressed is that Jehovah could not bring himself to utter the sentence of rejection. His love turned to the penitent who turned to Him. We have something like a foreshadowing of the love of the father of the prodigal in Luke 15:20.

Verse 21

(21) Set thee up way marks . . .—It will be noted that the figure is changed, and that instead of “Ephraim, the dear son,” we have Israel, the “back-sliding daughter.” The idea of the return of the exiles is still prominent, and she, as represented by the first group of those who came back, is called on to set up “heaps of stones,” after the manner of Eastern travellers, as waymarks for those who followed. (Comp. Ezekiel 39:15.) The way which she had trodden when she was led out into captivity was to be re-trodden in the fulness of joy on her return. She was to pass in her joy through the self-same cities that had then seen her in her shame.

Verse 22

Verse 23

(23) As yet they shall use this speech in the land of Judah . . .—Better, Once more, or yet again. The phrase is the same as in Jeremiah 31:5. The eye of the prophet turns from the northern kingdom to that of Judah, and sees it also as a sharer in the restoration. Jerusalem should be blest, and be worthy of blessing—once more a faithful city, a holy mountain, righteousness dwelling in it (Isaiah 1:21). The “holy mountain” is used with a special reference to Moriah and the Temple.

Verse 24

(24) Husbandmen, and they that go forth with flocks.—The prophet’s ideal of the restored life of Israel is that it should combine the best features of the patriarchal and the kingly life. A people pastoral, yet not nomadic—agricultural, yet sharing in the culture and safety of cities—this was the picture that rose up in Jeremiah’s thoughts, in sharp contrast to the facts that actually surrounded him in the shape of devastated fields and pastures, with no flocks and herds (Jeremiah 4:26-29).

Verse 25

(25) I have satiated the weary soul . . .—Here again we note an instance of an anticipation of the thought, almost of the very language, of the Gospel, “The hungry and the thirsty” shall be “filled” (Matthew 5:6), the weary shall be refreshed (Matthew 11:28-29).

Verse 26

(26) Upon this I awaked . . .—The words that follow have been very differently interpreted. By some writers (Rosenmüller) they have been referred to Jehovah under the figure of the husband who has dreamt of his wife’s return. Others (Ewald) have seen in them a quotation from some well-known psalm or hymn, like Psalms 17:15, indicating that in the golden days to which Jeremiah looked forward there should be freedom even from the evil and dark dreams of a time of peril, so that every man should be able to give thanks for the “sweet” gift of sleep (Psalms 127:2). It is, however, far more natural to take them as the prophet’s own words. The vision of a restored Israel, such as he paints it in the preceding verses, had come to him in his sleep. (See Jeremiah 23:28; Joel 2:28, as to this mode of revelation.) And when he woke up there was no sense of bitter disappointment like that of the dreamer described in Isaiah 29:8. The promise that came to him when he woke was as distinct and blessed as the dream had been. The “sweet sleep” has its parallel in Proverbs 3:24.

Verse 27

(27) I will sow the house of Israel . . .—The same image of a fertile and happy population appears in Hosea 2:23; Zechariah 10:9; Ezekiel 36:9-11. It will be noted that it embraces both Israel and Judah, which had once been rivals, each watching the increase of the other with jealousy and suspicion.

Verse 28

(28) Like as I have watched over them . . .—Some twenty-three years had passed since the prophet’s call to his office, but the words that called him to it are living still. The very symbolism of the “almond,” with the play upon its meaning, as the “wakeful” or “watching” tree (see Notes on Jeremiah 1:10-11), the very terms in which his two-fold work was painted, are present to his thoughts, yet are seen under a new and brighter aspect. Up to this time his task had been mainly that of a prophet of evil, “rooting out” and “pulling down.” Now he sees before him the happier work of “building up” and “planting.”

Verse 29-30

(29, 30) The fathers have eaten a sour grape . . .—The proverb was one which, as we find from Ezekiel 18:2-3, had at this time come into common use. Men found in it an explanation of their sufferings which relieved their consciences. They were suffering, they said, for the sins of their fathers, not for their own. They distorted the words which, as asserting the continuity of national life, were attached to the second Commandment (Exodus 20:5), and instead of finding in them a warning restraining them from evil by the fear of transmitting evil to another generation, they found in them a plea for their own recklessness. Both Ezekiel and Jeremiah felt that the time was come when, even at the risk of a seeming contradiction to words clothed with a Divine authority, the other aspect of God’s government had to be asserted in all its fulness: and therefore they lay stress on the truth that each man is responsible for his own acts, and for those alone, and that the law of the inheritance of evil (what we have learnt to call the law of hérédité) leaves untouched the freedom of man’s will. The “eater of the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge,” is, as it were, an emendation of the proverbial saying. The words of the Latin poet, “Delicta majorum immeritus lues,” “Thou, for no guilt of thine, shalt pay the forfeit of thy fathers’ sins” (Hor. Od. iii. 6, 1), show how ready men have been at all times to make a like excuse. How the two truths are to be reconciled, the law of hereditary tendencies, and punishments that fall not on the original offenders, but on their children, and the law of individual responsibility, is a question to which we can give no formal answer. We must be content to accept both laws, and rest in the belief that the Judge of all the earth will assuredly do right.

Verse 31

(31) I will make a new covenant . . .—Both in itself, and as the germ of the future of the spiritual history of mankind, the words are of immense significance. It was to this that the Lord Jesus directed the thoughts of His disciples, as the prophecy which, above all other prophecies, He had come to fulfil by the sacrifice of Himself. In that “New Covenant” in His blood, which He solemnly proclaimed at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:28), and which was commemorated whenever men met to partake of the Supper of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:25), there was latent the whole argument of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 8-10), the whole Gospel of justification by faith as proclaimed by St. Paul (Galatians 3:15-17). From it the Church took the title of the New Covenant, the New Testament, which it gave to the collected writings of the Apostolic age. This title in its turn gave the name of the Old Testament to the collected writings which recorded how “in sundry times and divers manners” God had spoken in time past to Israel.

The promise is too commonly dealt with as standing by itself, without reference to the sequence of thought in which we find it placed. That sequence, however, is not hard to trace. The common proverb about the sour grapes had set the prophet thinking on the laws of God’s dealings with men. He felt that something more was needed to restrain men from evil than the thought that they might be transmitting evil to their children’s children—something more even than the thought of direct personal responsibility, and of a perfectly righteous retribution. And that something was to be found in the idea of a law—not written on tablets of stone, not threatening and condemning from without, and denouncing punishment on the transgressors and their descendants, but written on heart and spirit (2 Corinthians 3:3-6). It is noticeable, as showing how like thoughts were working in the minds of the two prophets, that in Ezekiel also the promise of a “new heart and new spirit” comes in close sequence upon the protest against the adage about the “children’s teeth being set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:31). In the words for “saith the Lord” we have the more solemn word which carries with it the announcement as of an oracle from God.

Verses 31-34

The New Covenant

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: 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. But this is 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 in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: 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: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.—Jeremiah 31:31-34.

1. This is one of the greatest messages that the Old Testament contains. Were we to distinguish degrees of importance by difference of type, then these verses ought to be printed in the boldest lettering, so as to catch every eye. Here is a prophecy that foretells Christianity, that anticipates the New Testament. When the prophet delivers this oracle, he speaks as a Christian born long before the time. When we look on all that is best and most distinctive in the Christian faith, we are entitled to say, “This day is this Scripture fulfilled in our ears.” It was of these words our Lord was thinking when He instituted the sacrament of the Supper, and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” That New Covenant was neither more nor less than the New Covenant of which Jeremiah prophesied. And the whole Epistle to the Hebrews, which labours to show to half-converted Jews the vast superiority of Christianity to the religion of their fathers, may be called a sermon on this great text.

If we are to get at the heart of Jeremiahs meaning we had better change this word “covenant” into the word “religion,” and the full significance of the prophets startling teaching will begin to dawn upon us. That is a fair enough equivalent. The word “religion” does not occur in the Old Testament, but the word “covenant” is found some three hundred times; and when it is used to describe the relation of the people to God it really means religion. The core of the covenant is, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” but if you wanted to describe a true and living religion, could you come across better words than these to mark the relation to God in which it consists?1 [Note: A. Ramsay, Studies in Jeremiah, 263.]

2. The words were uttered at a time of national disaster. Jerusalem was captured by the Assyrians, and Jeremiah was taken prisoner to Ramah. During the time of his imprisonment he looked forward to the day when Israel should again be free. Before that could happen, however, he saw that a great change must come over the people. The Old Covenant had proved a failure, not by reason of its own defects, but by reason of the conception of it as an external and legal code, imposing its laws upon a people whose inward spiritual life it had long ceased to reflect. Now the glory of Jeremiah is that in that dark night his heart was filled with hope. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.” Religion is not to die, although the forms in which of old it found expression are antiquated and ready to perish. A better religion is to rise out of the ashes. He is the prophet of a new religion. He cannot mourn. He cannot sorrow and be in continual heaviness. If he sees Simeon in the Temple tottering and on the brink of the grave, he sees that he holds the infant Christ in his arms. The new and the better age is about to be; the light of the morning is on his face; it is the shadows of the night that flee away. Here indeed is an inspiring optimism. The political order changes; the ecclesiastical order changes; the theological order changes; and through all, not only does religion not die, but it passes forward to a nobler, worthier life; it becomes purer, more spiritual, more personal.

Archdeacon Boutflower, who was Bishop Westcotts domestic chaplain throughout his episcopate, refers as follows to his Diocesans hopefulness and faith in the future of Christianity:—“Parallel to that freshness of powers and interest which the Bishop brought to his last day of work, and still more wonderful, was the freshness of hope and sympathy which he carried to the end. This, no doubt, was cultivated in contemplation, but it was a singular grace of temperament to start with. In mind he never grew old. Occasionally he would say, I am too old for such things now; but it was not really true, and only half-serious. To most men there comes a time when they grow tired of readaptation and of looking forward. They speak of the past with a touch of regret, and the young feel that they are out of sympathy. There were no signs of this about our dear Bishop to the last. He was more hopeful than the youngest of us. He welcomed every new development, if only he was persuaded it was true development, and he waited for more. The Divine Spirit he believed in was a living Spirit, speaking and moving in the Church to-day, and he trusted every fresh age to add to the glory of Gods revelation. And he expected God still to send messages through Samuel to Eli. You must see visions, he said to one of his younger clergy—I despair of you if you dont. Visions belong to youth; when you are older you will only dream dreams.”1 [Note: Life and Letters of Brooke Foss Westcott, ii. 371.]


The Need of a New Covenant

1. There had been many covenants—all of them ineffectual. God is said to have made a covenant with Noah, when He promised that a judgment like the flood should not be repeated; and with Abraham, when He promised Canaan to his descendants for an everlasting possession, and imposed the condition of circumcision. But by the phrase, “the Old Covenant,” is meant especially the covenant which God made with Israel as a people on Mount Sinai. The writing called the “Book of the Covenant” comprised the Ten Commandments, and the body of laws which are recorded in the twenty-first and two following chapters of Exodus. These were the conditions imposed by God when He entered into covenant relations with Israel; and the solemn act by which this covenant was inaugurated is described in the twenty-fourth chapter of Exodus. Gathered at the base of the holy mountain, before an altar resting on twelve pillars, in honour of the twelve tribes, the people waited silent and awestruck, while twelve delegates (as yet there was no priesthood) offered such sacrifices as yet were possible, and while the lawgiver sprinkled the blood of the victims upon the assembled multitude. That ceremony had a latent meaning, unperceived at the time, which many centuries afterwards would be drawn out into the light under Apostolic direction; but the solemn character of the transaction was there and then profoundly felt. And at later periods of Israels history this covenant was again and again renewed; as by Joshua at Shechem, by King Asa at Jerusalem, by Jehoiada the priest in the Temple, and also by the priesthood and people under Hezekiah, and under the auspices of Ezra and Nehemiah in later days still, after the great Captivity. It was renewed because it was continually broken. It was a Divine work, and yet, through mans perverseness, it was a failure. Hence the words, “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 had played his part in establishing covenants between Israel and its God. He is not, indeed, even so much as mentioned in the account of Josiahs reformation; and it is not clear that he himself makes any express reference to it; so that some doubt must still be felt as to his share in that great movement. At the same time indirect evidence seems to afford proof of the common opinion that Jeremiah was active in the proceedings which resulted in the solemn engagement to observe the code of Deuteronomy. But yet another covenant occupies a chapter in the Book of Jeremiah, and in this case there is no doubt that the prophet was the prime mover in inducing the Jews to release their Hebrew slaves. This act of emancipation was adopted in obedience to an ordinance of Deuteronomy, so that Jeremiahs experience of former covenants was chiefly connected with the code of Deuteronomy and the older Book of the Covenant upon which it was based. The Restoration to which Jeremiah looked forward was to throw the Exodus into the shade, and to constitute a new epoch in the history of Israel more remarkable than the first settlement in Canaan. The nation was to be founded anew, and its regeneration would necessarily rest upon a New Covenant, which would supersede the Covenant of Sinai.1 [Note: W. H. Bennett.]

Oliver, we find, spoke much of “the Covenants”; which indeed are the grand axis of all, in that Puritan Universe of his. Two Covenants; one of Works, with fearful Judgment for our shortcomings therein; one of Grace and unspeakable mercy;—gracious Engagements, “Covenants,” which the Eternal God has vouchsafed to make with His feeble creature, man. Two; and by Christs Death they have become One: there for Oliver is the divine solution of this our Mystery of Life. “They were Two,” he was heard ejaculating: “Two, but put into One before the Foundation of the World!” And again: “It is holy and true, it is holy and true, it is holy and true!—Who made it holy and true? The Mediator of the Covenant!” And again: “The Covenant is but One. Faith in the Covenant is my only support. And if I believe not, He abides faithful!” When his Children and Wife stood weeping round him, he said: “Love not this world. I say unto you, it is not good that you should love this world!” No. Children, live like Christians:—I leave you the Covenant to feed upon!”1 [Note: Carlyle, Oliver Cromwells Letters and Speeches, v. 151.]

2. The Old Covenant had thus become, for practical purposes, an outworn safeguard. Israel in her successive generations had utterly failed to perform her part, and so had made it impossible for God to do what He had promised; until at length He loathed the people with whom He was in covenant, and rejected them, and cast them forth out of their land. What if all this should happen over again in the history of our children as it happened in the days of our fathers? Was such a result not all too likely? Such doubting thoughts were most natural to one in Jeremiahs position, and they constituted, we may be sure, one of his direst spiritual trials. But faiths trials are but the precursors of new triumphs. Job despairs of relief in the present life, and his very despair causes faith to reach out beyond the tomb in search of the deliverance which, in spite of all present appearances, it believes will surely come. Even so Jeremiah, justly despairing of permanent prosperity for Israel on the basis of the Old Covenant, by a sublime act of Heaven—inspired faith—dares to predict the advent of a time when the old discredited and bankrupt constitution or covenant shall be superseded by a new one furnished with conditions that shall insure it against failure.

There follows the beautiful passage [in The Ancient Sage] in which the hopeful and wistful upward gaze of faith is described. While melancholy and perplexity constantly attend on the exercises of the speculative intellect, we are to “cling to faith”:

She reels not in the storm of warring words,

She brightens at the clash of “Yes” and “No,”

She sees the Best that glimmers thro the Worst,

She feels the Sun is hid but for a night,

She spies the summer thro the winter bud,

She tastes the fruit before the blossom falls,

She hears the lark within the songless egg,

She finds the fountain where they waild “Mirage”!

These lines present to the reader the hopefulness of the spiritual mind, hopefulness not akin to the merely sanguine temperament, but based on a deep conviction of the reality of the spiritual world, and on unfailing certainty that there is in it a key to the perplexities of this universe of which we men understand so little. We know from experience that material Nature is working out her ends, however little we understand the process, and however unpromising portions of her work might appear without this knowledge. That an acorn should have within it forces which compel earth, air, and water to come to its assistance and become the oak tree would seem incredible were it not so habitually known as a fact; and the certainty which such experiences give in the material order, the eye of faith gives in the spiritual order. However perplexing the universe now seems to us, we have this deep trust that there is an explanation, and that when we are in a position to judge the whole, instead of looking on from this corner of time and space, the truth of the spiritual interpretation of its phenomena will be clear—“ut iustificeris in sermonibus tuis et vincas cum iudicaris.” This view runs through all the poem. The poet pleads for steadfast trust and hope in the face of difficulty, as we would trust a known and intimate friend in the face of ominous suspicions.1 [Note: Wilfrid Ward, in Tennyson and his Friends, 236.]

And is the Great Cause lost beyond recall?

Have all the hopes of ages come to nought?

Is Life no more with noble meaning fraught?

Is Life but Death, and Love its funeral pall?

Maybe. But still on bended knees I fall,

Filled with a faith no preacher ever taught.

O God—my God, by no false prophet wrought,

I believe still, in despite of it all!

Let go the myths and creeds of groping men.

This clay knows nought—the Potter understands.

I own that Power divine beyond my ken,

And still can leave me in His shaping hands.

But, O my God, that madest me to feel!

Forgive the anguish of the turning wheel.2 [Note: Ada Cambridge, The Hand in the Dark, 121.]


The Content of the New Covenant

The New Covenant has three notes—Spirituality, Universality, and Finality. The formula of the Old Covenant was, “Thou shalt not.” These great words, like a flash of lightning, discovered to man what lies in the depth of his own being—moral obligation along with a sense of utter impotence to meet it, darkness and despair as of chaos returning. The formula of the New Covenant is, “I will”; still greater words, which discover the heights above, as it were the body of heaven in its clearness, unruffled serenity and easy self-achievement of the grace of God. It would not be possible to represent what is characteristic in each dispensation more vividly than by these contrasted formulas. On the one side is a vain effort to attain, a strife between the law of the mind and the law of the members, a sense of hopeless duality that carries unrest—noble, if you will, but not less fatal—to the centre of mans being. On the other side is the rest of faith, a great reserve of spiritual power, the reconciliation of Divine ideals with the practice of human lives achieved by grace. Moral obligation persists under the gospel, but only as it is resolved into the higher freedom of the new life. As Pascal says, “The law demands what it cannot give; grace gives all it demands.”

The fireguard serves a very necessary and beneficent purpose, but its real and ultimate worth lies in educating the child to do without it. So with the Mosaic law. It served its highest ends when it disciplined the soul to independence of it. The difference, therefore, between the Old Covenant and the New was not that one was ancient and the other modern; the mere “newness” was the least important thing about it. It was the difference between law and religion, between the letter of the one and the spirit of the other, between body and soul, between outward form and inward essence. The Old Covenant was imposed by an authority from without, whilst the New was established by an authority from within. One was graven on stone, and needed to be enforced by pains and penalties; the other was to be written in the heart as the glad, spontaneous expression of a free spirit.

1. The New Covenant will be spiritual.—The Old Covenant was formal, working from without inward, telling men what to do. This must come first. Childhood, of the race as of the individual, must begin life under rules. But the aim of the Law was to make itself superseded, by opening the way to a religious force which should work from within outward. A religion of forms, like an educational system, can never be closely personal. It cannot keep adjusting itself to the individual. It is machine work, not hand work. It fits only the average, and misfits everybody else. Gods work is with the inner heart of each human being, where dwells his truest individuality, his real life. When this is gained, the whole is won. From it flow the upright conduct, the gentle manners, the broad benisons of regenerated society. Society is not a machine to which we may bring raw characters to make them virtuous, but the effluence and product of what individual characters bring to it. Nor will religion, or a church, or any clever society or institution within the church, turn out a new generation of new souls by its most perfect adjustments. The best of them is but a path, a hand, to bring men to God, an avenue by which God comes to them. Spirit with spirit is the method of salvation.

One cannot read the words, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts,” without thinking of the tables of stone which occupy so prominent a place in the history of the Sinaitic covenant. And the writing on the heart suggests very forcibly the defects of the ancient covenant, in so far as it had the fundamental laws of life written on stone. Writing on stone may be very durable. The slabs on which the Ten Words are inscribed may abide as a lasting monument, proclaiming what God requires of man, saying to successive generations: Remember to do this and to avoid doing that. But while the stone slabs may avail to keep men in mind of their duty, they are utterly impotent to dispose them to perform it; in witness whereof we need only refer to Israels behaviour at the foot of the mount of lawgiving. At the very time the tables were being prepared, they danced around their golden calf; at the very moment Moses was descending with the two tables in his hand, with the Ten Words written on them, the first of which said, “Thou shalt have none other God before me,” they had chosen another God; insomuch that the legislator in disgust dashed the tables to pieces, as if to say, What is the use of making laws for such a people? Manifestly the writing on the heart is sorely wanted in order that the law may be kept, not merely in the ark, but in human conduct. And that, accordingly, is what Jeremiah puts in the forefront in his account of the New Covenant, on which restored Israel is to be constituted. How the mystic writing is to be achieved he does not say, perhaps he does not know; but he believes that God can and will achieve it somehow; and he understands full well its aim and its certain result in a holy life.

You may adjust your social relationships according to the most democratic principle; you may define, in terms of economic science, the relations of Capital and Labour; you may abolish slums and build garden cities; but until there is drawn up and ratified between God and man, and between man and man, a new covenant of the spirit, your scheme for a new heaven and a new earth will never be realized. It is here that religion is indispensable, for no covenant will endure which ignores the spiritual nature of man. It is here that the voice of Jesus Christ may be heard, saying to capitalist and to workmen, “Apart from me ye can do nothing.” It is here that the voice of the Redeemer may be heard saying to His Church, as He recalls it to a deeper appreciation of its character and mission: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; this do … in remembrance of me.” This, surely, is our supreme business as Christians, to make this new covenant of the Spirit possible, by writing it on our own hearts, and afterwards to write it on the life and soul of our day.

Till earth becomes a temple,

And every human heart

Shall join in one great service,

Each happy in his part.

And God shall be our Master,

And all His service own,

And men shall be as brothers,

And heaven on earth be won.1 [Note: E. J. Barson.]

2. Under the New Covenant knowledge of God will become universal.—In ancient Israel as now, men learned what they could about God from human teachers. But the truths which they learned, though inculcated with great industry, were, in the great majority of cases, not really mastered, because there was no accompanying process of interpretation and adjustment within the soul. It was to be otherwise in the future. “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.” In the New Covenant the Divine Teacher, without dispensing with such human instruments as were wanted, would do the most important part of His work Himself. He would make truth plain to the soul, and would enamour the soul of truth by such instruction as is beyond the reach of human argument and language, since it belongs to the world of spirit. “Ye have an unction from the Holy One,” said St. John to his readers, “and ye know all things.” “Listen not,” says St. Augustine, “too eagerly to the outward words: the Master is within.”

No polemic against the priesthood is intended here. The prophet does not mean, with a stroke of his pen, to abolish an ancient Order to which he himself belongs. A much profounder idea underlies his words. He will have us distinguish between that knowledge of God which is esoteric and technical, the possession of a class, and that which is the instinct of every renewed nature, i.e., between the ceremonial and the moral in religion. We shall never be in a position to claim independence of each other in our spiritual experience. It is “with all saints,” i.e., in the communion of the Catholic Church, that we come to know the love which passes knowledge. Moral sense must be trained; even conscience must be educated. But the education of conscience is one thing, and the imposition of creed or code is quite another. The one develops that individuality which the other tends to repress. The latter is excluded here. When he says, “They shall all know me,” it is probable that the prophet does not consciously overlook the limits of his age. By “all men” he means all Jews. But the relative Universalism he asserts prepared for the absolute Universalism which is characteristic of the gospel age. Christianity is aggressive and world-subduing, because it is the religion not of the letter but of the spirit. English customs and ideals can hardly cross the Channel. They can no more take root in Eastern lands than the Mosaic Law could domesticate itself in the West. But the law of Truth is nowhere from home; the thirst for God is part of the heritage of the race; and it is to these that the gospel makes its appeal. As a revelation of God to the soul of man, Christianity is the absolute Truth, the universal Faith.

The clearest mark of the new order of things, says Jeremiah, is that religion shall henceforth be taken at first hand. Jesus said, “Have salt in yourselves”; do not be dependent for what keeps life strong and wholesome on influences outside of you. The religion that is worth anything is not what is told you but what you know of yourself. This does not mean that there is no room for teaching. Pauls understanding of what is contained in Jesus Christ is rich and subtle, for Paul had a sure insight and a burning love. But if we know only what Paul says, and have no answering knowledge in ourselves, even Paul will help us little. A man may be a heretic in the truth, as Milton says; and “if he believes only because his pastor says so, or because the assembly so determines, without knowing other reasons, though his belief be true, yet the very truth he holds becomes his heresy.” It was proclaimed by Joel that God would one day pour out of His Spirit upon all flesh, even upon the servants and the handmaids; for it is Gods intention in the covenant that nothing in station or in lack of education or opportunity should hinder any man from knowing God for himself. The motto of all our faith is, “With open face.”

It must be possible for men to know more of God, because the knowledge of God by man involves two elements, the known and the knower, God and man; and however perfectly God may have revealed Himself, man is but half developed and has only half possession of his knowing powers. The faith has been “once delivered to the saints,” as Canaan was given to the Israelites. To “go in and possess the land” is still the duty of the Christian Israel. Who shall say how far it has been occupied in all these Christian centuries? We may be yet only at Jericho and Ai. Some most adventurous and earnest tribes may have pushed on to Bethel. Some very determined and aspiring souls may have climbed to the mountain-tops and even caught sight of the flashing sea which bounds the Promised Land upon the western side. However we may estimate the progress of the past, there still remains “very much land to be possessed.” Surely the strongest way to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints is to go forward reverently till the saints shall perfectly possess the land and know all that it is possible for them to know of God and of His Book and of His ways.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Essays and Addresses, 226.]

3. The New Covenant will be permanent and final.—“For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.” Under the Old Covenant, the provisions for the cancelling of sin were very unsatisfactory, and utterly unfit to perfect the worshipper as to conscience, by dealing thoroughly with the problem of guilt—of which no better evidence could be desired than the institution of the great day of atonement, in which a remembrance of sin was made once a year, and by which nothing more than an annual and putative forgiveness was procured; under the New, on the contrary, God would grant to His people a real, absolute, and perennial forgiveness, so that the abiding relation between Him and them should be as if sin had never existed.

The trouble in every religious system that fails is that it does not bring men close enough to what God really is, and there is no regenerating virtue in bowing before a formless mystery. There must be revelation, and the revelation of a heart. Jeremiah, feeling after things to come, says, It must be God who is to bridge this gulf, and He will do so by showing what He is. The new order is to be inaugurated by a great act of forgiveness, in which all the heart of God will appear. In some public way He will treat as His friends the men who have refused Him, putting them all in His debt. Nothing short of that, as the prophet believed, will get at the obdurate hearts of men; but at the touch of an unmerited forgiveness, gratitude will spring up within them, and love—the power by which men know God and the constraint under which they are drawn willingly to obey Him. Forgiveness brings to erring men new conceptions of what their God is like—a God who does not deal with His creatures on terms of strict, legal precision, but who pardons at His own cost, and gives them what they have not worked for. And the very sight of such a God is a real new birth, clearing and deepening all the faculties, and making obedience easy.

Jeremiah hails here the coming of the religion of redemption. He dwells on what is the crowning glory of our faith. For what is it that is central in the New Testament? It is the cross of Jesus Christ. And why does that stand in the midst? It is because we have here the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. That death of the Son of God in our room and stead is the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for our sins. That indeed was only dimly and confusedly prefigured in the animal sacrifices of old. One is more struck with the difference than with the resemblance. A lamb led to the altar, unwillingly and unconsciously, is no adequate type of the Lamb of God offering Himself for us, taking upon Him our guilt, standing beneath the condemnation of our sins, and magnifying the justice of God in bowing His head beneath our sentence. The real precursors of Him who suffered on Calvary are to be found in those who gave themselves for their fellows, whose sacrifices did something to draw men nearer to God, and by whose stripes some of mankinds sorrows were healed. All stories, red with the blood of real life, that tell of the innocent suffering for the guilty, are a clearer foreshadowing of the old, old story of Jesus and His love than all animal sacrifices. The old religion had a temple in which sacrifices never ceased, but none of these atoned for sin with God. Christianity centres in the supreme self-sacrifice of the cross, by which we have been redeemed. “We have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” This great blessing of pardon becomes ours because Christ has died for us. The gospel can dwell on the forgiveness of sins. It vindicates and fulfils the great promise, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.”

For the most part, we are, as it were, ready rather to steal forgiveness from God than to receive from him as one that gives it freely and largely. We take it up and lay it down as though we would be glad to have it, so God did not, as it were, see us take it; for we are afraid he is not willing we should have it indeed. We would steal this fire from heaven, and have a share in Gods treasures and riches almost without his consent: at least, we think that we have it from him “ægrè,” with much difficulty; that it is rarely given, and scarcely obtained; that he gives it out ἐκὼν ἀέκοντί γε θύμῳ, with a kind of unwilling willingness—as we sometimes give alms without cheerfulness; and that he loseth so much by us as he giveth out in pardon. We are apt to think that we are very willing to have forgiveness, but that God is unwilling to bestow it, and that because he seems to be a loser by it, and to forego the glory of inflicting punishment for our sins; which of all things we suppose he is most loath to part withal. And this is the very nature of unbelief … Reasons line is too short to fathom the depth of the Fathers love, of the blood of the Son, and the promises of the gospel built thereon, wherein forgiveness dwells.1 [Note: John Owen, An Exposition upon Psalms 130.]

Contrite to God I came in sore distress,

“I know,” I cried, “that twas but yester-eve

This self-same fault I asked Thee to forgive,

And promised to renounce all sinfulness.

Yet I would even ask again Thy grace,

Save that I fear Ive drained forgiveness dry

And reached Thy mercys utmost boundary!”

Then spake Gods mighty Voice, and filled the place:

“With thy poor human tape, child, dost thou think

To measure My vast mercys outer bound?

With thy short plummet at Forgiveness brink,

Dost think that thou canst test its depth of ground?

Drop in thy weightiest sin, and bid it sink,

To strike the bottom—there comes back no sound.”

The New Covenant


Bennett (W. H.), The Book of Jeremiah (Expositors Bible), 346.

Gillies (J. R.), Jeremiah: The Man and his Message, 247.

Hort (F. J. A.), Village Sermons in Outline, 68.

Liddon (H. P.), Christmastide in St. Pauls, 38.

Macgregor (W. M.), Jesus Christ the Son of God, 27.

Masterman (J. H. B.), The Challenge of Christ, 52.

Ramsay (A.), Studies in Jeremiah, 261.

Smellie (A.), In the Secret Place, 5.

Southgate (C. M.), in Sermons by the Monday Club, 17th Ser., 60.

Spurgeon (C. H.), New Park Street Pulpit, ii. (1856), No. 93; Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxviii. (1882), No. 1687.

Christian World Pulpit, xvi. 369 (H. P. Liddon); lxxx. 269 (E. J. Barson); lxxxiv. 387 (N. H. Marshall).

Expositor, 1st Ser., xi. 65 (A. B. Bruce).

Verse 32

(32) Not according to the covenant . . .—Our familiarity with the words hinders us, for the most part, from recognising what must have seemed their exceeding boldness. That the Covenant with Israel, given with all conceivable sanctions as coming directly from Jehovah (Exodus 24:7-8), should thus be set aside, as man repeals an earthly law;—the man who could say this without trembling must indeed have been confident that he too was taught of God, and that the new teaching was higher than the old.

Although I was an husband unto them.—The words declare the ground on which Jehovah might well have looked for the allegiance of Israel. (See Notes on Jeremiah 2:2; Jeremiah 3:20.)

Verse 33

(33) This shall be the covenant . . .—The prophet felt that nothing less than this would meet the wants of the time, or, indeed, of any time. The experiment, so to speak, of a law requiring righteousness had been tried and had failed. There remained the hope—now, by the Divine word that came to him, turned into an assurance—of a Power imparting righteousness, writing the “law in the inward parts,” the centre of consciousness and will, in which God required truth (Psalms 2:6), in the heart as the region at once of thoughts and of affections. In 2 Corinthians 3:3-6 we have a manifest reference not only to the idea, but to the very words of Jeremiah’s prophecy.

Verse 34

(34) They shall teach no more every man his neighbour . . .—We trace in that hope for the future the profound sense of failure which oppressed the mind of the prophet, as it has oppressed the minds of many true teachers since. What good had come of all the machinery of ritual and of teaching which the Law of Israel had provided so abundantly? Those repeated exhortations on the part of preachers and prophets that men should “know the Lord,” what did they present but the dreary monotony as of an “old worm-eaten homily”? To know Him, as indeed He is, required nothing less than a special revelation of His presence to each man’s heart and spirit, and that revelation was now, for his comfort, promised for all who were willing to receive it as the special gift of the near or distant future which opened to his view in his vision of a restored Israel. Here also the words of Jeremiah echo those of an older prophet (Isaiah 54:13), and find their fulfilment in those of Christ (John 6:45).

I will forgive their iniquity . . .—The second clause repeats the promise of the first, in a form which is, perhaps, from the necessity of the case, after the manner of men. Our thoughts of God as the All knowing preclude the idea of any limitation of His knowledge, such as the words “I will remember no more” imply. What is meant is that He will be to him who repents and knows Him as indeed He is, in His essential righteousness and love, as men are to men when they “forget and forgive.” He will treat the past offences, even though their inevitable consequences may continue, as though they had never been, so far as they affect the communion of the soul with God. He will, in the language of another prophet, “blot out” the sins which yet belong to the indelible and irrevocable past (Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22).

Verse 35-36

(35, 36) Which giveth the sun for a light by day . . .—The leading thought in the lofty language of this passage is that the reign of law which we recognise in God’s creative work has its counterpart in His spiritual kingdom. The stability and permanence of natural order is a pledge and earnest of the fulfilment of His promises to Israel as a people. The new Covenant of pardon and illumination is to be, what the first Covenant was not, eternal in its duration. We have learnt, through the teaching of St. Paul, while not excluding Israel according to the flesh from its share in that fulfilment, to extend its range to the children of the faith of Abraham, the true Israel of God (Romans 2:28-29; Romans 4:11-12).

Verse 37

(37) If heaven above can be measured . . .—The thought of the preceding verse is reproduced with a slight modification of meaning. Over and above the idea, as stated above, that the stability of nature is a parable of the steadfastness of God’s laws and purposes in the spiritual world, there is implied a feeling, like that of Romans 11:33, that man’s finite intellect cannot fathom His modes of working out that purpose any more than it can measure what to the prophet’s mind were the illimitable heaven and the unfathomable earth.

Verse 38

(38) From the tower of Hananeel unto the gate of the corner.—There seems to us something almost like an anti-climax in this sudden transition from the loftiest Gospel promises to the obscure localities of the ancient Jerusalem. With Jeremiah, however, as before with Isaiah (Isaiah 65:17-25), and on a much larger scale with Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40-48), this was the natural outgrowth of the vividness with which the restored city came before his mental vision. He saw a goodly city rise as from the ruins of the old, truly and not in name only consecrated to Jehovah, and describes, as best he can, how it differed from them. The tower of Hananeel appears from Nehemiah 3:1; Nehemiah 12:39, to have been identical, or connected, with the tower of Meah, and to have been between the fish-gate and the sheep-gate, at the north-east corner of the city walls. It is named again, as one of the conspicuous landmarks of the city, in Zechariah 14:10. The “corner-gate” at the north-west corner, and near the present Jaffa-gate, appears in 2 Kings 14:13; 2 Chronicles 26:9; Zechariah 14:10; Nehemiah 3:24; Nehemiah 3:32. The wall in this quarter had apparently been battered during the siege of Jerusalem, and the prophet naturally sees the rebuilding of the wall as among the first-fruits of the restoration.

Verse 39

(39) The hill Gareb . . .—Neither of the two localities named is mentioned elsewhere, and their position is accordingly simply matter for conjecture. The name of the first, as signifying “the leper’s hill” (the term being one that includes leprosy as well as other skin-diseases, Leviticus 21:20; Leviticus 22:22), indicates probably a position outside the walls assigned as a dwelling to persons suffering from that disease, corresponding, as some think, with the hill on the north side of Jerusalem which Josephus describes as Bezetha (Wars, v. 4, § 2). Others, however, assign its position to the south-west corner of the walls. The name Gareb appears in 2 Samuel 23:38 as belonging to one of David’s thirty heroes, but there is nothing to connect him with the locality. Goath is a word of doubtful etymology. Some scholars (Hitzig) interpret it as “high-towering,” and refer it to the height overlooking Kidron, afterwards surmounted by the tower Antonia. The Targum, however, paraphrases it as “the pool of the heifers,” and connects the name with the verb for the lowing of that animal. By some writers it has been identified with Golgotha, but both topography and etymology are against this view.

Verse 40

(40) The whole valley of the dead bodies . . .—We have to think of this city as Jeremiah saw it during the horrors of the siege—the lower part, the “plain” or “valley” of the city, the valley of Hinnom (comp. Jeremiah 19:11), filled with corpses lying unburied in the streets (Lamentations 2:21; Lamentations 4:9), the “ashes” of burnt and shattered houses encumbering the streets with their débris, the fields or open spaces that stretched to the Kidron valley, and the “horse-gate” by the king’s palace (2 Kings 11:16; 2 Chronicles 23:15; Nehemiah 3:28)—all this now lay before him as a scene of unspeakable desolation; but in his vision of the restored city he sees it all cleansed from whatever was defiling, consecrated to Jehovah, and holy as the precincts of the Temple. It is, perhaps, not without significance in connection with this passage, that when the city was restored, the region above the “horse-gate” was repaired by the priests, who seem to have had their houses in that quarter (Nehemiah 3:28-29). They appear to have been anxious to restore the sanctity of that over which Jeremiah had lamented as desecrated and defiled. The word for “ashes” was a technical one (Leviticus 6:10-11) for the refuse which remained on the altar after a burnt-offering, and which was to be carried without the camp (Leviticus 4:12; Leviticus 6:11). Probably this and the sweepings of the Temple were thrown into the valley of Hinnom.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Jeremiah 31:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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