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Wednesday, July 24th, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Jeremiah 31

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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 thitheri.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 youthi.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 delighti.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

(22) How long wilt thou go about . . .?—The word describes the restless pacing to and fro of impatient, unsatisfied desire. The backsliding daughter—i.e., the adulterous yet now penitent wife—is described, like Gomer in the parable or history of Hosea 2:7, as hesitating between her lovers and her husband.

A woman shall compass a man.—The verse is obscure, and has received very different interpretations. It will be well to begin our inquiry with the meaning which the translators attached to it. On this point the following quotation from Shakespeare is decisive :—

“If I can check my erring love, I will;
If not, to compass her I’ll use my skill.”

Two Gentlemen of Verona, ii. 4.

To “compass” is to woo and win. And this gives, it is believed, the true meaning. The Hebrew verb (which presents a striking assonance with the word for “backsliding”) means literally “to go round about,” and this (as in Psalms 26:6; Psalms 32:7; Psalms 32:10) as an act of reverential tenderness and love. In the normal order of man’s life, the bridegroom woos the bride. In the spiritual relationship which the prophet has in view, this shall be inverted, and Israel, the erring but repentant wife, shall woo her Divine husband. The history of Gomer in Hosea 2:14-20 again presents a striking parallel. A like inversion of the normal order is indicated, though with a different meaning, in Isaiah 4:1, where the seven women might be said to “compass” the one man. It may be noticed that the words used express the contrast of the two sexes in the strongest possible form. A female shall compass (i.e., woo) a male, possibly as emphasising the fact that what the prophet describes was an exception to the normal order, not of human society only, but of the whole animal society. By some interpreters (Ewald) the words are rendered “a woman shall be turned into a man;” meaning that the weak shall be made strong, as a kind of contrast to the opposite kind of transformation in Jeremiah 30:6; but this gives a far less satisfactory meaning, and the same may be said of such translations as “the woman shall protect the man,” and “a woman shall put a man to flight.” The notion that the words can in even the remotest degree be connected with the mystery of the Incarnation belongs to the region of dreams, and not of realities; and, lacking as it does the support of even any allusive reference to it in the New Testament, can only be regarded, in spite of the authority of the many Fathers and divines who have adopted it, as the outgrowth of a devout but uncritical imagination. The word used for “woman,” indeed, absolutely excludes the idea of the virgin-birth.

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.”

Verses 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.

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).

Verses 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.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Jeremiah 31". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/jeremiah-31.html. 1905.
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