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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jeremiah 31

 

 

Verses 2-6

As They Were Of Old Delivered From Egypt, So Israel Are Now Again To Be Redeemed And Delivered, So That They Might Find Rest Because Of YHWH’s Love For Them (Jeremiah 31:2-6).

The reference back to the old deliverance from Egypt confirms that we are to see in what follows a reference to the whole of Israel. While at certain points Jeremiah will especially be emphasising the people of the northern kingdom, that is because he wishes to emphasise that they are included in YHWH’s saving activity. It might otherwise have been thought that they were excluded. But as with Isaiah Jeremiah sees the two nations as one. Both are seen as returning (Jeremiah 31:1; Jeremiah 31:27). Indeed, Israel will so much be one with Judah that they will once more seek to Zion (Jeremiah 31:12).

Jeremiah 31:2

‘Thus says YHWH,’

As usual this phrase opens up a new passage. YHWH speaks, and what He says comes about.

Jeremiah 31:2

“The people who were left from the sword,

Found favour in the wilderness,

Even Israel,

When I went to cause him to rest.”

As in Jeremiah 2:1-6 current Israel are paralleled with the Israel that came out of Egypt. Those who were left from the sword (i.e. had escaped from the swords of Pharaoh’s advancing troops) had found favour in the wilderness’ ‘Found favour’ is a typical Exodus phrase relating to YHWH being with His people (see Exodus 33:16), and the tenses of the verbs employed also support the idea. In Jeremiah 31:2-3 perfects are used, whilst in Jeremiah 31:4 we have the imperfect, ‘again I will build you’. The use of the phrase ‘in the wilderness’ (compare Jeremiah 2:2; Hosea 13:4-5) further supports a reference to the Exodus.

The reference to ‘escaping from the sword’ was deliberately in order to make the parallel with the Babylonian and Assyrian exiles. These exiles were truly those who had escaped from the sword which had devoured their fellow-countrymen. And these exiles too are often portrayed as returning through the wilderness (e.g. Isaiah 43:19-21; Isaiah 48:21). The aim in both cases was to ‘give them rest’ or ‘cause them to settle’. This is the opposite of Deuteronomy 28:65 where they would ‘find no rest’, and indicates a reversing of the curse. So they too will be delivered as Israel had been of old. It is probable therefore that at this stage ‘Israel’ is intended to include all the tribes as it did in the wilderness.

Jeremiah 31:3

YHWH appeared to me of old (or ‘from afar’),

saying, Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love,

Therefore with covenant love have I drawn you.”

The ‘me’ here is Israel. YHWH had appeared to them at Sinai and declared His covenant love, a love which is now revealed as an ‘everlasting love’, a never failing love. But it is apparent immediately that it is not a love which overlooks sin (His chastening would still go ahead). It is a love which perseveres and expects them to truly repent and respond to Him as He draws them to Himself in accordance with that covenant (something to be exemplified in Jeremiah 31:31 ff.). For in the end that love will finally be revealed in those who truly believe.

Alternately we may translate ‘from afar’, with the idea that He has heard from Heaven and has arrived in His covenant love in order to act on Israel’s behalf.

Jeremiah 31:4

“Again will I build you, and you will be built,

O virgin of Israel,

Again you will be adorned with your tabrets,

And will go forth in the dances of those who make merry.”

As a result of His redeeming and saving work they will again (as they were of old) be ‘built up’ (a constant Jeremaic theme, Jeremiah 12:16; Jeremiah 18:9; Jeremiah 24:6; and often later. The repetition emphasises the soundness of the work). And they will again (as they used to do in better days) wear their musical instruments, and will go forth dancing as those who ‘make merry’ (compare Jeremiah 30:19; Jeremiah 31:13). This light-hearted joy would be a feature of the deliverance. The ‘tabret’ was an ancient kind of tambourine made up of a metal ring containing bells.

Note the reference to Israel/Judah as the ‘virgin of Israel’ (compare Jeremiah 2:32; Jeremiah 14:17; Jeremiah 18:13; Jeremiah 31:21). The idea is of her restoration to her original purity, no longer a spiritual adulterer but a seeker after YHWH.

Jeremiah 31:5

“Again you will plant vineyards,

On the mountains of Samaria,

The planters will plant,

And will enjoy (what is produced).

That the deliverance of the exiles from the northern kingdom is very much in mind (although not to the exclusion of Judah) comes out here in the reference to Samaria. They will ‘again’ plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria (those once ruled from Samaria), they will plant and subsequently enjoy their fruit because they will be under YHWH’s protection once again. This enjoyment of fruit is more significant than at first appears for the fruit of the vineyard could not be eaten until the fifth year (Leviticus 19:23-24). Thus it is an indication of permanence. ‘The mountains of Samaria’ are once again, therefore, to be a part of Israel/Judah.

Jeremiah 31:6

“For there will be a day,

On which the watchmen on the hills of Ephraim will cry,

‘Arise you, and let us go up to Zion,

To YHWH our God’.”

But this new Israel will be one which is again united with Judah, for the cry of the watchmen on the hills of Ephraim (probably a parallel phrase to ‘the mountains of Samaria) will be, ‘Arise you, and let us go up to Zion, to YHWH our God’.” They will again join in the regular religious feasts at the Temple at one with Judah. The schism would have been healed. (Thus Judah will also be back there and the Temple will have been rebuilt). Their hearts will all be set on YHWH.

There is a reference here to the special watchmen in Israel who observed the phases of the moon so that they might know the timing of the feasts of YHWH, both the day of the new moon (which commenced the ‘month’ - the moon period) and the day of the full moon which commenced the seven day feasts. It also determined the date of the Passover. It was thus ‘the watchmen’ who called the people to the feasts.


Verses 7-14

YHWH Will Lead The Remnant Of Israel Back From Exile As A Father Does His Children And On The Height Of Zion They Will Rejoice In The Resulting Glorious Provision Of YHWH (Jeremiah 31:7-14).

In striking contrast to the present state of the exiles we now have a glorious picture of restoration, but one that is then immediately and deliberately set in contrast to a flashback to the weeping figure of Rachel weeping over the condition of her children (Jeremiah 31:15). This is a reminder of the pattern found in Jeremiah 30:5-11 and Jeremiah 30:12-17. Deliverance may be coming, but it is to be remembered that it is out of the deserved misery of the present. Nor must the fact be overlooked that they must return with responsive weeping because they are repentant over their sins (Jeremiah 31:9), and this even though it will later be followed by a call to ‘weep no more’ (Jeremiah 31:16 ff.). Deliverance was not to be on easy terms. It was clearly considered important that it be recognised that their deliverance would arise from despair and weeping, and must be accompanied by repentance and weeping. They are not being rewarded for good behaviour, but are being, as it were, lifted out of the pit which they have deliberately dug for themselves and into which they have fallen. They must therefore respond accordingly. When God delivers and ‘brings salvation’ it always results in repentant hearts and changed lives. His righteousness is both imputed and imparted (Isaiah 61:10). On the other hand that must not take away from the glory of that deliverance which is the result of God’s sovereign love (Jeremiah 31:3).

Jeremiah 31:7

‘For thus says YHWH,’

Once again YHWH has spoken and it will therefore come about.

Jeremiah 31:7

“Sing with gladness for Jacob,

And shout for the chief (head) of the nations,

Publish you, praise you, and say, ‘O YHWH,

Save your people, the remnant of Israel’.”

This call may be seen as addressed to those who had said, ‘Zion for whom no one cares’ (Jeremiah 30:17). Or simply as addressed to the nations more generally (compare Jeremiah 31:10). Or as addressed to the ‘remnant of Israel’. Whichever way it is they are called on to sing with gladness for Jacob (Judah/Israel), and to shout with triumph on behalf of ‘the chief of the nations’, a title applied to Israel in Amos 6:1, but equally applicable to Judah. The idea was based on such verses as Exodus 19:5; Leviticus 20:24; Leviticus 20:26; Deuteronomy 7:6; Deuteronomy 26:19. Note the acknowledgement that once again Israel and Zion are the chosen of YHWH. Thus these ‘singers and callers’ are to publish abroad their desire for YHWH to save His people, and are to praise YHWH concerning it. Their cry is to be, ‘O YHWH, save your people, the remnant of Israel’. It underlines the fact that now someone does care about Zion. If we see it as spoken to the Gentile nations ( for which there is a good argument on the basis that it does counter the fact of ‘Zion for whom no one cares’, and because it explains the reference to Israel as ‘the chief (head) of the nations’), then there is also here an indication that they are hoping for some of the blessing also to fall on them once Israel is restored (Genesis 12:3; and often).

It is noteworthy that, as always, it is ‘the remnant’ of Israel who are to be saved (compare Isaiah 6:13), the repentant ones who respond to YHWH’s call. There is never any suggestion that Israel as a whole will be saved. Many indeed would have been absorbed into the nations among whom they dwelt, while other would have lapsed into unbelief and despair, or been killed. But from among them would come those who believed. It was they who would be saved.

Jeremiah 31:8

“Behold, I will bring them from the north country,

And gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth,

With them the blind and the lame,

The woman with child and her who travails with child together,

A great company will they return here.”

Israelites are to be gathered from the north country to which the Assyrians had taken them, and from the uttermost parts of the earth (see Isaiah 11:11), and it will include the weak and helpless, the blind, the lame, the pregnant woman and the woman in labour. The road will be made so easy for them that such conditions will not matter. They will return as ‘a great company’, (in other words a good quantity will return), but clearly in equally great weakness. While we have no record of their return in the Scriptures, there is no reason to doubt that many northern exiles did actually join in the return to the land once the news reached them of the new settlement of Israel by returning Babylonian exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple, and they would help each other along. Weakness was to be no bar to travel for YHWH would be with them. It was the time for which many of them had been waiting (compare how they were depicted as watching what was going on in the land in Jeremiah 8:19) and now it was here, and they were not going to miss it. Those who came would be those who were the most zealous for YHWH, establishing the nation in readiness for the arrival of the coming Shoot of David.

Jeremiah 31:9

“They will come with weeping,

And with supplications will I lead them,

I will cause them to walk by rivers of waters,

In a straight way in which they will not stumble,

For I am a father to Israel,

And Ephraim is my first-born.

But when they returned it was to be in repentance, weeping as they came. There could be no restoration without repentance. That the primary reference is to repentance comes out in the combination with ‘supplications’. Compare also Jeremiah 31:16 where they are to cease weeping because of their deliverance. It was thus not seen as weeping for joy. They are rather seen as seeking the face of YHWH in tears. Of course, we need not necessarily wholly exclude the idea of their also weeping for joy (see Ezra 3:12-13), for repentance and joy in the end go together. Joy follows repentance. But it is clear that we cannot exclude the idea of repentance. That is the first requirement for their return as has been made apparent earlier (e.g. Jeremiah 29:12-14). Compare Jeremiah 31:18-19.

And they would make continual supplications to YHWH as He led them in the way, just as they had in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. It would be a new Exodus. But they would not thirst because He would lead them by rivers of water, and they would not stumble because the way would be made straight. For He would be like a Father to them, and they would be His first-born.

They can be pictured as like the prodigal son as he wended his way home to his father, and indeed that is what they were. He too came with weeping and supplication (Luke 15:12-20)

This is probably describing what would be true spiritually rather than physically, although it clearly also included the thought of provision on the way. He would be with them as they struggled towards their homeland, encouraging them in the way. ‘Ephraim is my first-born’ indicates that the stress is at present very much inclusive of the return of the northern tribes, but not exclusively, for as His first-born it must include Judah (Exodus 4:22). Ephraim was the one chosen by YHWH over Manasseh (Genesis 48:19), and was a name later applied to the northern kingdom, and then as here to all Israel. It can thus signify ‘My chosen one’. The phrase is reminiscent of ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn’ in Exodus 4:22. Judah will be emphasised in Jeremiah 31:23-30. But all will return (Jeremiah 30:3-4; Jeremiah 30:17; Jeremiah 31:1; Jeremiah 31:27; Jeremiah 31:31). To prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah Israel and Judah were still really one nation under any title.

Jeremiah 31:10-11

“Hear the word of YHWH, O you nations,

And declare it in the isles afar off, and say,

He who scattered Israel will gather him,

And keep him, as a shepherd does his flock.

“For YHWH has ransomed Jacob,

And redeemed him from the hand of him who was stronger than he.”

The call again goes out to the nations, as in Jeremiah 31:7, and to the isles across the sea, (Cyprus, Crete and the Aegean coastlands), declaring what YHWH is doing for His people. YHWH is now like a shepherd to His people. He Who had (by means of the wolf and the lion - Jeremiah 2:15; Jeremiah 4:7; Jeremiah 5:6) scattered them, would now gather them and lead them forward, safely kept under His protecting hand. For YHWH has proved His might. He has ransomed ‘Jacob’ (Judah/Israel) and redeemed him from the hands of those who were stronger than he (compare Psalms 35:10). Assyria and Babylon may have seemed stronger, but they would perish. Israel would, however, go on in God’s purposes.

The idea behind ransom and redemption was of a kinsman redeemer who himself would sacrifice of his own in order to assist the setting free of a kinsman. For YHWH too there would be a price to pay.

Jeremiah 31:12

“And they will come and sing in the height of Zion,

And will flow to the goodness of YHWH,

To the grain, and to the new wine, and to the oil,

And to the young of the flock and of the herd,

And their soul will be as a watered garden,

And they will not sorrow any more at all.”

An idyllic picture is drawn of the future. They will return to Zion, and there they will sing on its ‘height’, its holy mount. And they will flow like a river into YHWH’s goodness (i.e. into YHWH as He is in His goodness). Compare the similar picture of all nations flowing to YHWH in Isaiah 2:2. The grain, new wine and olive oil will flourish as they flow into it as part of the goodness of YHWH, and the flock and the herd will abundantly produce their young. Their own inner lives will be like a watered garden full of life and vitality, and they will sorrow no more. The watered garden was the ideal of luxury and fruitfulness, never running dry because its owner could always afford water.

To a certain extent this was fulfilled as far as they were concerned when they returned to their land and things appeared to prosper as they lived semi-independently under their Persian rulers. And even more so when they found independence from the later (Greek) Seleucids through Jonathan and Simon Maccabaeus. Even under Rome they would be more allies than subjects, with Herod being seen as the friend of Rome, at least until towards the end. But its greater fulfilment awaits the eternal kingdom, the new Heaven and the new earth as described in Revelation 21:3-4; Revelation 22:1-5. Interestingly it is reminiscent of the idyllic life depicted in Ecclesiastes.

Jeremiah 31:13

“Then will the virgin rejoice in the dance,

And the young men and the old together,

For I will turn their mourning into joy,

And will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow.”

All sorrow will be over. All will join in the dancing. The virgin, the young man and the old together will rejoice in the dance. There is no reason for excluding the males from the dance. It would be remembered that David danced before YHWH when the Ark was brought safely into Jerusalem. Perhaps that is in mind here. Their mourning will be turned into joy, and YHWH will comfort them and make them rejoice from their sorrows. In the end, however, this is not something that can finally be accomplished in this life. It requires the perfecting of men’s hearts at the resurrection, and will come to fulfilment in the eternal kingdom.

We can compare here Isaiah 35:10, ‘the ransomed of YHWH will return, and come to Zion with singing, everlasting joy will be on their heads, they will obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing will flee away’. Everlasting joy is only obtainable in the everlasting kingdom.

Jeremiah 31:14

“And I will satiate the soul of the priests with fatness,

And my people will be satisfied with my goodness,

The word of YHWH.”

Both priests and people will be satisfied in YHWH. To be satisfied ‘with fat’ is to have the best of provision. The fat was the best of the sacrifice, and was sacred to YHWH. It was not partaken of by the priests. It therefore here means receiving the very best, and is not a direct reference to sacrifices. The provision of YHWH will thus be abundant, and His goodness overflowing. And this is on the assured word of YHWH.


Verse 15

But This Great Joy Will Arise Out Of Sorrow And Out Of What YHWH Has Caused To Happen To His People (Jeremiah 31:15).

In a deliberate contrast to the joy and exultancy of the previous verses, Jeremiah now returns to the anguish of the current situation. In a very short (one verse) passage we are reminded again of the chastisement that must precede the blessing. The future is bright, but the present is not. The present is ‘Rachel’ weeping for her children because ‘they are not’.

Jeremiah 31:15

‘Thus says YHWH,’

Once more what happens is to be seen as resulting from the word of YHWH.

Jeremiah 31:15

“A voice is heard on a height (or ‘in Ramah’), lamentation, and bitter weeping,

Rachel weeping for her children,

She refuses to be comforted for her children,

Because they are not.”

There would appear here to be a play on ideas. ‘Ramah’ (‘height’) is here without the article whereas when used of towns it usually has the article, not only in the historical contexts such as Jeremiah 40:1, Joshua 18:25; Judges 4:5, etc., but also in prophetic writings such as Hosea 6:8; Isaiah 10:29. It is thus suggestive of ‘Rachel’ standing on ‘a height’ (as in 1 Samuel 22:6; Ezekiel 16:24), looking towards the north as her children disappear over the horizon. And just as ‘Jacob’ represented the people of Israel/Judah, so we may see ‘Rachel’ as doing the same here. The picture is of the remnant of Israel/Judah, and all their buried ancestors in the land, mourning over those who have gone into exile.

But why should Rachel in particular be introduced? It was probably precisely because Jeremiah wanted to see in this a reference to ancient Ramah, a site which was unquestionably near the place where Rachel died in sorrow in child birth. And as she died she called her son ‘Ben-oni’, ‘son of my sorrow’ (Genesis 35:18). Thus Rachel’s sorrow was especially related to Benjamin, and to this area. We could even describe this as ‘the time of Rachel’s sorrow’ (compare ‘Jacob’s trouble’ in Jeremiah 30:7). Rachel was Jacob’s wife, and she was buried after dying in childbirth ‘on the way to Bethlehem’ (coming from Bethel - Genesis 35:16 ff.). 1 Samuel 10:2 puts her tomb as ‘on the border of Benjamin’ near Zelzah (site unknown). Her tomb was thus well known in Samuel’s day. He himself lived at a different Ramah (which simply means ‘height’) and he possibly therefore referred to ‘nearby Zelzah’ rather than ‘nearby ancient Ramah’ so as to avoid confusion between the two Ramahs.

This ancient Ramah in Benjamin was a stopping place between Bethel and Bethlehem in the area of Gibeon and Beeroth in the tribal area of Benjamin (Joshua 18:25). It was near Jerusalem (which was on the border of Benjamin) and Gibeah (Judges 19:13). This may be seen as supporting the ancient tradition that Rachel was buried near Ramah, (on the basis of which tradition a tomb was in more modern times (15th century AD) built there after the Muslim style, as a memorial of her). This pathetic picture may well therefore be intended to include the idea of Rachel weeping from her resting place, where she had once grieved over Benjamin, as she sees what has now happened to her present seed and to the seed of Jacob. Once again she is in sorrow because of Benjamin. Interestingly her sons can be seen as representing both Ephraim (who was the son of her own son Joseph) and Judah (who were united as one people with Benjamin her son), and it should be noted that in Psalms 80:2 it is the Rachel tribes, Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh (the ‘children’ of Rachel) who represent the whole of Israel/Judah. On the other hand she did, of course, also have other sons by her handmaid who would certainly in those days have been seen as genuinely her sons. We cannot therefore see Rachel as just weeping over Ephraim. She is weeping over the whole of Israel/Judah.

Ramah was also the place where the captives were gathered to be taken into exile (Jeremiah 40:1), which may also possibly help to explain why ‘Rachel’ was seen as weeping there, but if that was the prime reference we would expect mention of Ramah before this in order to make the reference clear, and we would have expected the article (found in Jeremiah 40:1). On the other hand everyone knew that ancient Ramah was near the place where Rachel had died in sorrow, so that the very hint of ‘ramah’ would draw attention to it. What is, however, most important is that her weeping is depicted as unceasing (she refuses to be comforted), because the land is empty and her children are no longer there. She refuses to be comforted because her children ‘are not.’ That is the essence of the verse.

As already mentioned, Ramah is in Benjamin (Joshua 18:25), and on the border with Judah, and so she is not to be seen as just weeping for the northern kingdom. Benjamin and Judah too are gone. And Rachel has, as it were, been left alone, bereft of all her children, either by slaughter or by exile. The only thing that can comfort her will be the return of her children. But as yet that has not happened. The days of hope that lie ahead must first be preceded (especially for the few remaining in Judah and Benjamin, if Rachel is seen as representing them), by days of mourning and weeping for a people far away. Matthew later sees the return from exile as not really satisfying her sorrow when he contemplated in his day what Israel had become, and so he saw the sorrow of the bereaved women of Bethlehem as significant when Another Who represented Israel and was one of Rachel’s ‘children’ would be exiled to Egypt, escaping from the slaughter of other children, only later to return from exile (Matthew 2:17-18). He was thus seen by Matthew as representing exiled Israel (see Matthew 2:15-17) and therefore as fulfilling this prophecy.


Verses 16-22

Rachel’s Weeping Will, However, Be Rewarded, For Her Children Will Be Returned To Her, And They Will Come To YHWH In Repentance And Be Received By Him As A Beloved Son (Jeremiah 31:16-22).

The call now comes to the weeping ‘Rachel’ to cease her weeping, because her activity has been rewarded. Her children would return from the land of their enemies to within their own borders, giving hope for the future. For they have returned in repentance acknowledging the chastisement of YHWH, and YHWH is ready to receive them as His beloved children.

Jeremiah 31:16

‘Thus says YHWH,’

YHWH continues to speak and bring about His will.

Jeremiah 31:16-17

“Refrain your voice from weeping,

And your eyes from tears,

For your activity (work) will be rewarded,

The word of YHWH,

And they will come again from the land of the enemy,

And there is hope for your latter end,

The word of YHWH,

And your children will come again to their own border.”

In context the words are spoken to Rachel who was weeping for her children, whoever she was seen as representing. Her weeping is seen as being duly rewarded, on the sure word of YHWH. Her mourning and repentance will succeed. For she is assured that eventually (in around fifty years time) her children will come from the land of the enemy. She therefore has hope for her later days. And there would indeed have been some alive when the exiles returned who had been left as a remnant in Israel/Judah and could be seen as ‘Rachel’. They would see their hopes fulfilled at their ‘latter end’. And this on the sure word of YHWH. For their ‘children’ would come again to their own border within their lifetime.

Jeremiah 31:18

“I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself,

‘You have chastised me, and I was chastised,

As a calf unaccustomed (to the yoke or to serving),

Turn you me, and I will be turned,

For you are YHWH my God.”

Ephraim is now pictured as bemoaning herself, and calling on YHWH, accepting that it is He Who has chastised them. That is why they have been chastised (the repetition emphasising the fact). They admit to being like a calf unaccustomed. either to the yoke or to service or to both, who needed to be chastened. And they thus call on YHWH as their God to ‘turn them’ (bring them to repentant response), for it is only if He does it that it will be successful. They recognise their own inability to save themselves (the first essential for conversion).

‘Ephraim’ may here refer to the repentant among the exiles of the northern kingdom, or more probably to the repentant among all the exiles both north and south. Either way the important lesson is that it was those who had repented who were now acceptable among YHWH’s people, those who had accepted that what had happened to them had happened as the chastening of YHWH. It is the remnant who repent and return, not the whole of Israel. Thus it is an Israel within Israel. This Israel within Israel is the constant theme of the Old Testament. They are ‘the holy seed’ (Isaiah 6:13). It will finally issue in the large remnant who will respond to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith forming the new nation of Israel in the time of Jesus and the Apostles (Matthew 21:43).

(Note: It is often argued that no such repentance as this was obvious among the returning exiles as we look at the way in which they are depicted in Ezra/Nehemiah/Haggai/Zechariah/Malachi, but that is to overlook the fact that the returnees were very human and had huge obstacles to surmount. Their describe behaviour did not mean that underneath there was not genuine repentance in what mattered most. If we try to diminish the glory of the return from exile by pointing to the weak spiritual state of the returnees we would do well to ask how we ourselves compare, and how we would have reacted to their situation and hardships. YHWH certainly saw earthshaking events as taking place at the time of their return (Haggai 2:21). And we should notice that it is regularly through such weakness that God accomplishes His work. Many of Paul’s churches were nothing to write home about, and when we look at the later church we have to be filled with wonderment that anything spiritual survived at all. And yet remarkably it did. It is therefore to be lacking in spiritual awareness to suggest that, because we know of many problems among the long stream of returning exiles, as brought to our notice by the writings of Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi, there were not truly repentant groups among the exiles who returned who were activated by the Spirit of God, any more than we can say that the outward worldliness of the church means that there is no genuine spiritual element among them, or indeed that large numbers of even the less spiritual are not encompassed within God’s plan of salvation. Man looks at the outward appearance, and judges by earthly standards (and by an optimistic view of himself as compared with others), but God looks at the heart. And it is in fact God’s very boast that He works through the weak and the foolish (1 Corinthians 1:26-28). Those struggling returnees in fact formed the advanced battalion of a mighty army of weak, struggling saints who would eventually re-establish Israel, despite their weakness, and we should recognise that there must have been a great hunger for God among them for them to brave the perils of the return journey in order that they might worship YHWH in their own land. That is so whatever may have been their faults. (Nothing could be more unlike the case of modern Israel, for, apart from the initial few, the returnees of modern Israel mainly knew that they would be arriving in a prosperous and thriving modern nation. In contrast, the ancient exiles did not know to what they were returning. They simply struggled forward in faith).

We must remember that we only learn the worst of what happened among the returnees precisely because it was that that had to be rebuked. We can compare how in the Book of Judges it is the periods of failure of which we have details, not the periods of success marked by the words ‘then the land had rest for -- years’. Furthermore the list of faithful witnesses in Hebrews 11 confirms that the faithful remnant were always there, shining out among the faithless, and known and treasured by God. It was they who were the Israel whom YHWH had restored, and who largely rallied to the Maccabees in Israel’s time of need. And many of them became a part of the martyrs listed in Hebrews 11.

And it was those who later followed them, inspire by a similar zeal, who would, in the days of Jesus and the Apostles, believe in the Messiah and form the new Israel in the face of much persecution from the cast off Jews. And it is they who, as ‘the church of the firstborn’, are the ones who at times have faithfully endured persecution ever since. They will all be among the multitude which no man can number who will enter into the everlasting kingdom (Revelation 7:9; Revelation 7:14). In a sense then the ‘return from exile’ has taken 2,500 years, but at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ our exile will be over. It is rather amusing to think that some see this weakness of the returnees as in some way being an argument for seeing these prophecies as pointing to a millennial kingdom, as though people then would be different from the exiles of Jeremiah’s time and not be weak and failing. And this is especially so when we know that the general view of that kingdom is that it will end in apostasy and Satanism. Where then is the difference? If it were truly referring to that it would be describing something even more spurious).

Jeremiah 31:19

“Surely after I was turned, I repented,

And after I was instructed, I smote on my thigh,

I was ashamed, yes, even confounded,

Because I bore the reproach of my youth.”

We have here His people’s confession. Having been turned through YHWH’s chastening they have repented. Having been instructed by YHWH’s chastening, they have smitten their thighs in shame and anguish. They have been ashamed and confounded because they are bearing the reproach of their younger days. And they have humbled themselves before Him.

For a parallel example of smiting on the thigh we can compare an extract from Homer, ‘and then he groaned and smote on both his thighs, with headlong hands and thus in sorrow spoke.’

Jeremiah 31:20

Is Ephraim my dear son?

Is he a darling child?

For as often as I speak against him,

I do earnestly remember him still,

Therefore my heart yearns for him,

I will surely have mercy on him,

The word of YHWH.”

YHWH’s response is one of love, the response of a father to a repentant wayward child. The questions are intended to be answered with a ‘yes’. Yes, ‘Ephraim’ (Israel/Judah) is His dear son. Yes, ‘Ephraim’ is His darling child. While He may have to speak against him and criticise him, even bring him, as it were, before the justices (fathers of the sub-clan as signifying the heavenly court?), He still earnestly remembers him as His son. Israel is not entirely cast off. And so YHWH’s heart yearns for his return to true sonship, with full willingness to have mercy upon him. This was the purpose of his arraignment. And this is the assured word of YHWH.

Jeremiah 31:21

“Set you up road signs,

Make yourself guide-posts,

Set your heart toward the highway,

Even the way by which you went,

Turn again, O virgin of Israel,

Turn again to these your cities.”

So now that the Father is ready to receive the prodigal son He calls on him to prepare for his journey home. When a king or a wealthy man was going on a journey in those days, with his retinue, especially to an unknown country, there were those who could be sent ahead to set up indicators along the best road so that the way ahead would be smooth (they had no maps or satellite navigation). Alternately it might signify pioneers who left the road marks for those who followed. And they were to return by the way in which they went, the shortest route. For the virgin of Israel, now once again purified, were to return to their cities and to their obedience to YHWH. More detail is given in Jeremiah 31:23-24.

Jeremiah 31:22

“How long will you go hither and thither,

O you backsliding daughter?

For YHWH has created a new thing in the earth,

A woman will encompass a man.”

For there is no longer any need for them to be going hither and thither among the nations, as a backsliding daughter (the opposite of a virgin of Israel) powerless to help herself (compare Jeremiah 15:4; Jeremiah 24:9; Jeremiah 29:18), for YHWH has done a new thing in the earth. He has enabled ‘the woman’ (virgin Israel), in every case in different parts of the world, to gain primacy over ‘the he man’, those who were in authority over them. With rare exceptions such an idea was inconceivable in those days, for women were very much dependent on men. But it will happen now for in each place of captivity the virgin daughter of Israel will ‘surround’ the man, the nations, the stronger than she (Jeremiah 31:11), who had taken possession of her, like a victorious army surrounds a city. The weak and defenceless virgin of Israel will gain primacy over the strong who seek to override her, bringing them into submission so as to obtain her release.

It is in fact quite possible in this regard that there was a popular proverb declaring, ‘A man will encompass a woman’, indicating man’s superiority. If that be so, it is now turned topsy turvy, as Israel/Judah, YHWH’s ‘virgin’, causes the nations to yield to her desire for freedom.

‘A woman will encompass a man.’ Some, however, translate as ‘embrace’, and see it as signifying that the virgin of Israel will embrace YHWH, by responding to His will. It is a beautiful thought, but it is not quite clear how that can be seen as a totally new thing. We already know that she had embraced YHWH in the wilderness, so that this would not be a new thing (Jeremiah 2:2-3). And women were in fact regularly embracing men.


Verses 23-40

Sub-Part B. The Coming Days Will Introduce A Completely New Type Of Covenant Provided By YHWH, One That Is Written In The Heart And Will Thus Result In Changed Lives (Jeremiah 31:23-40).

This sub-part commences with the words, ‘Thus says YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel,’ and a feature of it is the phrase ‘the days are coming, says YHWH, when --’ (Jeremiah 31:27; Jeremiah 31:31; Jeremiah 31:38), with its emphasis being on the glorious future. We may analyse it as follows:

· The fortunes of Judah and its cities will be restored and they will rejoice in YHWH’s holy habitation. Both town and country will rejoice together, for YHWH will satisfy all hearts (Jeremiah 31:23-26).

· ‘The days are coming, says YHWH, when’, rather than being broken down and destroyed, both the house of Israel and the house of Judah will be watched over by YHWH and built up and planted, with individuals being seen as responsible for their own sins. In other words they will no longer be a nation with joint responsibility for the covenant and suffering accordingly, but a nation of individuals each accountable for themselves (Jeremiah 31:27-30).

· ‘The days are coming, says YHWH, when’ He will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not one like the old covenant which they broke, but one written in their hearts so that He will be their God and they will be His people. And all will know YHWH and enjoy total forgiveness (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

· ‘Thus says YHWH.’ The continuation of Israel is as certain as the arrival of the sun by day and of the moon and stars by night and as YHWH’s control of the seas (Jeremiah 31:35-36).

· ‘Thus says YHWH.’ The fact that Israel will not be cast off for what they have done is as certain as the fact that the heavens cannot be measured, and the foundations of the earth explored (Jeremiah 31:37).

· The days are coming, says YHWH, when’ the city will be rebuilt for YHWH, and the whole area, even the unclean valley of Hinnom, will be sacred to Him. They will be established for ever (Jeremiah 31:38-40). In the final analysis this is clearly something that can only be possible in the eternal kingdom.

Jeremiah 31:23

‘Thus says YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel,’

This phrase introduces the second subpart of Section 2 Part 1, and emphasises again that we have in it ‘the word of YHWH’.

Jeremiah 31:23

“Yet again will they use this speech in the land of Judah and in its cities,

When I will bring again their captivity,

YHWH bless you, O habitation of righteousness (or ‘justice’),

O mountain of holiness.”

Once the exile is over and YHWH has brought His people back to the land they will once again look to Mount Zion and exult in the presence of YHWH among them. The exile will have accomplished its purpose. They will rejoice in Him, and He will be their all, ‘dwelling’ on His holy mountain (compare the vivid picture in Isaiah 4:5-6 where the everlasting future is in mind). However, as in Jeremiah 50:7 it is YHWH Himself Who is the ‘habitation of righteousness’, designated as such by the nations, this must possibly be seen as the significance of the words here. Then the thought would be that as they look to the holy mountain they ‘see’ Him dwelling there as ‘the habitation of righteousness’.

There can be no doubt that initially this would be the idea which would take up the minds of the returned exiles as they rejoiced at being back in the land with the assurance from Ezekiel that YHWH’s heavenly Temple was among them (Ezekiel 40:1 to Ezekiel 43:12), even though they could not see it. All that they had was the altar built on the holy mount (Ezekiel 43:13-27), through which they could access that heavenly Temple. But it represented true worship. And they even set about building a Temple. Its foundations were laid. But the hardships of their lives began to press in on them so that they took their eyes off YHWH and His holy mountain and began to concentrate on more mundane things.

This is ever man’s tendency. The glorious vision is lost in the hard practicalities. It was then that they neglected the restoration of the Temple (Haggai 2:9), with its consequent effect on their own spiritual lives. We might even begin to feel that the restoration was somehow failing. But we must remember that while this period might have appeared to be ‘a day of small things’ to the exiles (Zechariah 4:10), as they struggled on in difficult surroundings, and that it may also appear so to us in our comfortable chairs, from Heaven’s viewpoint the picture was wholly different. The earth was being shaken (Haggai 2:21), and the Davidic prince was being established (Haggai 2:23). God was moving mountains! Zerubbabel would act by YHWH’s Spirit (Zechariah 4:6) and be the reducer of mountains of difficulties as the Temple was rebuilt (Zechariah 4:7; Zechariah 4:9). And this would eventually lead on to the rebuilding of Jerusalem as an independent city (Nehemiah) and then to the coming of an even greater Davidic prince Who would cause the heavens to open (Matthew 3:16), and would accomplish His purpose by being cut off (Daniel 9:25-26), something which would result in His ascending to a place of ‘all authority in Heaven and on earth’ (Matthew 28:18; Hebrews 1:3). God would have broken through to man (Matthew 17:2 onwards; John 1:14). But it all began here with a motley group of returning refugees.

It is on the whole regularly God’s way to work through sowing seeds rather than by dropping bombs. He starts with small beginnings and eventually produces a huge mustard tree. Even the coming of Jesus was but a blip in secular history, until suddenly everyone was saying, ‘where on earth has this huge body of Christians, that we see all around us, sprung up from?’

Jeremiah 31:24-25

“And Judah and all its cities will dwell in it together,

The husbandmen, and those who go about with flocks.

For I have fully satisfied the weary soul,

And every sorrowful soul have I replenished.”

The spotlight now turns on returned Judah. Once again they will dwell in the land in safety and their restored cities will dwell there too, along with the farming communities and the shepherds. It is an idyllic picture combining civilisation and strength, safety and security, with pastoral pursuits. (The cities were the places where they could find refuge from marauders). God’s people will be made up of all types, and all will be satisfied in soul, and replenished at heart. For He will be to them all that they need. Outwardly at least they will appear to be as they should have been from the beginning.

Jeremiah 31:26

Upon this I awoke, and beheld,

And my sleep was sweet to me.”

And on this delightful thought Jeremiah awoke from his prophetic dream, and saw its fulfilment as one day becoming reality. And it made his sleep sweet to him. The bitterness of the past was, at least for the present, behind him.


Verses 27-30

In Coming Days YHWH Will Re-establish Israel and Judah In The Land And Will Build Them Up (Jeremiah 31:27-30).

YHWH’s promise is that He will, once the time is ripe, sow the land with men and animals so that they will grow and multiply and fill the land, after which He will build and plant so as to establish His people in the land. The miracle of the restoration of Israel/Judah in the land is often only too easily overlooked by those who think only in terms of ‘the end times’. There was still a long time to go before the end times would be even a whisper on the horizon. Meanwhile YHWH would re-establish His people in an empty land to such an extent that by the time of Jesus both Judaea and Galilee would be well populated and relatively prosperous.

Jeremiah 31:27

“Behold, the days come, the word of YHWH, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of beast.”

The land of promise, (‘the house of Israel and the house of Judah’), is pictured as a fertile field waiting to be resown. And YHWH’s promise is that He will Himself be the Sower, and will sow it with human and animal life so that it will once more be populated by men and by animals, as a land should be unless it is a desert. The description of His activity as sowing indicates that the process will be a gradual one. The seed will be sown and the grain will grow gradually, being resown again and again.

Jeremiah 31:28

“And it will come about that, just as I have watched over them to pluck up and to break down and to overthrow and to destroy and to afflict, so will I watch over them to build and to plant, the word of YHWH.”

And just as He had previously watched over them to pluck them down and break them down, to overthrow them and destroy them because of their sinfulness, He will now act in the opposite way to build them up and to plant them, and this in accordance with the sure word of YHWH. The assumption is being made (made explicitly elsewhere - Jeremiah 29:12; Jeremiah 31:9; Jeremiah 31:18-19; Jeremiah 31:23) that they are now seeking Him. This description was in accordance with His promise from the commencement of Jeremiah’s ministry (Jeremiah 1:10) and other previous promises (Jeremiah 18:9; Jeremiah 24:6). Israel and Judah would once more be planted in the land as those who now sought YHWH with all their hearts. And as at the beginning, YHWH would be ‘watching’ over His word to perform it (Jeremiah 1:12).

This re-establishment of His people in the land was very necessary if His other promises were to be fulfilled. From this people and this land would develop the whole of God’s plans for the future as first Jesus Christ came and fulfilled the work of salvation, and then as He established a Jewish remnant and sent out Jewish missionaries to take His message to the world. But beyond it we may see the settlement of God’s people in the eternal kingdom. For that is the end to which all else is aiming.

Jeremiah 31:29

“In those days they will no more say,

The fathers have eaten sour grapes,

And the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

In the future the situation would be such that everyone would be responsible for his own sins. The nation would no longer be judged as a nation any more. No longer would the well know proverb be cited that, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Each individual would be responsible for himself. They would no longer be able to throw the blame for what was happening to them onto their fathers. The implications of this, if fathomed, were quite huge. It was indicating the ‘secularisation’ of the state which was no longer seen as responsible to God as one whole.

Jeremiah 31:30

“But every one will die for his own iniquity, every man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge.”

For in future judgment was to be an individual thing. It was the one who sinned who would die (compare Ezekiel 18:4; Ezekiel 18:20). It was the one who ate sour grapes whose teeth would suffer for it. We might ask how this fits in with the warning that the sins of the fathers would be visited on their children to the third and the fourth generation? The answer is not difficult. They would be so because those generations would sin as well in a similar way as a result of the influence of their forebears. But the way was always left open for repentance, at which point the law would cease to apply. God is always depicted as ready to respond to men’s repentance. Even the Jerusalem of Zedekiah’s day could have been saved by true repentance, as many examples from the past indicate (compare 1 Kings 1:27-29; Jonah 3:10).


Verses 27-40

The Threefold Predictions Concerning ‘The Days That Are Coming’ (Jeremiah 31:27-40).

We now come to a threefold prediction concerning the coming days, backed up by absolute assurances of their fulfilment.

· The days are coming when the people of Israel and Judah will be firmly established in the land, with full responsibility for their own individual behaviour (Jeremiah 31:27-30).

· The days are coming when YHWH will make with them a new and better covenant, a covenant written in their hearts so that all will know Him from the least to the greatest (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

· The days are coming when Jerusalem and its surrounds will be established in total purity, with all that is unclean done away so that it will abide for ever as the habitation of God among His people (Jeremiah 31:38-40).

This is a remarkable potted history of what the future would hold. Initially we have the settlement and establishment in the land which took place during the inter-testamental period. Secondly we have the giving of a new covenant in the coming of Jesus Christ to die for our sins and offer us new life in the Spirit, which would cause the law to be written in our hearts (see 2 Corinthians 3:6-18; Hebrews 8:6-13). Thirdly we have the establishment of a new and everlastingly perfect Jerusalem (Galatians 4:24-30; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21:2 to Revelation 22:5) something that could never happen on this earth. It will require a new Heaven and a new earth.

The concept of the new Heaven and the new earth is an essential one for Biblical exegesis. It is the only way in which the ancient promises, with their emphasis in ‘forever-ness’ could be fulfilled. God’s people will there eternally enjoy ‘the land given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ and will enjoy the new Jerusalem, but it will only be in that other world, the heavenly (see Hebrews 11:10-14).


Verses 31-34

In Coming Days YHWH Will Make A New Covenant With His People, A Covenant Written In Their Hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

A covenant is an agreement made between two or more parties which is binding on both. God’s covenant is an example of a covenant which is instituted by one party to the agreement as the result of the giving of a benefit, to which the other parties, who have received the benefit, are then bound to comply. But the state of Judah at this time was such that it was clear that the old covenant made at Sinai had failed. As the writer to the Hebrews points out, the assumption was being made here that the old covenant was insufficient for its purpose (Hebrews 8:7-8). It could show men how to live, but it could not enable them to live in accordance with its requirements. YHWH had made with them His first covenant as their Deliverer and Redeemer looking for a faithful response. But, it was an ‘outward covenant’ made with men whose hearts had not changed, and as a result, apart from at rare times, they had continually failed in that response and had demonstrated that no amount of gratitude or miracles would make them obedient to YHWH.

Now therefore the time was coming when YHWH would provide them with a new covenant. And He would write the covenant in their hearts in such a way that they would want to obey it and would desire to do His will. In the words of Philippians 2:13, He would ‘work in them to will and to do of His good pleasure’. And the result was to be that many would in that day come to know Him and respond to Him. And when would that day come? ‘The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ (John 1:17).

The necessity for such a covenant brings out how central the covenant was in YHWH’s dealings with His people. Judgment had come on them because of their failure to observe the covenant. Murder, adultery, idolatry, blasphemy were all breaches of the covenant and were constantly cited as reasons for judgment. And each of these required the death penalty. Thus nothing in the covenant as it then was could save them. The covenant could not even provide offerings that would provide expiation and atonement for such offences, as it could in the case of lesser offences. (As David makes clear in Psalms 51, only the mercy of God could do that). Thus if His people were to be restored it had to be by means of a covenant that worked and lifted them above such things.

Jeremiah 31:31-32

“Behold, the days are coming, the word of YHWH, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant which 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 broke, although I was a husband to them, the word of YHWH.”

YHWH declares that in days to come, at the time determined by Him, He would make a new covenant, a new binding agreement, with Israel/Judah. It would not be like the old covenant because that had failed miserably, and it had failed even though He had not failed them, but had been like a true husband to them. He had redeemed them from Egypt, wooed them to Himself in the wilderness, and bound them to Himself by covenant (had ‘married’ them) at Sinai, and had from then on acted as a husband on their behalf. But in spite of that they had rejected Him and had preferred other lovers and had deserted Him (see Hosea 1-3). And although time and again they had come to renew that covenant, seemingly genuinely, it had never been with more than a transient response (see e.g. Deuteronomy 27:9 ff.; Joshua 24; 2 Chronicles 23:4-7; 2 Chronicles 34:29-32). Thus He had ‘recognised’ (humanly speaking) that that covenant was insufficient. What was needed was the miracle of the transformation of their hearts and lives. That alone could solve the problem.

Jeremiah 31:33

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, the word of YHWH,

I will put my law in their inward parts,

And will I write it in their heart,

And I will be their God,

And they will be my people,

And they will no more teach every man his neighbour,

And every man his brother, saying, ‘Know YHWH,’

For they will all know me,

From the least of them to the greatest of them,

The word of YHWH,

For I will forgive their iniquity,

And I will remember no more their sin.”

YHWH describes the content of the new covenant that He will make with them (‘House of Israel’ is here clearly inclusive of Judah). It will consist of ‘instruction’ (torah - law) which He will put in their inward parts and write in their hearts. It will such that it will become a part of them. Using Pauline terminology it will be written on their hearts by the Spirit of the living God (2 Corinthians 3:3). And then He will again be their God, in a different sense from previously because He will be personally involved in their lives, and furthermore, as a result of the Spirit’s work within (compare Ezekiel 36:26-27), they will in turn truly be His obedient people, fully responsive to Him. It is important to recognise here that ‘heart’ for the Israelite, like ‘inward parts’, signifies mind and will as well as emotion. The law will be written in their minds and wills and thoughts. To quote Paul again, they will have ‘the mind of the Spirit’ (Romans 8:7). They will be ‘minded’ to do His will by the Spirit. In Jesus’ own citation from Isaiah 54:13, ‘they will all be taught of God’ (John 6:45)

‘And I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ The same words were spoken in Leviticus 26:12, but the meaning was very different. There He would be dwelling among them in the Tabernacle and would be their God. Here He would be personally at work within their hearts, and therefore dwelling within them as His Temple (see 2 Corinthians 6:16-18), and would be their God. It is a totally different situation.

And the result will be that there will be no need of anyone to teach them to know Him, because they will all know Him, from the least to the greatest. They will be Spirit enlightened (compare Isaiah 54:13; Matthew 11:25-27). If they were to ‘know God’ this would be essential for ‘no one comprehends the thoughts of God apart from the Spirit of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:11). It will be a part of what He has implanted within them (Isaiah 61:3). Indeed Jesus tells us that it will be His own work, for ‘no one knows the Father but the Son, and those to whom the Son pleases to reveal Him’ (Matthew 11:27). Furthermore, to truly know God, is to be known by Him (Galatians 4:9).

Such will be the new relationship that He will forgive their iniquity and no more remember their sin. There could be no such experience of God unless sin were truly dealt with. It is not that He will ‘forget’ their sin. It is that He will thrust it from His mind. He will deliberately and positively no more remember it. It will be for ever gone, not to be dredged up again. As far as they would be concerned this forgiveness would be on the basis of the necessary cult offerings and sacrifices, but as Isaiah 53:5-6; Isaiah 53:10 makes clear, it would finally be consequent on the Servant of YHWH, as representative of His people, offering Himself as a guilt offering (compare Mark 10:45).

In these words we have a clear outward revelation of what must always have been true in the hearts of true heart believers, otherwise they would not have persevered as believers. But this is the first time that it has been spelled out. It was, however, intrinsic in such prayers as ‘create in me a new heart, O God, and put a new and right Spirit within me’ (Psalms 51:10) and ‘teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good Spirit lead me on a level path’ (Psalms 143:10). Compare also Psalms 37:31; Psalms 40:8; Isaiah 51:7 Without such an experience, known in the New Testament as ‘birth from above’ or ‘birth of the Spirit’ (John 3:3-6), there could have been no salvation for anyone, for no man could save himself or do this work within himself. It had to result from the ‘circumcision of the heart’ by YHWH (Jeremiah 4:4; Deuteronomy 30:6; Romans 2:29). To put it in Paul’s words, ‘if any man be in Christ Jesus he is a new creation. Old things are passed away. Everything has become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The writer to the Hebrews makes clear that it is these very promises which are central to Christian experience (Hebrews 8:8-13). It is because Christ has, through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without blemish to God, and has thereby become the Mediator of the new covenant, that we can enjoy such an experience (Hebrews 9:14) through the working of the Spirit of God. It is this which was lacking in the teaching of the Rabbis, and in the teaching of all who believe in salvation by doing good things.

There was, of course a sense in which ‘those days’ came at the time of the return from exile. Many of those who returned did so because of God’s working in their hearts, otherwise they would not have come. Much of their activity was ‘not by power, nor by might but by My Spirit, says YHWH’ (Zechariah 4:6). What happened at that time was earthshaking (Haggai 2:21). But it did not result in a fully transformed nation. That awaited the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ Himself, when large parts of the nation were stirred and a ‘new nation’ was formed which replaced the old (Matthew 21:43), the Israel within Israel (Romans 9:6). And that nation went out to transform lives in all parts of the world. It was that that began the complete fulfilment of this prophecy. There is now no other true nation of Israel other than the one then formed, the body of believers who responded to the Messiah. This promise is not given to those who call themselves the nation of Israel in Palestine. For whilst, of course, many of them could partake in it by responding to Jesus Christ, there is no guarantee that they will do so (although we can hope that it will be so). The ‘all Israel’ who will be saved are the Israel within Israel, the elect, and they include all true believers.

And yet even this cannot be seen as the final fulfilment of these words, for I have been in many churches, and learned of many more, and have never found one where all the people (or even some of the people all the time) were fully like this. It is rather the ideal which is in process and is coming. Indeed we must ask, when will we be like this, living in such total obedience to His will? And when will we fully know God? And the answer can only be, ‘in the new heaven and the new earth’. Thus as always this is a prophecy which will be fulfilled in stages. (It will certainly not be fulfilled in any so-called Millennium which, if it ever were to exist (and Jesus, Paul and Peter clearly knew nothing of it), will according to its adherents end up with almost everyone following Satan).


Verse 35-36

This Work Of God Within Is Guaranteed For YHWH’s True People, Being As Certain As His Giving Of Light Through Sun, Moon And Stars By Day And Night, And As His Continual Stirring Up Of The Seas (Jeremiah 31:35-36).

YHWH demonstrates the certainty of His actions in regard to His people by comparing His activity on their behalf in terms of the giving of the sun as light during the day, and the giving of the moon and the stars to give light by night, and with His continual stirring up of the sea so that its waves roar. These were phenomena known to all as a regular and common occurrence. They were His ordinances, what He decreed. And it is only if these permanent and sure things fail that ‘the seed of Israel’ will cease to be a nation before Him. It will be certain because He has ordained it, and it will be certain because of His working.

But we should note here the phrase used, ‘the seed of Israel’. The point is not that the nation of Israel will survive in its present form, but that some of their seed will always be a nation before Him. And in the next passage we have a similar emphasis, when He guarantees that He will not cast off ‘all the seed of Israel’ (Jeremiah 31:37). Some will not be cast off (and therefore others will). Jesus Christ made quite clear that this new ‘nation’ would be composed of His Jewish followers and their converts (Matthew 21:43). While the true church, composed of all true believers, survives, then that seed of Israel and that new nation will continue (1 Peter 2:9), for they ARE the true Israel, the actual physical continuation of Israel as described in God’s terms.

Strangely some take these words as applying to the whole nation of physical Israel, but if they had so applied it could only signify that YHWH had failed in His promises. Nothing is more certain than that the people of Israel as a whole have not through time experienced this activity of YHWH. Otherwise how different history would have been. Some have experienced it, by a true heart response to God, and then to His Messiah, but they have always been in the minority. Nor need we look for a revival in modern Israel which will bring this about. There is no suggestion that He will do so. For such a revival has already taken place in Israel, and it took place in 1st century AD. Those were the ‘coming days’ in which this occurred. So to whom should we see it as applying? The answer can only be, ‘to the seed of Israel’, ‘the remnant of Israel whom He will bring to Himself’, the ‘holy seed’ of Isaiah 6:13, the ‘seed of Abraham’ (Galatians 3:29). And this remnant of Israel, who experienced precisely what is written here, were to be found in the Apostles who followed Jesus, and to those multitude of Jews who followed them to true faith in Christ. The 1st century AD was the time when it really came into fulfilment, and when Jews flocked to their Messiah as never before or since, forming a large Jewish church. They were the ones who responded to the new covenant offered by Jesus in Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25. And it was in their hearts that He wrought His new work (Acts 13:48; 2 Corinthians 5:17; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:3). They were His new ‘congregation’ of Israel (Matthew 16:18), His new nation (Matthew 21:43), the true Vine (John 15:1-6), His olive tree (Romans 11:17-28, compare Jeremiah 11:16).

They were not initially expecting a huge influx of Gentile converts into their midst, for who could have foreseen it (except, of course, God)? But this was quite in accord with Jewish ideas, and in accordance with the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6; etc.) Indeed it had always been the case that all who truly responded to God, whether homegrown or foreign, could become a part of the covenant. It happened to the foreign servants of Abraham, it happened to the mixed multitude of Exodus 12:38 at Sinai, it happened to all who sought to become a part of Israel through the years (Exodus 12:48). Thus they all ‘became Israel’, and saw themselves as descendants of Abraham from then on. We too ‘become Israel’ when we respond to Christ and are circumcised with His circumcision made without hands (Colossians 2:11), and become descendants of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). Thus the Israel which God here guaranteed would continue ‘for ever’, is the true Israel of God (Galatians 6:16), the ‘Israel within Israel’, the ‘congregation of true believers’.

Jeremiah 31:35

‘Thus says YHWH,

Here we again have an introductory phrase indicating a new idea, and stressing its certainly because it is the word of YHWH.

Jeremiah 31:35

“Who gives the sun for a light by day,

And the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night,

Who stirs up the sea, so that its waves roar,

YHWH of hosts is his name,”

Three things are cited as being given by YHWH which are constant and unchanging to such an extent that they could ‘always’ be relied upon; the giving of the sun for a light by day; the ordinances of the moon and stars by night; and the regular storminess of the seas. No one could ever have imagined their ceasing to occur. They were one of the few certainties of life. And they were all given by the One Whose Name was ‘YHWH of hosts’ (of the hosts of heaven and of the hosts of waves).

It is doubtful if many (or indeed if any) Israelites thought in terms of ‘laws of nature’. Their certainty of their continuation would in their view lay in their confidence in God’s reliability which had always proved unfailing (a view supported by Jesus in Matthew 5:45), and in the certain promise of God (Genesis 8:22). In fact by the time that these ordinances do fail (and fail they will) it will be unimportant as we will be in the new Heaven and the new earth.

Jeremiah 31:36

“If these ordinances depart from before me,

The word of YHWH,

Then the seed of Israel also will cease from being a nation before me for ever.

And the ceasing of ‘the seed of Israel’ from being a nation before Him was as impossible a thought as the cessation of the ordinances concerning sun, moon, stars and waves. And this was so on the certain and sure prophetic word of YHWH. The phrase ‘the seed of Israel’ carefully avoids suggesting that all Israel as a nation is in mind. It is rather stressing that some of Jacob/Israel’s seed will always be a nation acceptable in His sight (‘before Him). This is, of course, a necessary result of the promises made to the Patriarchs. And as we have seen it was fulfilled, and is still being fulfilled, in the fact that those who believe in Christ, forming His new, elect, holy nation (Matthew 21:43; 1 Peter 2:9), are either physically of the seed of Jacob/Israel, or spiritually so. This way of looking at things was no different from the inter-testamental Israel, (or indeed the Israel of Sinai) large numbers of whom were not physically related to Jacob. Their ‘descent’ was due to their response to the covenant. And it is seen here to be a part of YHWH’s ongoing purposes, as much so as was the continuation of sun, moon, stars and waves


Verse 37

YHWH Firmly Guarantees That Not All Of The Seed Of Israel Will Be Cut Off (Jeremiah 31:37).

The suggestion that ‘not all the seed of Israel will be cut off’ was an indication that some would be. And in the circumstances in which Jeremiah found himself that was a certainty. That was why such severe judgment had come on the two nations. It was because they had been cut off from God’s mercy. Thus the expectation was of a portion of Israel who would continue before God. In the words of Jesus, ‘fear not, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingly Rule’ (Luke 12:32). Here was the ‘new nation’ spoken of in Matthew 21:43. Its eventual fulfilment took place in the foundation and growth of the true congregation of believers in Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah 31:37

Thus says YHWH,

If heaven above can be measured,

And the foundations of the earth searched out beneath,

Then will I also cast off all the seed of Israel,

For all that they have done,

The word of YHWH.”

The likelihood of God failing in His promise to Jacob/Israel was as tiny as the likelihood that the Heavens could be measured, or the foundations of the earth searched out. Neither is remotely possible to man (even in this modern scientific generation we are still feeling our way at the edges). Until that has happened we can be sure that some of the seed of Israel (although not necessarily the outward nation of Israel) will continue. For while many would be cast off, not all would be so. That casting off was declared by Jesus when He spoke of the ‘true Vine (John 15:1-6), ‘My congregation (of Israel)’ (Matthew 16:18) and a ‘new nation’ (Matthew 21:43); and in His forecasting of God’s judgment on the temple (Mark 13), and it was described by Paul in terms of the Israel within Israel (Romans 9:6), and the branches broken from the olive tree. But the physical seed continued in the Apostles and their followers, and hosts of converted Jewish Christians ‘world-wide’, and the spiritual seed continues in all Who are His.


Verses 38-40

In Coming Days YHWH Will Re-establish The Whole Of Jerusalem As Holy To Him (Jeremiah 31:38-40).

The first thing that was to happen ‘in coming days’ was the restoration of YHWH’s people in the land, where they would be planted and built up (Jeremiah 31:27-30). The second thing to happen was YHWH’s giving of a new law written in the heart, something which while we can experience it in part now awaits final fulfilment in the everlasting kingdom (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The third is now described and it is the establishing of a new Jerusalem which is completely holy to YHWH. This prophecy too would find its gradual completion. It would be partly fulfilled in the days of Haggai, Zechariah and Nehemiah as a city and Temple were built which were dedicated to YHWH (with the result that it began to be seen as ‘the holy city’ - Nehemiah 11:1; Nehemiah 11:18; Isaiah 52:1; Daniel 9:24). It will be even more fully fulfilled in YHWH’s new Temple on earth consisting of His people (2 Corinthians 6:16-18), and His new Temple in Heaven to which His earthly people continue to look as they come to Him in prayer (Hebrews 10:19-25), which are both part of the new Jerusalem in Heaven (Galatians 4:22-30; Hebrews 12:22), and it will find its final fulfilment in the new Jerusalem which consists of those who enter His everlasting kingdom to dwell in the very presence of God for ever. Indeed it is only this last Jerusalem that can be wholly pure and last for ever (Revelation 21:1 to Revelation 22:5). The detailed description, apart from the full purification of the Valley of Hinnom which remained as a rubbish dump, may mainly have in mind the initial restoration of Jerusalem, and is described in 6th century BC terms, but the final concept has in mind the eternal future.

Sitting here in the twenty first century we look back over a long period of history since Jeremiah’s day, and try to fit his prophecy into what has happened since. But that was not Jeremiah’s aim or insight. He was not trying to give a detailed description of the future of Jerusalem as such. He was trying to provide assurance to the people of the future rebuilding of Jerusalem (something which in the event would happen a number of times), but in the end picturing an ideal Jerusalem where God would dwell with His people in total perfection, expressed by him in terms of the purifying of the ‘uncleannest’ part of the Jerusalem area which had the vilest of reputations. One day, he was saying, there would be the perfect setting for the people of God, a setting which would be free of any kind of ‘uncleanness’. And in vision he, as it were, sees its rebuilding.

Jeremiah 31:38-40

“Behold, the days are coming,

The word of YHWH,

That the city will be built to YHWH,

From the tower of Hananel,

To the Corner Gate,

And the measuring line will go out further straight onward to the hill Gareb,

And will turn about unto Goah.

And the whole valley of the dead bodies and of the ashes,

And all the fields (terraces) to the brook Kidron,

To the corner of the horse gate toward the east,

Will be holy to YHWH,

It will not be plucked up,

Nor thrown down any more for ever.

The point of this prophecy is not simply that an ancient city will be rebuilt after its previous destruction. That happened to many a city. The point is rather that Jerusalem, with all that it symbolised to the faithful in Israel, would one day be re-established as the place where they could meet with YHWH and as an ideal city (it would be ‘holy’ throughout, a literal impossibility if it contained earthly people), one which would be there everlastingly. And that could only therefore in the end indicate that it must be heavenly, for only what is heavenly can be wholly pure and can survive for ever. This description is thus a symbol of a greater reality. In the future there would come a time when for evermore the people of God would dwell in a place where they were separated to YHWH. No more would His people see themselves as cut off from YHWH, for He would be in their midst. It is similar to what Ezekiel’s Temple and city symbolised, the ideal fulfilment (Ezekiel 40 onwards). The literal city and Temple which would be rebuilt there, as a partial fulfilment of this prophecy (by Zerubbabel and Nehemiah), would certainly again be destroyed (Matthew 23:37-38; Mark 13:2), (as, for those who believe in a millennial age, would any supposed millennial city if it ever exists, as Revelation 20:11 makes clear) but the city in mind here, along with its Temple, would be ‘raised up’ again in the resurrection of Jesus Christ to exist everlastingly (John 2:19 - note the connection of the two themes). The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb will dwell in the City and be its Temple (Revelation 21:22).

Note that the description is of ‘the building of the city to YHWH’. It is not for the glory of a king, or of a people. It is for the glory of YHWH. And the aim is for it to be ‘holy to YHWH’ (compare how the High Priest wore the same words ‘Holy to YHWH’ on his tiara, although there it was symbolic). It is to be set apart wholly to Him, having been cleansed throughout from all sources of defilement, something impossible for a literal city where the activities of the people must constantly result in its being affected by ‘uncleanness’ (which is why even initially the people were not allowed into the Sanctuary and the priests only after purification). We can compare the vivid picture in Isaiah 4. It is the ideas that we are to grasp and not the detail. They are of a place where all is pleasing to God, and watched over by God. Any building of the city which took place prior to this would therefore have this final end in view.

But in the initial physical phase it was to be built according to precise specifications, and it is quite clear that in vision Jeremiah sees a new Jerusalem arising out of the ashes of the old, based mainly on what he knows of that city. Initially it was to be very much a city on earth. Thus he ‘sees’ the rebuilding as commencing at the Tower of Hananel, a tower in the north wall of the city (Nehemiah 3:1; Nehemiah 12:39) and moving on from there to the Corner Gate at the north-west corner (2 Kings 14:13; 2 Chronicles 26:9; Zechariah 14:10; Nehemiah 3:24; Nehemiah 3:32). Then he ‘watches’ as the measuring line goes on to the hill Garob, presumably on the westward side, from the Corner Gate. The hill Garob (the lepers’ hill, compare for the root Leviticus 21:20; Leviticus 22:22, and therefore itself an unclean place) is otherwise unknown, but the idea of the measuring line was of God’s activity in restoration (see Zechariah 2:1-5). The idea of incorporation of the leper area into the new Jerusalem is significant. All will be made holy. He ‘saw’ it then ‘turn about unto Goah’, again otherwise unknown (although the Aramaic Targum boldly paraphrases as ‘the pool of the heifers’ on the basis of a root connection with the verb for the lowing of heifers), but presumably indicating south-westward, leading on to the area of the Valley of Hinnom to the south-east, and the horse gate in the south east corner. The east would be determined by the Kidron valley. Jeremiah’s description of ‘the whole valley of the dead bodies and of the sacrificial ashes, and all the countryside (fields) to the brook Kidron, to the corner of the horse gate toward the east’, brings out the significance of what is happening. All the unclean parts were to be cleansed and incorporated within the city, and the whole was to be ‘holy to YHWH’. The valley described was the site which was seen as the epitome of ‘uncleanness’ (cemeteries were all ‘unclean’ being connected with death, but ‘the valley of the dead bodies’ was probably identical with the Ugaritic ‘Field of Moth (Death)’ which was where the bodies of children sacrificed to Moloch were buried). It has already been vividly described as an area of judgment (compare Jeremiah 7:30-33; Jeremiah 19:4-9), and was also where the city rubbish dump was found. But he ‘saw’ all this area as now having been purified. Indeed he ‘saw’ the whole new city as an ‘ideal city’, made holy to YHWH for ever. (It has to be an ‘ideal’, for no ordinary city could do without a place for refuse, or be completely holy). The word translated ‘fields’ (seremoth) is found only here in the Old Testament and must signify something like fields or terraced land.

And the consequence of the whole area of the city being ‘made holy’ is that it will be established for ever as God’s own possession. As already stated this could not in the end be an earthly city, for no earthly city, not even Jerusalem, could be eternal, or eternally holy. It is in the end indicating the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2-3), in the new Heaven and the new earth, which will go on for ever (Revelation 21:1). So the emphasis is on the fact that God’s presence with them and watch over them would one day become an eternal reality, something vividly brought home in a different way in Revelation 21-22. But it could only be brought home to the people at that time, (who had no concept of a heavenly kingdom for mortal man), by describing it in terms of bricks and mortar. In those days heavenly kingdoms were for the gods (and unlike the new Heaven and the new earth, even they were generally made of bricks and mortar).

The ‘coming days’ will thus result in the rebuilding and replanting of His people; will for these same people have the consequence of a new obedient heart within; and will result in the final perfect state of total holiness to YHWH in the new Jerusalem, which will occur in the new Heaven and the new earth.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jeremiah 31:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jeremiah-31.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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