Among the many oracles of grief, lament, anger, doubt, reproach, woe, and pain by Jeremiah, also known as the “Weeping Prophet,” are words of hope, hope founded not only on the repentance of the people but also rooted in the bountiful mercy and grace of God.
A good example of this is the iconic passage found in chapter 31:27-34. Jeremiah was an eye witness to the plight of the exile and its devastating effects on the people of Jerusalem. All the established structures of the society—temple, monarchy and land—lay in waste and all that one could sense was desolation, suffering, abandonment and pain. The ensuing bedlam can only be imagined by those who have experienced war and conflict. The people were despondent, perhaps angry with God, and doubtful about the power of their God. They were grief-stricken by the loss of life (family) and property (homes, animals, and other forms of wealth) all of which had been either destroyed or plundered by the invading Babylonians. In this context, Jeremiah proclaims a word of hope.
The unit begins with the expression of a hopeful pragmatism indicative of the prophet’s acknowledgement of the suffering of the exilic community. He announces a word of hope, a word that states that the community will endure the exile and will come out of it to experience YHWH’s redeeming justice. The “days are surely coming,” says YHWH, days when YHWH will repopulate the wasted and desolate houses of Israel and Judah with both human and animal seed.
YHWH was present, “watching” over the city as it was plucked up, broken down, overthrown, destroyed and evil brought upon it. It is this watchfulness of YHWH that provided the community with the strength and the resources to cope with the pain brought on by the invasion. Now YHWH “watches”—continues to watch as the community prepares to build and to plant a new life—life after exile. For this to happen YHWH provides resources. YHWH will cease holding succeeding generations responsible for the sins and offenses of their fore-parents. “In those days they shall no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’” Instead, “all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.” The forgiveness and remission of the sin of previous generations affords the present community and their offspring the occasion to renew their relation with YHWH and begin the task of rebuilding the nation and their lives (cf. also Ezekiel 18:2-4).
When this new beginning and new life will commence is not precisely identified. It will be in “the days,” that “are surely coming,” and YHWH will make this possible with the establishment of “a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” The hopeful and inclusive nature and vision of this new covenant cannot be lost, for it also includes the house of Israel which has not been in existence for over a hundred years when Jeremiah spoke these words.
This new covenant reveals that God cares about the community but also about the individual and his/her personal life. The covenant is not new in terms of content (note the reference to the Exodus tradition), rather it is new because of the manner in which it is being given; the Torah is now “within them,” put into each person, and it has also been inscribed or ingrained in/on the hearts of people. The individual is now guaranteed of having been accepted by God. YHWH then confirms that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
The new covenant has been made necessary by the failure of the old one based on established traditions, theologies, rituals and patriotism of the people. The Judahites needed a renewal that was internal, made possible by the internalizing of faith, of belief which would in turn enable and equip people to see and know their God anew, obey God’s commandments and instruction and overcome the guilt of sin and disobedience.
These people will no longer require priestly or scribal mediation to explain or interpret God’s word. The knowledge of God will be readily available to all, irrespective of who they are, because God has forgiven God’s people. This divine forgiveness becomes the “cornerstone of this new spirituality.” Forgiveness has a twofold effect—because the people have been forgiven, they will know God and because they all know God, God need not remember “their sin no more.”
Jeremiah 31:27-34 confirms for us that God is present through the thick and thin of pain and suffering and in the disturbing questions that these experiences raise. God is always on the watch, watching; sometimes silent, allowing us to discover God anew; God will provide the strength and the wherewithal needed to cope with suffering and devastation. But a day will come when God out of God’s grace and mercy will provide the community with all that is needed to overcome this pain and build life anew. God offers the old in new ways to ensure that the message is received afresh and to make the knowledge of God possible.
The passage also reiterates the fact that we as the people of God need to internalize our beliefs. Our words and actions are a reflection of our beliefs about the person and work of the God we say is ours, and this God’s instructions as they are inscribed in our hearts. These directives that we have been given should inform our actions and our involvements, our stances and our responses to the many issues confronting us as individuals and the world today. An internalization of the knowledge of God would energize us, equip us and empower us to behave as God’s children, loved, forgiven, and redeemed.
Forgiveness whether human or divine is not simply wiping out a wrong or denying memory; neither is it acquitting a wrongdoer. Forgiveness is an active, willed and conscious change of heart that succeeds in overcoming naturally felt feelings of anger, resentment, vengeance, and hatred. Forgiveness is in many ways a gift! Forgiving others can benefit both the forgiver and the forgiven physically, mentally, and spiritually. Feelings of anger, hatred, and vengeance cause damage to the physical body. When we act out of anger, we may set in motion a chain of violence from which we find it hard to escape, complicating the situation. We will therefore have to count the cost to ourselves if we do not forgive.
Forgiveness is not an easy task but needs to be done both for the good of our minds and bodies and also because we believe in a forgiving God. When confession and penitence meet forgiveness, reconciliation can happen and relationships can be restored.
 Stulman, Louis and Hyun Chul Paul Kim, You are my People: An Introduction to Prophetic Literature, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 139.
Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon, church worker, theological educator, and a student of the Bible comes from India and teaches Old Testament at the United Faculty of Theology, MCD University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia.