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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of New Covenant Vision—Jeremiah 31:31-34 (Alastair Roberts)

The promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 contains political dimensions that typically pass unrecognized, but which provide a rich description of an ideal polity. This prophetic vision can serve as a powerful counterpart and companion to more conventional political utopias and idealized societies.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The new covenant foretold in Jeremiah 31 is the dawn that will pierce the gruelling night of a shattered people. As they face the destruction of their nation and the prospect of a long and bitter exile, God presents his people with assurance of restoration, lodging the seed of a glorious future hope in the cold, hard soil of Israel and Judah’s winter.

Walter Brueggemann identifies a number of elements to the new covenant promised here.[1] First, there will be a new ‘solidarity’: the separation occasioned by Israel and Judah’s sin will be overcome and YHWH will identify himself as their God and them as his people. By implication, the division within the kingdom itself will end and Israel and Judah will once again be united as a single people (cf. Ezekiel 37:15-28).

Second, there will be a new ‘knowledge’ of YHWH. Brueggemann maintains that this is a reference both to the people’s knowledge of the saving tradition within which YHWH revealed himself (cf. 2:6-8) and to obedience to his ‘commands for justice’ (cf. 22:15-17). The reconstituted nation evinces both a new acquaintance with YHWH’s identity and memory of his work and displays a new loyalty and obedience to him.

Third, the new relation will no longer be characterized by intermediation and the distance that maintained between YHWH and the majority of the people. Middle men with privileged access and knowledge, brokering relations between God and his people, will no longer be necessary. Rather, from the poorest to the richest, the youngest to the oldest, all will enjoy access to God and be acquainted with his truth. ‘All know the story, all accept the sovereignty, and all embrace the commands.’[2]

All of these elements of the new covenant relation are founded upon a great act of divine initiative, an initiative which breaks the ‘vicious cycle of sin and punishment’ within which Israel had become trapped and opens a new page. This initiative takes the form of forgiveness. This involves a re-membering of the people’s broken history, made possible by the fact that YHWH will no longer bring their sin to mind. To this point the people’s history has been a bitter burden, a tale of squandered blessings and the fear of a forfeited birthright. The popular proverb of Jeremiah’s day, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,’ describes the fatalist sense of a people imprisoned by their past. To this demoralized people, YHWH declares a release from all debts, reigniting their guttering hope. Within the past to which they once were shackled—whose weight had threatened to drag them down to the abyss—they will now discover the liberating realization of the promised new covenant knowledge of the forgiving God.

Christian appropriations of this prophetic passage have often been inattentive to its political dimensions, exhausting their applications of it within discussions of the spiritual renewal of individuals and voluntaristic ecclesiologies. Yet both the situation addressed and the promise extended to those within it are political in character. This prophecy is declared to a riven polity, the history recalled is one of national constitution and declension, the predicament answered is national judgment and exile, the sins forgiven are those of kingdoms, and the promised new covenant is to be made with political bodies—the houses of Israel and Judah.

The political dimensions of the new covenant promise can most readily be parsed as we follow the prophet in regarding the new covenant against the foil of the covenant established at Sinai.

At Sinai God graciously gave the Torah as the constituting charter of the people he delivered from Egypt, bringing them into a marriage with him (‘…though I was their husband’—verse 32). Within the new covenant, God will place his law within the minds and hearts of his people. Although we may be accustomed to thinking of the law of God as a code for private morality, there is good reason to regard the law mentioned here as essentially the same as that given at Sinai—a charter for national existence.

As such a charter, the law does not just command, but also vests authority. In Jeremiah 1:9-10, YHWH placed his word in the mouth of the prophet, thereby setting him over kingdoms and nations (cf. Ezekiel 3). The law placed in the hearts and minds of the house of Israel and Judah is a dissemination of political sovereignty to the entire populace, empowering them to act as representatives of YHWH’s authority. The placing of the law in the hearts and minds of the people might also imply an extension of YHWH’s dwelling place. Whereas the Ark of the Covenant once held the tablets of the covenant within the Holy of Holies and was especially associated with the presence of YHWH, now the minds and hearts of all of the people will bear the Torah, extending the most holy space.

As I have already noted, a further dimension of the new covenant is the cessation of intermediation, something that was markedly characteristic of the covenant forged at Sinai, for which Moses was the mediator. As all know YHWH and bear his law in their hearts and minds, the need for particular mediators to negotiate relations with YHWH and act as intermediaries between him and his people—communicating a privileged knowledge of his truth and exercising an authority that is their privileged possession—no longer exists.

Elsewhere in Scripture, the new covenant is associated with the gift of the Spirit. While the Torah is the authorizing charter of national existence, the Spirit is the empowering source of authoritative political leadership. It is the Spirit who rests upon the leaders of Israel. The Spirit given to Moses is placed on the seventy elders in Numbers 11, equipping them for their task of judging and leading the people. At that time, Moses expresses the wish that the Spirit of YHWH would rest upon all of his people, extending the power and gift of rule to the entire nation. The desire articulated by Moses in Numbers 11:29 is presented as a prophecy in Joel 2:28-29 and as a promise being realized by Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21).

Embedded within this prophecy is a fecund vision of a sort of utopian polity, a polity where political authority is the possession of all, where each person is the trusted bearer of the national identity, where our past is restored to us and we are furnished with a future, released from the crushing debts accumulated through past failures. It presents challenges to certain prevailing political notions, not least those which present an antipathy between law and freedom: in Jeremiah’s new covenant, the fullness of freedom arrives through the internalization of the law. The placing of the law in the heart and mind equips and empowers us freely to provide appropriate responses to God’s world, expressing his rule within his creation in loving wisdom and delight.[3]

In a stimulating article on anarcho-monarchism, David Bentley Hart describes the difference between two sorts of political visions that we encounter as we traverse the ‘burning desert floor of history.’ The first ‘hover tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages’ and in the futile pursuit of them we can all be led to our deaths. The second, however, are like ‘cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.’ It seems to me that Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant requires the addition of a further category to this taxonomy, that of the espied promised land. As in pursuing Hart’s mirages, our premature attempts to enter into the reality of such a vision in our political life are doomed to perish deep within the wilderness of human weakness and wickedness. Handled carefully, such a vision can provide benefits akin to Hart’s ‘cooling clouds,’ exposing the limitations of our political realities, protecting us from misrecognition of the relative goods within our polities with more absolute ones, while inspiring us to aim higher. However, unlike both of Hart’s visions, the espied promised land declares the temporariness of the desert of history and, to those with faith to receive, a rich burden of clustered grapes affords a foretaste of that future hope.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 293-294
[2] Ibid. 294
[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics [Second Edition] (Leicester: Apollos, 1994) 24-26.

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