The Relentless Fidelity of God—Jeremiah 31:31-34

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Jeremiah dared to proclaim a covenant renewed, a world revived, a future resurrected. In the midst of a broken world, Jeremiah declared God’s endless fidelity, which brings forth life in the midst of death and despair.

31The 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.

Throughout the season of Lent, we have focused on the injustices of the world and our need for repentance and renewal. This week, as we begin to make the liturgical pivot toward Palm Sunday and then Easter, the lectionary at last offers us a glimmer of the possibilities of a resurrected community.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote in a time of uncertainty, in which the future of the world was very much in doubt. His writings span the decades that witnessed the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem, taking many of the elites of Judah away into exile. Jerusalem and its temple lay in ruins, the promises of God seeming to have failed.

Into that despairing world, the prophet Jeremiah dared to speak a word of hope—a word that yet resonates during our own uncertain times. Jeremiah envisioned a new world taking shape out of the old, instigated by the relentless fidelity of the God of Israel.

Jeremiah places his word of hope directly on God’s lips, repeating the Hebrew phrase ne’um YHWH in each verse of the passage. While the NRSV translates ne’um YHWH as “says the LORD,” the Hebrew phrase conveys far more confidence. The noun ne’um, meaning a declaration or decision, refers exclusively to divine declarations. Human beings cannot make such declarations.

What’s more, the promises in this passage are made using the proper name of God, Yahweh. This is the biblical equivalent of God saying, “My name is Yahweh and I approve this message.” God has committed the divine Self to the process of bringing about this new covenant. It is coming, Jeremiah insists. You can believe it.

The announcement of the covenant in 31:31 is artistically rendered in the Hebrew, which reads,

I will make
      with the house of Israel
      and with the house of Judah
a new covenant.

The announcement begins and ends with God’s action, “I will make…a new covenant.” These words surround the houses of Israel and Judah, enfolding them in a covenant declaration that is God’s action alone. It is God who initiates the covenant and God who consummates it. Israel and Judah are swept up in God’s action, which requires nothing of them. The renewed community Jeremiah envisions cannot be created by human efforts alone, but only by the free action of a God of unfettered grace.

To create this community, God declares that “I will put my law (torati) within them. I will write it on their hearts” (33:33). While the NRSV translates torati as “my law,” the term might better be translated as “my instruction” or simply by its root, “my Torah.” It refers not to a legal code, per se, but to a way of life lifted up in the five books of Moses. The essence of the new covenant is the old, old Torah of God, revealed to Moses at Sinai.

That Torah envisions a community in which the care of the most vulnerable takes precedence over profit margins (Leviticus 19:9-10). That Torah establishes a society in which the courts treat people justly (Leviticus 19:15). That Torah requires that all debts be forgiven so that no one falls into the trap of generational poverty (Deuteronomy 15:1-6). That Torah insists that immigrants must be treated with respect (Leviticus 19:33-34) and that everyone must love their neighbor as they love themselves (Leviticus 19:18). That Torah demands that all land be periodically returned to its original owner so that no one can accumulate property while their neighbors become homeless (Leviticus 25:8-18). The renewed community, grounded in God’s Torah, is to be such a community of justice.

What distinguishes the new covenant envisioned by Jeremiah from the old covenant delivered at Sinai concerns God’s role in fulfilling the covenant. Before, God had inscribed the covenant on tablets, and the people had sworn to observe it. Now God declares that

I will put my Torah within them, and
I will write it on their hearts, and
I will be their God, and
They will be my people (31:33)

All of the action in this verse again belongs to God. God puts the Torah within people, God writes it on their hearts, God becomes their God. Only after these divine actions does the verse shift focus to the people, and then only to declare that “they will be my people.” In this new covenant, God moves toward the people and makes them God’s own.

God claims the people by placing the Torah in their hearts and in their minds. This new covenant will not take the form not of a written legal code. Rather, God will give the people an innate capacity to live out the justice and righteousness that that the Torah demands. The people will do justice and love kindness as second nature, because it has been inscribed upon their hearts.

As a result, it will no longer be necessary for people to teach one another the law or to insist that another person should “Know the LORD” (31:34). Rather, God says, “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

As Jose Miranda has shown, for Jeremiah this “knowledge of God” means something more than some abstract religious affirmation or confession of faith. Elsewhere, Jeremiah describes knowing God this way:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,” and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion. Are you a king because you compete in cedar?

Did not your father eat and drink and do justice righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy, then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the LORD. (Jeremiah 22:13-16)

For Jeremiah, knowing God means judging the cause of the poor and needy. Knowing God means prioritizing the well-being of the oppressed and downtrodden over enriching oneself. Knowing God means making sure everyone is housed before anyone expands their upper room. It means paying people fair wages rather than exploiting their labor. It means living in solidarity with the poor, not seeking the company of kings.

The community of this new covenant will share these values of justice and righteousness “from the least of them to the greatest” (31:34). Jeremiah envisions a people bound together by a commitment that all people should be treated with human dignity and respect. It isn’t that all distinctions will be eliminated—there will still be “least and greatest”—but within those distinctions there will be justice and dignity for all.

For the people of Jeremiah’s day, these promises must have sounded impossible. The people were exiled, the city in ruins. The world seemed broken. Yet Jeremiah dared to proclaim a covenant renewed, a world revived, a future resurrected. In the midst of a broken world, Jeremiah declared God’s endless fidelity, which brings forth life in the midst of death and despair.

Such, too, is the task of Easter faith today. In a world enshrouded in death’s dark shadow, we dare to speak of resurrection. In a world that has lost hope, we proclaim a God who is yet making all things new.

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