A New Covenant with Old Aspirations – Jeremiah 31.31-34
The vision set before us in our text from the prophet Jeremiah is filled with hope. But it is hope, not actuality. It is future, not present. It is surely coming, but in an undefined number of days ahead. This is a familiar text that can be understood only when its context is understood. So, let us begin by situating Jeremiah 31 within its historical and literary context.
Jeremiah’s prophetic career began at a turbulent time. For many decades the Assyrian Empire controlled the Ancient Near East, and had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and taken much of its populace into exile in 722 BCE. Jeremiah was born about 80 years later, in 640 BCE, and received his prophetic calling around 627 BCE when he was 12 or 13, just as Assyrian power was waning and Babylonian power was waxing. His call is found in chapter 1, verse 10:
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, says the LORD:
To pluck up and to tear down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build up and to plant.
For the first thirty years of his ministry (from age 12 to 42), Jeremiah enacted the first half of this calling—the dark and difficult task of critique found in chapters 2-25. In these opening chapters the reader discovers what Jeremiah understood the aspiration of God’s law to be through his critique of his nation’s leaders. We will return to these texts a little later.
In an odd parallel, while Jeremiah was seeking to “pluck up, tear down, destroy and overthrow” the unjust systems and structures within his nation, the emerging Babylonian Empire was seeking to “pluck up, tear down, destroy and overthrow” the Assyrian Empire.
In 612 BCE, Babylon succeeded, conquering the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and ending the long-reign of the Assyrians. Then, for seven years more, while Jeremiah continue to battle the injustice within Judah, Egypt and Babylon continued to battle for control of the Ancient Near East. Finally, Babylon defeated Egypt at the Battle of Carchemesh in 605 BCE, making them the ruling power and making the nation of Judah their vassal state.
Judah’s acceptance of Babylonian rule was tenuous. Sometimes Judah’s leaders were compliant and loyal; other times they rebelled by withholding tribute payments and talking with Egypt about alliances against Babylon. Tired of such tumultuous behavior, Babylon sent its military into Judah in 597 BCE, captured its capital city of Jerusalem and deported much of its ruling class to Babylon. Ten years later, in 587 BCE, Jewish rebellion resurfaced and the Babylonian army returned. This time they destroyed the walls of Jerusalem, as well as the Temple, and deported more of the upper-class elites, leaving only the poorest Judeans as a “docile, compliant colon[y].” It is between the first and second deportations that Jeremiah’s message in chapter 31 is situated.
Babylon’s conquest in 597 BCE brought darkness to Judah and concluded the first half of Jeremiah’s calling—to pluck up and to tear down, to overthrow and to destroy. What Jeremiah and God hoped would happen through the leaders’ repentance, happened when Babylon’s imperial expansion resulted in the defeat of Judah and the exile of its leaders. Everything was being made new, but by Babylon not God.
This left the second half of Jeremiah’s calling—to build and to plant—principally carried out in chapters 30-31, known as “the book of comfort or consolation,” in which the light of grace-filled sermons emerged, unexpectedly, in the deep darkness brought by conquest and exile.
For the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, both Israel and Judah, proclaims Jeremiah in verse 3 of chapter 30.
For the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down…so I will watch over them to build and to plant, the hopeful refrain continues in chapter 31, verses 27-28.
Then comes this morning’s text in verses 31-34: For 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. It 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 master, says the LORD. But 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. No 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 now more.
And finally, verses 38 and 40: For the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt…[and] shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.
This message of comfort progresses through a series of “days are surely comings” and “thus says the LORDs,” which promise that everything plucked up and torn down will someday be rebuilt and replanted until all has been made new—by God not Babylon this time.
This is a message of discontinuity—there will be replanting and rebuilding by means of a new covenant. But this is also a message of continuity—it is the same God, the same people, the same promises and the same aspirations.
The covenant is new, but not because there is a change in covenant partners—it remains a covenant between God and the Hebrew people. The covenant is new, but not because there is a change in purpose—the same law and the same aspirations are present. The covenant is new, but not because there is a change in the entrance requirements—it was entered by God’s gracious gift before and it is entered by God’s gracious gift now.
The covenant is new because the law, the dream of God, will dwell within the hearts of all people. Everyone who accepts the gracious offer of covenant will no longer carry out God’s law from a sense of external obligation, but from a sense of internal opportunity because God’s will and ways will be a source of deep joy and delight, the kind described in Psalm 119.
This begs the question, what is the law that will be written upon the peoples’ hearts? Or, better phrased, what is the aspiration of this law that will bring deep and lasting joy to those who follow it? To answer this we return to the first twenty-five chapters of Jeremiah in which his message of critique reveals the goal, the aim, the aspiration of God’s covenant law, namely, the creation of a just society.
Jeremiah’s “pluck up and tear down” message begins in chapter 2 as God grieves the fact that Judah turned aside from the law to worship idols. These idols, Jeremiah reveals, are the false gods of profit and prestige, of wealth and well being for a few at the expense of the many.
The ruling classes of Judah came under Jeremiah’s ire because they failed to enact a just society, which was the aspiration of God’s law. Instead, they exploited the lower classes for profit and “the lifeblood of the innocent poor” stained their garments (2.34).
“Scoundrels are found among the people,” God says through Jeremiah, “who take the goods, the possessions belonging to others” and thereby “become great and rich, fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not rule with justice, they do not defend the orphan or the rights of the needy,” that is, the members of society who have no voice, no protection, not security, no support (5.26-29).
“There is nothing but oppression within [Jerusalem], violence and destruction are kept fresh within her gates” (6.7). “Everyone is greedy for unjust gain, both prophet and priest. Everyone deals falsely” (6.13). There is “oppression upon oppression and deceit upon deceit” because the people refuse to follow the will and the ways, the law, of God (9.6).
Jeremiah’s message of critique reveals that social justice was at the heart of the covenant and that social justice was the central aspiration of the law the leaders had continually rejected. The exploitation and abuse of the poor by Judah’s ruling class is the idolatry of which Jeremiah speaks, and for which Jeremiah believed they suffered conquest and exile.
A just society, Jeremiah proclaims, in which everyone has sufficient provision for the day and no one is exploited or abused by another for profit or gain is at the heart of the covenant law. It is this law, this vision, this dream that drove Jeremiah to “pluck up and tear down” and then to “build and to plant” through his sermons. Both aspects of his calling have the same aspiration—a society filled with the justice of God in which everyone’s needs are met and no one is exploited or abused.
Persistent injustice plunged Judah into the deep and dismal darkness of conquest and exile. And it is into this darkness that God offers (through Jeremiah) a word of grace-filled light—The days are surely coming when I will build and plant a nation of justice-seekers by placing my law, my will, my desire for a just society within the hearts of my people. No longer will they follow the gods of power, prestige and position that cause them to think it acceptable to exploit and trample upon the poor and lowly. Instead, my dream will live at the center of their lives, enlivening their mind and will so that they will follow me, the God who loves justice and compassion and righteousness, the God who is the only true God because I seek the life and well being of all people in all places, not just a few people in a few places.
This wondrous text of hope in Jeremiah 31 offers a new covenant with old aspirations, which is what the season of Lent offers us as well. A chance to begin again by plucking up and tearing down the injustice in our own lives. An opportunity to overthrow and destroy the false gods we all follow sometimes—the false gods that tell us to look after our own interests and neglect others; the false gods that tell us to disdain and neglect the poor among us by causing us to believe the lie that it is their poor choices alone that put them there (and, by contrast, that it is our wise choices alone that put us here); the false gods that tell us abundant life is found in the accumulation of more and more stuff; the false gods that tell us the destructive lie that life is about the pursuit of our own well-being and security no matter the cost to others; and the list could go on.
So, in this Lenten season, let us dare to examine our lives deeply (even if what we find disturbs us), and let us dare to pluck up and tear down, to overthrow and destroy these false gods that promote injustice and prevent us from caring for and loving our neighbor and our stranger as much as we care for and love ourselves.
When we do this, then Jeremiah’s promise of God rebuilding and replanting with the justice of selfless, redeeming love can begin in us.
When we have plucked up and torn down the false gods that enslave and destroy us, then seeds of God’s dream, God’s law, God’s new covenant with old aspirations can be sown deep within our hearts, which will grow and flourish until the life and love and laughter of all people becomes the driving force of our lives. O God, let it be so! AMEN.
 Birch, et al, A Theological Introduction, 330-331.