Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Jeremiah 30:1-3, 18-22
To understand the book of Jeremiah it is helpful to have at least a basic grasp of the radical political and religious changes that the people of God experienced during the tumultuous period from the eighth to the sixth centuries BCE (before the common era). Israel struggled to survive amid the relatively rapid rise and fall of three superpowers in the Ancient Near East: Assyria, Babylon and Persia. The fall and disappearance of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians in 721, the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 587 at the hands of the Babylonians, exile in Babylon until 539, and the return of Judah as a client state in the Persian Empire transformed both the political and religious identity of the people who came to be called Jews.
The prophets who spoke for Jahweh believed that the disastrous events engulfing the covenant people during this time reflected the righteous will of God who ultimately determined the course of history. They saw God’s judgment at work in their tragic losses. Even in their most crushing experiences, however, the prophets pointed to a hopeful future in which God would establish a renewed covenant people.
The book of Jeremiah is especially difficult to interpret because is a collection of material originally authored by Jeremiah but later edited, expanded and rearranged in response to new historical developments.
Jeremiah was called to be a prophet in 627 during the reign of Josiah, whose abortive attempt to restore the nation to its earlier splendor under David and Solomon came to an abrupt end with his death in 609. By 598 — and again in 587 — the Babylonian armies had conquered the defenders of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, taken many of the people into captivity in Babylon and left a remnant struggling to survive in a devastated countryside.
Jeremiah 30:1-3 — Restoration promised
Several biblical scholars have observed, “One of the most remarkable features of the faith of the Old Testament is that the exile … produced not despair, but hope.” The same prophets who saw God active in the catastrophic events culminating in the exile also spoke words of hope in Jahweh’s name. With the familiar introductory phrase “Thus says the Lord … ,” Jeremiah says that better days for Israel and Judah are surely coming. These words are addressed to the tribes of Israel, who had been driven out of their homeland long ago, and to the tribes of Judah, now largely in captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah announces that God will bring the covenant people back to the land God had given their ancestors.
Jeremiah 30:18-21 — Restoration described
Jeremiah boldly asserts that God will “restore the fortunes of the tents of Israel,” that is, the former Northern Kingdom. This oracle of consolation may have come from Jeremiah’s earliest prophesies. It describes God’s determination to re-establish what we sometime refer to as the “10 lost tribes of Israel.” Not only will their cities and strongholds be rebuilt, but also there will be thankful rejoicing and even partying! The reversal of their situation will make them numerous rather than few and held in honor rather than ridicule.
Israel will once again constitute a community that enjoys God’s presence. God will punish those who oppress Israel, Jeremiah promises. And what is more, in words echoing Deuteronomy 17:15, Jeremiah says that a foreign power will not rule over Israel. Instead, a native son of Israel, one of their own, will be the ruler. This ruler will even exercise the priestly prerogative of approaching near to God.
Jeremiah 30:22 — The covenant renewed
Having announced that a restored Israel would return to their homeland and be governed by one of their own, Jeremiah adds that they will also have their fundamental identity renewed. Jeremiah invokes God’s covenant promise: “You shall be my people and I will be your God.” Just as God had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt and brought them into the promised land, so God would again rescue Israel from their enemies and bring them back to their own homeland. Jeremiah prophesied that the Lord would be faithful to God’s covenant promises.
- Can you think of contemporary analogs that might come close to describing the devastating experiences of ancient Israel?
- Are the experiences of Christians living in the Middle East today comparable to the events of Jeremiah’s time?
- Would you have believed Jeremiah’s hopeful picture of Israel’s future?
JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.