Hope for the future (September 14, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Jeremiah 31:31-37 

Much of the book of Jeremiah bemoans the disobedience of God’s people. The desolation of Israel and Judah is poetically described in Jeremiah 12:4: “How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people say, ‘He is blind to our ways.’” Jeremiah declares that God has allowed foreign nations to punish the people for their sins by devastating their land and carrying them off into exile.

Doom and destruction are not the last words from Jeremiah, however. To a defeated and disillusioned people Jeremiah and his heirs also deliver words of hope.

Jeremiah 31:31-32 — A new covenant 

This familiar passage contains one of the most fundamental promises God makes to God’s people. Jeremiah announces that God refuses to let sin and disobedience be the end of the story. God is willing to start anew. When some had questioned whether God even cared about the people and others had given up hope, Jeremiah delivers God’s amazing promise of salvation. “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” God says.

No reason is given for God’s new initiative. It is simply God’s nature to be in covenant relationship with God’s people. Their disobedience does not change God’s primary identity as their creator and redeemer. There is not even a definite time when the new covenant will be established. God only says “The days are surely coming … . ”

God promises to make a new covenant with Israel and Judah. There is not the slightest hint that God’s covenant partner would be different from the original covenant relationship between God and the heirs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Any approach to this text that replaces Israel with the Christian church ignores the plain meaning of this passage. Even the strongly supersessionist interpretation of this passage in Hebrews 8:11-13 is a distorted reading, according to eminent Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann. Supersessonism is the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in God’s redemptive plan. Contrary to that perspective, Jeremiah envisions a new covenant that embraces Israel and all who acknowledge God’s law.

Jeremiah 31:33-34 

— An unbreakable covenant 

The new covenant God promises to make with Israel will be like the traditional covenant in that Jahweh will be Israel’s God and Israel will be God’s chosen people. That is a reality that will never change.

What is new about the covenant is how it will be made known. The reality of God’s covenant love will be indelibly engraved on the hearts of the people. Instead of a law code on tablets or written in a document, God will inscribe the new covenant in the hearts and minds of God’s people. Their very identity will be inextricably shaped by their knowledge of God.

With God’s law embedded in their hearts and minds like an irremovable computer chip, God’s people will be programmed, so to speak, to live in a covenant relationship with God. There will be no need of teachers like Moses or prophets like Jeremiah when God’s new covenant is fully realized. To know God will be at the same time to acknowledge the covenant God who forgives the sins of all persons, from the greatest to the least, who know and acknowledge the new covenant.

Jeremiah 31:35-37 — An eternal covenant 

To emphasize the everlasting character of the new covenant, Jeremiah changes his style from oracular prose to thunderous poetry. The new covenant is as enduring as the ordered world God created. As long as the light of the sun and the regular orbit of the moon and the stars continue, God’s covenant love will endure.

Jeremiah assumes that human beings will never be able to understand fully the nature and scope of the universe, so he says that only if that happens — and he believes it never will — would God’s covenant with Israel be terminated. God’s covenant love is as eternal as the universe itself.

For discussion 

Jeremiah 31:34 links knowledge of God with God’s forgiveness. How important do you think forgiveness is in our experience of God’s covenant love? Can you think of examples of individual or societal forgiveness that illustrate the power of forgiveness?

Do you think modern science has brought us closer to fully understanding the nature of reality or has it increased our sense of awe and wonder? Does the discovery of the so-called “God particle” mean God’s new covenant is in jeopardy?