This is set for the 5th Sunday in Lent, and it’s the next in a series of Old Testament readings around covenant that the lectionary has provided over the last five weeks. This is a great passage. One commentator even went as far as to say that “here we have the most extreme and most wondrous text in the Old Testament concerning covenant”! Jeremiah chapters 30 and 31 are often called “The Book of Comfort”, and they contain a series of promises from God to the people in exile in the midst of their despair.
This is set for the 5th Sunday in Lent, and it’s the next in a series of Old Testament readings around covenant that the lectionary has provided over the last five weeks. This is a great passage. One commentator even went as far as to say that “here we have the most extreme and most wondrous text in the Old Testament concerning covenant”! Jeremiah chapters 30 and 31 are often called “The Book of Comfort”, and they contain a series of promises from God to the people in exile in the midst of their despair. This promise regarding the covenant is found in this “Book of Comfort”. If you get the opportunity to read through those two chapters please do. You can see just by a glance at the page that they are different - these are set out as poetry in the middle of a sea of prose. God lyrically speaks comfort to God’s people. Interestingly, although the passage we are looking at today reverts to the prose format, there is still much that is poetic about it, particularly in phrasing and cadence.
At face value, the new covenant is greatly contrasted with the old. But on closer reading you see that the new covenant actually stands alongside the old - in the new covenant the old Torah, the law, is still a feature. So the new covenant is not completely new, but I think we’re encouraged to see this as a drastic renewal of the old covenant. Continuity seems to be an important theme in this passage.
The primary matter is that the old covenant of Sinai has been broken - perhaps broken so decisively that it could be declared null and void - but this new (renewed?) covenant will be keepable. God’s promise of a new, keepable covenant in the place of the one that is broken shows God’s resolve and God’s yearning for relationship. The declaration of a new, renewed covenant is an act of God’s greta mercy and grace. God wants an enduring relationship even though the people to this point have been unresponsive and unwilling to change.
Verses 33-34 specify what will be new “after those days”. Firstly, the Torah, the Commandments, will be central and authoritative, just as they were at Sinai, but this time they will be wholeheartedly embraced (unlike the Sinai covenant). The image of being written on their hearts might be taken from Proverbs 6:20-22 where the child in the family is to bind the family commandments “upon your heart” and “around your neck” - in other words close at hand, intimately familiar and readily embraced. The contrast is that the commandments will no longer be resisted as an imposition by an authoritarian God, but they will be readily embraced as the shape for a relationship that the people really want and are keen to enact.
Secondly, the the relationship is marked by the standard covenant formula of mutuality. The formula, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people”, is used a lot in Jeremiah and in Ezekiel. The covenant formula expresses God’s faithfulness. The previous covenant bonding does not seem to have worked, but God still asserts God’s fidelity to the people, even in their exile situation.
Thirdly, the newly formed community of Israel will be full of the knowledge of God. The phrase, “Know the Lord”, acknowledges God’s authority over the whole of life and expresses the people's deep trust and intimacy of God and their renewed obedience to God. If you look at Jeremiah 22:15-16 you can see that knowing God is expressed in caring for the poor and needy. So if we take that alongside what is said here, knowing God may be interpreted as handing over the whole of life to God, and accepting God’s claims, commands and promises as the truth of our own life. This knowing also overcomes all social divisions. There will be no elitism, no experts, no dominant, overwhelming, powerful people. There is communion between people where all are untied in obedience to God. Being in covenant relationship with God is an amazingly egalitarian thing!
Fourthly, the final feature of the renewed covenant is that it is made possible not by the repentance or conversion of Israel, but only by God’s unilateral will and action. God will forgive and forget.
When we read this passage as Christians we can easily make assumptions and we should try to avoid these if we can. One tendency can be that we see this presentation of the covenant as the emergence of individualism. People often assert that Jeremiah discovers the individual, based on 31:29-30 which are the verses just before our reading today. But here we see that God makes this covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. God makes this covenant with the community - individuals only have access to this because they are part of that community.
We also need to be careful not to claim that God’s new covenant with the Church through Jesus has superseded God’s covenant with the Jews. This would be a misreading of the text. We read this ancient text as Christians but first it belonged to the Jews, and both Jews and Christians alike are called to a daily renewed commitment to our relationship with God that is wholehearted and expressed in the way we live our lives. There can also be a tendency to present the new commandment as having no commandments, but this overlooks verse 33. The new covenant is one of radical obedience to God’s commands. These were available to ancient Israel through the Torah, and they are available to us too in the example of Jesus who showed us and taught us what the covenant relationship is all about. God provides the means for us to keep this covenant relationship, and God, in God’s grace and mercy, forgives and forgets and restores what is lost at those times when our commitment wavers.
For further reflection…