1. Background and introduction
Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in the Vatican City included an image of Jeremiah. The image portrays Jeremiah in contemplation, and many see in the image something of Jeremiah’s deep sorrow and anguish for his disobedient people and the tragic circumstances of God’s impending judgment. Apart from one or two allusions to better days, the book has thus far largely concentrated on judgment and the continual refusal of the people to repent. All this changes in chapters 30 to 33: in this 30th chapter we are afforded a glimpse, in fact more than a glimpse of God’s planned restoration of Israel.
As we discovered in the introduction to this series, Israel’s relationship with God was defined by series of covenants or promises made by God. It all began with Abraham – he was God’s chosen man. It would be through his descendants that the world would be blessed, moreover his people would be given a land forever: this is the Abrahamic covenant. As the people were preparing for life in that land, they agreed to live by the law as given to Moses: this is the Mosaic covenant. The law was written on tablets of stone and provided requirements for moral, social and religious life as the nation was forming and as they wandered in the wilderness. When the time came to enter into the promised land, another agreement was made: if the people lived in obedience, they would be blessed but if they were disobedient, they would be cursed. Despite future failure and consequent curses, God would eventually redeem the nation and bless them: this is the Deuteronomic covenant. In a fourth covenant, God promised King David a dynasty from which would come a king who would reign on David’s throne forever: this is the Davidic covenant. Finally, and Jeremiah is about to announce it in chapter 31, there would be a new promise which would forever change the hearts of the people: rather than a law written in tablets of stone, the law would be written on the hearts of the people. The people would experience an internal change that would equip them for an enduring right relationship with God: this is the new covenant. It is because of these promises or covenants that Israel could look forward to a day when judgment would be a thing of the past and the benefits of God’s provision would be fully realised.
I meet many Christian people who are totally disinterested in what God says the future will hold, they are put off by other Christians who are at the other end of the spectrum, Christians who are obsessive and go overboard about such things. I had my first experience of downhill skiing last week. My wife and I took lessons from an instructor who taught us the basics on the nursery slopes in Wengen, Switzerland. On the third day of lessons he took us up the mountain and within a short time I was somewhat concerned to see that the slope on which we were descending became so steep that there was no sight of what lay over the next horizon! But our instructor knew the layout of the slope and told us exactly what to expect and how we should navigate it. It was a great reassurance to know what lay beyond the horizon. God wanted Israel and Judah to know what the future held for them. He provided detailed information for their benefit. This 30th chapter of Jeremiah provides information on what the future held for Israel and Judah. In a nutshell the long-term future would be characterised by blessing preceded by difficulty and God’s wrath. Since the promises and covenants described above were made specifically with Israel, we in our church age should be careful to observe the rules of interpretation as we understand the differences between God’s plans for Israel and his separate plans for the church. In God’s mercy we in the church do not look forward to a day of wrath: rather we have a blessed hope! The apostle Paul specifically indicates that we are not appointed to wrath (See 1 Thessalonians 5:9). We like Israel do well to show a keen interest in what God has revealed of our future – it is given for our benefit.
As we come to chapter 30, we should remember the basic rules of interpretation: who is speaking, to whom are they speaking and what are the circumstances and context in which the communication is made. It is crystal clear that it is God who is speaking in this passage (through Jeremiah). It seems that this has been especially emphasised in chapter 30: I count 13 instances in which we read ‘this is what the Lord says’ or words to that effect. On no less than 20 occasions the speaker (The Lord) identifies himself with the first person singular: ‘I’. There can be no doubt that God is speaking. Thus far we have been careful to point out that Jeremiah’s message was primarily for Judah, the southern kingdom. But here, God addresses Judah and Israel. I count 7 times when this is made clear in the chapter – both Israel and Judah are mentioned as well as ‘Jacob’ which takes us back to the nation before it became divided.
So, God speaks to Israel and Judah under incredibly difficult circumstances: Israel had already experienced God’s judgment and had been largely scattered by the Assyrians. Judah was about to experience God’s judgment – some people would be exiled and those who remained to fight the Babylonians would be wiped out. Despite this God has a remarkable message of hope in Jeremiah chapter 30! The hope is based on God’s promises. The Lord sets out the big message of chapter 30 in verse 3: The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave to their ancestors to possess,” says the Lord.’ We will reserve judgment for now as to whether this refers to the return from captivity in Babylon after 70 years or some other event.
2. First judgment
The bible speaks frequently of ‘The day of the Lord.’ This day is often referred to as ‘that day’ and it is used in much the same way as we refer to periods of time such as ‘in my day.’ The day of the Lord concerns Israel and seems to follow the chronology of a Jewish day which begins at sunset: first darkness and then dawn. The day of the Lord thus begins with a period of darkness and judgment for Israel followed by a day period of blessing and prosperity. God speaks first of this period of judgment on Israel and Judah: 7 How awful that day will be! No other will be like it. It will be a time of trouble for Jacob. This period will be known for cries of fear and terror, not peace (verse 6). God uses a picture of the pains of child birth in verse 6: Ask and see: can a man bear children? Then why do I see every strong man with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labour, every face turned deathly pale? Much is written of this period by other prophets and by Jesus himself who spoke of this period in Matthew 24 as he addressed the disciples. He too used the metaphor of birth pains: 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth-pains. Israel will indeed go through a difficult experience: the time of Jacob’s trouble.
Just as a woman goes through the intense pain of labour so there is a time when the pain ceases and a new child comes into the world. So, it would be for Judah and Israel – their time of great difficulty would give way to a time of rescue and restoration.
3. Restoration and Rescue
God’s plan for Israel is that they would be a light for the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6) and that his glory would be seen through them (Isaiah 46: 13). As a result of Israel’s sin and waywardness they failed to be light and failed to bring God glory: rather than serving the Lord they served other nations! They had been subservient to Egypt and Assyria and now to the Babylonians. Jeremiah had asserted this graphically with the yoke he made for himself. Now God says ‘‘“In that day,” declares the Lord Almighty, “I will break the yoke off their necks and will tear off their bonds; no longer will foreigners enslave them (verse 8).’ It’s tempting to assume that when the 70 years of exile in Babylon was complete and the nation would return to the promised land that this event would bring an end to this situation of serving other nations. Sadly, this was not to be the case. When Daniel realised that the 70 years of servitude in Babylon was almost complete, he prayed that the people would be spiritually ready for return. Daniel received a staggering response from God, brought to him by the archangel Gabriel: they would have to wait not another 70 years but 70 x 7 years! During that time other nations would dominate. There is good evidence that when the Messiah presented himself to Israel as their king on Palm Sunday that the nation had an opportunity to trigger the Day of the Lord, but they rejected their king, crucified him and the nation was scattered once again in 70AD. But here in Jeremiah 30, God says, that rather than serving other nations they would serve God: ‘9 Instead, they will serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.’ There will come a time, when they will indeed serve the son of David! This has not taken place in history up to this time, but when God speaks with such clarity, we can be sure that Israel will one day serve the Lord their God and David their king. Who is David their king? This is no doubt Messiah Jesus who will come to take David’s throne in Jerusalem. What a day that will be!
If God’s plans for Israel are to be realised, he must one day bring them back to the promised land. The modern nation of Israel was formed in 1948 – just 3 years after the efforts of the Nazi’s to wipe them from the face of the earth. Today Israel is in total unbelief – they have not recognised the Messiah, they have not turned to God – they are in no way serving God. They are currently surrounded by enemies. God has a message for them: 10 ‘“So do not be afraid, Jacob my servant; do not be dismayed, Israel,” declares the Lord. “I will surely save you out of a distant place, your descendants from the land of their exile. Jacob will again have peace and security, and no one will make him afraid. 11 I am with you and will save you,”
This seems most unlikely and difficult to accept, but these are the words of the Lord himself! It appears Israel is beyond help, they have no time for Jesus. God describes their situation as like an incurable wound – an injury that cannot be healed, a pain that cannot be relieved. It seems to me that this characterises Israel’s condition in Jeremiah’s time, in the time of the Lord, in the time the gospel was preached by Peter and Paul and in recent history too. The incurable wound has come about because of Israel’s sin. But a change will take place!
Israel over the millennia have suffered greatly at the hands of other nations. Even in our day the major opposition party in the UK has been shown to be ‘institutionally antisemitic.’ Israel has few friends in this world, but here’s what God says: 6 ‘“But all who devour you will be devoured; all your enemies will go into exile. Those who plunder you will be plundered; all who make spoil of you I will despoil. When God’s restoration takes place Israel will no longer fear her enemies.
God himself will rebuild the nation: 18 ‘This is what the Lord says: I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents and have compassion on his dwellings; the city will be rebuilt on her ruins, and the palace will stand in its proper place. And the people will sing songs of thanksgiving and joy (verse 19)!
This glorious future is summed up in verse 22: 22 ‘“So you will be my people, and I will be your God.”’
As Jeremiah delivered this remarkable message of hope he must have been saddened that the generation to whom the message was addressed had turned away from the Lord, but God has promised one day they will be restored. For such a restoration to be effective, God would need to effect an internal change in the hearts of the people: more of this in the next chapter. This remarkable chapter is a reminder that God is faithful to the promises he makes – even when all seems lost, even when it seems the Christian message is ignored, even when the voice of the church and Christians is considered irrelevant, we need not lose hope.