The UK is currently undergoing the Brexit process and it’s a mess! The future is completely uncertain – each day seems to add to the chaos and rather than the certainty of leaving the European Union on 29th March we have no clear idea of where the country is headed. In Judah there was also chaos, but through Jeremiah, the Lord made it clear what would happen and why. The people had persistently disobeyed and had run after false gods: now judgment would come. Those who listened to the warnings could choose life by surrendering to the Babylonians. Those who decided to fight and resist the Babylonians were those who did not listen to the warnings and effectively chose death. Since God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob a future and since God had promised an end of curses to Moses, there would be ultimate rescue for Judah and Israel. Chapter 31 is a continuation of the ideas presented in chapter 30: Israel is about to go through judgment, but God will be faithful to the promises he made to his choice people.
We note once again that this message comes from the Lord – no fewer than 22 times are we reminded that whilst Jeremiah is the spokesperson, the message comes from the Lord. Judah could not miss the importance of this message, and neither should we!
1. Rest for God’s people
You know how it feels, you’ve worked hard all year and the summer holiday beckons! Two weeks of escape from all the hard work, two weeks of rest! Judah (the southern nation ) was about to be exiled or destroyed, Israel (the northern tribes) had already undergone judgment: now the Lord says ‘I have come to give rest for Israel!’ This is not just a two week holiday! This seems to be a permanent change from struggle, sword and strife to permanent rest. The foundation of this change is God’s love: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love (verse 3).’ It seems that God’s foundation character is love and righteousness: 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3). God satisfied his righteousness through the death of the Lord Jesus – why, because he loved the world. This is not a meaningless symbolic love, it is a love that makes a difference: whoever believes will not perish but have everlasting life! I have heard more than one Christian say that God does not love everyone – this fills me with great sorrow, how could we misrepresent God in such a way, how could we take the good news of the gospel and turn it into bad news. God is love! And the basis of Israel’s hope was God’s love.
This is love that makes a difference. The destroyed towns of Israel? They will be rebuilt. The mourning for a lost homeland, lost prosperity and lost lives will be replaced with joy: get the tambourines out and go out and dance! This is not a momentary phase of peace, but Israel was to invest in a prosperous future. The shadow of Brexit hangs over the housing market and companies are holding back on future investments, but Israel were to look to the future and plant vineyards. This may not sound like much to us, but it would take 5 years to establish a productive vine: the message is that this would be a good investment: God’s prosperity would be lasting. What about the many enemies Israel faced? Shouldn’t they be preparing to defend themselves from their aggression? No! Change the job descriptions of the watchmen says the Lord – rather than warning of invading armies their new job will be to call the people to meet the Lord in Jerusalem!
The conditions in this new phase in Israel’s existence will be exceedingly good! The people will shout for joy, they will know great prosperity; new wine, olive oil, young flocks and herds (verse 12). Comfort and joy will replace sorrow. This might remind you of a Christmas carol: tidings of comfort and joy! When the Messiah comes, this will be the outcome. It must have brought great comfort to Jeremiah to bring this news – and for those who were listening (and there were some) – it must have seemed almost too good to be true!
2. The remnant
The Lord invites the people to say: ‘Lord save your people, the remnant of Israel.’ There has always been a sense that to be a Christian is to be in a minority. As a teenager in the 70s it felt as though Christians really were heading in the opposite direction to everyone else, back then it seems to me Christians were not disliked, more they were considered a bit out of step with the fashions of the day. 40 to 50 years later, Christians are more of a minority than ever before, but perhaps more notably there is a growing intolerance, dislike and antagonism to Christians today. We’re not seen as peddlers of Victorian morals anymore but as enemies of diversity and guilty of more than a few ‘phobics.’ Our situation today would have I think been quite recognisable for Jeremiah. Despite the nation’s religious history there were just a few who had remained true. Perhaps they were tolerated for a while, but now Jeremiah was certainly seen as the enemy within. Elijah in the Northern kingdom experienced the same. At one point he thought he was the only faithful one left in the country and he feared for his life! But God had reserved 7000 people who had remained faithful.
Israel and Judah had experienced a long and slow decline from the heady days of King David and King Solomon. The nation(s) had corporately turned their backs on the Lord. Both the political and religious elite had turned away from what was right. But there was always a few who remained true: the remnant. In his important discussion on the fate of Israel, the apostle Paul points out that since Israel had turned away from the Lord they had been temporarily set aside or cut off from their privileged position. This came about because of their unbelief. Paul however points out that God had preserved a remnant. Some people have suggested (quite wrongly) that the remnant were somehow a product of an involuntary act of God’s sovereign will. Quite the opposite is true. There was a remnant because a few people had faith in God and as a result God preserved them. So, in Jeremiah’s time there was a remnant of those who remained true and who exercised faith in God – and God preserved them! What an encouragement to Jeremiah when it seemed that everyone was against him! God would preserve those who were faithful to him and ultimately the nation would turn in faith too. This ought to be an encouragement to us too as we find ourselves in such a hostile world – surely God will preserve us too as we believe and have faith.
3. Hope don’t weep!
Jacob loved Rachel and ended up with her sister! Eventually through a rather unsavoury set of circumstances, Jacob did indeed marry Rachel, but Rachel’s life was not an easy one. While her sister was having babies (lots of them) she had none. It was a source of great sorrow. In her despair she said to her husband: ‘give me children or I die!’ (Genesis 30). Eventually she did have children: Joseph (who became father to Manasseh and Ephraim) and Benjamin. The name of Ephraim ultimately came to represent the Northern tribes and Benjamin was part of the Southern tribe, Judah. Sadly, Rachel died as she gave birth to Benjamin. Both her children who became associated with both the north and southern tribes were born under circumstances of distress and sorrow. Now the northern nation was gone, and Judah was about to be destroyed! Verse 15 states: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’ The mourning was for both Rachel’s children which seems to speak of both the Northern kingdom and the Southern kingdom. Mourn indeed. But the morning was to come to an end: ‘16 This is what the Lord says: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded.’ The hope granted to Rachel was that her children would return from their exile to the land: ‘17 So there is hope for your descendants, ’declares the Lord. ‘Your children will return to their own land.’ As we saw in the previous chapter this is a promise to the whole of Israel that is yet to find its fulfilment. Any denial of this is at best a misinterpretation and at worst a denial of the very words of the Lord! Interestingly the conditions under which this return are to take place involve a response, Ephraim had strayed, but he repented (verse 19) and as a result was reinstated. This was exactly the message of Jesus to Israel when he preached the gospel of the kingdom: repent for the kingdom is at hand. The nation had not repented in Jeremiah’s day, they had not repented when Jesus preached, they had not repented when Peter and the apostles had preached, but there will come a day when they will respond! Associated with this return is the rather cryptic verse 22: ‘The Lord will create a new thing on earth – the woman will return tothe man.’ It’s not exactly clear what this means, but there’s at least a case that it is referring to the coming of Messiah: the seed of the woman.
This return to the land and the conditions of prosperity, safety and wellbeing will also be accompanied with a new order of justice. Previously the people would say ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge (verse 29).’ This seems to mean that up until that time justice was not necessarily served: the sin of one man influenced the innocent. We certainly see this today. But when the Messiah comes and when the nation of Israel is resettled, perfect justice will be realised: ‘30 Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes – their own teeth will be set on edge.’ Such far reaching changes in the human condition could only be brought about by a fundamental change in the relationship of the people to God. Such a fundamental change is the subject of the next part of the chapter which will be considered in the next section of this series.