Shortly after the Israelites were supernaturally led out of Egyptian slavery, God invoked a covenant with them that imposed legal requirements on their religious, social and moral lives. The law was given to Moses and was epitomised by the 10 commandments written by the divine hand on two tablets of stone. Despite the value that this covenant brought to the national life of Israel it had not prevented the situation that Jeremiah was living under: a complete breakdown and failure in the moral and spiritual life of Israel. God’s message to Judah through Jeremiah was one of death and destruction for those who did not listen, and exile for 70 years for those who did!
Despite impending judgment, God afforded Jeremiah and the people a glimpse into a remarkable and glorious future for the nation. Last time we saw that there would be joy, dancing, prosperity, justice and peace. How could this come about? This latter part of chapter 31 has the answer, and what an answer it is!
1. A failed covenant
God had made a covenant with Israel shortly after they escaped slavery in Egypt. We know this covenant as the law – specifically the 10 commandments and the accompanying instructions on many aspects of national and personal life in Israel. This covenant was formally renewed by the people on several occasions. For example, 40 years after Moses received the law, and the people were about to enter the promised land, there was a solemn renewal of the covenant as described in the book of Deuteronomy. The covenant was also renewed under Joshua (Joshua 23), Samuel (1 Samuel 12), King Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29-31) and in Jeremiah’s lifetime under King Josiah (2 Chronicles 34). Despite this, the situation in Israel was disastrous. As a result of persistent national sinfulness, the northern tribes had been exiled under defeat by the Assyrians and now Judah faced destruction at the hands of the Babylonians – the only hope was to surrender and endure a lengthy exile. How could all the wonderful future promises of joy, prosperity, security, peace and justice be realised if the present situation was to continue. Under the covenant of the law, the nation had repeatedly failed. Something had to change. The change would come at God’s initiation and it would come in the form of a new covenant, a new promise, a new agreement. Covenants come in various forms. Sometimes in the form of a treaty in which a stronger party places obligations on a weaker party: the treaty of Versailles at the end of the first world war placed obligations on the defeated nations. A contract tends to be an agreement made between parties of equal bargaining power and places mutual obligations on each party. We have contracts of employment in which the employer makes promises with respect to pay and conditions and the employee makes promises with respect to the work they will do – a biblical example is the contract Jacob made with Laban. Finally, a grant is a form of covenant in which a stronger party places obligations on himself to a weaker party. When God made his promise to Abraham it was a grant – Abraham just had to respond in faith. The Mosaic covenant (the law), or Old Covenant was a treaty covenant in which obligations were placed on the people. Under the terms of the covenant on the negative side there was to be no idolatry, no sexual perversion, no blasphemy and no injustice. On the positive side there was to be worship of the Lord and obedience to laws relating to the Sabbath as well as giving of tithes. Failure to obey the covenant would bring curses upon the people.
It becomes clear that the obligations placed on Israel were not being met and the problem was that the law was an external remedy for an internal problem: the sin nature.
2. A New Covenant
If Israel and Judah were to benefit from the promises God had made to them, a change was needed. Verses 31 and 32 state the following: 31 ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband tothem,’ declares the Lord. This is clear; this new covenant would not be like the covenant that God had made with the nation at the time of their release from Egypt. That covenant was the Mosaic covenant: the law. So what’s the nature of this new covenant? 33 ‘This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ Rather than the law being written on tablets of stone the law would be written on the hearts of the people – rather than being an external influence, this new covenant would involve internal change. It would transform the relationship of the people and God: I will be their God and they will be my people! The new relationship will be founded on forgiveness of wickedness, God would no longer remember their sin. The prophet Ezekiel also mentions this new covenant (Ezekiel 36:26): 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. This is a completely new relationship – a new heart and God’s Spirit indwelling people to enable then to live right.
The context of God’s word to Jeremiah is important, the repeated failure of the people will become a thing of the past when the New Covenant comes into operation. The nation’s future is bound up with this promise: 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God (Ezekiel 36). Furthermore, the New Covenant will result in a restoration of the land: 35 They will say, ‘This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited (Ezekiel 36: 35). The future of Jerusalem would be secure: The city will never again be uprooted or demolished (Jeremiah 31: 40).
It was not until the New Testament that the full extent of this New Covenant became fully known. It was at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ that the New Covenant came into being. You may remember that the curtain in the Temple was torn in two at the point of the Lord’s death – there would no longer be a need for a priest to kill an animal and offer its blood on the mercy seat, Jesus’s blood had been shed as a once-and-for-all sacrifice. When Jesus celebrated Passover with the disciples he said: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you (Luke 22: 20). A new era was beginning!
A hugely important question arises from all of this. Why is Israel not deriving any benefit from the New Covenant that was promised to them? There is no doubt that the promises associated with the New Covenant have not been realised, the question is why? The answer is not difficult to find. Israel rejected the Messiah and hung him on the cross, but in God’s mercy they were given a second chance on the day of Pentecost. On that day 3,000 were added to the group of disciples. Interestingly at the time the Old Covenant was given about 3,000 were killed! Shortly after Pentecost the nation emphatically refused to believe and ratified their decision with the martyr of Stephen.
So what happens now? It becomes crystal clear that as Israel rejected the New Covenant, God turned his attention away from Israel to the Gentiles. A hitherto unforeseen move took place to set Israel aside and for Gentiles (and some Jews) to become God’s agency on earth as the church. We now are beneficiaries of the New Covenant promise made to Israel. We celebrate communion with the Lord’s words: ‘this is the new covenant in my blood.’ What becomes clear is that not all the provisions of the New Covenant can be received by the church – the associated promises of peace, prosperity and justice can only apply to Israel. Attempts to force fit these promises to the church merely twist God’s words to mean something that they wee never intended to mean. So, has Israel permanently blown it? Is this promise withdrawn from Israel and just partly fulfilled in the church? Not at all says Paul the apostle to the Gentiles. Israel’s day will come – because God keeps his promises! Of course he does – how could we ever doubt this!
One question that arises form all of this is how this will work out. Will God somehow force Israel to accept the New Covenant, and having received the New Covenant will Israel then enter all the benefits that the New Covenant brings? The pattern in God’s dealings with Israel has been to make national promises but to offer the people choice. Jeremiah invited the people to choose life (surrender to the Babylonians) or death (fight the Babylonians). At the end of his life, Moses’ successor, Joshua invited the people to ‘choose this day whom you will serve (Joshua 24:15). The decision of the people would be based on their faith in God’s word spoken through Jeremiah. This is always God’s way. I was listening to an old song by Andre Crouch the lyrics go like this: Are you a sinner, are you redeemed, it’s up to you because you’re not a machine, the choice is up to you, the choice is up to you, accept God and live, reject him and die! There will be those in Israel who eventually come to God by faith and receive his gift of rescue – they will experience an internal change. It seems that there will be many who will not believe, but there will come a time of division when all those in Israel who do believe will be separated out: the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25), the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13). Not until that time will the full national benefits of the New Covenant be realised.
3. Is God reliable
Jeremiah did not know about the future rejection of the New Covenant by the Jews and how God would work all of this out, but he could be sure that God’s promises of a permanent solution to Israel’s waywardness was not dependent on Israel but on God’s power and his character. When we examine the universe on one hand and the subatomic particles on the other, we see the remarkable power of God! His creative power is truly awesome in scale, in beauty and in complexity. Jeremiah states that the New Covenant promise is made by the God ‘who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar.’ Jeremiah states that Israel and Judah can have confidence in what God says because of who he is. It is by his creative power that he will be faithful to the promises he has made to Israel: 36 ‘Only if these decrees vanish from my sight, ‘declares the Lord,’ will Israel ever cease being a nation before me.’ What a promise for Judah to take to heart as the Babylonian army was about to destroy Jerusalem! As we participate in this New Covenant promise we may at times wonder if there is any future for Christians in our increasingly godless world. We are not just a minority but as we uphold biblical views on morality we are increasingly being portrayed as intolerant and backward. To believe and act on all the bible and its moral standards is now classed as a hate crime. What does the future hold? We can be sure that God’s promises are as reliable as the one who makes them, the God of infinite creative power and love.