Jeremiah – getting the context
The bible is a 66-book library of two volumes: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament divides quite naturally into 1). The books of the law (Genesis to Deuteronomy). 2). The historical books (Joshua to Esther). 3). The wisdom and poetry books (Job to Song of Solomon). 4). The Major Prophets (Isaiah to the Daniel) and 5). The Minor Prophets (Hosea to Malachi). Jeremiah is one of the Major Prophets.
As Christians and readers of the bible, I’m constantly surprised at our tendency to open the bible almost anywhere and start to apply the verses we read to ourselves irrespective of the context, or the intention of the original author, or the intended recipients. If we are properly to understand the bible, it’s vital that we understand the oft-quoted maxim that ‘Not all the bible was written to us, but the entire bible is written for us.’
As we approach Jeremiah, we will need to understand the immediate (and wider) historical context, but before that, as a sort of prequel, and since the book is all about Israel, we will concentrate on the relationship between God and Israel. If we have an appreciation this, the book will make much more sense!
I once estimated (conservatively I think) that slightly more than 85% of the text in the bible concerns Israel. If we fail to comprehend why Israel figures so much in the bible, surely we are bound to fail to understand arguably the main storyline of the bible. How often have you heard a sermon on a passage from one of the gospels – too many to count! However, how often have you been reminded that John the Baptist, the disciples and Jesus spoke almost exclusively to Jews? The flow of Israel’s history up to that time, the words of the prophets (major and minor) are the context in which the gospels must be understood. I hope that this series in Jeremiah will enrich my and (hopefully) your understanding of this part of the Old Testament, which will in turn enlighten our appreciation of the New Testament too!
God’s relationship with Israel is based on a series of promises or covenants he made with that people. The founding covenant is with Abraham. Whilst this covenant was made between God and Abraham, it importantly included Abraham’s physical descendants (Genesis 17:7): ‘I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.’ This is further emphasised by the specific inclusion of Isaac (Genesis 17) and Jacob (e.g. Genesis 28) in the promise.
There are a series of passages in Genesis that describe the scope of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, probably the key one is in Genesis 15. In response to Abraham’s request for certainty of God’s promises, God’s makes the covenant. The covenant is a statement of God’s faithfulness to Abraham and involves three principle components: personal promises to Abraham, promises for Israel as a nation and promises for all people of the world. See Table 1.
Table 1: Key features of the covenant with Abraham
|Personal promises for Abraham
|Promises for Israel as a nation
|Promises for all people of the world
|To bless him (Genesis 12:2) and to make him a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2)
|To make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 12:2)
|All families of the earth to be blessed through Abraham’s physical descendants (Genesis 12:3, 22:18, 28:14).
|To give him many descendants (e.g. Genesis 13:16 and 15:4-5)
|To give the land of Canaan from the river in Egypt to the Euphrates to Abraham’s descendants forever (Genesis 12:7, 17:8 etc.)
|To make him a father of nations (Genesis 17:4-5),
|To give the covenant to Abraham’s physical descendants for an everlasting covenant (17: 7, 19)
|To give him the land of Canaan as a permanent possession (Genesis 13: 14-15, 17:8)
|To bless those who blessed Abraham and curse those who curse him (Genesis 12:3).
The covenant with Abraham was confirmed in the customary manner of the day – but it’s rather odd to our eyes! Abraham took a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove and a young pigeon. He cut each in two and arranged the halves opposite each other. The normal process is that the covenant is confirmed by each party walking together through the pieces of animal! What is striking in this case, is that Abraham did not walk through the pieces, but rather God did in the form of a ‘smoking brazier and a blazing torch.’ Genesis 15: 18 states ‘On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham.’ Most commentators agree that this process signified that the covenant was offered and entered into by God and was granted without conditions – Abraham needed to do nothing, in fact he was in a deep sleep when the symbolic confirmation by God occurred. Interestingly the book of Hebrews mentions this covenant and offers some additional insights (see Hebrews 6: 13-18). Since the book of Hebrews was probably written in about 60 AD it indicated that the covenant was still in effect at that time and was in fact of ‘unchanging’ nature. Does this mean that Abraham and his descendants have a free pass to do whatever they like? No, which brings us to the covenant God made with Israel through Moses.
After the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they spent 40 years in the wilderness. It was during that time that the nation was built under the leadership of Moses and it was through Moses that the law was given to the people of Israel as a standard for their national life. You will doubtless recall the occasion when Moses was given the Ten Commandments. The law was of course much more complex than 10 commands; it involved extensive civil and spiritual regulations in the governing and religious system of the emerging nation. Having set up the law, and just before the people entered the promised land, God made a new covenant with the people: ‘These are the terms of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he made with them at Horeb’ Deuteronomy 29: 1. The first covenant made at Horeb (Sinai) is the law – recall that Moses received the Ten Commandments on the mountain at Sinai (See Exodus 19 and 20). This covenant (that is in addition to the law) is the one in view in Moab. The parties to this covenant (we will call it the ‘Deuteronomic covenant’) were God and those who were in the wilderness, but also those ‘who are not here today’ were included (Deuteronomy 29:14), this must refer to succeeding generations of Israel. Before the covenant is stated, God outlines a series of blessings and curses that will fall on the nation depending on their obedience to the law. Sadly, we know that Israel would spectacularly fail over the succeeding generations and thus they could not escape the curses described in chapter 29 of Deuteronomy. The Deuteronomic covenant that God was about to pronounce would be concerning what would happen after all the blessings and curses described previously had been fulfilled and Israel returns to the Lord: (see Deuteronomy 30:1-2) – ‘When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, 2and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today ‘
So we have the timing of the Deuteronomic covenant, but what are the details of the covenant itself? There are six components. 1. The scattered Israelites will be gathered from all over the world (Dt. 30: 3-4). 2. The regathered people will be brought to and given the land previously given to their Fathers. (Dt 30: 5). 3. There would be a change of heart for the people – their hearts would be circumcised (Dt. 30:6). 4. Israel’s enemies would be judged (Dt. 30: 7). 5. The Israelites will be obedient to the Lord (Dt. 30: 8). 6. The Lord will prosper the Israelites (Dt. 30: 9).
David had established himself as the king and the economic, political and religious situation in Israel at that time was favourable. David wanted to build a permanent place of worship for the Lord. However, God had other ideas. Solomon (David’s son) would be given the task of building a temple, but rather than David building a house for the Lord, the Lord would build a house (dynasty) for him!
This ‘Davidic’ covenant is described in 2 Samuel 7: 8-16. It is not specifically referred to as a covenant, but elsewhere it appears that this promise of God to David is described as a covenant (see e.g. Jeremiah 33). In this covenant, the Lord made promises to David, Solomon and the nation. There were three specific promises to King David. First, David’s ‘house’ was to be established forever, this seems to refer to David’s physical descendants: ‘Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (2 Samuel 7: 16).’ Interestingly the idea that David’s line of descent would endure forever is made quite explicit in one of the Psalms: ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, “I will establish your line for ever and make your throne firm through all generations.”’(Psalm 89: 3-4). Second, not only would David’s line endure forever, but David’s kingdom would be established forever: ‘your kingdom shall endure forever before me.(2Samuel 7:16)’ This part of the covenant was clearly not forgotten, even many hundreds of years later, when Jesus entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the people shouted, ‘blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David. (Mark 11:10). Third, just as David’s line (or house) and his kingdom would endure forever, so his throne would also endure forever: ‘your throne will be established forever. (2 Samuel 7: 16).’
You will note that there are no conditions attached to this covenant, it would be entirely dependent upon God’s faithfulness. Interestingly there were times in which there did not appear to be a ruler in Israel after David’s line, but it does seem that there always remained the potential for this.
It becomes very clear that the ultimate fulfilment of this covenant is to be realised in the Lord Jesus. The gospels show that he, Jesus, was born of David’s line and it is he who will one day sit on David’s throne and establish an eternal kingdom. This will come about when Jesus returns to the earth, Zechariah states that the feet of the Lord will stand on the mount of Olives, after this ‘The Lord will be king over the whole earth. (Zechariah 14: 8).’
God indicated through the prophecy that the Old Covenant – the law that involved a system of dealing with sin by the substitutionary sacrifice of animals – was to be replaced with a new covenant. Here’s Jeremiah 31: 31: ‘”The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.’ This new covenant was to be made with the descendants of the people with whom the covenant of the law had been established: ‘It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the Lord.’ This New Covenant is thus to be established with the people of Israel and was to replace the law.
So what would the benefits of the New Covenant be? First, there would be regeneration for the recipients – a new heart and a new nature. ‘”This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,”
declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. (Jeremiah 31:33).’ This is a remarkable thing! The Old Covenant effectively placed a cage around the Israelites; the law was an external device that could not change the heart of the people. It merely described the ideal and demanded penalties for disobedience. It did nonetheless provided a means to deal with sin through animal sacrifice. The Old Covenant worked for sure – sins were dealt with, but the condition of the violator remained unchanged. Not only was there a new nature and new heart provided in the New Covenant, there was also forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31:34) and the Holy Spirit would indwell: ‘And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezekiel 36:27).’
Furthermore, it seems that the New Covenant will also bring a universal knowledge of God among the Israelites: ‘No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord ,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord (Jeremiah 31:34).’
The New Covenant has broader effects too: there are a series of physical benefits for Israel, such as renewal of the land such that it will resemble the garden of Eden (Ezekiel 34: 29 and 36: 34-35): ‘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: 45).’ Two other features of this covenant are of note; first, it is an unconditional covenant. God would ensure that it took place, not because of Israel’s obedience but rather because of their disobedience! (Ezekiel 36: 32). Secondly the New Covenant would be everlasting – once Israel entered into this relationship with God it would never be reversed: I will make an everlasting covenant with them: ‘I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. (Jeremiah 32:40).’
As you read this, you may be saying, hang on a minute, doesn’t the New Covenant belong to this church age? Whilst the New Covenant was most certainly a covenant between God and Israel it seems that in some ways it does apply to those not of physical descendants of Abraham. When Paul directed the Corinthians to participate in the Lord’s Supper, he quoted the Lord’s words on the night he was betrayed: ‘This cup is the New Covenant in my blood (1 Corinthians 11).’ In addition, believers in this church age receive other benefits of the New Covenant: forgiveness of sin, indwelling of the Holy Spirit and receipt of the new nature.
If you’ve read this far – well done! There’s a lot to take in, but the point is this that as Jeremiah began his ministry with the people of Israel he was dealing with a people who had some knowledge of these things (with perhaps the exception of the New Covenant). An understanding of these conditions will help us make sense of Jeremiah’s story and God’s nature in dealing with Israel at this point in their history. Jeremiah may not have been written to us, but it was certainly written for us!