If you’ve made it this far into reading the Old Testament, well done! You’ve waded deep into the book of Jeremiah, and it’s probably feeling long—because it is! It’s actually the longest book of the entire Bible if you count the number of words. Sure, there are 150 Psalms, and 66 chapters of Isaiah. But these 52 chapters of Jeremiah have more words than either of those by themselves. The book is just long, really long. But don’t give up, there is so much rich theology and poetry in this book. It’s worth the effort.
In last week’s blog we looked to Jeremiah chapter 7 to get the essence of the prophet’s message of accusation and warning. This chapter contains in a nutshell all of the main themes in Jeremiah 1-24: Judah and Jerusalem are full of idolatrous Israelites who neglect the poor and vulnerable and engage in treacherous politics. The game is up.
Jeremiah chapter 25 is a hinge piece in the larger design of the book. We hear that God has raised up Babylon and its king Nebuchadnezzar as his “servant” to bring justice on the evil and idolatry of both Israel and its neighboring nations. This will end with Jerusalem’s destruction and the exile of many Israelites to Babylon, and Israel’s immediate neighbors (Moab, Edom, Ammon, Aram) will all suffer similar fates. This period of exile and destruction will last 70 years, says Jeremiah.
From there, the rest of the book of Jeremiah falls into place. Chapters 26-45 contain mostly narrative about how Jeremiah had to live through the onslaught of Babylon and tell his own people that there was no hope this side of exile. His message was not welcome and it made him suspect among his friends and neighbors. Ultimately, this unpopular message lands him in prison, only to be kidnapped and taken to Egypt against his will as Jerusalem and the temple are smoldering in ruins. This entire block of chapters fills out the Israel-focused theme of chapter 25: God is using Babylon to bring divine justice on his own covenant people.
Chapter 25 also focused on Israel’s neighbors, guilty of the same kinds of treachery and violence. They too would fall to Babylon, Jeremiah said. So, we find in Chapters 46-52 a collection of “oracles against the nations.” These people groups on Israel’s borders would suffer the same fate as Jerusalem and Judah. Ultimately, Babylon itself would face the same standard of divine justice (Jer 50-51).
Even though Jeremiah is the longest book of the Bible, it has a neat large-scale literary design:
A. 1-24 Poetry of Accusation and Warning for Judah and Jerusalem
25: Transition: Babylon is coming for (1) Jerusalem and (2) the Nations
B. 26-45: Babylon takes out Jerusalem
C. 46-52: Babylon takes out surrounding nations.
Now, this all seems very gloomy and dark. And, it is. However, there is one bright spot in the book of Jeremiah, and it has been very intentionally placed at the precise center of this large literary work. Right in the middle of the central section of the book (B: Jer 26-45) we find chapters 30-33, which is framed by two large blocks of narrative about Jeremiah’s rejected message (Jer 26-29 and 34-45).
This collection of poems and speeches in chapters 30-33 show the exact opposite mood of the doom and gloom message of Jeremiah in chapters 1-24. Here, Jeremiah looks to the other side of the exile to Babylon, and he’s convinced that God’s covenant love and commitment to Israel and to David will not expire. Let’s take a quick tour, and you’ll see that all the themes of divine judgment are reversed one by one.
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Jeremiah 30 focuses on the hard fact of the exile. Tens of thousands of Israelites were forcibly removed from their ancestral land. Generations of fig-tree farmers, shepherds, and vineyard keepers were uprooted and taken captive to a foreign land only to be deposited in labor camps among the irrigation canals and agricultural fields surrounding the capital city of Babylon (this is where the prophet Ezekiel finds himself in Ezekiel 1). The experience of dislocation and separation from all that is familiar is a kind of trauma that wrecks people and communities. Jeremiah takes up this painful experience of the exiles and promises a return to the land and a rediscovery of joy. After the exile is over, God will open a way for his people to return to the land and farm it once again. They will see their oppressors brought down once and for all.
But, how did Israel end up in exile in the first place? The prophets believed it was a result long in the making. Exile was the sad consequence of many generations of covenant violation, and so this problem must be addressed as well. That’s precisely what we find in the center of Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Jeremiah says that if Israel is going to live once again in the land, it will have to mean that their covenant with God won’t be violated as it was in the past. God will have to make with Israel a “new covenant” (Jer 31:31), that will be different in some way from the covenant God made with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. If you remember the literary design and message of the Torah, this won’t be news to you. Moses himself knew that Israel would fail at keeping the covenant with God, and he predicted they would fail and be overtaken by their enemies as a result (Deut 30). But, he also had hope. He knew that if Israel was ever to truly love and obey God it would require a fundamental transformation of the human heart. Or, in his words, “God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, in order that you may love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, so that you may live” (Deut 30:6). Jeremiah picks up this very important theological idea, and recasts it with his own new metaphor:
I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor, and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord, for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, declares the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. — Jeremiah 31:33-34
And, there you have it. Jeremiah believed, just like Moses, that Israel’s future in the land as God’s covenant people will only take place because of a great act of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And, even more than that. This forgiveness and mercy will need to accomplish a transformation of Israel’s heart and mind, so that their obedience to God is motivated by gratefulness and love. It will be an obedience born out of relationship and commitment.
This is a powerful hope, that is developed in a similar way by Jeremiah’s contemporary counterpart sitting with the exiles in Babylon, Ezekiel. We’ll explore that important theme in a future blog. For the moment, it’s important to see that this new covenant/heart transformation promise is found at the dead center of this large book.
"I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it."
Then There's Jesus
This literary location speaks volumes by itself. Placing something at the literary center is a way of emphasizing the importance of something, and this passage serves as a great illustration. The new covenant and the “Torah in the heart” is one of the great promises of the Hebrew Bible prophets.
It’s this promise that Jesus saw himself bringing to pass. He too located the core of the human problem in the condition of the heart. Think of Jesus’ famous teachings that the fundamental enemy of humans is the enemy within.
What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come— sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person. — Mark 7:20-23
It makes all the sense in the world that Jesus saw his own life and death as announcing that dawn of Jeremiah’s “new covenant.” He would die for the sins of his own people, and simultaneously bring about that great act of forgiveness anticipated by Jeremiah. This act of scandalous mercy would bring about that transformation of the human heart that is so desperately needed. All this is contained in a nutshell in the pregnant words of Jesus at his final Passover meal:
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. — Luke 22:19-20
That phrase, “the new covenant” is lifted right out of Jeremiah 31:31, and it’s clear that this part of Jeremiah had a deep impact on Jesus’ thinking. He evidently believed that he was the one to mediate the establishment of the new covenant between God and Israel. He would go into the exile of an unjust death on Israel’s behalf, and so open up the doorway to a new way of loving God and others. It’s the way of forgiveness and generosity, made possible by the ultimate Passover Lamb.
Jesus knew Jeremiah 31, and certainly the entire book, like the back of his hand. If this doesn’t serve as motivation to dive into this masterpiece of a prophetic book, I’m not sure what will! May our hearts be written with the Torah of God’s love as you finish reading this amazing work of Jeremiah.