A Bible Lesson on Jeremiah 31:23-40

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The first part of Jeremiah 31 deals with the restoration of the northern kingdom, Israel, taken away into exile over a hundred years earlier by the Assyrians. Part of what Jeremiah sees and prophesies in the last half of the chapter has to do with return of Judah from Babylon. But as is common in the prophets, he telescopes time, speaking to both the reasonably immediate future and to a time further on. The timing Jeremiah gives is in 30:24 “in the latter days” and in 31:40 “at that time” In some parts of this Jeremiah is seeing ahead to the time of Messiah.

Jeremiah 31:23 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its cities, when I restore their fortunes: ” ‘The Lord bless you, O habitation of righteousness, O holy hill!’

Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its cities. Jeremiah has prophesied, and by the time he speaks here he has already begun to see the cities and countryside of Judah laid waste. But he looks ahead in time and sees sanity and order and productive life restored in the land, and especially in Jerusalem, God’s “holy hill.”

24 And Judah and all its cities shall dwell there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks.

This isn’t an elaborate grandiose thing he sees. It is simple, sane, orderly, decent life: farmers and shepherds going about daily life in peace. We take that kind of thing for granted. We should not. We should be extremely grateful for it. It is reason to give God thanks. If we don’t believe that, perhaps we should consider a few weeks of life in the Sudan or perhaps Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq. Quiet and peaceable existence is as good as it gets in this life, and God promises to restore that in Judah.

25 For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”

What’s coming on Judah because of her waywardness will sap the souls of her people. They will be physically weary and sick at heart, cut off from their homeland and God-ordained worship in Jerusalem. But God promises that He will bring replenishment to the souls of His chosen people.

26 At this I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.

Jeremiah 32:2 puts the prophet under arrest in the courtyard of the guard (in the royal palace) with Nebuchadnezzar besieging the city when he is given this prophecy. His present circumstances are hardly pleasant or happy. But the vision God gives him of future restoration is indeed a pleasant contrast to what is happening to him personally and to his land and people.

27 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast.

War and defeat and exile will depopulate the land of Judah, of both people and of domestic animals, making it a wasteland. But God promises that he will repopulate the land with both people and animals. The peoples’ apostasy implies desolation, but there is restoration coming because of God’s mercy.

28 And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord.

Make no mistake, God is sovereign over all. He judges sin. And He acts with mercy in restoration. He is in the overthrow of the faithless nation and He will be there to restore. But as part of that there will be a change of attitude in His people.

29 In those days they shall no longer say: ” ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

This was apparently a common bitter/ironic proverb of the day. Jeremiah repudiates it here. Ezekiel, repudiates it in Ezekiel 18. The feeling is one of self-pity and ducking of responsibility. The people of Judah say to themselves “Boy, dad and mom blew it and now we have to pay the price. This isn’t our fault. Circumstances aren’t fair. In effect, we’re getting punished for the shortcomings of others.” Now it’s true that what we do can affect the circumstances of those who follow us for better or worse. But human beings are absolutely off on the wrong foot when they spend their energy whining about what they’ve been dealt, instead of simply resolving to do right in every circumstance. The constant message of Jeremiah to Judah was to repent and avoid disaster. The people could not blame mom and dad for their own refusal to repent. Manasseh was an awful king who brought all kinds of evil to his country, but instead of saying “Well dad made an awful mess, and poor me left to live in it!” Josiah resolved to do right and goes down in history as one of the greatest of the kings. We are responsible for our own actions. The people of God should have known Deuteronomy 24:16 “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.  But it’s human nature to want to evade responsibility in the present by trying to lay blame elsewhere. That’s been the story since the garden. And if there is to be the kind of wonderful restoration that Jeremiah sees coming, God’s people must be done with that attitude. It’s a prerequisite to salvation to own up to our own responsibility, call our sin “sin” and get out of the habit of making excuses.

30 But everyone shall die for his own sin. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

We must each recognize and admit that we individually have more than enough personal moral guilt to sink ourselves.

We come now to one of the peaks of the Old Testament.

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,

The days are coming. Jeremiah is now certainly looking beyond the return of the Babylonian exiles, to the time of Messiah, the Christ. I will make a new covenant. This is to be God’s doing. It’s at His initiative and only He has the ability to bring it to pass. He’s going to make a new way of dealing with His people. The goal is the same as it was from the beginning, namely Leviticus 26:12 And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. From the beginning, God’s purpose has always been to have relationship with a people who would love Him and bring Him glory. But Jeremiah knows all too well that if there is to be relationship between God and man, it has to be on some other basis than a covenant that depends on man keeping God’s perfect law. Remember, that law was rediscovered in Josiah’s time, but there followed no heart change in the people (despite Josiah’s example and Jeremiah’s preaching). Thankfully God had something else in mind.

32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.

After the exodus, God said in Exodus 6:7 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. But the first covenant wasn’t a means of salvation. The fault didn’t lie with God, but with man. He was faithful as a faithful husband. His people were not like Him. In and of ourselves, we don’t have it in us to keep God’s holy law. So either God was going to have let sin slide and lower the bar to a standard of morality we can muster, or He was going to have somehow judge our sin without destroying us and change our hearts. Since His law is a reflection of who He is, He couldn’t possibly do the first. But how could He do the second??? Jeremiah didn’t see the whole picture of Christ’s work, but this He did see.

33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

After those days, i.e. in the days of His Son, Messiah, God will change the hearts of men and make them truly desirous of obeying Him. Moderns want to hear all kinds of anti-law things in this kind of verse. But it doesn’t repudiate the law as spelling out what is good and what God requires. It doesn’t say that we somehow intuitively “know it.” It says that when we hear it, our hearts will leap in us and say “Yes! That’s right! Amen. So be it.” rather than immediately beginning to scheme how to subvert it. Hard hearts that hate Him and His law will become soft hearts that love and embrace Him and His law.

34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

They shall all know me. This is no Lone Ranger “It’s just God and me” statement. But it does say that under the new covenant, there’s no human standing between an individual and God. Under the Old Testament system, priests offered the sacrifices and presented people to God. Ordinary people didn’t enter individually into the holy of holies, only the high priest did that. Under the new covenant, individual believers have genuine intimate individual fellowship with God in Christ, every one of us, from least to the greatest. And it’s not based on our performance, but on God’s forgiveness. The Old Testament system served to remind the people constantly of their sin and guilt. The gracious new covenant is built on God’s blotting those out and absolutely forgetting them.

Jeremiah is commissioned by God to carry some heavy stuff and set it before God’s people. But he’s also privileged to set before them the wonderful grace of God to come. He can’t see the atoning work of Christ perfectly, but the outline he is given in these verses is a glorious early look.

35 Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name:

36 “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the LORD, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.”

The fixed order of the universe gives us humans some glimpse of the immutability of God who called it into existence. He never changes and that is guarantee of His promise of restoration and fixed love for His people. If we need reminder of His constancy we only need to look around us.

37 Thus says the LORD: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares the LORD.”

Kidner said: “… the order, power, and scale of the Creator’s world are but tokens of His fidelity in the personal realm …” The same omnipotence that made all we see is capable of doing what might seem “impossible” in terms of restoration. This is true in long run in redemption of all God’s people of all time. And it applies in the shorter run to the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity.

38 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate.

These are landmarks in the Jerusalem of Jeremiah’s day. The Babylonians are going to sack the city, but the destruction will not be permanent. A people will return from captivity and these will be restored.

39 And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah.

What’s more, the end of it will be bigger than the reality of Jeremiah’s day. The measuring line will “go out farther.” In the long run, God’s people will include those who are not ethnic Jews.

40 The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes, and all the fields as far as the brook Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall not be plucked up or overthrown anymore forever.”

And here’s a future promise that no one would have expected. Jeremiah sees that the city dump and even places defiled by human sacrifice will be redeemed and made “sacred to the LORD.” In the long run, this merciful, immutable, omnipotent, gracious God will act in mercy toward even the defiled (literally places, figuratively people) … you and me.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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