Bible Commentary: Jeremiah 30:1-31:26

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Jeremiah 30:1-31:26

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Deliverance From Jacob's Trouble

It is not known specifically when chapters 30 and 31 of Jeremiah were written. Since they follow the previous reading, chapter 29, which contains the letter sent to the captives in Babylon, we are reading these chapters now. Indeed, there is a thematic continuity here. In the letter, Jeremiah delivered God's message that the people would later be brought back from captivity. The message of this section, communicated to Jeremiah in a dream (Jeremiah 31:26) is also one of return from captivity—yet clearly in the end time. "In the latter days," God says, "you will consider it" (Jeremiah 30:24). This ties in with "Behold, the days are coming..." in verse 3. We will see more about this phrase in our next reading.

In no way can the return of this section refer to merely the Jewish return from the ancient Babylonian captivity. Notice that this is a return of Judah and Israel to the Promised Land (verses 3, 10). This has never happened. However, some who recognize that this section is a prophecy of events in modern times have argued that it refers to the Jewish return to establish the state of Israel in the 1900s. Yet it is only a low percentage of Jews in the world who have returned to live in the land of Israel. Moreover, only a very small percentage of Jews are ethnically descended from Israelites of the northern tribes. Most are descended from the southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi. Moreover, most of the people in the world today who are descended from the northern tribes of Israel are not Jews at all—rather, they are largely people of northwest European heritage (as northwest Europe is the area to which the "lost tribes" eventually migrated following their ancient captivity). The United States and Britain are the preeminent nations descended from ancient Israel (download or request our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy to learn more).

Also noteworthy is the great joy described in Jeremiah's account of the return from captivity. When some of the Jews under Zerubbabel returned from Babylonian captivity, they apparently were not feeling relieved and liberated, since they had not suffered an oppressive slavery prior to this. They had mixed feelings when they arrived at Jerusalem, saw the ruins and realized they would not be able to restore the temple to its former glory (Ezra 3:11-13; Haggai 2:1-3). Shortly before Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, he "wept and mourned for many days" at the pitiful state of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:3-4). So the description in Jeremiah 30-31 of miraculous interventions, huge masses of people and great excitement, joy and thanksgiving just does not fit the return of Jews from Persian-ruled Babylon.

We should also observe that the release from captivity described here follows a period of greatest suffering for both Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 30:4-7). The greatest suffering the people of the northern kingdom had experienced so far was the Assyrian conquest of their nation and their subsequent deportations. Yet God could not here be referring to those events, as He gave Jeremiah this prophecy of Israel's suffering more than a century later. So to what was He referring?

Notice verse 8: "Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it; and it is the time of Jacob's trouble, but he shall be saved out of it"—that is, after suffering through it, not that Israel would never have to go through it at all. This is parallel with other passages of Scripture. The end of Daniel 11 describes events "at the time of the end" (verse 40). Of the same period, the Jewish prophet Daniel was told, "At that time...there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered" (Daniel 12:1). The next verses show that this refers to the time of the resurrection at Christ's return. We see this here in Jeremiah 30 as well. God says He will "raise up" King David after this terrible time (verse 9), so there should really be no question that we are dealing with future events.

Matthew 24:21-22 says of the time preceding Christ's second coming, "For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved [preserved alive]; but for the elect's sake those days will be shortened." Clearly, there is not more than one worst time ever. These verses are all describing the same period. Jeremiah 30:12-15, regarding Israel's incurable affliction and wound, abandonment by allies and severe chastisement from God is obviously parallel to Hosea 5:12-15, which was previously explained in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary to be a prophecy of this same period of the Great Tribulation.

This will be a time of terrible calamity for the American people, other nations of British heredity, certain peoples of northwest Europe and the Jews—to soon be followed by the entire world suffering the greatest catastrophes imaginable. All the dreadful events of human history will pale before the awful and horrific events that are coming. But each scriptural announcement of this worst time that is yet to happen is accompanied by a message of hope: "but he shall be saved out of it"; "your people shall be delivered"; "those days will be shortened."

In fact, as we have elsewhere noted, God offers a promise of protection even during this terrible time to those who will repent and seek Him. In Luke 21:36, Jesus said: "Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man." And He tells true Christians who remain faithful in this age: "Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth" (Revelation 3:10). This should not be viewed as a guarantee against death or even martyrdom, as death itself can be a "place of safety" until the resurrection (see Isaiah 57:1-2). Nevertheless, it does appear that God will give His faithful servants protection from the kind of suffering the rest of the world will experience—and in general will hide His faithful people from what is coming (see Revelation 12:13-16; Zephaniah 2:3).

On the other hand, as for Christians who have spiritually drifted from God, it appears that they will have to experience the terrible times ahead in severe measure to be shaken into taking a stand for Him and His truth (see Revelation 12:17; Revelation 3:14-21).

A Dream That Ends Sweet

After the awful calamities at the end of this age, Jesus Christ will return and a new age will commence. (Notice again the mention of King David being resurrected. This is repeated in Ezekiel 37:24-25). Some think "David" in both places is a reference to Christ, David's descendant, since it is Christ who inherits the throne of David to reign as King over Israel (see Isaiah 9:6-7; Luke 1:32-33). Yet notice that Jeremiah 30:9 says the Israelites will serve "the LORD their God, and David their king." The "LORD" in this context is Jesus Christ. Consider that even when David ruled over Israel 3,000 years ago, the ultimate King of Israel was Jesus Christ, as David and then Solomon "sat on the throne of the LORD" (compare 1 Chronicles 29:23; 2 Chronicles 9:6-8). Even so, Christ promises that in His coming Kingdom, His servants will share His throne with Him (Revelation 3:21). Yet they will have specialized administrative duties, being given particular rule, under Him, over different responsibilities, such as different numbers of cities (compare Luke 19:11-19). The 12 apostles, resurrected in glory, will each rule over one of the 12 tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). And a resurrected David will serve as king, under Christ, over all of them.

Humbled and repentant, the Israelites will be restored to a position of honor and glory in the world (Jeremiah 30:18-20). Foreigners will no longer be their masters (verse 8). In fact, the nations that enslaved them will be destroyed (verse 11)—that is, the political entities, not all the people in them, since we also see that these enemy nations will themselves be put into captivity for a time (verse 16). At long last, Israel will have peace and no longer need to fear (verse 10).

The beginning of Jeremiah 31 contains what The Expositors Bible Commentary describes as "one of the most beautiful poems in [Jeremiah's] book" (1998, note on verses 3-4). It is a continuation of the magnificent prophecy about Israel and Judah's future in the previous chapter. God's love won't be just a nice platitude—He will demonstrate it with action. He will bring Israel's people home, the land will be fertile, producing plenty of food, and there will be peace and abundance.

God says in verse 8, "Behold, I will bring them from the north country [primarily Europe], and gather them from the ends of the earth"—wherever they have been scattered. A proclamation is issued to the nations and to the remnant of Israel "in the isles afar off" (verse 10) that God is the one who has humbled, freed and now amazingly blessed Israel. The scattered Israelites will come "streaming to the goodness of the LORD" (verse 12). And eventually, the rest of mankind will follow their example.

We then see a sad picture of Rachel weeping inconsolably for the loss of her children, which is heard at Ramah in the territory of Benjamin, five miles north of Jerusalem. Rachel, wife of Jacob, was the mother of Joseph and thus of the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh that descended from him. She was also the mother of the southern tribe of Benjamin, so she is representative of both kingdoms. Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin and was buried not too far to the north of Bethlehem, which itself is five miles to the south of Jerusalem (Genesis 35:19; Genesis 48:7). The location of her tomb was later referred to as Zelzah, which in Samuel's day was within the territory of Benjamin (see 1 Samuel 10:2-3). The traditional spot is about a mile north of Bethlehem, and thus around nine miles from Ramah. The image of Rachel weeping from the grave is not to be understood literally. Like the image of Abel's blood crying out to God from the ground (see Genesis 4:10), it is figurative—especially considering that this is a prophetic dream.

Rachel's northern children had in one sense been lost in the Assyrian conquest and deportation more than a century earlier. Many of her southern children had been lost to the Assyrians not long afterward. And many more were lost in the stages of Babylonian conquest, the final stage of which was coming soon. Ramah was "the very place where exiles were gathered before deportation to Babylon (cf. [Jeremiah] 40:1).... Jeremiah himself was in a camp for exiles in Ramah (cf. 40:1)" (Expositor's, note on 31:15). So the prophecy apparently had some application to Jeremiah's day. However, in context, it should be clear that the primary meaning here relates to what we have already seen in this prophetic dream—the terrible time of Jacob's trouble, when Rachel loses more children than ever before. In verses 16-17, the weeping is to stop because the children will be brought back. In fact, Ephraim is specifically mentioned as returning in the next few verses, making the end-time context plain—since Ephraim will not return in the repentant way described until after the Great Tribulation.

It may seem strange, then, that the New Testament book of Matthew applies the verse about Rachel weeping for her children to King Herod's massacre of the innocent children in the region of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill the infant Messiah (Matthew 2:16-18). Expositor's comments: "How can this prophecy be fulfilled in Matthew's reference? First, it must be stressed that Matthew's method of quoting an O[ld] T[estament] reference does not automatically imply a direct fulfillment.... For proof see the immediate context in Matthew 2:15, where Hosea 11:1 in its original context unmistakably speaks of the nation Israel but by analogy and higher fulfillment (called by some 'compenetration') refers to Christ. Similarly, that which related to Israel in original revelation (v. 15) is by analogy ('typological fulfillment'...) used in speaking of Herod's atrocities. In both cases God will overrule the nation's sorrow for her ultimate joy" (note on Jeremiah 31:16-17; see also Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on verse 15). Indeed, though children were lost to Rachel in Herod's massacre, they will ultimately be restored in a future resurrection (see Ezekiel 37:1-14).

It should be pointed out that though we have spent time exploring the meaning of Rachel's weeping, that's not really the main focus of the dream. The main focus of the dream, and why it is so positive at this point, is that the time for weeping has ceased. The mention of the weeping itself was in fact very brief. It is God's declaration concerning the wonderful time that follows that filled most of Jeremiah's present vision.

In Jeremiah 31:21, Israel is directed back to God. In verse 22, God intends to bring Israel's gadding about to an end. "For the LORD has created a new thing in the earth—a woman shall encompass a man." This is one of the most disputed sentences in the book of Jeremiah. Many interpretations have been suggested. A tradition going back to early Catholic theologians is that it refers to Jesus in Mary's womb. But most modern interpreters reject this view. Indeed, just to say that a male child is inside a mother's womb does not seem that unique.

Interestingly, rabbis have used verse 22 to explain the custom of a bride walking in circles around the bridegroom seven times at a traditional Jewish wedding. This is also related to the encirclement of Jericho seven times, whereby the city wall was brought down. The idea with bride and groom seems to be one of collapsing any wall or barrier between them—and in Jeremiah would imply collapsing the wall that has been built up between the woman Israel and her Husband the Lord. However, if the interpretation does relate to God and Israel, perhaps it is much simpler. In the beginning of the verse, God asked Israel how long she would gad about. And now the new thing He has brought about is that she encircles her Husband with her arms—embracing and clinging to Him rather than continuing to wander. The New Living Translation renders the verse: "For the LORD will cause something new and different to happen—Israel will embrace her God." This seems most reasonable. Nevertheless, we cannot be certain as to what is meant. We do know that Israel returns to God—and that is sufficient.

Verses 23-25 show Judah, Jeremiah's beloved homeland, ultimately restored with great blessings. The prophet had been afforded a marvelous picture. After all the warnings and the people's continuing rebellion, beyond the sin and punishment of Israel and Judah, he sees through God's vivid testimony that they would ultimately turn back to God and be gloriously restored to such blessings as he could only imagine. It was such a change for Jeremiah from the sadness of so many previous visions, and the frightening images at the beginning of this one, that he woke up in the middle of it feeling on top of the world—or, as he put it, "my sleep was sweet to me" (verse 26). Greatly comforted, he was able to rest easy—for he saw with clarity what the future would ultimately bring.