Bible Commentary: Jeremiah 31:27-40 and Related

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Jeremiah 31:27-40 and Related

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A New Covenant

At the end of the previous reading, Jeremiah awoke from a prophetic dream that had become peaceful and even blissful regarding the future of Israel and Judah. Comforted, he fell soundly back asleep. And it appears that he went right back into the dream.

This final part of the prophecy is divided into three sections, each beginning with the same words we read in Jeremiah 30:3, "Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD..." (Jeremiah 31:27, 31, 38). "This expression introduces a new era in the history of God's dealing with His people" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 38-40). The Expositor's Bible Commentary says it is "an eschatological formula that places the prophecy in messianic times in the Day of the Lord, the consummation period of the nation's history" (note on verse 31).

The first section continues the millennial picture of the prophetic dream. Though the population of Israel and Judah will be greatly diminished due to the calamities they will suffer in the end time, God will begin to multiply them once again when He returns them to the Promised Land. He will also multiply the animals of the nation—bringing back the livestock and general wildlife (verse 27). As God has overseen the destruction of the nation, He will now oversee its building and planting—here using the same words as those describing Jeremiah's commission (see Jeremiah 1:10).

In God's just society, children will not be made to pay for their parents' sins, as happens in various ways in the present age (Jeremiah 31:29-30). The New Living Translation paraphrases the thought this way: "The people will no longer quote this proverb: 'The parents eat sour grapes, but their children's mouths pucker at the taste.' All people will die for their own sins—those who eat the sour grapes will be the ones whose mouths will pucker." (The discontinued proverb is also mentioned in Ezekiel 18:2; see Ezekiel 18:1-20 there for a fuller exposition).

We then come to the second section here (Jeremiah 31:31-37). God says He will make a "new covenant" with Israel and Judah (verse 31). "This mountain-peak O[ld] T[estament] passage stands in a real sense as the climax of Jeremiah's teaching" (Expositor's, note on verse 31). Indeed, in Jeremiah 17:9 God proclaimed that the human heart "is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." Here, we see how this is going to change.

In describing this New Covenant in contrast to the one He made with Israel when He brought them out of Egypt, God is, by implication, declaring the previous one old. Thus the term "Old Covenant" for the Sinai Covenant. The Old Covenant was, as we see here, essentially a "marriage" covenant—by which God was a Husband to Israel (verse 32). In this covenant, Israel, the wife, had agreed to submit to God and obey His laws. But she did not. The people never had the right heart and mind to obey (Deuteronomy 5:29; Romans 8:7). This fault of the people, the book of Hebrews explains, was the problem with the Old Covenant—and the reason the New Covenant was necessitated (Hebrews 8:7-8). The book of Hebrews actually quotes this important passage from Jeremiah twice (verses 8-13; Hebrews 10:16-17).

What, then, is the New Covenant? It is basically a new marriage contract God lays out with Israel and Judah. Does it negate God's laws, as many today claim? By no means. First of all, remember that God's commandments were in effect long before the Sinai Covenant was entered into (compare Genesis 26:5). Thus, Old Covenant or no, God's law was still binding. Certainly, obedience to God's law was part of the obligation of the Old Covenant. But man has that obligation even without the specific terms of the Old Covenant. When the Old Covenant ended, the law remained. It remains still under the New Covenant, as we will see.

Bear in mind that just because God has drawn up a "new" covenant, this does not mean that it is such a radical break with the past that there is no similarity between the Old and New Covenants whatsoever. Consider contracts today. The parties to a contract may decide to void it and draw up a replacement contract. There may be many aspects of the former contract that are made part of the new. Moreover, the law of the land upon which the contracts are based remains unchanged. So it is with God's contracts. The end of the Old Covenant does not mean the end of the law upon which the covenant is based. And neither does the introduction of the New Covenant.

Moreover, under the terms of the New Covenant, the laws of God (i.e., those that were His laws at the time of Jeremiah's prophecy, when the Old Covenant was in force!) are to be written in the hearts and minds of God's people—engraving them into their very character and making it possible for them to truly obey. God says that all will know Him under this new arrangement (Jeremiah 31:34). And how do people really know God—developing an intimate, loving relationship with Him? The New Testament answers: "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:3-4). That should be pretty clear—God's law is still required under the New Covenant. Of course, God desires and expects more than mere grudging compliance. That's not at all what God's laws and covenant are all about. He wants our hearts to be in the covenant and the covenant to be in our hearts. This is the spirit and intent of God's commandments.

Notice what else God says in Jeremiah 31:34: "For I will forgive their iniquity [lawlessness], and their sin [lawbreaking] I will remember no more" (compare Jeremiah 50:20). If lawbreaking were constantly before God's face, how would He ever forget it? Is God saying that He will eliminate lawbreaking by doing away with His laws? Clearly not, as He will write His laws in the hearts and minds of His people. So what God must be talking about is putting an end to lawbreaking—an end to sin—through enabling people to obey. Yet as other biblical passages explain, this is a growth process. People do not become perfect overnight. With help from God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit He gives them, they grow in obedience—God's laws being written into their character gradually. But eventually, as Scripture shows, people are to be transformed into perfect spirit beings who will never sin again. This is how sin will ultimately one day be remembered no more—it will no longer exist.

Yet there must still be a provision for dealing with sin in the meantime—both sins committed before this process has begun and sins that occur during the growth period. And indeed there is—the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. On the eve before His death, during the last Passover meal at which He ate with His disciples, Jesus introduced the symbols of broken bread to represent the sacrifice of His broken body and wine to symbolize His shed blood—His death. Notice: "Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins'" (Matthew 26:27-28). Christ was explaining that the shedding of His blood as a sacrifice for sin was required to make the New Covenant possible. Without it, there was no way to atone for the sins of all who would participate in the covenant. Also, it was Christ's death that brought the Old Covenant marriage to an end—thus enabling a new marriage contract to be entered into.

Notice further that Jesus was here initiating the New Covenant with His disciples. This can be confusing since Jeremiah's prophecy of the New Covenant made with Israel and Judah is definitely millennial in setting. Furthermore, the "marriage of the Lamb" does not occur until Christ's return (Revelation 19:7-9)—and this is clearly referring to Christ's marriage to the Church. It helps when we understand that the Church of God is spiritual Israel—a pioneer in the relationship God announced through Jeremiah. However, this does not explain why the Church seems to be under the New Covenant marriage today even though the marriage does not take place until Christ's return.

To understand, we must know something about the nature of Jewish marriage in biblical times. Couples initially became engaged or betrothed with a customary shared cup of wine. This betrothal was not like engagements today, which can easily be broken off. A Jewish betrothal (Hebrew eyrusin) was a binding contract. It required a divorce to break it. The couple during this kiddushin or "sanctification" period was considered essentially married—and already considered husband and wife—except that they did not live together or have conjugal relations (compare Matthew 1:18-20, where Joseph and Mary are "betrothed" yet already called husband and wife). The betrothal period was one of preparation. Later, at the time of the actual marriage ceremony (nissuin), another cup of wine was shared to confirm the covenant and a wedding feast commenced. (In modern Jewish practice, the eyrusin and nissuin are combined into the same wedding ceremony—the contractual engagement period having been removed, according to some scholars, during the dangerous times of the Middle Ages due to fear that bride or groom would not survive until the wedding.)

With all of this as background, we can better understand the New Covenant relationship. Jesus initiated the New Covenant—proposed marriage we might say—to a group He saw as the remnant of Israel and Judah who were as yet married to Him under the Old Covenant arrangement. As we've seen, the Old Covenant arrangement was not good enough. Even Christ's disciples, the most faithful people of His day, were still carnal and condemned because of their sins. They needed to be freed from the Old Covenant marriage and then changed into new spiritual people to enter into the new relationship with Christ. This was accomplished through Christ's death and resurrection and their receiving the Holy Spirit (see Romans 7:1-4; 1 Corinthians 7:39; Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 5:16-17; Romans 8:5-10), thus making them the Church of God, the true "Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16)—that is, the faithful remnant of Israel according to God's grace (compare Romans 11:1-5).

Having agreed to the New Covenant, the Church is now betrothed and sanctified to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2)—under the terms of the New Covenant but still awaiting the coming fullness of the New Covenant marriage. The Church has grown to include more people ever since. Yet to be part of it still requires partaking of the cup of the New Covenant each year, reaffirming agreement to the terms of the marriage contract—a repentant commitment to obey and the acceptance of Christ's shed blood to atone for any failure to obey. Those who accept these terms and follow through on them become part of the true Israel, spiritual Israel. Gentiles, and even all those who make up the physical nations of Israel and Judah, must actually become spiritual Israelites, through repentance and spiritual conversion, to participate in the New Covenant. And a small number of physical Israelites and gentiles have become part of spiritual Israel, the Church, since the Church began.

At Christ's return, those who are betrothed to him prior to that time will then go through an actual wedding ceremony and feast wherein the New Covenant will be ratified. Glorified with spirit bodies, they will be perfect and will never sin again, having God's laws ingrained perfectly into their character—continuing in unbroken oneness with Christ thereafter. This is the culmination and fullness of the New Covenant marriage—yet God intends to thereafter extend the marriage relationship to all human beings, that is, to all who will ultimately agree to be changed in the same way.

When Christ returns and joins into the fullness of marriage with the Church, He will then also extend His engagement proposal to all those of physical Israel and Judah who are then left in the world—and later to all Israel and Judah of all ages in the resurrection of Ezekiel 37. Yet, as mentioned, all of these, too, must become spiritual Israelites. Christ will also extend His proposal to all mankind—yet the covenant is still with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31; Ezekiel 37:11, 19) since all must become spiritual Israelites to participate in it. Eventually, all who ultimately choose to serve God and continue in His covenant will be changed into spirit to enter into the fullness of the New Covenant. And, in the end, sin will at last be no more.

Yet even before that, when Israel and Judah as a whole repent and embrace the way of God at Christ's return—and become spiritual Israelites betrothed under the New Covenant—peace and harmony will begin to reign among them as God transforms them on the inside to develop His character. And as all of mankind is brought into this relationship, peace will extend to encompass the earth—all under the rule of Christ and His perfected saints, the glorified spiritual Israel.

What we see, then, is that the offering of the New Covenant to Israel and Judah at large, as described in Jeremiah 31, will happen in an ultimate sense after Christ's return. It is parallel to other passages foretelling the general outpouring of God's Spirit in the latter days. However, He has already initiated the New Covenant with a forerunner of Israel, His Church, to whom He has given the "firstfruits of the Spirit" (Romans 8:23) to begin the process of transformation now (to learn more, download or request our free booklet Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion).

Finally, we come to the third section of Jeremiah 31 (verses 38-40). With the New Covenant will come a rebuilt Jerusalem. "The rebuilding of the city will encompass the four corners of the capital (cf. Zechariah 14:10). The Tower of Hananel was the northeast corner of the city (cf. Nehemiah 3:1; Nehemiah 12:39; Zechariah 14:10). The Corner Gate probably refers to the one at the northwest corner of the city wall (cf. 2 Kings 14:13; 2 Chronicles 26:9). The locations of Gareb and Goah are unknown (v. 39); conjecture places Gareb on the western side of Jerusalem and Goah towards the Valley of Hinnom on the south. There are no clues to the sites. The valley of the corpses and ashes (v. 40) is generally understood to be the Valley of Hinnom (cf. 7:31). It has been suggested that the fields are quarries. The Kidron flows east of Jerusalem (cf. 2 Samuel 15:23). The Horse Gate is apparently at the southeast corner of the temple courts ( Nehemiah 3:28 with 2 Kings 11:16; 2 Chronicles 23:15). Thus even the polluted areas would be sanctified to the Lord" (Expositor's, note on Jeremiah 31:38-40).

Prophecy Against Elam

The prophecy against Elam (Jeremiah 49:34-39) apparently came to Jeremiah at a later time than the several prophecies immediately preceding it in chapters 46-49. Yet they are all grouped together in his book, along with chapters 50-51, as these are prophecies against other nations. This one was given to Jeremiah "in the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah." This would date the prophecy to some time in the first half of Zedekiah's reign, from 597-593 B.C.

Elam was a son of Shem (Genesis 10:22). As has been mentioned previously in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary, the ancient territory of the descendants of Elam eventually came to be called Persia (known today as Iran). Western Persia was called Elymais by the Greeks. During the day of Assyrian rule, some of the Elamites were evidently pressed into Assyrian military service and may have participated in assaults on Israel and Judah. This may be partly what is meant in Isaiah 22:6, which states that "Elam bore the quiver with chariots of men and horsemen" (though, as was explained in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on this verse, it may well be an end-time prophecy). Yet the Elamites, along with the nearby Medes, actually opposed Assyrian rule in the main. They allied with the Chaldean Babylonians in overthrowing the Assyrians. Following that, they also "helped Nebuchadnezzar against Judea" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on Jeremiah 49:34)—at least in the initial incursions.

For the Elamites' actions and pride in their strength, God pronounces punishment on them. He would break their "bow"—the implement of their power (again compare Isaiah 22:6). "God often orders it so that that which we most trust to [at] first [later] fails us, and that which was the chief of our might proves the least of our help" (Matthew Henry's Commentary, note on verses 34-39). The "four winds from the four quarters of heaven" (verse 36) represent a mustering of power by God (compare Ezekiel 37:9; Daniel 8:8)—evidently military forces under His direction in this case.

Interestingly, "the last exploit of Nebuchadnezzar which is recorded in the Babylonian Chronicle is a campaign against the Elamites...594-593 [B.C.]" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 1987, p. 452). Once Babylon was secure as the imperial successor to Assyria, the Elamites and Medes were no longer needed as allies. So they were conquered and became subjects of the Chaldeans. Some see this as the prophesied destruction on Elam. In this context, the Lord setting His throne in Elam (Jeremiah 49:38) is said to be Nebuchadnezzar's conquest, as this is by God's doing (compare Jeremiah 27:4-8; Jeremiah 43:10), and the Elamite return from captivity (Jeremiah 49:39) is considered to be the later conquest of Babylon by the Persians and Medes under Cyrus in 539 B.C. Still others identify the destruction of Elam as the Persian Empire falling to the Greek forces of Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.—this later episode seeming to fit better since it was the great destruction of the Elamites in ancient times and the prophecy states that recuperation from the foretold loss does not occur until "the latter days" (verse 39).

Yet while verses 35-37 may refer to ancient destruction, perhaps they actually refer to end-time calamity—or it could be that they are dual in meaning, applying to past history and events yet to be. In any case, verses 38-39 are probably exclusively for the end time—which would seem to give some latter-day context to the previous verses as well. The Lord setting His throne in Elam (verse 38) most likely refers to the establishment of the Kingdom of God over all nations following Christ's return—and this will be accompanied by great destruction, as the nations of the world will attempt to fight Him.

Recall from the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 21 that the Elamites today are apparently to be found in Eastern Europe as well as their ancient homeland of Iran (with a few in western India). When the kings "of the whole world" gather to fight the returning Christ (Revelation 16:14), it is evident that a representation of Elamite forces will be present and thus destroyed. Soon afterward, forces of Persia are part of a great military host that will be destroyed for attempting to invade a reestablished Israel under Christ's rule (see Ezekiel 38-39, especially Ezekiel 38:5). Either or both of these events would well fit Jeremiah's prophecy.

Apparently, those Elamites who are scattered and taken into captivity will eventually be brought back to reconstitute a nation during the reign of Christ. This demonstrates God's great mercy. In fact, even those who die without a full realization of what they are doing—which will be the case with the vast majority of those fighting Christ at His return—will be brought back to life after the first 1,000 years of Christ's reign (see Revelation 20:5) and then given their first real opportunity to serve or reject God. (See our booklet You Can Understand Bible Prophecy for an explanation of this little understood truth of the second resurrection.)