I’m looking at the Rembrandt painting entitled Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah is the prophet that has been given the nickname the “Weeping Prophet.” In the painting Rembrandt has captured the sorrowful, despondent Jeremiah. While a light shines upon him he sits in the darkness propping his head up with his hand.
This prophet is credited as having written not just the book of Jeremiah named after him but also the book of Lamentations, a collection of poetic laments for the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
So associated with lament or mourning is Jeremiah that his name inspired the word ‘jeremiad’, a noun from the late 18th Century that means “a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes”.
This is the prophet who cries,
“Therefore thus says the LORD: See, I am laying before this people stumbling blocks against which they shall stumble; parents and children together, neighbour and friend shall perish” (Jeremiah 6:21)
We are told in the book of Jeremiah that the prophet was called “in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah” (Jeremiah 1:2). His ministry continued “through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah.” (Jeremiah 1:3). That is, his ministry spanned from approximately 627 BCE through the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 BCE. The prophet and those he was addressing had suffered the traumatic loss of many respected religious institutions, including the Davidic monarchy and Jerusalem temple. They lived through one of the most turbulent and catastrophic moments in ancient Israel’s history. A time of social and political unrest.
Yet despite all the despair in the middle of the book of Jeremiah, chapters 30-31, we have a passage with a very different tone. These chapters are filled with comfort, hope, and optimism. Within this is the lectionary reading for this week Jeremiah 31:31-34. These four verses are words of hope for the future:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
The return from exile will proceed a “new covenant”. We are used to hearing this term as part of our Holy Communion liturgy. We recall the last supper and that after supper Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” The terminology of “new” covenant as opposed to the “old” covenant, like the “new” and “old” Testament can suggest that the “old” is invalid. Not only that but when the “old” is equated with Judaism it can lead to anti-Semitism, hostility, prejudice, and discrimination against Jews.
That there is a new does not necessarily mean the old is obsolete, however. In fact, the Hebrew Bible has many divine-human covenants and these do not replace each other but coexist. For example, the covenants with Noah (Genesis 9) and Abraham (Genesis 15, 17) which we looked at in the first and second week of Lent.
This new covenant is not something entirely different from the preceding covenant between God and Israel. The content is not different. God promises, “I will put my law within them”. “My law” is perhaps best translated as “my teaching” or “my Torah,” and connects the promise of this new covenant with the preceding Mosaic covenant. What is different is that the people do not need an intermediary for God “will write it [the law] on their hearts… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me“ (Jeremiah 31:33-34). It may sound very individual, but the covenant remains a collective relationship between God and the community, the group of people, here referred to as “house of Israel of and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31) which is to say all Israel, including Northern and Southern kingdoms. While they still need each other as a community they no longer will have to be taught. There will no longer be a hierarchy of those who have received the revelation and need teach the others, “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31: 34). This might still sound to us like a hierarchy, a caste or feudal system tiering of people but it is a Hebrew expression for universality, inclusivity. All will have it written on their hearts by God’s grace. So the newness of this covenant is not its content but its internalization. Not in its instruction but in form – it is incarnational, it is enfleshed. No longer can any individual take credit for their participation in it either through teaching or obedience. The sole basis for the new covenant is God’s gracious initiative and unmerited forgiveness.
Although God’s method of giving the law is prophesied to change the character of God does not change. Throughout the scriptures we see God again & again reveals God’s self to the people in different and new ways. Again & again God works on God’s relationship with God’s people, whether called the Israelites, the Hebrews, the Jews, or “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”. Again & again we see God is faithful even when God’s people are unfaithful. What is not new is the character of God who again is presented as forgiving and reconciling broken relationships.
The words of comfort in Jeremiah 31:31-34 can speak to all of us who are suffering in the world now, to all of us who might feel like Rembrandt’s Jeremiah. The past eighteen months have included devastating bush fires, and pandemic. We have been witnessing calls for social reform in particular racial and gender violence. There have been marches and protests around the world calling for political reform such as Hong Kong and Myanmar. We have had things we love stopped. We have all be affected by COVID restrictions that even controlled how many people we could have to Christmas lunch/dinner and New Year’s celebrations. We question where is God? Why is all of this happening? When can we get back to normal? How and when will we find peace? The world seems pretty broken right now but the God of mercy, God of grace upon grace still promises a new future “the days are surely coming, says the LORD … ”
Rev Tammy Hollands