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THE NEW COVENANT : AN EXEGETICAL ANALYSIS OF JEREMIAH 31:31-34

31Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will cut a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

32Not like the covenant I cut with their fathers, in the day (when) I took them by hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. But they broke my covenant though I was their husband, says the Lord.

33For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord, I will put my law within them and in their hearts I will write it and I will be their God and they will be my people.

34and no man shall teach again his friend and his brother saying, “know the Lord.”For they all shall know me from the least to the great, says the Lord, for I forgive their guilt and will remember their sins no more.

1. Introduction

Jeremiah lived in a country whose doom was sealed. He was asked by the Lord to warn the people of it. But they did not listen to him.[i] People had failed to keep the covenant of the Lord which he had made with their ancestors, but has He entirely rejected them? This is a question relevant even to today’s world. This is where Jeremiah’s words of comfort become a consolation not only for the Israel, but for all of us. In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the Lord promises a new covenant. This is a covenant which promises a renewed, stronger, and ever-lasting relationship with the Lord. This promises an internal union with the Lord which cannot be broken.[ii]

Although vv. 31-34 are mostly free of grammatical, textual and lexicographical complications, there is considerable debate on the identity, meaning and provenance of the ‘new covenant.’[iii] My study will make an attempt on the exegetical issues of these verses in the context of the Book of consolation and the book of Jeremiah as a whole. Although as a Christian I cannot do away with the Christian understanding of this passage as the promise of the new covenant established by Christ, (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:1–14; Heb 8:8–12; 10:16–17),[iv] this study will not focus on the New Testament understanding of the new covenant. As Timothy M. Willis says, one should not jump too quickly to the conclusion that the Lord here is announcing the founding of Christianity only, six centuries before that event.[v] Therefore, when I speak in this about the ‘old covenant’ it merely is a mention to the Sinaitic Covenant which was older than the ‘new covenant’ promised by Jeremiah.

2. De-Limitation

The passage Jeremiah 31:31-34 is identified as one single unit, mainly because of its unique theme. It is the only instance in which the ‘new covenant’ (בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה) is used in the Old Testament, although there are instances where reminiscence of such a theme can be found. The promise of the new covenant is squeezed between the passage on promise for the individual restoration (vv27-30) and the national restoration (vv.35-37). Thus, one can easily find out the change in the theme. Another indicator for the de-limitation is the opening formula. The opening formula in v.31, ‘הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים (Behold the days are coming),’ marks the beginning of a new section (cf. Jer 7:32; 9:24; 23:5; 30:3; 31:27, 38; 33:14; etc.). [vi] It is the Lord who speaks in the first person just as he did in the earlier section (vv 27-30) but in v.35 the speaker of the verse is not the Lord, although, it begins with the formula כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה. Thus a change in the speaker can be identified from the following section.

3. Translation

The translation done above (look at the beginning of the article) is with the help of many aides[vii] and uses the BHS[viii] text as its original text.

4. Historical Context

According to most of the scholars, the ‘promise of the new covenant’ is made after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. People were already in exile. They had lost their land and the temple- the two pillars of Judaism. In fact these two created the national identity of the Israelites. But now they had lost their identity. The Lord, who promised to David of a continuous kingship in his lineage, had now deserted them. With this, all hope for Israel seemed dead. Jeremiah, who was the prophet of the doom until then, changes now. He instills in them a new hope. He promises the restoration of the ‘people of YWHH.’ The whole subject of the thirtieth and thirty-first chapters is this restoration of the Hebrews (Je 30:4, 7, 10, 18).[ix]

What could be the immediate background of this covenant? The argument of the Holladay is appealing. According to him, in 587 BCE it was time to recite Deuteronomy once more. Although there was no temple by the time, the priests tried to embark the ritual at the appointed time. Holladay argues from Jeremiah 41:1-5, where an account of the pilgrims from the north, from Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria is mentioned. According to him the occasion for Jeremiah’s proclamation of the new covenant is this. If this is its setting, then its vision of the shape of a new initiative by Yahweh is astonishing.[x]

5. Literary Context

The passage is part of the ‘Book of Comfort’[xi] in the book of Jeremiah. “The poetic material in these two chapters marks them off as separate from surrounding material. At the same time, the nature of several prose passages within the chapters suggests what one might expect, namely, that hopeful poetry has had its share of prose expansions from later periods.”[xii] Here, the usual doom-prophecy of Jeremiah changes to a hope-giving. This section marks the fulfilment of the latter part of the call of Jeremiah namely to build and to plant (cf.1:10 and 31:28). The Book of Consolation concludes with a series of five short salvation oracles. They are more consistently future oriented than the rest of the Book of Consolation. They also forge a link with chaps. 32–33, which provide a context in Jeremiah’s ministry for the announcement of the restoration promises. The five oracles form a chiasm centered on 31:31–34, the promise of the new covenant.[xiii] It is structured as follows.

A 31:23-26 – Jerusalem

B 31:27-30 – Restoration of Individuals

C 31:31-34 – New Covenant

B’ 31:35-37 – Restoration of nations

A’ 31:38-40 – Jerusalem

6. Literary Features

Form-critically the passage is a proclamation of salvation (Heilsankündigung). It matches the form of the framework for the recension for the south.[xiv] The passage is a combination of carefully organized prose and poetry.[xv] The promise of the new covenant and the rejection of the old covenant (vv.31-33a) is in prose format whereas the description of the New Covenant (vv. 33–34) is a typical Hebrew poetry.[xvi]

7. Structure

As said earlier, the passage can be divided into two subsections. The prose section is arranged chiastically.

A 31a Behold the days are coming, says the Lord (הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

B 31b when I will cut a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.( וְכָרַתִּי אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־בֵּית יְהוּדָה בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה)

C 32a Not like the covenant I cut with their fathers (לֹא כַ‍בְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אֶת־אֲבוֹתָם)

D 33b in the day (when) I took them by hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt (בְּיוֹם הֶחֱזִיקִי בְיָדָם לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵ‍אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם)

C’ 32c But they broke my covenant though I was their husband, says the Lord. (אֲשֶׁר־הֵמָּה הֵפֵרוּ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי וְאָנֹכִי בָּעַלְתִּי בָם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

B’ 33a For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel(כִּי זֹאת הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר אֶכְרֹת אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל)

A’ 33b after those days, says the Lord (אַחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

Thus the centerpiece of the prose section is the word of salvation history, “in the day (when) I took them by hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt”; so that if the prose section is framed by “the days” to come, then the center is “the day” of the original exodus.[xvii]

The poetry section consists of consists of four parts, each delineated in a pair of synonymous lines.[xviii]

33b I will put my law within them (נָתַתִּי אֶת־תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם)

and in their hearts I will write it (וְעַל־לִבָּם אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה)

33b I will be their God, (אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים)

and they will be my people.( וְהֵמָּה יִהְיוּ־לִי לְעָם)

34a and no man shall teach again his friend and his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,”

(וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת־יְהוָה)

for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord( כִּי־כוּלָּם

יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִ‍קְטַנָּם וְעַד־גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

34b For I will forgive their inequity(כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם)

and will remember their sins no more.( וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר־עוֹד)

It begins and ends with two bicola, each of which contains a pair of first-person singular verbs; each of these bicola offers a chiasmus with respect to verbs and prepositional complements. Then the opening bicolon is extended by the second bicolon, the covenantal formula (the last cola of v 33b), which of course contains one first-person singular verb and one third-person plural verb. The middle section of the poem thus consists of five cola (v 34a), the operative verbs of which are “they teach” and “they know”; the middle colon is the command “Know Yahweh.”[xix] So while the centre theme of the prose section is the salvific event of the exodus, the centre theme of the poetry section is the knowledge of YWHW, something which Israel failed to attain under the Sinaitic covenant, which will be replaced with the present covenant.

8. Exegetical Analysis

In the exegetical analysis, I will follow the structure which is outlined above for better clarification. Therefore the analysis will be done in two parts- prose and poem separately.

8.1. The Prose Section

(A) 31a: Behold the days are coming, says the Lord (הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

הִנֵּה : Translated as ‘behold’ the word is an attention-getter.[xx] This has a two-fold function here, (1) to give attention to what is being said, because of its importance and (2) to make clear that something new is being said.

יָמִים בָּאִים : Jeremiah uses this phrase 14 times altogether. This phrase is always put in the mouth of the Lord. He uses this phrase thrice to warn the Israelites of the impending punishment they will face if they do not turn back from their evil ways (7:32; 9:24; 19:16), four times to warn the other nations, who oppresses Israel, of the impending punishment the Lord will bring upon them (48:12; 49:2; 51:47; 51:52) and six times to promise the return from exile (16:14; 23:5; 23:7; 30:3; 31:27; 33:14) and once to promise the new covenant he will establish with them after those days(31:31). From this we can see a historically developed pattern of the phrase, whereas in the early stages of the ministry, he used this phrase to warn the Israelites, after the destruction, he uses this term to express the compassion of the Lord. Therefore given the background, we can assume that the new covenant would take place after the exile. This gives hope to the Israelites who were in utter despair for the lost and broken covenantal relationship with the Lord.

נְאֻם־יְהוָה: ‘Says the Lord’ is an inadequate translation. ‘Pronouncement of the Lord’ will be more adequate. Jeremiah uses this construction very often. This is very similar to the expression ‘Thus says the Lord.’ However, נְאֻם־יְהוָה is more affirmative than the יאמַר יְהוָה. It should be understood as authoritative, something to which people should pay attention. It is at times difficult to decide on the speaker of the phrase ‘says the Lord’. It could be either the prophet or the Lord or the editor.[xxi]

(B) 31b: when I will cut a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.( וְכָרַתִּי אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־בֵּית יְהוּדָה בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה)

כָרַה: A covenant is a formal agreement, often established as firm by some kind of oath or promise (3:16). There is often some sign given to mark it as well.[xxii] Cut a covenant’ means to make a covenant. It reflects the normal terminology of Old Testament. The word reflects the practise of cutting an animal and pouring its blood between the parties who make the treaty. To cut a covenant is a definitive action in the history. As such, it is a divine action that will be fulfilled in the history, like the repopulation and rebuilding of the land promised in vv 27-28. However, this passage gives no indication on how people are to ready themselves for the covenant. [xxiii]

בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה: Although not a fixed theologumenon in the Old Testament, the term ‘New Covenant’ is unique to this passage. Jeremiah here speaks of a new covenant in place of the old broken covenant. He also speaks of an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten (בְּרִית עוֹלָם לֹא תִשָּׁכֵחַ) in 50:5. But since there is no hint of a fresh covenant there, it might not have any relation to the material proclaimed here.[xxiv]

In the usual covenant renewal ceremony, people requested to renew the covenant. But here, the Lord makes the covenant on his own by promising it far ahead of time. “The goal of covenant renewal had been to avoid total destruction under the effects of the curse, but in Jeremiah 31:28 the end of the destruction has already been announced. Just as the Lord had voiced the people’s lament for them and then answered it in 30:12–17, here the Lord initiates the covenant renewal and then promises a new covenant in its stead.”[xxv] Therefore, the word “new” should be understood as indicative of renewal, reestablishment and revivification of the old.[xxvi]

אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת־בֵּית יְהוּדָה : ‘The house of Israel and the house of Judah’ has forced many to believe that ‘and the house of Judah’ is a later addition and that ‘the house of Israel’ originally stood for both Israel and Judah. However, there is no textual basis for this assumption, and it seems quite unnecessary to suggest removing these words.[xxvii] These two houses, taken together as in the text, connote the totality of the twelve tribes, separated following the death of Solomon.[xxviii]

“The parties to the covenant are not addressed in the second person but are identified in the third person as “the house of Israel” and “the house of Judah.” These groups also appear in v 27 as the ones whom the LORD will save. The two names serve as a reminder of how God’s people were affected by their history in the land. In the book of Jeremiah, the houses of Israel and Judah stand together under judgment (5:11; 11:10, 17) and promise (33:14). Indeed, the reunification of the two houses is part of the promised restoration (3:18). Jer 50:4–5 portrays the nations Israel and Judah returning together to Zion in tears in order to “join themselves to the Lord; the eternal covenant will not be forgotten.””[xxix]

(C) 32a: Not like the covenant I cut with their fathers (לֹא כַ‍בְּרִית אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אֶת־אֲבוֹתָם)

לֹא כַ‍בְּרִית : The Old Covenant mentioned here refers to the Mosaic/Sinaitic Covenant which was mediated by Moses between the Lord and his people at Mount Sinai. [xxx] The height of this covenant was the stone tablets on which was written the commandments of the Lord as Decalogue. People were to learn and to teach it to their generations. They were to follow these commandments in their lives. This covenant was to be the governing principle of their lives since. The new covenant is described as ‘not like the covenant’ which YHWH made with those whom he brought out of Egypt. It should be noted that the phrase is ‘not like the covenant’ and not ‘not the covenant.’ Therefore, it is not a cancellation of the old covenant, rather a fundamental change in the Sinai Covenant. [xxxi] Its newness is described in the following verses.

אֶת־אֲבוֹתָם : This could be better rendered as ‘ancestors’ instead of ‘Fathers’[xxxii] because the Sinai covenant was made to the whole nation. In Jeremiah 11:1-13, the Lord speaks of the covenant he made with “your forefathers when I brought them out of Egypt” (11:3–4, 7). “He accuses them repeatedly of not “obeying” (“hearing”) “the terms of this covenant” (11:3, 4, 6, 8, 10), because of “the stubbornness of their evil hearts” (11:8). He says that “both the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken the covenant” (11:10). It is this “broken covenant” which will be replaced by the “new covenant” in 31:31–34.” [xxxiii] Jeremiah makes the same argument in 7:21–34. God speaks of the covenant which he made with their ancestors when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. If they would obey him, he would be their God and they would be his people. Yet, they did not obey him.

(D) 33b: in the day (when) I took them by hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt (בְּיוֹם הֶחֱזִיקִי בְיָדָם לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵ‍אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם)

The old covenant was given in the context of the Exodus from Egypt, the saving act of God in the history of Israel. The covenant and the laws which followed was supposed to be the response of the people to the tender love and care of the Lord who carried them by hand out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery (cf. Deut 1:31; Hos 11:3). This is the central theme of the chiasm formed in the prose section. By arranging the matter in such a chiasm, the prophet wants to remind the audience of the salvific event by which they were brought out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. By these words, the listeners of Jeremiah are encouraged to think that the Lord, who brought them out of the land of Egypt and gave them the identity of a nation, will surely bring them out of the exile and give them back their identity as his people. Just like the Sinaitic covenant was the life-principle of their lives, the new covenant will be the life-principle of their lives post exilic.

(C’) 32c: But they broke my covenant though I was their husband, says the Lord. (אֲשֶׁר־הֵמָּה הֵפֵרוּ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי וְאָנֹכִי בָּעַלְתִּי בָם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

Since there are difficulties in translating v.33[xxxiv] it may be better to start a new sentence here.[xxxv]

אֲשֶׁר־הֵמָּה הֵפֵרוּ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי: The covenant which God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai was broken, provoking the anger of the Lord. This covenant was the bond between the people of Israel and the Lord. But by breaking the covenant they have rejected to be his people. The Lord accuses them that it was they who broke the covenant and not the Lord. Therefore, although, the people have rejected the sovereignty of YHWH over their lives, YHWH has not rejected them.

וְאָנֹכִי בָּעַלְתִּי : ‘ I was their husband’ can also be translated as ‘I was their Lord’ or ‘I was their master’ for the Hebrew word בעל can also mean “Lord” or “master.” The Septuagint and the Syriac Versions have a different reading. It reads ‘καὶ ἐγὼ ἠμέλησα αὐτῶν’ (compare Heb. 8:9) which literally means ‘and I neglected them’ Gesenius agrees with the Septuagint version of the text because he argues that the meaning of the phrase בָּעַל בְּ is to reject.[xxxvi] The Vulgate uses dominatus sum meaning ‘I was their Lord.’ However, I am of the opinion that since the phrase occurs in a covenantal background, the meaning ‘husband’ or ‘lord’ will be more accurate. It can thus mean the husband as he is the owner and ruler of the wife. [xxxvii] The verb בעלתי means to “marry,” with an emphasis on the rights and authority the husband exercised over his wife (e.g., Gen 20:3; Deut 21:13; 22:22; 24:1) as the master of the household.[xxxviii] The covenantal relationship between the Lord and the Israel was often illustrated in the marital covenant. It is this covenant which Hosea speaks when he speaks of the Lord as a faithful husband and the Israel as an adulterous wife. Jeremiah adopts the metaphor of a broken marriage to warn his listeners in the days of Josiah of the possibility of an exile of their own (Jer 3:6–20). He also speaks of Israel and Judah as sisters, both guilty of adultery, both sent out of the house by their husband, and both offered the possibility of reconciliation (cf. Ezek 16:1–63; 23:1–49).[xxxix]

There is also a pun with the name Baal (בעל), the strange god to whom the people were making offerings (11:13, 17). By serving בעל, “Baal,” they abandoned the LORD who had mastered them as a בעל, “husband.” Thus the covenant breaking became complete that it was irreversible. Both the analogy to a broken marriage and the promise of a “new” covenant make this point clear.[xl]

(B’) 33a: For this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel (כִּי זֹאת הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר אֶכְרֹת אֶת־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל)

The promise here to Israel is the covenant which the Lord is going to make with Israel. The old covenant was completely broken. It could not be renewed again. Therefore the Lord is going to make a new covenant with the house of Israel. “The promise unites the two houses of v 31 into the one “house of Israel.” The reading of some manuscripts, בני, “children of,” Israel, makes this interpretation explicit.[xli]

(A’) 33b: after those days, says the Lord (אַחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

אַחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם : The expression ‘after those days’ has brought many speculations in the exegesis of the passage. Considering that הָהֵם (those) is not the same as הָאֵלֶּה (these), scholars have speculated that the idea referring here is the ‘coming days’ or ‘in the end of days’ as an eschatological promise. [xlii] But these speculations do not stand convincing. “No passage can be shown in which the Old Testament prophets make predictions concerning the heavenly state. The prophet therefore sets before his hearers a period of terrestrial development.”[xliii] ‘After those days’ indicates sequence, a later time, but does not specify the antecedent. It cannot be a time after the covenant making in v 31, unless there are two such occasions envisioned.[xliv] The meaning of the expression may be ‘after the days of the exile’ or ‘after the days of the punishment’ of which Jeremiah had warned his listeners. The Lord here already sees the end of the exile. This gives real hope to the people. “In the present context of the Book of Consolation, “those days” could mean the days described in 30:27–30 when the judgment will be complete and God will begin planting, building, and repopulating the land.”[xlv]

8.2. Poetry Section

Once the promise of a new covenant and the description of the old broken covenant is done, the oracle proceeds to describe the characteristics of the new covenant through this poetry. It is interesting to note that the main theme of the poetry section is the knowledge of YHWH which will eventually lead to a renewed and everlasting relationship with the Lord.

33b: I will put my law within them (נָתַתִּי אֶת־תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם)
and in their hearts I will write it (וְעַל־לִבָּם אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה)

“After the heading “this is the covenant,” one expects a statement of its substance, as in the covenant formula just discussed, but the promise at the center is more like the “provision for deposit and reading” in the treaty form.”[xlvi] While the Sinaitic Covenantal laws were written on the stone tablets and put on the ‘Holy of Holies’ in the temple, which was then destroyed, the new covenant will be written on the hearts and put within them, thus, making it impossible to be destroyed. In the Hebrew Psychology, קֶ֫רֶב stands as the seat of the emotions and לֵב stands as the seat of thinking. So the new law will govern the thinking and emotions of the people.[xlvii]

נָתַתִּי אֶת־תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם : While the Sinaitic law was set before them (נָתַן לִפְנֵיהֶם) (cf. Jer. 9:12, Deut. 4:8; 11:32, 1 Kings 9:6) the new covenantal law will be put within them (בְּקִרְבָּם).[xlviii] קֶ֫רֶב is the inward part of human person and the seat of emotion.[xlix] The new law will govern the emotions of the people. “My law here represents the total content of God’s revealed will and purpose for his people” (cf. Jer. 2:8).[l] While the Sinaitic law was written by the Lord and vouchsafed for their happiness, which was put in the arc of the covenant, the new law will be put within them. While the Sinaitic law had to be made one’s own the new law will be part of oneself by its very nature.

וְעַל־לִבָּם אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה : While the first covenant document was written by God on two stone tablets and mediated by Moses(Exod 31:18; Deut 4:13; 5:22; 10:1–4), the new covenat will be written in their heart without any mediators. When God writes the law on the people’s heart, mediators are bypassed and the limitations of written documents are superseded. Stone tablets can be broken (Exod 32:19; Deut 9:17) and that scrolls can be lost or ignored (2 Kgs 22:8), and burned (Jer 36:23) or drowned (Jer 51:63). Their availability is also restricted. The metaphor of writing on the heart shows how these limitations and vulnerability will be eliminated.[li] For Hebrew mind, לֵב is the seat of the thinking, reflection and memory. [lii] Thus it is the mind. But even in the old covenant, Israel is urged to receive the law of the Lord into her heart (Deut 6:6; 11:8. Although the Lord had asked the people to write His laws in their heats, they inscribed their sins in their hearts (Jer17:1).[liii] Only God’s hand can overcome their stubbornness and prepare them for loyal obedience.[liv]

Since, the covenant is put in the heart of the believer; they don’t need to renew the covenant as they did earlier. Even the loss of temple would not affect them, for the heart of each one would become the Holy of Holies as they contained the writing of the covenantal laws.

33c: I will be their God, (אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים)
and they will be my people.( וְהֵמָּה יִהְיוּ־לִי לְעָם)

The law of the Lord thus forms, in the old as well as in the new covenant, the essence of the relations between the Lord and His people. The essential element of the covenant remains the same in both the old and the new covenant (Lev. 26:12 with Ex. 29:45), “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” “The formula has already appeared twice in the Book of the Covenant as a promise (30:22; 31:1; cf. Zech 8:8), and it occurs four other times in the book of Jeremiah, twice with reference to the Sinai/Horeb covenant (7:23; 11:4) and two more times as a promise for the future (24:7; 32:38).”[lv] W.D. Barack quotes Sarason about the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, “[n]Old Testament a new Torah…just differently transmitted and more perfectly observed”[lvi]

By keeping the Sinaitic Covenant, the Lord had promised to be their God and they were to be his people. In Deuteronomy 26:16-19, God promises to keep them as His people and treasured possession. But by not obeying the Lord, the people had ceased to be his people. Prophets repeatedly warned people of their downfall. Hosea, dramatically names his son Lo-Ammi (Hos 1:9), which means not my people. By this act, he signified that God had deserted them ass His people. Yet the Lord gives promise to the people that they will be again His people and He will be their God (Hos 2:25). Jeremiah had used this phrase often in connection with the old covenant which was broken (7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22). In 24:7, the Lord promises He will give the people a heart to know Him, and they shall return to Him with their whole heart and He will be their God and they will be His people. But the new covenant will ensure that the Lord will be their God and they will be His people forever because it was a covenant which could not be broken. “Thus the hope proclaimed is a perfect integration of God and people, a flawless reciprocity, an undisturbed interaction: ‘And I shall be their God and they will be my people.’ This deep coincidence of divine and human issues is a harmony of divine and human wills and disposes of the tensions between obedience and disobedience to God’s demands.”[lvii]

34a: and no man shall teach again his friend and his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” (וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת־יְהוָה)
for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord ( כִּי־כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִ‍קְטַנָּם וְעַד־גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם־יְהוָה)

וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד : The earlier covenant needed somebody to teach the fellow Israelite to obey the commandments of YHWH. The Israelites were asked to teach their younger generation about the law of the Lord. But the new covenant will be inscribed in the hearts and put inside each one that they will no longer need anyone else to instruct them or lead them to renew the covenant.

אִישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו: Hebrew normally uses masculine nouns and pronouns for references to people in general.[lviii] Therefore, the expression, here, includes all the people without exclusion. People need not remind the other of their duty to know the Lord.

דְּעוּ אֶת־יְהוָה: As a result of the God’s putting His law in the heart of the people, all, small and great, will ‘know the Lord.’ The knowledge of YHWH, of which the prophet speaks, is not the theoretical knowledge which is imparted and acquired by means of religious instruction.[lix] Therefore, the interpretation that the office of teaching will cease to exist when the new covenant will come into exist cannot be accepted without reservations. Here, with the people as subject, Know the Lord means to be in a close relationship to the Lord.[lx] The knowledge of YHWH is based upon the inward experience of the heart which is a life-transforming one. In Psalms, the knowledge of YHWH is to accept him as God. It is to accept that He made us, and we are His, His people — and the flock of His pasture. (Ps 100:3). According to Jeremiah, to know the Lord is to obey His commandments, to walk His ways and to do what is right and just (Jer. 2:28; 4:22; 8:7; 16:21; 22:15–17; 24:7). It includes the ability to recount how the Lord saved Israel (2:6–8). The knowledge of YHWH consists in knowing that, He acts with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things he delights (Jer 9:24). Therefore, to know YHWH is to walk in the path of justice, love, and righteousness in the earth.

While the center piece of the chiastic structure of the prose section of the ‘new covenant’ passage is the ‘salvific event’ of the exodus, the center piece of the poetic section is the knowledge of YHWH. The clear implication is that, in the new covenant, each person will do what is right and just so perfectly that no one will ever have to encourage another to do so. These lines match the promise of the Lord in 24:7, where he says, “I will give them a heart to know me.”[lxi]This characteristic of the new covenant reminds us that only a proper relationship with God can be translated into proper relationships with one’s fellow human beings. (see Deut 4:5–8; 6:1–3, 24–25; 7:12–14; 16:18–20). The Lord has always called on those who “know” him to do “justice and righteousness.” The difference in the New Covenant is the expectation that these ideals will be realized consistently by every person.23

לְמִ‍קְטַנָּם וְעַד־גְּדוֹלָם : This is a Hebrew way of including people of all social levels (8:10; 16:6; 31:34; 42:1; 16:21; 24:7). [lxii] This sums up a list of people from children to the very aged in 6:11–13 and the poor and the rich in 5:1–5. The same phrase, but without pronominal suffixes, describes the lay participants in the covenant renewal led by Josiah in 2 Kgs 23:2.[lxiii] Unlike the old covenant, the knowledge of which had to be accessed, the new covenant would be easily accessible to all. So under the new covenant, all the social disparities will come to an end, for all will have the knowledge of the Lord, equally.

34b: For I will forgive their inequity (כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם)
and will remember their sins no more.( וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר־עוֹד)

The people will know YHWH for (because) He would forgive their inequity and would remember their sins no more. This כי clause is offered as a reason for all that has gone before.[lxiv] Therefore, the knowledge of the Lord can only be there if the Lord forgives the sins and this the Lord bestows freely. In the old covenant, people had to do sacrifices to receive the atonement. Although the Jeremiah’s contemporaries had refused to turn away from sin and be pardoned, (5:1; 36:3), the people of the new covenant will not bear the guilt of their ancestors’ sin or their own because of God’s gracious gift of pardon. Here, the new covenant differs substantially from the old covenant.

Hosea says in 8:13b, “Now he will remember their iniquity, and punish their sins; they shall return to Egypt. But Jeremiah’s words here reverse these. He says, “…forgive their inequity and will remember their sins no more.” Remembering inequities and punishing sins are inseparable. The Lord only remembers the inequity when he punishes the sin. Conversely, when He declares that He has forgotten the inequities, it means He will never punish them for their sins. In sum, “forgive” and “forget” does not mean that the Lord has some kind of the loss of mental recollections, but rather they are synonymous terms for a single act; they do not denote sequential and complementary acts.[lxv]

Although there are arguments that the inequities and the sins referred in here are the events that lead to the exile, this is too narrow an understanding. Since, no such explicit mention of the sins and inequities mentioned we would very well assume that the mention here would be to all the sins which would be committed until the new covenant. For once the new covenant is established, it is impossible to sin.[lxvi] When the heart and mind inscribed with the revelation of God one cannot turn to sin again. Therefore, faithfulness to the new covenant will be a gift of divine mercy, not a human achievement.[lxvii]

9. Theology and Message

In the Old Testament, there were mainly four covenants spoken of. They are (1) The Abrahamic Covenant, (2) The Mosaic Covenant, (3) The Davidic Covenant, and (4) The New Covenant. While the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were promises with a future tone, the Mosaic covenant was temporal and conditional. The New covenant of which Jeremiah speaks is also a promise and unconditional. But unlike the Davidic and Abrahamic Covenants, which were mainly made with an individual, the New Covenant will be made with all the Israelites. The New Covenant therefore is both common and individual.

The new covenant offered a new hope for the people of Israel who had lost their identity. While in the exile, they had no land and no temple, which were considered to be the pillars of the Israel society. Even though, God had repeatedly warned them of the punishment, if they did not obey him, they would not listen. Now that the punishment and the wrath had befallen them, God had compassion on them. He offers a new identity for the people of Israel. For centuries, their lives revolved around the covenant which God established with them at Mount Sinai when he took them by hand out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. His commandments were written on a stone tablet and kept in the temple. But now they were destroyed. Their identity was in crisis. So God offers them a new hope with the new covenant. The Lord will write His laws in their hearts and deposit it within them. It made the loss of the land and loss of the temple immaterial. They could now hope for a union with God which could not be taken away by the external factors.

It made also made them equal in the society. No one had better access to the law, but each one had the law within oneself. There will be no mediator or no teacher. This law cannot be broken, as it would become the life-principle which governs their thoughts, feelings and actions. It also offered forgiveness of sin. God would not remember their sins anymore! As a result of this unconditional forgiveness, everyone would know the Lord. By knowing the Lord, they would accept Him as their savior remembering all that He had done for them and would walk in the way of the Lord, in love, justice and righteousness.

The difference between the Sinaitic Covenant and the New Covenant are shown in the table below.

Sinaitic Covenant New Covenant
People broke it. It was breakable. People will not break it. It is unbreakable.
Only the Lord was living up to the expectations of the covenant Both the Lord and the people will live all the expectations of the covenant.
The laws were written on the stone tablet The laws will be written in the heart
The laws were kept in the temple They will be kept within each one
People were needed to be taught to know the Lord No one will need to be taught as all will know YHWH
Only conditional forgiveness was offered Unconditional forgiveness offered
Renewal Ceremonies were needed No need of such ceremonies
Mediators were needed There will be no mediators.
People were asked to keep the law in their hearts The Lord will write the law in the hearts of the people
It tried to control the conduct of the people It changed the character of the people so that they will love and obey God.[lxviii]
Breaking of the covenant brought curses. No such curses.
External laws were to be kept Internalization of law is the main feature of the covenant.

10. Conclusion.

As a Christian I cannot ignore the effect of the ‘New Covenant’ proclaimed by Jeremiah on the New Testament (1Cor 11:25; Mk 14:24–25; Mt 26:27–29; Lk 22:17–20)[lxix], an adaption that it shares with the Qumran community.It is the book of Hebrews which is influenced more by this passage (Heb 8:8–12; Heb 10:16–17). Most of these New Testament applications apply the passage to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.[lxx] But it is worth looking at the covenant as it is proclaimed by Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s proclamation of the New Covenant is a consolation and hope to a group of people who lost their identity. It envisages a society where the power of the Lord will bring equal justice to all. Everyone will know the Lord. This will be a free gift. In a world which is broken by the broken and hurting relationship, the covenant promises us a right relationship with the Lord which will be spilled over to the relationship with our brothers and sisters. If we imbibe the spirit of this covenant, we will be able to heal many broken hearts. And indeed we have been far from being such a New Covenant Community.[lxxi] A long way to go!


[i]L. Richards and L.O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987), 414.

[ii]J.P. Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Jeremiah, Lamentations (ed. P. Schaff; New York: C. Scribner & Company, 1871), 274.

[iii]W. McKane, A critical and exegetical commentary on Jeremiah (v. 2; v. 19; 2 vols.; vol. 2: T. & T. Clark, 1986), 817.

[iv]G.L. Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52 (Word Biblical Commentary; eds. B. M. Metzger, et al.; 52C vols.; vol. 27; Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 130.

[v]T.M. Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations (The College Press NIV Commentary: College Press Pub Company, 2002), 255.

[vi]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 127.

[vii]The translation uses the following aides.

J.J. Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament: Isaiah-Malachi (Analytical Key to the Old Testament; 4 vols.; vol. 4; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 340-341.

F.F. Brown, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906),

[viii]Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bielgesellschaft, 2006), Je 31:31-34.

[ix]A.R. Faussett, The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments; eds. R. Jamieson, et al.; 2 vols.; vol. 1; Hartford, Conn: S.S.Scranton & Compnany, 1871), 539.

[x]W.L. Holladay, Jeremiah 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapters 26-52 (Hermeneia–A Critical and Gistorical commentary on the Bible; 2 vols.; vol. 2; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 35.

[xi]According to Holladay, Jeremiah 30:1-31:40 forms the book of Comfort. For a detailed discussion see, Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 148-171.

[xii]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 155.

[xiii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 126-127.

[xiv]William Lee Holladay, 170.

[xv]William Lee Holladay, 164.

[xvi]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 257.

[xvii]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 164.

[xviii]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 257.

[xix]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 164.

[xx] B.M. Newman and P.C. Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah (UBS Handbook Series; New York: United Bible Societies, 2003), 30.

[xxi]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 31.

[xxii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 651.

[xxiii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xxiv]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 165.

[xxv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xxvi] Walter Brueggemann, “Texts That Linger, Words That Explode,” Theology Today 54, no. 2 (1997), 190.

[xxvii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 651.

[xxviii]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 255.

[xxix]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xxx]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 256.

[xxxi]McKane, Jeremiah, 818.

[xxxii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 651.

[xxxiii]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 256.

[xxxiv] For a detailed exposition see, …McKane, Jeremiah, 819.

[xxxv]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 651.

[xxxvi]W. Gesenius and S.P. Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1957), 130.

[xxxvii]Brown, et al., BDB, 127.

[xxxviii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xxxix]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 256.

[xl]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 131.

[xli]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[xlii]C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The Prophecies of Jeremiah (Commentary on the Old Testament; trans. J. Kennedy; 10 vols.; vol. 8; Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 1996), 8:282.

[xliii]Lange, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 275.

[xliv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[xlv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[xlvi]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[xlvii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 652.

[xlviii]Keil and Delitzsch, Jeremiah, 8:282.

[xlix]Brown, et al., BDB, 899.

[l]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 652.

[li]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[lii]J. Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, Together with Dictionaries of the Hebrew and Greek Words of the Original, with References to the English Words (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986), H3820.

[liii]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 258.

[liv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[lv]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 132.

[lvi] William D. Barrick, “New covenant theology and the Old Testament covenants,” Master’s Seminary Journal 18, no. 2 (2007)

[lvii]McKane, Jeremiah, 820.

[lviii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 652.

[lix]Keil and Delitzsch, Jeremiah, 8:283.

[lx]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 653.

[lxi]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 134.

23 There is probably a connection here with Jer 5:4–5. The inclusiveness of “from the least of them to the greatest” is reminiscent of the references there to “the poor” and “the leaders.” Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 198.

[lxii]Newman and Stine, A Handbook on Jeremiah, 191.

[lxiii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 134.

[lxiv]McKane, Jeremiah, 822.

[lxv]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 260.

[lxvi]Willis, Jeremiah and Lamentations, 260.

[lxvii]Keown, et al., Jeremiah 26-52, 134.

[lxviii]W.W. Wiersbe, Be Decisive (The Be Series Commentary; Wheaton: Victor Books, 1996, c1995), Je 31:31.

[lxix] However, neither Mark nor Matthew, in the earliest and best MSS., uses “new” with “covenant” though later MSS. do offer “new” at that point. Luke offers two text traditions, a shorter one which does not mention “covenant” at all, and a longer one which mentions “the new covenant”.

[lxx]Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 94.

[lxxi] John Bright, “Exercise in hermeneutics : Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Interpretation 20, no. 2 (1966), 208.

Bibliography

. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bielgesellschaft, 2006.

Barrick, William D. “New covenant theology and the Old Testament covenants.” Master’s Seminary Journal 18, no. 2 (2007): 165-180.

Bright, John. “Exercise in hermeneutics : Jeremiah 31:31-34.” Interpretation 20, no. 2 (1966): 188-210.

Brown, F.F., S.S.R. Driver, and C.A. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

Brueggemann, Walter. “Texts That Linger, Words That Explode.” Theology Today 54, no. 2 (1997): 180-199.

Faussett, A.R. The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. Edited by R. Jamieson, D. Brown, and A.R. Faussett. 2 vols. Vol. 1, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. Hartford, Conn: S.S.Scranton & Compnany, 1871.

Gesenius, W. and S.P. Tregelles. Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1957.

Holladay, W.L. Jeremiah 2: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, chapters 26-52. 2 vols. Vol. 2, Hermeneia–A Critical and Gistorical commentary on the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch. The Prophecies of Jeremiah. Translated by JAMES KENNEDY. 10 vols. Vol. 8, Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 1996.

Keown, G.L., P.J. Scalise, and T.G. Smothers. Jeremiah 26-52. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker. 52C vols. Vol. 27, Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1995.

Lange, J.P. . A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Jeremiah, Lamentations. Edited by P. Schaff. New York: C. Scribner & Company, 1871.

Owens, J.J. Analytical Key to the Old Testament: Isaiah-Malachi. 4 vols. Vol. 4, Analytical Key to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989.

McKane, W. A critical and exegetical commentary on Jeremiah. 2 vols. Vol. 2, v. 2; v. 19. T. & T. Clark, 1986.

Newman, B.M. and P.C. Stine. A Handbook on Jeremiah. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 2003.

Richards, L. and L.O. Richards. The Teacher’s Commentary. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1987.

Strong, J. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Showing Every Word of the Text of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurrence of Each Word in Regular Order, Together with Dictionaries of the Hebrew and Greek Words of the Original, with References to the English Words. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986.

Wiersbe, W.W. Be Decisive. The Be Series Commentary. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1996, c1995.

Willis, T.M. Jeremiah and Lamentations. The College Press NIV Commentary. College Press Pub Company, 2002.

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