Jeremiah 31:31-34: The Promise of a New Covenant

Jeremiah 31: 31-34 takes part in a section of the book of Jeremiah which has been given the name, the Book of Consolation[1]. This section expresses a hope filled prophetic voice to God’s people in exile to remind them that God has not rejected them. Jeremiah 31:31-34 promises a new covenant to the exiled people of Judah and Israel that will replace that which has been broken by previous generations. This covenant will be unconditional and will be substantially different to the Mosaic covenant. It will be characterised by a divine work by which God will cause the Israelites will to be in harmony with his will, a unilateral divine-human relationship with each member of the Israelite community, forgiveness for personal sin and an end to divine retribution for sin. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is reinterpreted by several New Testament writers as having been inaugurated by Christ[2]. The New Testament fills out the gaps in the vague promises of Jeremiah 31:31-34 leaving us with a complete picture of the New Covenant.

 

The vast majority of the book of Jeremiah consists of repetitive prophetic warnings of Judah’s downfall through military defeat and exile at the hands of the powerful Babylonian empire[3]. Jeremiah repetitively declares that this will take place as divine punishment if the people do not turn from their transgression of the Mosaic covenant to covenantal faithfulness. However, the book also contains a trajectory of hope[4]. This can be seen in Jeremiah’s call, in which, there is a revealed element of planting and building in his future ministry, the emphasis on eventual renewal and restoration in Jeremiah 2- 6, and other post judgment promises in 24: 6; 42:10[5]. This trajectory culminates in the Book of Consolation which breaks into the middle of the book, tying together the themes of judgment and salvation and showing how the people’s past and future are both tied up in God’s Holy and merciful will[6]. The Book of Consolation juxtaposes Jeremiah’s gloomy message of judgment with God’s continued faithfulness to the Hebrew people on account of his covenants with Abraham and David. This juxtaposition places both judgment and salvation in the context of God’s ultimate goal of carving out for himself a people who reflect his holiness[7]. This objective is encapsulated in Jeremiah 31:31- 34 with the promise of a new covenant with God at a future date[8]. Like the Mosaic covenant, this new covenant is inextricably linked to the Hebrew community that is returning from captivity, a point that is restated twice[9]. Interestingly, there is no mention that the new covenant is something to which the people must agree; it seems to be unconditional like the Abrahamic covenant[10]. One cannot forget that at this time the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon. These people were understandably feeling like God had rejected them and these promises and declarations of faithfulness from Yahweh served to inspire hope and solidarity in the midst of their suffering[11]. The promise of a new covenant is surrounded by promises of restoration, peace and various other blessings for the people of Israel to be fulfilled after their return from exile[12].

 

The new covenant that is promised in 31: 31-34 is not simply a renewal of the Mosaic covenant for a new generation since the text stresses a level of discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant. There is an explicit statement of discontinuity in verse 32 where God says that the new covenant will not be like the Mosaic covenant. This discontinuity is reiterated in verse 34 with the phrase “not anymore”. The reason for the change in God’s covenantal relationship with Israel is given in the next verse. The discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant was a reaction to the breaking of the old covenant by the constant transgressions of the people[13]. Therefore this new covenant is designed to address the problem of disobedience which plagued the old covenant[14]. Due to this recognition, God speaks of a change in the covenantal relationship to deal with this inclination towards disobedience.

 

Verse 33 summarises the most important change between the Mosaic and the new covenant in God’s declaration that he will put his torah in the people’s minds and write the torah on their hearts[15]. This verse has often been interpreted as an internalisation of the law in comparison to the external law written on tablets in Mosses’ time[16]. However, this view does not recognise that similar language about Yahweh putting the law in the people’s hearts can be found in Deuteronomy 30:5- 6[17]. However, an emphasis on this internalisation as a consistency with Deuteronomy forgets the thrust of the passage, that for this reason this covenant will be substantially different to the old[18]. In the ancient Hebrew mind the heart was the organ of thought or will rather than emotion[19]. Therefore God’s act of writing the law on the heart is not about internalisation of the law but about a future act of God by which the will of the Israelite people would be moved to be able to be obedient, thereby solving the disobedience problem[20]. This inscribing of the heart and mind is portrayed as a gracious act of God[21].

 

Verse 34 speaks of the transformation that this new covenant would bring about amongst the people of Israel. Firstly, every member of the people would know the Lord. The word used for know is yada which carries the profound connotation of an intimate personal relationship between persons who are wholly committed to one another[22]. However, to know God in this sense is also to obey him[23]. Secondly, this unilateral personal relationship with God will make teaching people to know God obsolete, since all of the people will know him and will be in harmony with his will[24]. Thirdly, the new covenant will involve a grand forgiveness of the Israelite people’s sins[25]. Earlier on in the chapter people are promised that they will no longer suffer for the sins of their ancestors[26]. However, now they are promised that an intrinsic part of this new covenant will be personal forgiveness[27]. This promise is tied with a promise to forget their sins. This means that there will be an end to divine wrath for prior transgressions; Israel is to be given a fresh start with a new covenant that cannot be broken through insistent transgression as the old was[28].

 

The promise of a new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31- 34 is reinterpreted by several New Testament writers[29]. I will concentrate on its use by Paul in 2 Cor 3:5-14 and Romans 11:17 and by the writer of Hebrews in Heb 8:8-12 and will compare these interpretations with my analysis of the passage’s message. In 2 Cor 3:5-18 Paul picks up on the imagery of the divine work on the human will in Jer 31:33[30]. Paul interprets this divine work of God on the will and mind as the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit[31]. In Romans 11 Paul correctly recognises that the promise of the new covenant was primarily for the Hebrew people and that the gentiles have been permitted to enter into the Church, or as he says ‘grafted on to the olive tree’[32].The author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 as part of their argument that the new covenant is superior to the old. In their interpretation of the passage the author of Hebrews correctly interprets Jeremiah 31:31-32 to mean that the Mosaic covenant is now obsolete due to the persistent transgression of the Israelite people (Heb 8:13)[33]. The author quotes the passage again in Hebrews 10:16-17 and identifies Christ’s atoning death’s negation of the need for animal sacrifice with verse 34’s promise of forgiveness of sin. These examples all follow a common thread. The New Testament tends to fill out the prophetic promises of Jeremiah and the other prophets rather than to fulfill them, it’s as if Jeremiah gives us a few pieces of a picture and the New Testament fills out the missing spaces, completing the picture of the new covenant that was promised in Jeremiah 31:31-34[34].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Allen, L.C., “Jeremiah: Book of”, in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, ed., M.J. Boda and J.G. McConville (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 432-441.

 

Anderson, B.W., The Living World of the Old Testament (4th ed. Burnt Mill: Longman Group, 1988).

 

Fretheim, T.E., Jeremiah edited by Mark K. McElroy and P. K. Gammons. (Smyth & Helwys Bible commentary, 15; Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2002).

 

Keck, Leander E., David L. Peterson, Bruce C. Birch, John J. Collins and Katheryn P. Darr, ed., The New Interpreters Bible: Volume VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), s.v. ‘Jeremiah 30:1-31:40’  810-817.

 

Keown, Gerald L.,  Pamela J. Scalise and Thomas G. Smothers, Jeremiah 26- 52 edited by David A. Hubbard, Glenn W. Barker and John D. W. Watts. (Word Biblical Commentary, 27; Dallas: Word Books, 1995).

 

Kidner. D., The Message of Jeremiah (The Bible Speaks Today, Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987).

 

Longman, T., Jeremiah, Lamentations (New International Biblical Commentary, 14; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008).

 

McKeating, H., The Book of Jeremiah edited by I.H. Jones. (Epworth Commentaries, Peterborough: Epworth Press, 1999).

 

Talbert, C.H., “Paul on the Covenant”. Review and Expositor 84/2 (1987): 299-313.          

 

Thompson, J.A., The Book of Jeremiah (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980).


[1] The Book of Consolation extends from Jer 30:1 to 31:40. This essay says little on the authorship and composition of Jeremiah 31:31-34 due to the lack of scholarly consensus and a limited word count.

[2] Examples include Luke 20:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:5- 14; Heb 8:8-12; 10:16-17 T.E. Fretheim, Jeremiah ed. M.K. McElroy and P. K. Gammons. (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2002), 441.

[3] L.C. Allen, “Jeremiah: Book of”, in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, 432.

[4] Allen, “Jeremiah: Book of”, 432

[5] Specifically, the potential of blessing in Jer 4:2 and the preparation for the peoples eventual worship in  Jerusalem in Jer 3:17. Allen, “Jeremiah: Book of”, 432-433.

[6]Gerald L. Keown, Pamela J. Scalise and Thomas G. Smothers, Jeremiah 26- 52 ed. D.A. Hubbard, G.W. Barker and J.D.W. Watts. (Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 84.  

  Allen, “Jeremiah: Book of”, 439.

[7] Fretheim, Jeremiah, 439. In verse 33 God states his aim when he says “I will be their God, and they will be my people”. B.W. Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament 4th ed. (Burnt Mill: Longman Group, 1988), 421.

[8] The Book of Consolation also makes note of God’s Covenants with Abraham (30: 7, 10), Moses (31:31), and David (33: 14-26). Fretheim, Jeremiah, 449.

[9] Jer 31: 31, 33. Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament, 420-421. This reunification is further symbolized by the intentional separation of Judah and Israel in verse 31 and the use of Israel alone in verse 33. Fretheim argues that God’s salvific act of bringing the exiles back to the land becomes the new constitutive effect in this stage of Israel’s history. This event and the promise of a new covenant is seen as reminiscent of the exodus salvific event and covenantal agreement that followed. Ex 16:14-15 = Jeremiah 23: 7-8. Fretheim, Jeremiah, 442. However, we know of no other significant covenant with the people of Israel after the exile besides that initiated by Jesus and that claimed by the community at Qumran. J.A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 580.

[10] Fretheim, Jeremiah, 450.

[11] It also gave their suffering meaning by placing it in the context of God’s good aims and goals.

[12] It would be a gross oversimplification to assume that every promise was intended to come to fulfilment at the moment in history when the people came back from exile. Although, it was probably interpreted this way at the time because the of the aforementioned correlation between the salvific events of the exodus and the exile.

[13] T. Longman, Jeremiah, Lamentations (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 211.

    Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament, 421.

[14] H. McKeating, The Book of Jeremiah ed. I.H. Jones. (Peterborough: Epworth Press, 1999).

155. Interestingly, while many of the other prophets seem to assume Israel’s disobedience is simply a matter of them willing the wrong things, the author or authors of Jeremiah constantly ask the profounder question of whether or not it is actually possible for Israel to change and to will the right things. McKeating, The Book of Jeremiah, 55. For example the author compares Israel’s inability to repent to a leopard being unable to change its spots in Jer 13: 23. McKeating, The Book of Jeremiah, 155.

[15] The use of Torah in this verse indicates that the Torah itself will continue to be the standard in this new covenant.

[16] Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament, 421.

    Longman, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 211.

[17] Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, 581. The law was always intended to be in internalised.

[18] Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, 581.

[19] McKeating, The Book of Jeremiah, 154

[20]L.E. Keck et al., ed., The New Interpreters Bible: Volume VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), s.v. ‘Jeremiah 30:1-31:40’, 812.

[21] Therefore faithfulness to this covenant will be a gift of God rather than a human achievement. Keown, Scalise and Smothers, Jeremiah 26- 52, 135.

[22] Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, 581.

[23] This concept is communicated earlier in the book in Jer 22: 15-16

[24] Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament, 422. This does not rule out all teaching. Only teaching that helps one to establish their relationship with God is obsolete. Longman, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 212.

[25] Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament, 422.

[26] Jeremiah 31: 27-30.

[27] Keown, Scalise and Smothers, Jeremiah 26- 52, 135.

[28] Keown, Scalise and Smothers, Jeremiah 26- 52, 135.

    Fretheim, Jeremiah, 450.

[29] 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:5- 14; Heb 8:8-12; 10:16-17. Fretheim, Jeremiah, 441.

[30] C.H. Talbert, “Paul on the Covenant”.  RE 84/2 (1987): 304.

[31] Talbert, “Paul on the Covenant”, 304. This seems to be a valid interpretation since the means by which God will do this work is not mentioned in the passage in Jeremiah

[32]Fretheim, Jeremiah, 450.

    Talbert, “Paul on the Covenant”, 303.

[33]Fretheim, Jeremiah, 449.

[34] D. Kidner, The Message of Jeremiah (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987), 110. For example, Jeremiah 31:33  tells us that in the new covenant God will do a divine work to help people to obey him but it does not tell us how God will accomplish this. The coming of the Holy Spirit into the New Testament Church fills out what we are not told in the earlier promise. It is consistent with the promise in Jeremiah but it moves beyond it.

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