A New Covenant

by Ed Gallagher

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

Jeremiah 31:33
Rembrandt, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630, Wikimedia Commons

This lesson covers the book of Jeremiah, with a focus on the new covenant (Jer 31:31–34). 

What do you know about Jeremiah? The “Weeping Prophet” lived in the late-seventh and early-sixth centuries, during the days that the kingdom of Judah was demolished by the Babylonians and many Jews were taken into exile. Jeremiah had been chosen before his conception (1:5) to be a prophet ready “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:10). That is, Jeremiah would announce coming destruction and hope for the future. It was Jeremiah’s task to tell Judah that the Babylonians would destroy them. How do you imagine the Judeans felt about Jeremiah? 

Jeremiah suffered a great deal during his ministry. A priest named Pashhur had Jeremiah beaten and put in the stocks (20:1–2). He barely escaped the death sentence (26:8–16). He was imprisoned on multiple occasions (32:1–3; 37:11–16, 21), thrown into a cistern and left for dead (38:6), put in chains with a view to being exiled to Babylon, then released (40:1–6), then kidnapped by some Judeans and taken to Egypt (43:1–7), after he had just warned them not to go to Egypt (ch. 42). There we lose track of the prophet. He apparently died in Egypt. 

Jeremiah appeared to the people to be a traitor because he prophesied their destruction. Even the presence of God’s temple in Jerusalem—which they considered a sort of talisman (7:4)—would not spare them. They had made the temple a “den of robbers” (7:11). (This famous Temple Sermon is the direct cause for Jeremiah’s trial later [26:1–8].) God himself was making war against Judah (21:5–6) and King Zedekiah would not escape (21:6). This is why Zedekiah imprisoned Jeremiah (32:2–5). Because Babylon would defeat Judah, Jeremiah actually advised people to leave Jerusalem and seek refuge from the besieging army (21:8–10). 

The response to Jeremiah’s ministry was so negative that Jeremiah wanted to stop. Why didn’t he? He found that God’s word was like a fire in his bones so that he had to let it out (20:7–9).

God had decreed exile for the people because of their sins, which included breaking most of the Ten Commandments, including idolatry (7:9), and even child sacrifice (19:5). Moses had warned that exile would result from persistent sin (Deut 28:64–68). According to Jeremiah, how long will the exile last? Jeremiah says this exile will last 70 years (25:11; 29:10), meaning that it would not be a short time; the Jews should not hold their breath to get back to Judah, but rather they should “build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce” (29:5) and they should “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will have welfare” (29:7). 

But Moses also promised a future beyond exile (Deut 30:1–5). Jeremiah 30–33 constitutes a “Book of Consolation” that contain prophecies of return. God will “restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah” and “bring them back to the land” (30:3). “They shall serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them” (30:9). The nations that had taken Israel and Judah captive will themselves go into captivity (30:16) and God will renew his commitment to this people (30:22). God’s love for his people is everlasting (31:3), so they will dwell on the land as before (31:4–6), a time of great rejoicing (31:7–14). Though the exile itself had caused Rachel to weep in Ramah (31:15), there is now “hope for your future” (31:17). 

God promises to make a new covenant with Israel and Judah, not like the covenant at Sinai (31:31–32), and he describes this new covenant in vv. 33–34. According to this passage, what was the problem with the old covenant? The problem was that the people broke the covenant (v. 32). How is the new covenant different? Not that the words should be on people’s hearts, because that ideal characterized the old covenant (Deut 6:6; 11:18). Under the old covenant the people should also have known God (Jer 22:15–17), as they will under the new covenant (31:34). God promises forgiveness (v. 34), but so did the old covenant (Exod 34:5–7). 

The difference seems to be that the people will not break this new covenant as they broke the old one. Much of the book of Jeremiah condemns the people for breaking the covenant. That will no longer be a problem. Some of Jeremiah’s prophecies of restoration were fulfilled at the time that Cyrus the Persian released the Jews from captivity (cf. Ezra 1:1–4). They did return to the land and rebuild the temple. However, the post-exilic prophets make it clear that the returned Judeans continued to struggle with breaking the covenant (see esp. Malachi). 

Jeremiah connects the time of ‘new covenant’ with the coming of the “righteous branch of David” (33:15). Jesus, in fact, echoed Jeremiah’s new covenant language when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, talking about the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20). Paul says that we are “servants of a new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6). And Hebrews connects Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant to the sacrifice of Jesus (Heb 8:7–13). 

According to John the Baptist, descent from Abraham is not what garners favor with God, but rather the Coming One clears his threshing floor, gathering the wheat and burning the chaff (Matt 3:7–12). Paul also insists that Israel is not defined in physical terms but rather spiritual ones (Gal 3:7; Rom 9:6). According to the New Testament, Jeremiah’s new covenant has now been enacted in us, who share the faith of Abraham and live up to the ideals of God’s covenant with his people. Those who follow the Davidic Messiah show themselves to be members of a new covenant when they faithfully keep that covenant, demonstrating that the laws are written on their hearts and claiming the forgiveness that God offers. 

Conclusion

Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant that would not be broken by God’s people provided hope for exiled Israel. For us who are a part of the new covenant established in Christ’s blood, Jeremiah’s prophecy provides a template for how we relate to God. 

Additional Questions for Discussion

Read Jeremiah 7, the famous “Temple Sermon.” What was Jeremiah’s message to the people? 

According to Jeremiah 20:7–18, how did Jeremiah feel about his own ministry? 

Read Jeremiah 30. What is Jeremiah’s message of hope for Judah and Israel? 

Read the prophecy of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31–34. Why did the people need a new covenant? 

How does the New Testament understand Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant? See Luke 22:20; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8. 

Additional Resources

The Bible Odyssey website has an article on Jeremiah by Melvin Sensenig and an article on the New Covenant by Walter Brueggemann. And here is the Bible Project video.  

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