31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.
33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
34 No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Today we continue our Lenten study of the Old Testament covenants by looking at yet another promise that God gives to the Israelites. Our first week in this series we looked at the covenant between God and Abraham. Two weeks ago, we looked at a covenant made between God and the people as they received the Ten Commandments. Last week we considered a covenant between God and his people as they were wandering in the wilderness and about to enter the Promised Land. Today we fast-forward a few hundred years to the time of the Babylonian Exile and the promise of a new covenant.
Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann has identified three main points within today’s text, which I hope to explore this morning. The first is a new solidarity among God’s people. 2. A new knowledge of who God is. And 3. A fuller relationship with God. And though these are separate points, I believe that they are intricately connected. Let’s address these in order.
Point 1: A new solidarity among God’s people. One thing we can easily miss as we read the Old Testament is how the Kingdom of Israel was divided in two. Before the division, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and their respective land, were all united under kings like David and Solomon. However, when Solomon died around 925 BC, there was a disagreement about who would become the next king. Violence broke out, and eventually the 10 tribes living in the northern part of the kingdom broke off from the two tribes of the southern portion of the kingdom. They were then usually referred to as the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Different kings, different land; same God, same ancestors.
This may remind some of us here in the US of the Civil War, and the division between the North and South. Obviously, the reasons for splitting were different. But a similar scenario existed where brother was pitted against brother (maybe cousin against cousin), friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor. What separated the two was some ideology and an arbitrary, man-made line.
If you read the Old Testament carefully, you may notice that there are two exiles. But not all of the Hebrew people went into exile at the same time, and nobody went into exile twice. The two exiles happened uniquely to the two different kingdoms. The first exile, which happened around 722 BC, is also called the Assyrian Exile. This exile only affected the Northern Kingdom. The people were scattered, many were forced to intermarry with other nationalities. Often today we will hear about the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel, which is a result of the Assyrian Exile.
These tribes weren’t completely lost, though. Some of these intermarried groups were able to return to the land of the Northern Kingdom. They are the ones who made up the group known as the Samaritans.
The better-known exile is the Babylonian Exile, which took place around 586 BC. We know this exile better because books like Isaiah and Jeremiah were written during this period, giving us some insight into the experiences of the Hebrew people. The Babylonian Exile affected the Southern Kingdom of Judah, out of which came people like…Jesus. So much of our Bible follows the lives of people from the Southern Kingdom.
As we consider our passage today from Jeremiah 31, I want us to keep in mind this division between the North and the South. One thousand years after the original division, the Samaritans and the Jews did not get along. Jesus used the example of the “Good Samaritan” to make a point, which caught everyone off guard because Samaritans weren’t good. And when Jesus was caught talking to a Samaritan woman, it was scandalous, and not just because she was a woman, but a Samaritan woman! Similarly, 140 years after the Civil War, I still get called a Yankee whenever I tell people here in Virginia that I’m originally from Ohio! (Someone even asked me about my accent the other day. I’m sorry, my accent?)
Let’s jump into our scripture, beginning with verse 31: “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.’”
“The days are coming” suggests that the days had not yet come. God calls it a “new covenant,” and this is the only time that the Old Testament uses this phrase. Does this replace the first covenant, or simply add to it? That’s a really good question, and really smart people are going to disagree on the answer. What is clear that these two warring sides, divided then by centuries, now by millennium, will be included in this new covenant. This covenant is between the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
I’m not sure what all the squabbles were about between these two kingdoms, but I read this as God saying, “Get over it. We’ve got work to do.”
But it doesn’t end there. If we fast forward to verse 34a, we find this tidbit: “No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.”
This new covenant isn’t just between God and the two kingdoms of Israel/Judah. It also includes their neighbors. This includes gentiles, outsiders.
This reminds me of an old “BC” comic where one of the characters approaches a dictionary and looks up the phrase “Religious Cult.” The definition is: “The church down the street from yours.”
Our world can be quite divided. More than just north and south, we are divided by skin color, education level, occupation, denomination, and political affiliation. I’ve joked before that we need to learn to get along with one another because we will be spending eternity with people who are different than we are. But this text isn’t about being together after we die. This is about working together, doing the hard stuff in this life, together.
This new covenant is about unity and solidarity. It is about working together for the sake of God and his kingdom.
Point number 2: There will be greater knowledge of who God is. In fancy God-talk, we might say that there will be further revelation of the divine. Verse 33 says, “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
We are told that the Ten Commandments were originally etched in stone, while a majority of the Law was passed on orally. The Law would have been written down during the Babylonian Exile out of fear of losing these teachings. Stone can shatter, memories can fade, papyrus and scrolls can burn and deteriorate. But God is going to install these teachings directly into the hearts and minds of the people. A tattoo, right on the innermost parts of the people.
This provides a beautiful, albeit painful, image for me. I’ve never met anyone with a brain tattoo, but that doesn’t sound pleasant. Yet it makes me question, wasn’t the Law in the minds of the Hebrew people all of those years? Hebrew boys went to Torah school for the purpose of memorizing God’s Law. The Torah was recited in the synagogues, in their schools, and in their homes. To pass on the Torah orally requires memorization. So how is this different?
I think that the difference is the combining of heart and head. I’m not a good memorizer, but I know people who are. Phone numbers, other languages, and even memorizing Bible verses come easily to these people. That’s not me, as I don’t even have my wife’s phone number memorized. I need to look it up every time I have to write it down for whatever reason. But I also know people who can memorize things really well without fully understanding them.
I remember taking a reproductive physiology class in college where we had to memorize the different hormones involved in each stage of a female mammal’s cycle and what structure was dominant on the ovary at that time. Have I ever mentioned how helpful college has been to my ministry? Anyway, that did not come easy to me. I was studying with one of my classmates one day and he was whipping through flashcards so fast that he was causing a breeze. All he had to do was pair up the right couple of words, which he didn’t really understand, and he aced the test.
This is when I learned how I learn. I don’t memorize things, I have to understand the concept. I have to internalize the entire process. But guess what. Almost twenty years later, I can hold my own in discussions on the role and effects of lutenizing hormone on the corpus luteum, the body’s level of progesterone, and so on.
When our scripture talks about writing the law on the minds and hearts of the people, I think that God is calling the people to move past simple head knowledge, moving beyond memorization. Within this new covenant, there is the promise of further revelation and knowledge that can only be found when this knowledge migrates south from our minds and into our hearts, and I would add, out into the world through our hands and feet.
[And if you want to have a little fun, try a Bible study on Psalm 40:8, which says, “I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.” It literally says “you law is within my bowels.” It doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?]
Third and final point: This isn’t just about a fuller knowledge of God, but a fuller relationship with God. A part of this new covenant is being able to connect with God without an intermediary. There is no need for a go-between or liaison.
Recall that Moses served as the contact person for the people during the time of the Exodus. Later, the priesthood would arise, and offer prayers and sacrifices on the part of the people. Let’s look again at verse 34, “No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.”
Deep down in their bowels, they will know God. Not only in their minds, but in their hearts. From the greatest, to the least, all people will know God.
Now here is the tricky part. Has this covenant been fulfilled? It would seem that parts of it have. We as Christians sometimes speak of the new covenant, borrowing from Jesus’s language at the Last Supper. He said that the wine was the new covenant in his blood. And indeed, there is a new solidarity, as Gentiles have been grafted into the family of God. There is new knowledge of God, as Jesus has been that perfect revelation of God, written upon our hearts and minds. And as the author of the book of Hebrews tells us, Jesus tore the dividing curtain, and we now have access to God. We can pray, worship, and discern together directly to and with God.
But I would add that in all these areas, we are still lacking. We lack complete solidarity, complete knowledge, and complete relationships. What’s holding us back? I think that a glimpse of that is found in the last line of our text: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
All of this seems to be contingent upon forgiveness and rebuilding relationships.
Yet on the cross, and through the cross, I believe God did extend forgiveness. I’m wondering if at this point, what is keeping us back is our inability to forgive others? God has done his part, now must we do ours?
You may have heard that our world lost one of the greatest physicists of our time last week when Stephen Hawking passed away. Hawking was known not only for his scientific mind, but also for his questioning of religion, as well as his battle with an early-onset type of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
What I found fascinating this week was the way that the religious community reacted to Hawking’s passing, especially since he was an outspoken agnostic. Hawking wasn’t one of those angry atheists that attacked all religions, but he surely wasn’t an advocate for those of us in the religion business. It would have been really easy for Christians everywhere to say good riddance to Hawking, an obstacle to our faith, and a deterrent to so many. So I found in heartwarming to see a picture of the Pope laying his hands on Stephen Hawking. I found it moving to read these words from Jesuit priest James Martin, “RIP Stephen Hawking: A triumphant life lived in the shadow of immense suffering. The great thinker did not believe in God, but it seemed to me that his whole life was a revelation of God’s profound love and boundless creativity. May he rest in peace, and may the mysteries of the universe be fully revealed to him.”
Where Hawking will spend eternity is not up to us. How we treat one another is. Within the new covenant we are to find solidarity with one another, north and south, white and black, agnostic and Christian. Within the new covenant, we are to move from head knowledge about God, to heart knowledge, and embodied love. And in the new covenant, we are to experience not only a fuller revelation of God, but a fuller relationship with God.
As I see it, the religious community could hold things against many people, Hawking being just one of thousands of examples. Or we could follow the lead of our Lord and Savior and bless those who curse us and pray for those who persecute us. I am thankful for those who have chosen forgiveness and love, as I believe this is the first and most necessary step as we enter into the new covenant.