No greater homecoming can be imagined than Jeremiah’s prediction of a new covenant between God and Israel. The old covenant, given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, was written down. It had to be read to the people and the people had to study it. The old covenant required leaders who could interpret it to the people. Moreover, the people broke the Mosaic covenant, despite the fact that God was their “husband,” as Jeremiah’s text says. The old covenant was like a marriage and the people, the “wife,” had been unfaithful. With the new covenant, however, everyone would have the proper ways to behave toward God, and the faithfulness to do so, engraved on their hearts. Religious faithfulness would be virtually automatic in all Israel because God would internalize it as the source of their actions, not an option for action. Israel would not need to seek and defend a homeland with God as a liberating mediator. God would come home to Israel.
A little background about Jeremiah helps understand this text. The Kingdom of the twelve tribes of Israel that David had united lasted only through the reign of his son, Solomon. After that it was divided into a northern kingdom, which took the name Israel, and a southern kingdom called Judah, which contained the capital Jerusalem and was mainly the territory of the tribe of Judah. In our text, Jeremiah calls these kingdoms the House of Israel and the House of Judah respectively. Israel and Judah were caught politically between the great empires of Assyria in the north and Egypt in the south. For the most part they were bound as vassals to Assyria, that is, Iraq, but chafed and rebelled against the tribute they were required to pay. Israel, the northern kingdom, was utterly defeated in 722/21 bce and its leadership deported to Assyria. That was the end of Israel. Through the next century, Judah maintained its balance by appealing to Egypt against Assyria. Assyria overextended itself, however, and was defeated in 612 bce by the Babylonians, also in today’s Iraq. In 605 bce the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar decisively defeated the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco at Carchemish and Judah was fully under the thumb of Babylon. In 597 bce Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem and deported the king, Jehoiakim, to Babylon, installing a puppet king, Zedekiah. Zedekiah tried to revolt in 587 bce and Nebuchadnezzar returned and razed Jerusalem to the ground, destroying the temple and taking the remaining aristocracy and perhaps many other Jews to Babylon. The prophet Ezekiel had gone to Babylon in 597 bce with the exiles and Jeremiah fled to Egypt in 587 bce. As things turned out, about fifty years later the Persians, that is, the present-day Iranians, defeated the Babylonians, the Iraqis, and allowed some of the Babylonian Jews to return to Jerusalem to set up a new puppet kingdom and rebuild the temple. (As you can see, the twenty first century conflicts in the Middle East had their origins in the ancient Near East, with the addition of the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century of the common era and the Americans in the 20th.)
Jeremiah was called to be a prophet when he was but a boy, in 627 bce, while Josiah was king of Judah. Israel had been destroyed for nearly a century, but Josiah reconquered some of its territory while the Assyrians were dealing with the Babylonians. Jeremiah came from a priestly family and served in the court of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, between 597 and 587, who rebelled against the Babylonians, contrary to Jeremiah’s advice. The text of Jeremiah’s prophecy is chronologically scrambled, with bits from his 40 years of prophecy mixed around. Usually we can tell from events referred to when most of the passages were written, however. You will note in our text today that Jeremiah predicts that God will help both the House of Israel and the House of Judah, having destroyed them. This means that this passage is not an early writing when only Israel was destroyed but a late writing when both were destroyed, possibly after 597 when Judah first lost to Nebuchadnezzar or perhaps around 587 when the whole city was razed.
Now Jeremiah’s main problem was this: God had promised to protect Israel and to keep David’s descendents on the throne forever, even if they were not faithful. But in his lifetime Jeremiah saw things go from bad to worse with the final destruction of the remaining portion of David’s kingdom. How could a priest and prophet of Yahweh explain this? Jeremiah’s answer, like that of the other prophets, was that the people of Israel had themselves broken the covenant and that their political troubles were God’s punishment for this, like an angry husband punishing a wayward wife. Jeremiah also said, however, that God would restore Israel and Judah after punishing them, “sowing [them] with the seed of humans and the seed of animals,” as our text put it. Several weeks ago the lectionary reading from Jeremiah was about his investing in property to show confidence that Judah’s fortunes would be restored. In today’s text he says that God will give a new covenant in which God’s law is within the hearts of the people.
Of course he lost his investment with the destruction of Israel. Although the Persians did restore the Jewish aristocracy to Jerusalem and let them build the Second Temple, Judah was always a puppet state, first of the Persians, then of the Greeks under Alexander, then of the Romans as at the time of Christ and lasting until the Muslim conquest in the 7th century. The secular State of Israel was established by the European powers in mid-twentieth century but has maintained itself very much as a client-state of America ever since. This was not what Jeremiah had in mind as the restoration of the House of Israel and the House of Judah.
Nor did the new covenant ever take place in the sense of writing the law of God on people’s hearts rather than on scrolls. There were brief periods of Torah purification, as in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah who built the Second Temple under the Persians, but these were very much an external application of the law, not an exhibition of its internal shaping of the human heart. St. Paul, in the second chapter of his letter to the Romans, describes conscience as a kind of law written on the heart, but applies it to Gentiles in contrast to Jews who have the much clearer external written law, and notes that both Jews and Gentiles often fail the law. When Jesus and Paul spoke of a new covenant in the Christian sense, it seemed to be quite different from what Jeremiah had in mind.
How then should we understand Jeremiah’s failed prophecy of a new covenant that would restore Israel’s political fortunes and secure the faithfulness of the people? It is tempting to think a thought that the ancient prophets would never allow, namely, that it is God who was unfaithful to the covenant and its promises. Many Jewish theologians after the Holocaust argued something like this: nothing the Jewish people might have done wrong could possibly justify the horrors of the Holocaust, and therefore there is no God, or God lied in the promises to protect the Chosen People, or God is unfaithful or impotent in the face of evil. Surely this response is understandable. Christians have a similar problem regarding divine promises when Jesus did not return after a very short time, sometime within the lifetime of Paul, as Paul thought. As the years went by without Jesus’ Second Coming, the early Christians temporized with remarks that a day of God’s time is like a thousand years of ours. But that strategy of indefinite postponement dulls the edge of urgency about salvation, and requires repeated and always arbitrary claims that the apocalypse is really tomorrow. The better understanding is to say, with John, Ephesians, and Colossians, that salvation is already here if we but have the eyes to see it.
The problem, of course, is that if we conceive of God only as a very large spiritual person who makes promises and acts in history, the actual course of history refutes the claims of the prophets and apostles. God is not a big person, however, despite the imagery to that effect throughout the Bible. God is the creator of everything that can be imagined, and that includes persons. As creator, God transcends persons and spirits, as well as nature. You might want to say, with many theologians, that God is thus a super-person, a more-than-personal person. That is fine, so long as you do not say that God makes promises and behaves in history in a faithless way. Our theology must be deeper than this.
One clue for making it deeper is contained in the Jeremiah text. “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins.” In other words, people are individually responsible for what they do. One generation cannot do something that legitimately calls forth punishment on the next, nor can the sins of leaders justify punishment of the people. Ezekiel says much the same thing in the 18th chapter of his prophetic book. Although both prophets still accounted for Israel’s disastrous political fortunes by ascribing to them corporate guilt, they also saw that true justice needs to be tied to personal responsibility. This was the beginning of the insight that justice is defined by secular responsibility, personal and social, not by a large cosmic drama in which God is a principal player who turns out to be fickle.
A second clue to a deeper theology is in the parable from Luke about the corrupt judge who is finally swayed by the repeated insistence of the widow for justice. In Jesus’ parable, the corrupt judge is the analogue for God. I would not go so far as to say that Jesus would agree with my view that God should not be depicted as making promises. Nevertheless, he did not draw back from his analogy. The point of his analogy is that we should continually demand justice even when it seems that the controlling powers, ultimately God, are corrupt. The constancy of the demands for justice ultimately wears down a cosmos that seems to reward corruption, violence, power politics, imperial ambitions, and greed. Whereas the widow was seeking just judgment in a law suit, our demands for justice cry against poverty, oppression, terrorism, genocide, disenfranchisement, disrespect of other cultures, the sending of soldiers to fight unjust wars, and the failure to pray for enemies who resist unjustified attack and occupation. Whereas the widow needed someone else to give her justice, our demands for justice take the form of committing ourselves to its achievement, so far as we can, even to the point of sacrifice. This parable in Luke immediately follows Jesus’ prediction that God would come to separate those who practice righteousness from those who will be left for dead. “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather,” he said about those who do not pursue justice. When it seemed that injustice has all the power, Jesus told his disciples this “parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart,” as our text began.
Here is our Christian new covenant, which might indeed be a deeper meaning of Jeremiah’s. The great creator God is not like a super-king who fixes up history so that we win or who magically transforms our hearts to perfection. Jesus, however, shows us that the way through history’s injustices is through a commitment to righteousness that leads up the cross to resurrection into new life. And in that resurrected life, day by day, our hearts can be transformed into a holiness from which righteousness does spring as naturally as love. So I invite you into a Christian new covenant that gently transforms Jeremiah’s utopian vision into a realism of commitment in the face of adversity with confidence that new life comes out of defeat when commitment is unshaken and that with a Spirit of mercy and encouragement leads toward a perfection of heart. The invitation lies before you for a new covenant of Christian faith.