Chapter 31 is a pivotal passage that builds upon the hope held out in the previous chapters for the Exiled remnant of Jerusalem. It begins with a comparison of the Exile to the Exodus, and like a second honeymoon to renew a marriage gone bad. Restoration depends upon repentance (v. 19) and the giving of a new covenant (31-34), in which God will give more than the Law: he will give his Spirit who will motivate and empower his people to keep the law and the covenant. This promise is a crucial link to the New Testament, which sees the new covenant of Jesus as the fulfillment of this promise (Heb. 8:8-12). To demonstrate such hope, Jeremiah buys a field (ch. 32) which he likely knows he will never get to see, let alone plant or harvest.
THOUGHTS ON ISRAEL’S EXILE: Jeremiah was unique for his time in seeing the exile as long term, when most of Judah’s false prophets and royal boosters were saying it would be much shorter. He was also one of the few to see the exile as being divinely ordained, even as having positive elements. Though Jews began returning to Zion and rebuilding after 70 years, and though Israel again exists as a nation, it can be said that the exile continues yet today, for so much of what was prophesied to accompany the return has yet to happen. Much of Jesus’ teachings and ministry presuppose this ongoing Exile.
The church, including Gentile believers, has effectively joined God’s people in exile (Romans 11:17ff; I Peter 1:1). Twenty-six centuries later we can see how Israel both suffered and flourished in Exile, even apart from returning to Israel. Until the previous century, the Jewish community of Baghdad was a leader in Jewish life, scholarship and piety. The effective de-coupling of faith and place, and the decentralization of Israel’s worship and fellowship to the local level of the synagogue paved the way for much that would also occur in the Christian church.
SABBATHS, SABBATH YEARS AND SLAVERY: Chapter 34 draws back the curtain to reveal another aspect of the matrix of injustice and idolatry that was negating the protecting power of God and provoking the coming Exile: lifelong slavery and the neglect of the sabbath year and Jubilee laws, which included the regular release of slaves. Only in this most desperate time of Jerusalem’s siege did Zion’s priests and potentates think to release slaves on the seventh year (see Lev. 25), an obvious admission that such laws had been neglected previously. The seventy years of Exile were based on the backlog of neglected sabbath and Jubilee years, so that the land would get its rest (2 Chron. 36:21). But it was all show; means were soon found to re-enslave the released slaves, a further revelation of Israel’s mere formalism and magical thinking.
Note the change in tone between the beginning and the end of Chapter 34: what could have been an honorable defeat for King Zedekiah becomes a bottomless catastrophe, because of his subterfuge. Just when he may have thought that God had rewarded the short-lived release of the slaves with the departure of the Babylonian siege (probably to meet an advancing Egyptian army, historical sources say), Jeremiah promises that the besiegers will return with a vengeance (34:21-22).
OF KINGS AND PROPHETS: Who really has the most power? Chapters 35-40 show King Zedekiah to be something of a prevaricator and puppet, pulled in multiple and conflicting directions between Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s enemies in the royal court, and between the two great imperial powers, Egypt and Babylon. One would think that Jeremiah, having to share prison time between cells and wells, is powerless by comparison to a king. Yet Jeremiah remains firm to his ministry and his message, through and despite his sufferings. In Zedekiah we see “the powerlessness of power,” and “the pathologies of power,” as understood in worldly terms. By contrast, we see the fulfillment of God’s promise to Jeremiah at the beginning of his ministry, that “I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms,To pluck up and to break down, To destroy and to overthrow,To build and to plant” (1: 10) and “Now behold, I have made you today as a fortified city and as a pillar of iron and as walls of bronze against the whole land, to the kings of Judah, to its princes, to its priests and to the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they will not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you,” declares the LORD.” (1:18-19)
…is a classical lament, in which the complaint and grief are particularly poignant: betrayal by a former friend (vv. 12-14) and fellow saint. This betrayal forms part of a larger backdrop of exploitation, violence and injustice in the city. Those of us who hear gunshots in our city streets can resonate with verses of this psalm. Echoes of Christ’s own betrayal and abandonment by his disciples can also be heard in it. God takes the role of defender and vindicator of the powerless and those falsely accused, in contrast to the usual roles of deities in the ancient imperial Near East, of patrons and sponsors of those powerful enough to wage war and impose injustice.
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