This is my sixth study on God’s covenant in the Old Testament. For previous published posts on covenants in the Old Testament, click on the link below. The link will also list future posts on this topic.
The promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 has been a topic of discussion among Old Testament scholars. Scholars disagree on whether the oracle was written by Jeremiah himself, by one of his disciples, or by the people who composed the Deuteronomic history.
Another item of debate is whether the promise of the new covenant was addressed to Israel only or if it was a reference to the new covenant in Christ. In this post, I will argue that the oracle was written by Jeremiah and that it finds fulfillment both in Israel and in Christ.
The Promise of a New Covenant
The oracle about the new covenant is included in a section of the book of Jeremiah commonly known as “The Book of Consolation.” These oracles display Jeremiah’s hope for the future. Jeremiah sees beyond the rebellious nature of pre-exilic Israel to a bright future in which Yahweh will restore the nation and reestablish the relationship that was broken by the violation of the covenant.
The promise of a new covenant was another demonstration of the redemptive love of God and his faithfulness to the promises he made to the ancestors of Israel. God’s promise to Israel contains several important elements.
1. The Time. The time for the establishment of the new covenant is in the future: “The days are surely coming” (Jeremiah 31:31). The time here is left undetermined, however, since the oracle refers to Israel, Jeremiah was looking at a time after the seventy years of exile (Jeremiah 25:11-12).
2. The Recipients. Jeremiah says that the new covenant will be established with all Israel, that is, with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31).
3. The Newness of the Covenant. The new covenant will be different from the one God made with Israel at Sinai: “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors” (Jeremiah 31:32). The new covenant will not be a set of rules. Rather, it will be a disposition of the heart.
4. The Reason for the New Covenant. God promised a new covenant because Israel was not faithful to the demands of the covenant, “a covenant that they broke” (Jeremiah 31:32). The history of Israel gives evidence to Israel’s disloyalty to Yahweh. Israel’s disloyalty can be described as idolatry, injustice, and many other violations of the demand of the covenant.
Through its disobedience to the demands of the covenant, Israel rejected the special relationship it had established with God at Sinai and failed to fulfill its mission of being God’s agent of redemption.
5. The Consequences of Breaking the Covenant. Israel’s violation of the demands of the covenant was a rejection of Yahweh as their Lord: “though I was their husband” (Jeremiah 31:32). The word “husband” in Hebrew is a verb: “I married them.” Israel constantly failed to abide by the demands of the covenant. Thus, a new covenant became necessary because Israel failed to keep the relationship established at Sinai.
The Characteristics of the New Covenant
1. The new covenant presupposes a radical change in the people. The old covenant was written on stones: “When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). The new covenant will be written on the people’s heart: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”
In Hebrew psychology, the heart was the seat of human will. This means that the law of God must be internalized, that is, God’s teaching must touch the whole life of an individual. God’s teaching must affect both the mind and the will of the one who follows God.
2. The new covenant will establish a new relationship between God and people. Because of obedience to God’s Torah, those who obey become God’s people: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” In the Old Testament this language is used several times to indicate a relationship that is established by covenant.
3. There will be no need for human mediators: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD.’” The lack of proper instruction during the old covenant would come to an end because this is what led the people to abandon the law of God.
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hosea 4:6).
Under the traditions of the old covenant, the priests were the teachers of the law: “True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in integrity and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 2:6-8).
4. Under the new covenant people will seek the Lord: “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest (Jeremiah 31:34). People will desire to know God’s will and God’s word. This desire to know more about God is the blessing of the new covenant. The Hebrew word “to know” means a personal, intimate knowledge of God. This intimate knowledge comes out of a deep and personal relationship that involves the will and the emotions of the people involved in the relationship.
5. The benefits of the new covenant. Since the new covenant is based on the grace of God and his love for Israel, Israel will be transformed and will learn how to live in relationship with God. Israel will live in a new relationship with God in which the sins of the past are forgiven: “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).
The Fulfillment of God’s Promise
Although the promise of the new covenant is quoted in the book of Hebrews, scholars have problems in interpreting how this promise was fulfilled. Was this promise of the new covenant fulfilled with Israel or with the Church?
According to Walter Brueggemann, those who advocate that the prophecy was fulfilled in the New Testament and that the church supersedes Israel, ignore the plain teaching of the text. Such a reading of the text, Brueggemann argues, “could hardly be expected or cogent in the midst of these several promissory oracles which anticipate the reconstitution of the Israelite community” (1998:292).
Moreover, Brueggemann has problems with the manner the author of the book of Hebrews appropriates the oracle about the new covenant. Writing about the Jewish-Christian problem concerning the fulfillment of the promise of the new covenant, Brueggemann wrote: “The matter is not easily adjudicated, because the supersessionist case is given scriptural warrant in the book of Hebrews. My own inclination is to say that in our time and place the reading of Hebrews is a distorted reading.”
The limitations of time and space do not allow me to discuss this issue in more detail. I will come back to this issue at a later time. However, I disagree with Brueggemann. I do not believe that the reading in Hebrews “is a distorted reading.”
In the present post I will give a brief perspective of how I see the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s oracle. I will return to this topic later when I discuss the new covenant. What follows is a summary of my views.
1. The Promise and Israel
First, I believe that the promise of a new covenant was given to Israel. The promise was given to “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Again, the promise was given to Israel. Israel’s failure in carrying out God’s mission in the world would not derail God’s purpose for his people.
Second, according to Jeremiah’s hope expressed in his promise of a new covenant, God would select a group of people, a spiritual Israel with whom he would establish the promise of this new covenant. The new covenant was promised to the remnant of Israel who returned from exile. The community of Israel before the exile to Babylon in 587 B.C. committed apostasy by rejecting the demands of the covenant and by going after other gods.
Third, the promise of the new covenant was given to a community that would be refined by the cruel experience of the exile. This new community was coming back to the Promised Land with a renewed vision of its mission in the world. This new community, in the language of Deutero-Isaiah, is the community who will follow the example of the Servant.
Fourth, the post-exilic community failed to accomplish God’s mission in the world. The vision of Deutero-Isaiah for Israel, a vision expressed in the four Servant Songs, never became a reality: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). Israel failed to bring God’s light to the nations and his salvation never went beyond the borders of the Holy Land.
The disobedience of Israel is clearly presented by Paul: “So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’ ‘And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’ As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:25-29).
2. The Promise and the Church
The failure of Israel to accomplish God’s mission in the world is the reason Christians saw that the fullness of the promise of the new covenant found fulfillment in Christ. During his last night with the disciples, after the supper, Jesus took the cup and said: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
Israel is still God’s people, for as Paul said, “as regards election they are [still] beloved” since the call of God is “irrevocable.” Israel is the tree; Christians, like “wild olive shoot,” were grafted into the tree “to share the rich root of the olive tree” (Romans 11:17).
Therefore, when Christians speak of Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant, Christians are not promoting supersessionism, that is, they are not saying that the Jewish people have been rejected by God and no longer have a place in God’s work in redeeming the world. Such a reading of Jeremiah’s words is refuted by both Old and New Testaments.
My next post will deal with God’s covenant with the Levites. After that, I will study how the book of Hebrews interprets the promise of the new covenant in light of the life and death of Christ.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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