Formations 02.26.2017: Meeting the Author

Jeremiah 31:31-37

Once in a great while, you hear or read a simple sentence that changes everything. For me, one of those sentences came long ago in a sermon preached by my college pastor. “There is a difference,” he said, “between reading the Bible and meeting the Author.”

I expect most Christians are quite good at reading the Bible. We attend Sunday school and midweek Bible study. We listen to sermons. We might even read the Bible in our daily personal devotions. Some of us can quote the Bible chapter and verse—at least on those topics we are most passionate about.

When my pastor said those words over thirty years ago, I had already begun making plans to attend seminary after graduation. I wanted to help others come to know the God that I had encountered in the pages of Scripture. That is still an important goal toward which I strive. But what he said put that aspiration in a much richer context. He reminded me—and I must confess that I needed this reminder and occasionally still do—that why we study the Bible is at least as important as that we study it. It is possible to fill our heads with divine truth but never open our hearts to the One who speaks it.

Today’s lesson sounds a similar note. In Jeremiah 31 the sins of Israel have finally resulted in national collapse. To judge from previous chapters in Jeremiah, the Israelites didn’t have any problem going through the motions of religion. They knew God in their head; it’s just that the message never got through to their hearts where it could do them some good.

Nevertheless, Jeremiah assures us that God is not yet finished with Israel. If they violated the terms of the old covenant, God is ready to make with them a new covenant, not written in stone but written on their hearts. The time is coming, he says, when everyone will know God intimately, personally, in all God’s life-transforming power.

Discussion

• What is the difference between knowing God with the head and with the heart?
• Have you ever been guilty of knowing God with your head only? Explain.
• What are the marks of someone who has not only read the Bible but has met its Author?

Reference Shelf

Old Testament Covenants

In the OT, the term “covenant” (berit) is employed with reference to three types of obligatory conditions. (1) In some cases, such as the covenant between God and Noah and the Israelite patriarchs, the obligation is self-imposed by the deity. (2) In other contexts, the obligation is imposed by the divine or the superior party on an inferior or another party (cf. Jer 34 and Hos 2:18-23). (3) Elsewhere, as in the Sinai covenant, both parties are committed to reciprocal obligations (see Exod 34:10, 27).

The term “covenant” (berit) could thus be used to refer to a variety of solemn, binding obligations or agreements involving two or more parties in a relationship. (1) The obligation might be self-assumed by the primary party for the benefit of the secondary party. In this case, the covenant was more like a pledge or a promise. The expected attitude of the primary party to the obligation was one of fidelity and the attitude of the secondary party was one of acceptance and trust. (2) When the obligation was imposed on the secondary party, it represented a demand or condition placed upon the obligated party and required obedience. Generally such a covenant relationship was assumed to benefit the party imposing the obligation although obedience to the obligation might be seen as beneficial to the obligated party as well. (3) Conditions and commitments accepted by both or all parties produced a situation of mutual obligation intended to benefit all parties concerned. In all three cases, the gravity and solemnity of the parties’ commitment could be enhanced by verbal declaration, swearing, or the taking of an oath.

Diverse terminology is used with regard to making, maintaining, and fulfilling a covenant: cut, give, establish, enter, observe, break, transgress, remember, forget, and so on. This suggests a lack of any limited, specific vocabulary employed to speak about the operations and attitudes toward covenant conditions.

John H. Hayes, “Covenant,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 178.

A New Covenant

This is the only Old Testament passage where “new” modifies “covenant,” though other modifiers are used that imply newness (cf. “everlasting” in 32:40; 50:5). What is “new” about this covenant is a disputed issue. The only other substantive use of the word “new” in Jeremiah is in v. 22 (see the new heart and new spirit in Ezek 36:26 and the “new things” of Isa 42:9; 43:19). This new covenant is explicitly said not to be like the one that God made with a redeemed-from-Egypt Israel at Mt. Sinai. This reference to the exodus should be connected to the call for a change of confession in 16:14-16=23:7-8, also introduced by “the days are surely coming.” The new covenant will be linked neither to Mt. Sinai nor to the exodus! The return from exile is a newly constitutive event for the people of Israel and the new covenant is an accompaniment integral to that event. Given the pattern in the book of Exodus, it is appropriate that a new covenant with Israel follow upon this newly constitutive salvific event. This new covenant will be made by God “after those days” (v. 33), that is, after Israel’s return from exile.

What this constitutive event positively entails for Israel has been spelled out in 24:6-7; God will build them and plant them and “give them a heart to know that I am the LORD” (more closely defined in 32:39; probably reflecting on Deut 30:1-14; see also Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-27). This new heart will replace the “evil will/heart” so characteristic of Israel’s life before exile (see 13:10; 18:12; 23:17). This will be a new “exodus” in terms of the more basic themes, but so different in other ways…. The old covenant formula of relationship still applies, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 33; 24:7; a theme struck in the immediately prior sections, 30:22; 31:1), but Israel will now be constituted as the people of God in a new way. God will give them a new heart so that they will know the Lord, indeed all of the people will know the Lord (contrast 5:4-5; 8:7; cf. 9:24 and especially 22:15-16, where the knowledge of the Lord and jus- tice concerns coalesce). God will still be their “husband” (ba’al, v. 32; a reference to Israel’s seeking other lovers among the Baals), evident in the phrase, “know me” (v. 34), but what that knowledge means for Israel will change (see 32:38-41).

The law remains a key point of continuity between the old and the new; but the law will no longer be an external code; it will be written upon the heart. In view of this promise, many commentators speak of the interiorization of this covenant compared to other covenants. Yet, the language of texts such as Deuteronomy 30:6 and 30:14 speak of a similar internal reality for older covenantal understandings. The difference seems only to be that such people will no longer need to be taught via the written Torah. This new reality helps to explain 3:16-17; the ark of the covenant, where the tablets of the law were placed, will be needed no more.

Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 442–43.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

*****

For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly