God has a plan for dealing with our sinful hearts.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jeremiah 31:23-34
This might be the most important passage in Jeremiah -- God confronts the people with their failure to uphold the old covenant made through Moses but tells them that He has plans for a new covenant, one that they will uphold. Blessedly, we know today how God would bring that about, salvation through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.
I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (31:33)
Getting Started: Things to Think About
For this, I'm talking about what happens in your brain when you're asleep. No, not "why" we dream. And no, not what the dreams "mean". That's not the purpose of this topic. Rather, some simple questions: if you have recurring dreams, what are they? Challenge: keep a dream journal during the few days before your Bible study. Do what you have to do to make your dream appropriate for mixed company, and then be prepared to share one of your dreams!
I'm blessed with a daughter whose brain is as hyperactive as mine, and we regularly exchange dream reports. We have some very odd dreams.
There are "sleep surveys" on the internet. I have no idea how scientific they are, but that doesn't really matter for my purposes here. According to the internet, here are some common dreams:
Being chased. I've had plenty of versions of this dream.
Falling. Not so much for me. Don't tell Sigmund Freud if you've had this dream.
Being naked in public. And yeah, no one else even notices.
Teeth falling out. I've never had this dream, but apparently it's very common.
Flying. Another dream I don't remember really having.
Here are my two most common dreams that don't appear on the lists:
Forgetting about a final exam. Yes, I still have that dream.
Breathing underwater. Maybe this is my version of the "flying" dream?
Go to town with those.
And then circle back to these questions:
What has been your favorite dream?
What has been your worst nightmare?
In this week's passage, we learn that God gave at least one vision to Jeremiah as a dream. It was a good dream -- an amazing dream. I wonder how our best dreams stack up?
This is another topic that is liable to go off the rails if you don't keep it carefully reigned in. How has your daily life been shaped by your parents' behavior? That's a dangerous question, especially in churches where your parents might also attend! Don't betray any family secrets, how about. This question could go any number of directions. Here's what I had in mind:
Habits/mannerisms you picked up from your parents
Values/interests you picked up from your parents
Career path influenced by your parents
Your choice in where you live/kind of house
Stuff like that. "Like father, like son", right? Some of it (hopefully most of it!) will be good. But some of it won't be.
In this week's passage, God confronts an old stereotype -- "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." In other words, the older generation is to blame for all of the woes of the younger generation. (There are more than a few Millennials who blame the Boomers for how their lives have turned out.) The older generation has ruined the environment (sound familiar?). The older generation has ruined the value system (again, sound familiar?).
God told Jeremiah that in the new world He is creating, no one will blame anyone else for their actions. God will write His law on everyone's hearts, and they will be held accountable for their own choices, regardless of the choices of their parents.
What do you think is the older generations' responsibility to the younger generation?
Where We Are in Jeremiah
I said last week that we had one more lesson in this section written to encourage the exiles in Babylon. Chapters 30 and 31 are one ginormous vision. Here are some key markers:
"Look, the days are coming I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah. I will restore them to the land I gave to their ancestors and they will possess it.” (30:3)
“At that time I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”(31:1)
“Look, the days are coming when the city from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate will be rebuilt for the Lord." (31:38)
[And the key verses in this week's passage]
This entire section is about a time in the future when God will bring the people back to the Promised Land -- all of His people.
There are so many incredibly quotable passages. (Read both chapters!) Here's one:
30:8 On that day—this is the declaration of the Lord of Armies— I will break his yoke from your neck and tear off your chains, and strangers will never again enslave him. 9 They will serve the Lord their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them. 10 As for you, my servant Jacob, do not be afraid—this is the Lord’s declaration— and do not be discouraged, Israel, for without fail I will save you out of a distant place, your descendants, from the land of their captivity! Jacob will return and have calm and quiet with no one to frighten him. 11 For I will be with you—this is the Lord’s declaration—to save you! I will bring destruction on all the nations where I have scattered you; however, I will not bring destruction on you. I will discipline you justly, and I will by no means leave you unpunished.
Did you catch that God is going to raise up a future "king David"? And did you also catch that God will still discipline them heavily for their sin (and the parallel use of "discipline" and "punishment")? Those are two super-important truths that God just kinda slips in there. Nothing "just happens" with God. He has layers of purposes for everything that He allows to happen in history.
But the point is that God will bring back His people from their exile. It might be their children or grandchildren, but the generations who die in exile are to take solace from that news. Would you take solace from that? That it might not benefit you, but it would your grandchildren? I think I can say yes.
There's a key heart change in the background of this week's passage:
31:18 I have surely heard Ephraim moaning, “You disciplined me, and I have been disciplined like an untrained calf. Take me back, so that I can return, for you, Lord, are my God. 19 After my return, I felt regret; After I was instructed, I struck my thigh in grief. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.” 20 Isn’t Ephraim a precious son to me, a delightful child? Whenever I speak against him, I certainly still think about him. Therefore, my inner being yearns for him; I will truly have compassion on him. This is the Lord’s declaration.
In other words, God isn't offering a "blind pardon" to the descendants of the sinful Jews. God's people have come to their senses in exile; they have realized their sin and repented of it. The blessings in this week's passage are a consequence of that repentance.
Part 1: A Beautiful Future (Jeremiah 31:23-26)
23 This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says: “When I restore their fortunes, they will once again speak this word in the land of Judah and in its cities: ‘May the Lord bless you, righteous settlement, holy mountain.’ 24 Judah and all its cities will live in it together—also farmers and those who move with the flocks— 25 for I satisfy the thirsty person and feed all those who are weak.” 26 At this I awoke and looked around. My sleep had been most pleasant to me.
Two big phrases right off the bat:
"The Lord of Armies, the God of Israel" -- literally "Lord Yahweh of hosts". This is a shortened version of the title "Yahweh the God of armies" which is used 77 times in Jeremiah. But the Bible makes it clear that God's "armies" are the angels and the power of the natural world. So, this title is used in conjunction with the elements (like 31:35) or creation itself (like 51:19). In other words, we should understand this title to mean "The Lord God who rules over all".
"Restore their fortunes" -- this is the same phrase we just read in 29:14, and there we said that in context it means "bring them back from exile". I should have noted that "fortune" does not refer to an entity (like "luck") but to their financial/social trajectory. I.e., things will "look up".
The "holy mountain" refers to Zion, the mount on which Jerusalem sits. In other words, there is coming a day when people will again think of Jerusalem as a place of justice and righteousness. This means (1) that Jerusalem will be rebuilt and a place of commercial and social activity, and (2) that it will be significant enough for people to care what goes on there.
A literal translation of verse 24 would be "And the people will live in it, Judah and all its cities, farmers and those who move with their flocks." It's a little awkward, but I think it makes clear that God is talking about three groups of people:
Why do you think God would point out those three groups?
On the one hand, it's meant to express that everybody is coming back. And I think it's also to tell the people that life will one day go back to "normal". (Remember all the disruptions to farming we've read about and how devastating that has been to their society.) But I think it's mainly to explain verse 25. The hunger and thirst that the people have experienced (literally) will be no more. But this won't be like the manna in the wilderness (Judah is now a wilderness, btw) that God had to miraculously provide. No, the land itself will go back to being a land of milk and honey. God will truly restore them to the Promised Land.
That's a good dream, wouldn't you say?
If God were to send you a dream of your future, what would you hope to be in it?
[Aside on translation. Verse 26 literally reads "Upon this I awoke and looked and my sleep was sweet to me." It seems logical to me that Jeremiah is explaining that God gave him this vision in a dream. But scholars have noted that nothing else about this section suggests a vision different from the rest of the book. They think this verse can also be interpreted to mean that in this restored Jerusalem, the people will sleep soundly and sweetly. That seems forced, but sure. Either way, the vision is not altered.]
Part 2: A Fresh Start (Jeremiah 31:27-30)
27 “Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of people and the seed of animals. 28 Just as I watched over them to uproot and to tear them down, to demolish and to destroy, and to cause disaster, so will I watch over them to build and to plant them”—this is the Lord’s declaration. 29 “In those days, it will never again be said,
‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
30 Rather, each will die for his own iniquity. Anyone who eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge.
This might seem a bit double-edged (and it is), but I see how God would find it necessary to explain how this "new beginning" for the people would be a complete reset. (A very important condition will have changed, but more on that in the next section.)
Here's a quick summary:
27-28: God will be the one "replenishing" the land.
29-30: God will hold the people individually accountable.
Verses 27-28 are necessary in that God has taken responsibility for the destruction of the land. Yes, Babylonian armies raised it all, but only at God's command. And God will be responsible for its restoration. Consider this dramatic word in chapter 4:
4:22 “For my people are fools; they do not know me. They are foolish children, without understanding. They are skilled in doing what is evil, but they do not know how to do what is good.”
23 I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty. I looked to the heavens, and their light was gone. 24 I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills shook. 25 I looked, and there was no human being, and all the birds of the sky had fled. 26 I looked, and the fertile field was a wilderness. All its cities were torn down because of the Lord and his burning anger. 27 For this is what the Lord says:
“The whole land will be a desolation, but I will not finish it off. 28 Because of this, the earth will mourn; the skies above will grow dark. I have spoken; I have planned, and I will not relent or turn back from it.”
Wow! And that's exactly what will happen.
I'm very interested in this reference to both the house of Judah and Israel. We have talked at length about the prejudice of the "house of Judah" toward the "house of Israel" (assuming God means that literally), even in Jesus' day as the attitude of Jews toward Samaritans. But both houses will be restored by God. But when God restores the land, He will restore all of it. Why? Well, I assume because they are all God's children, and it is all the Promised Land. The split between the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom is emblematic of the destructive power of sin in humanity. And God will fix that (but more on that below!).
But this fresh start is a completely fresh start. Remember that "generational accountability" discussion idea from above? If you haven't used it yet, you could use it here. Do you know anybody who blames their parents for "why they are the way they are" or "why things are the way they are"? (This is pretty common in literature -- I'm reading a book in which the older leaders were duped into a one-sided treaty, and their kids are the ones who have to deal with the fallout.) That's not going to be an option in this new nation God is going to build.
Everybody will get a fresh start.
As I said, this is double-edged. God immediately calls attention to the consequences: "You want a fresh start from the choices your parents made? Fine. You'll die for your own sin." *gulp!*
About this very strange saying. We use the phrase "sour grapes" when someone is salty about not getting something. "I didn't want that prize anyway" might be sour grapes. That's not what it means here. The phrase also appears in Ezekiel 18:
18:1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel:
‘The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
3 As I live”—this is the declaration of the Lord God—“you will no longer use this proverb in Israel. 4 Look, every life belongs to me. The life of the father is like the life of the son—both belong to me. The person who sins is the one who will die.
Remember that Ezekiel is almost certainly prophesying in Babylon at the same time as Jeremiah in Jerusalem. This is something "all the Jews" were saying.
The word for "set on edge" means "blunted", in this case not from grinding but from numbness. Extremely sour grapes (picked before ripening) can apparently give you that mouth-numbing sensation:
Grapes, Sour or Sweet, Are Ripe for Dessert - The New York Times (nytimes.com) (calls them "mouth-puckeringly sour")
Sour Grapes: An Under-Appreciated Ancient Ingredient - Gardenista (calls them "bracingly sour")
If you're brave and have access, bring in some sour grapes for group members to try. (And if you don't have any, you can always "cheat" and bring in some sour candy 😊.) An extremely sour food does weird things to your mouth and face.
In this case, the point of the saying is that the father eats a sour grape, and the children's mouths go numb. I.e., the children suffer for the action of the father.
Nope! Not in this new Israel.
Let me open a topic that will be sorta answered in the next section: when is "In those days"? The people listening to (or reading) Jeremiah are going to think "when the exiles return". But when we read the following verses, we (today) are going to think that God is referring to a time after Pentecost.
Here's what *I* think is going on (so take this with a grain of salt) -- God is not primarily talking about the physical situation in the rebuilt Jerusalem. Children are still going to be caught up in the consequences of their parents' actions. But one big thing will be not-so-much changed as revealed. A person's relationship with God will be based on his/her personal choice, not a parents' lineage.
Jews, for obvious reasons, thought of themselves as being born into the family of God. We talked about this at length in the Gospel of John. That would still make their salvation based on their parents' decision! Consider John 1:
1:10 He was in the world, and the world was created through him, and yet the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name, 13 who were born, not of natural descent, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.
No -- the "sin" for which the people would die (eternally) would be their personal choice not to trust in God for salvation. (Remember that we believe both in divine sovereignty and human responsibility when it comes to salvation. No, we're not going to relitigate that this week.)
The people are thinking about sins that will result in physical death (having experienced the fall of Jerusalem and all). God wants them to start thinking about their eternal spiritual death. But more on this in the next section.
Part 3: A New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
31 “Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt—my covenant that they broke even though I am their master”—the Lord’s declaration. 33 “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—the Lord’s declaration. “I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “For I will forgive their iniquity and never again remember their sin.
Jeremiah 29:11 might be the favorite verse in Jeremiah, but Jeremiah 31:31 might be the most important verse. Remember the folk definition of "insanity"? "Why are things going to turn out differently this time, God?" Because God is going to change the conditions.
We have talked about the idea of "a new covenant" SO MANY TIMES in our Bible studies. I'll link a few of the related posts in case you're new to this site:
Here's my favorite short video on the topic:
The gist is this:
God made a covenant with the Jews during the exodus from Egypt
The Jews failed to keep their part of the covenant, one of the established consequences would be exile
Jesus fulfilled that covenant between God and the people
Jesus established a new covenant between God and the people
With this, we know today that God is telling Jeremiah about a time post-Jesus (and post-Pentecost). And its full fruition won't come about until the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21 (which I think is what Ezekiel was seeing in his final vision).
So what could this mean to the Jews of Jeremiah's day?
Let's start with how they would have read it. We need to read this as parallel to the giving of the law (the "old covenant") on Mount Sinai (Ex 32, etc.). There, God wrote that law on stone. But this "new covenant" will be written on hearts. The word for "heart" refers to the "location" of our will, so, how we make decisions. That could be "heart" or it could be "mind". Whatever works for you. Jeremiah has repeatedly called out the people's wicked hearts (3:17, 7:24, 9:14, 11:8, etc.).
Get this -- when I refer to "change" in this section, I'm not referring to the law or the covenant. The CSB translated the word for "law" in verse 33 as "teaching" because they're trying to avoid all of the negative connotations with "law"/"legalism". But read the Sermon on the Mount again -- Jesus didn't come to change the law. Rather, what's changed is our ability to understand and obey it. Don't get caught up in all of the harsh penalties for breaking the law. Jesus paid those penalties. Instead, we are to focus on the purpose of the law in the first place:
Matt 22:37 He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and most important[m] command. 39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
In other words, the very faculties God is engaging with this promise in Jeremiah 31.
We understand the "mechanics" of how God brought all of this about in Jesus. How would the Jews in Jeremiah's day have understood this?
This is how we explain "salvation before Jesus". We know that people before Jesus were "saved" (see Romans 3). They didn't know the "mechanics", but they knew that God had a plan to forgive their sin, and they trusted God to provide it. Perhaps we can think of this along the same lines of how Abraham trusted God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
The people who were brokenhearted over their own sin and repented of it -- the people we read about in chapter 31 -- they were the ones who trusted God's (still unknown) plan to deal with their sin and their wicked hearts. That plan would be to give them a new heart. This is elaborated in Ezekiel:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (36:26, also 11:19)
And it's fulfilled in salvation:
16 From now on, then, we do not know anyone from a worldly perspective. Even if we have known Christ from a worldly perspective, yet now we no longer know him in this way. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!
The people in Jeremiah's day couldn't have fully "understood" what God was saying here, but they could trust Him to bring it about.
I hope we appreciate the incalculable blessing of living on this side of Pentecost (and John's Revelation). We get to know how God would do this. We get to know how it's all going to turn out. The prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel could only tell the people what God would do. We get to experience it.
[Aside: prophetic telescoping. Reading this, we can know (from our historical perspective) that it was partially fulfilled in the return from exile, it was more fulfilled in the life of Jesus, it is yet more fulfilled when believers die and enter the presence of God, and it will be finally and fully fulfilled when the New Jerusalem comes down to earth and we live in God's presence on the "new earth". God, who exists outside of time, was giving Jeremiah a view of all of this. I think of it like a telescope.]
In the past few years, we have studied Exodus, Deuteronomy, Ezekiel, Hosea, and a number of New Testament books. All of them come into play in this week's passage. (Did you catch all those references?) Put your thinking cap on: what is the fuller theological picture God is painting for Jeremiah?
Yeah, this passage is amazing.
If you are a Christian (if you aren't sure, talk to somebody in your Bible study group), you have a new heart with God's law written on it. You also have no one to blame if you are not living for Jesus. So, how are you doing? How are you living according to this new covenant? No excuses. You are personally and directly accountable to God for your choices and actions. That truth isn't meant to frighten us but to free us.
All of this comes back to one basic promise -- "I will be their God, and they will be My people." This promise is repeated throughout the Old Testament. Soak on it.