Excerpts from the book The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology (forthcoming)
As far as biblical covenantalism goes, the prophecies in Jeremiah 30 through 33, supported by chapters 34 and 35 are critical.1 After the prophet is heard in his own right, the covenantal picture that has been forming so far really starts to take shape. When Jeremiah’s historical situation is considered the covenantal picture is only reinforced all the more.2
The series begins when Jeremiah is commanded to “Write in a book for yourself all the words that I have spoken to you.” (Jer. 30:2). A written record of his utterances is required. The reason given for this is that,
‘…behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, `that I will bring back from captivity My people Israel and Judah,’ says the LORD. `And I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it.’ (NASB, Jeremiah 30:3)
The phrase “the days are coming” is often connected with the eschaton, just as are the promises of peace and safety. This verse predicts a return from captivity. Most interpreters assume that by this the prophet has in mind the return from Babylon (Ezra 1 – 2). But as the oracle proceeds more than this is in view.
Firstly, one should note the word translated “possess” (yarash). The word denotes taking possession; something which the returnees under Zerubbabel and Ezra never did. They were always no better than vassals under the Persian king.
The passage unfolds with a prediction of a time of great trepidation (Jer. 30:5-6). Then we are told:
Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it; and it is the time of Jacob’s trouble, but he shall be saved out of it. (Jeremiah 30:7)
So this time of difficulty will be of such intensity that it will have no equal.3 It is a time of suffering for Israel, for it is “the time of Jacob’s trouble.” (Jer. 30:7). Quite what this time is, and when it is Jeremiah doesn’t say. Or does he? As for the “what” we are not told (although later prophecies will improve the picture). But as for “when” the context, along with previous oracles, may give us some guidance. The promise that Israel will be delivered out of this terrible time is associated, not with 538 B.C., but with the return of king “David” (Jer. 30:9). From Jeremiah 23:5 we expect that the man called “the Branch” will be related to David, but this statement is more definitive. It is not a descendant of David who is spoken about, but David himself. And this is not an isolated incident; Jeremiah’s contemporary Ezekiel twice refers to David as ruling in eschatological settings (Ezek. 34:23-24; 37:24-25).
Are we then to expect a risen David to reign again over the kingdom of Israel in its approaching golden age? Well, no believing student of the Bible refuses to believe that the Old Testament saints will be raised (although they may not ponder the implications very much). The resurrection of David, or for that matter, of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other saints, is no pious myth. Jesus Himself said that since God is the God “of the living”, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are alive (Matt. 22:32). Very well, will they forever be disembodied spirits? Job didn’t think so (Job 19:25-27).
But what of David once more ruling over Israel? Jeremiah and Ezekiel say he will. Perhaps they meant us to understand a descendant of David’s? Perhaps so. I will leave things there until later. But what about the timing of the deliverance of Jeremiah 30:7? Things start to come more into focus with verses 10 and 11:
Therefore do not fear, O My servant Jacob,’ says the LORD, `Nor be dismayed, O Israel; for behold, I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return, have rest and be quiet, and no one shall make him afraid.
For I am with you,’ says the LORD, `to save you; though I make a full end of all nations where I have scattered you, yet I will not make a complete end of you. But I will correct you in justice, and will not let you go altogether unpunished.’ (Jeremiah 30:10-11, my emphasis)
Israel (“Jacob”) will be brought back from captivity (as in verse 3), and the Lord will ensure that their restoration to their land is tranquil and unencumbered (30:10). The guarantee of peace and safety that we saw above is again made. Although Israel will be punished for their sins (30:11), which may refer back to the “time of Jacob’s trouble” in verse 7, they will be delivered. So we get a time of tribulation for Israel, followed by a time of serene possession of the land, when “David” will be their king.
I do not see how this could refer to the return from the captivity in Babylon. This belongs in the eschaton along with Amos 9:11-15; Hosea 2:14-23; Micah 4:1-8; Isaiah 2:1-5; 11:1-12; 62:1-5, and Jeremiah 23:1-8. Chapter 30 will go on to repeat the message of comfort for Israel (Jer. 30:17-22), which ends with the covenantal expression, “You shall be My people, and I will be your God.” (Jer. 30:22). The notion of covenant is never very far away. At the very end of the chapter Jeremiah reminds God’s people that “in the latter days you will consider it” (30:24).
The vision continues unabated into chapter 31. This chapter is famous for its introduction of the term “New covenant”. But that comes later in the chapter. The first thing to note is the expression of love (“I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3), and the way Yahweh refers to Israel as “O virgin of Israel” (Jer. 31:4, 21). Not, as in some other contexts, in an ironic way (e.g. 18:13), but in the terms of His covenant promise (31:1). Therefore, we meet with language of comfort for “the remnant” (31:7), and a declaration of a coming salvation:
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations,
And declare it in the isles afar off, and say,
‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
And keep him as a shepherd does his flock.’
For the LORD has redeemed Jacob,
And ransomed him from the hand of one stronger than he.
Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion,
Streaming to the goodness of the LORD—
For wheat and new wine and oil,
For the young of the flock and the herd;
Their souls shall be like a well-watered garden,
And they shall sorrow no more at all. (Jeremiah 31:10-12)
Any honest unpacking of this passage will maintain that God intends to regather His people.4 But this regathering will involve redemption and blessings upon the land (cf. Hos. 2:20-22; Amos 9:13-15; Isa. 35:5-10). The oracle continues with predictions of rejoicing among the populace (Jer. 31:13), and blessings on the priesthood (31:14). The priests will appear again in prophetic context in Jeremiah 33.
1 One might also include Jeremiah 29, especially because the refrain about Yahweh bringing back Israel from captivity to a situation very different than what obtained after the 70 years were ended (see Jer. 29:14; 30:3, 18; 31:23; 32:44; 33:7, 11, 26). These passages are eschatological in nature.
2 Childs notices that these chapters (Jer. 30-33) precede the description of the fall of Jerusalem. “The effect,” he says, “of this ordering of the material re-emphasizes the belief that promise was a part of the divine plan from the outset. It did not arise from a last-minute feeling of compassion to salvage something from the debacle.” – Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 351
3 Very similar language concerning Israel is seen in Daniel 12:1 and Mark 13:19-20.
4 As a matter of fact, as Allen observes, Jeremiah “refers to forgiveness more than any other prophetic book.” – L. C. Allen, “Jeremiah: Book of” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, edited by Mark J. Boda & J. Gordon McConville, 438
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.