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Jeremiah by William Smith

2. Man and the New Covenant.

In the earliest Oracles of Jeremiah nations are the human units in religion, Israel as a whole the object of the Divine affection and providence. To his age worship was the business of the nation: public reverence for symbols and institutions, and rites in which the individual's share was largely performed for him by official representatives. The prophets, and Jeremiah himself at first, dealt with the people as a moral unity from the earliest times to their own. The Lord had loved and sought, redeemed and tended them as a nation. As a nation they fell away from Him and now they were wholly false to Him. When Jeremiah first urges them to return, it is of a public and general repentance that he speaks, as Deuteronomy had done; and when his urgency fails it is their political disappearance which he pronounces for doom.

But when the rotten surface of the national life thus broke under the Prophet he fell upon the deeper levels of the individual heart, and not only found the native sinfulness of this to be the explanation of the public and social corruption but discovered also soil for the seed-bed of new truths and new hopes. Among these there is none more potent than that of the immediate relation of the individual to God. Jeremiah never lost hope of the ultimate restoration of Israel. Nevertheless the individual aspects of religion increase in his prophesying, and though it is impossible to trace their growth with any accuracy because of the want of dates to many of his Oracles, we may be certain that as he watched under Josiah the failure of the national movements for reform, inspired by Deuteronomy, and under Jehoiakim and Sedekiah the gradual breaking up of the nation, and still more as his own personal relations with the Deity grew closer, Jeremiah thought and spoke less of the nation and more of the individual as the object of the Divine call and purposes.

One has travelled by night through a wooded country, by night and on into the dawn. How solid and indivisible the dark masses appear and how difficult to realise as composed of innumerable single growths, each with its own roots, each by itself soaring towards heaven. But as the dawn comes up one begins to see all this. The mass breaks; first the larger, more lonely trees stand out and soon every one of the common crowd is apparent in its separate strength and beauty.

It seems to me as I travel through the Book of Jeremiah that here also is a breaking of dawn -- but they are men whom it reveals. There is a stir of this even in the earliest Oracles; for the form of address to the nation which has begun with the singular Thou changes gradually to You, and not Israel but ye men of Israel are called to turn to their God.(799) As the Prophet's indictments proceed his burden ceases to be the national harlotry. He arraigns separate classes or groups,(800) and then, in increasing numbers, individuals: brother deceiving brother and friend friend; adulterers each after the wife of his neighbour; the official bully Pashhur, Jehoiakim the atrocious and petty in contrast to his sire the simple and just Josiah, the helpless and ridiculous Sedekiah, the bustling and self-confident Hananiah(801) -- with the fit word and in sharp irony Jeremiah etches them separately, in the same vividness as the typical figures of the harlot watching for her prey like the Arab robber in the desert, the fowler crouching to fling his net, the shepherds failing to keep their scattered flocks, the prophets who fling about their tongues and rede a rede of the Lord.(802) Jeremiah has answered the call to him to search for the man, the men beneath the nation.(803)

Then there are his readings of the heart of man into which he more deeply thought than any other prophet of Israel: his revelation of the working of God in the soul of man, its Searcher, its only Guide and Strength; his stress upon individual responsibility and guilt, and on the one glory of man being his knowledge of God and the duty of every man to know God for himself and not through others; and his song of the beauty of the personal life rooted in faith, evergreen and yielding its fruit even in seasons of drought. Such passages increase in the Oracles of Jeremiah. Not ceasing to be the patriot, the civic conscience of his people, he busies himself more with the hearts, the habits, the sins and the duties towards God of its individuals. Like Christ he takes the deaf apart from the multitude and talks to him of himself.

O Lord, Who triest the righteous,
Who seest the reins and the heart.(804)

False above all is the heart,
Sick to despair,
Who is to know it?
I, the Lord, searching the heart
And trying the reins,
To give to each man as his ways,
As the fruit of his doings.(805)

Can any man hide him in secret
And I not see him?(806)

In those days they shall say no more: The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the teeth of the children are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity, every man that eateth sour grapes his teeth shall be set on edge.(807)

Speak to all Judah all the words I have charged thee.... Peradventure they will hearken and turn every man from his evil way.(808)

He that would boast in this let him boast,
Insight and knowledge of Me.(809)

Lord, I know -- not to man is his way,
Not man's to walk or settle his steps.(810)

Blessed the man that trusts in the Lord
And the Lord is his trust!
He like a tree shall be planted by water,
That stretches its roots to the stream;
Unafraid at the coming of heat,
His leaf shall be green;
Sans care in the season of drought
He fails not in yielding his fruit.(811)

The individual soul rooted in faith and drawing life from the Fountain of Living Water, independent of all disaster to the nation and famine on earth -- could not be more beautifully drawn.

Now all this advance by Jeremiah from the idea of the nation as the human unit in religion -- Deuteronomy's ideal and at first his own -- to the individual as the direct object of the Divine Grace and Discipline was promoted, we have seen, by the dire happenings of the time, the unworthy conduct of the people, their abandonment by God, the ruin of the State and of the national worship -- which cut off individuals from all political and religious associations, leaving to each (in Jeremiah's repeated phrase) only his life, or his soul, for a prey.(812) But all these could have furthered the advance but little unless Jeremiah had felt by bitter experience his own soul searched and re-searched by God --

But Thou, Lord, hast known me,
Thou seest and triest my heart towards Thee -- (813)

unless through doubt and struggle he himself had won into the confidence of an immediate and intimate knowledge of God. At his call he had learned how a man could be God's before he was his mother's or his nation's -- God's own and to the end answerable only to Him. He had proved his solitary conscience under persecution. He had known how personal convictions can overbear the traditions of the past and the habits of one's own generation -- how God can hold a single man alone to His Will against his nation and all its powers, and vindicate him at last to their faces. In all this lay much of the vicarious service which Jeremiah achieved for his own generation; what he had won for himself was possible for each of them. And sure it is that the personal piety which henceforth flourished in Israel as it had never flourished before, weaving its delicate tendrils about the ruins of the state, the city and the altar, and (as the Psalms show) blooming behind the shelter of the Law like a garden of lilies within a fence of thorns, sprang from seeds in Jeremiah's heart, and was watered by his tears and the sweat of his spiritual agonies.

* * * * *

We are now come to a confluence of the streams we have been tracing -- the prophecy of the New Covenant. This occupies no incongruous place, following hard as it does upon that of the eating of sour grapes -- individual inspiration upon individual responsibility. But we cannot off-hand accept it as Jeremiah's own; the critical questions which have been with us from the beginning embarrass us still.

The collection of Oracles to which that of the New Covenant belongs, Chs. XXX, XXXI, was not made till long after Jeremiah's time; it includes, as we have seen, several of exilic or post-exilic origin.(814) But so do other chapters of the Book, in which nevertheless genuine prophecies of Jeremiah are recognised by virtually all modern critics. The context therefore offers no prejudice against the authenticity of the prophecy of the New Covenant, XXXI.31-34. But the form and the substance of this have raised doubts, so honest and reluctant as to deserve our consideration. Duhm starts his usual objection that the passage is in prose and a style characteristic of the late expanders of the Book. We may let that go, as we have done before, as by itself inconclusive;(815) the prophecy may not have come directly from Jeremiah's mouth but through the memory of a reporter of the Prophet, Baruch or another. More deserving of consideration is the criticism which Duhm, with great unwillingness, makes of the terms and substance of the prophecy. He objects to the term covenant: a covenant is a legal contract and could hardly have been chosen for the frame of his ideal by so pronounced an anti-legalist as Jeremiah. The passage |promises a new Covenant -- not a new Torah but only a more inward assimilation of the Torah by the people, and emphasises the good results which this will have for them but betrays no demand for a higher kind of religion. If one does not let himself be dazzled by the phrases new covenant and write it on the heart then the passage tells us of the relation of the individual no more than Deuteronomy has already regarded as possible, XXX.11 ff., and desirable, VI.6-8: namely, that every man should be at home in the Law and honestly follow it.| He continues: |it is impossible for me to hold any longer to the Jeremian origin of the passage. I find in it only the effusion of one learned in the Scriptures who regards as the highest ideal, that every one of the Jewish people should know the Law by heart.|

But in his resolve |not to let himself be dazzled| has not Duhm gone to the opposite extreme and seriously under-read the whole spirit of the passage -- besides showing as usual undue apprehensiveness of the presence in the text of a legalist at work?(816) The choice of the term covenant for the frame of his ideal was not unnatural to Jeremiah nor irrelevant to his experience and teaching. Formally the term may mean a legal contract; but it is open to a prophet or a poet to use any metaphor for his ideals and transform its mere letter by the spirit he puts into it; and after all covenant is only a metaphor for a relation which was beyond the compass of any figure to express. Yet it was a term classical in Israel and most intelligible to the generation whom Jeremiah was addressing. Its associations, especially as he had recalled them,(817) had been those not of the Law but of Love. It was not a contract or bargain but an approach by God to His people, an offer of His Grace, a statement of His Will and accompanied by manifestations of His Power to redeem them. One might as well charge Jesus with legalism in adopting a term sanctioned by God Himself, and so historical, sacred and endeared to the national memory. Nor need Torah, or Law, be taken as Duhm takes it in its sense of the legal codes of Israel, but in its wider meaning of the Divine instruction or revelation. Further the epithet New applied to Covenant was most relevant to the Prophet's and his people's recent sense of the failure of the ancient covenant, as restated and enforced in Deuteronomy. In spite of the excitement caused by the discovery of the Book in which it was written, and the recital of its words throughout the land, the Old Covenant had failed to capture the heart of the people or to secure from them more than the formal and superstitious observance of the letter of its Torah. Was it not a natural antithesis to predict that His Torah would be set by God in their inward parts and written on their hearts? How else (will Duhm tell us?) than by such phrases could the Prophet have described an inward and purely spiritual process? To say as Duhm does that the phrases only mean that common men would learn the Law of God |by heart| (auswendig), is, whoever their author may have been, to travesty his meaning. Finally, all the phrasing of the New Covenant is in harmony with the rest of the Prophet's teaching. He had spoken of God's will to give His people a new heart to know Him;(818) he had taught religion as the individual's direct knowledge of God;(819) he had won this himself from God directly without help from his parentage, his fellow-prophets or priests or any others; he had most bitterly known also how weak the word of one man is to teach his countrymen this knowledge and that it can only come by the inward operation of God Himself upon their spirits; and he had made as clear as ever prophet did that God's pardon for sin was the first, the necessary preliminary to His other gifts. Nor is the fact that the New Covenant is to be a national one alien to his teaching: Jeremiah never lost hope of his nation's survival and restoration.

Thus the passage on the New Covenant brings together all the strands of Jeremiah's experience and doctrine and hopes, shaken free from the political debris of the times, into one fair web under a pattern familiar and dear to the people. The weaving, it is true, is none of the deftest, but whether this is due to the aged Jeremiah's failing fingers or to the awkwardness of a disciple, the stuff and its dyes are all his own.

Lo, days are coming -- Rede of the Lord -- when I will make with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah a New Covenant, not like the Covenant which I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by their hand to bring them forth from the land of Egypt, which My Covenant they brake and I rejected them(820) -- Rede of the Lord. But this is My(821) Covenant which I will make with the sons(822) of Israel after those days -- Rede of the Lord -- I will set My Law in their inward part and on their heart will I write it, and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour and every man his brother saying, Know thou(823) the Lord! For they shall all know Me from the least even to the greatest;(824) for I will forgive their guilt and their sin will I remember no more.

This is, as has been said, a prophecy of Christianity which has hardly its equal in the Old Testament.(825) It is the Covenant which Jesus Christ the Son of God accepted for Himself and all men and sealed with His own blood.

And yet not even in this prophecy of Jeremiah, in which the individual soul is made to feel that God created it not for its family nor its state nor its church but only for Himself, is there any breath of a promise for it after death. The Prophet's eyes are still sealed to that future. The soul must be content that her strength and peace and hope are with God.

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