Thoughts on the First Reading
The days are coming, says the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers
the day I took them by the hand
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;
for they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the Lord.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.
The prophet Jeremiah knew that he lived at the end of an age. The reign of good king Josiah (606–-598) was followed by the rule of his son Jehoiakim, himself politically ensnared and inept, vacillating between alliances with his powerful neighbors Egypt and Syria, presiding over a kingdom too weak to maintain its independence, with religion reduced to external observance.
These were not good days for prophets. Jeremiah had begged off the job, arguing that he was too young and inexperienced to be a prophet (Jeremiah 1:6-8). It was always dangerous; Jesus would later make the persecution and murder of the prophets a characteristic of Israel (Matthew 5:12. 23:31). Jeremiah’s prophecies had so irritated the chief priest that he had ordered Jeremiah “put in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the House of the Lord” (20:1-4). Jeremiah complained bitterly that he had been deceived by the Lord. He was commanded to proclaim violence and destruction, so that the words he spoke were a source of reproach and derision all the day long. He had tried to be silent, but if he said, “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,” Jeremiah’s heart became a burning fire within so that he was weary with holding it in, and indeed he could not. So he heard whispering on every side, “Denounce him! Let us denounce him! Say all my familiar friends, watching for my fall”(20:7–11). It was a hard lot; indeed Jehoiakim had ordered the death of the prophet Uriah, a fate from which Jeremiah would be saved by the fortunate influence of a court official, Ahikam, who was friendly to him (26:20–23).
It was no wonder that the high priest, the king, and even his friends wanted him silenced, for his message was one of divine wrath. God said to Jerusalem through Jeremiah, “I will make you a desert and an uninhabited city; I will make destroyers against you,” so that “many nations will pass by this city, and every man will say to his neighbor, ‘Why has the Lord dealt thus with this great city?’ And they will answer, ‘Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord their God, and worshiped other gods and served them’” (21:7–8). Bad news, and enraging, especially so because the king and the people knew it was true. Jeremiah knew that his prophecy of destruction this would come to pass, that Nebuchadnezzar was preparing to put an end to this troublesome nation, as would indeed occur in BC 598, when deportations to Babylon began and the lacuna in Israel’s history remembered as the Babylonian exile would stamp itself on Israel’s memory.
It was at this moment, when the national existence of Israel was coming to an end, that the message form the Lord cited in the superscript came to Jeremiah. It was a revolutionary message, important in the way the giving of the law or the Lord’s self-revelation in Exodus 3:14 have been important. Jeremiah was looking into the future, “the days are coming says the Lord,” looking past the years of wilderness wandering that followed upon Israel’s redemption from Egypt, past the Davidic kingship which he saw coming to an end, past the exile to Babylon which he saw in the near future, looking forward to the radical giving by the Lord of a new covenant, a covenant not like the covenant given on Sinai, which Israel had broken, but a covenant which would accomplish what the law, laid upon the hearts of a stubborn people, would not accomplish. With the gift of the new covenant the law written on tablets of stone would be put in the hearts of God’s people. They would be taught from within, so that they would need no teacher but the presence of God; and their sins would be forgiven.
Our Lord Jesus Christ on the night before His sacrifice would take bread and wine in His sacred hands and break the bread and offer the wine saying, this is my blood of the new covenant (Luke 22:20). And the gift purchased by that sacrifice would not be the earthly peace in a good land for which Israel had always longed but the kingdom of the new heart, constituted by the gift given at Pentecost and spread through the world through the water of baptism and the blood of the cross made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice. When, fifty days after Christ’s resurrection, Peter stood up to acknowledge the Pentecostal gift before the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the feast, he did not quote Jeremiah 31 but the prophet Joel, who in words that echoed what Jeremiah had written:
And it shall come to pass afterward
that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and daughters will prophecy,
your old men shall dream dreams
and your young men shall see visions.
Even upon the menservants and the maidservants
in those days I will pour out my spirit .
The charter of the apostolic mission was the new heart with the law written within. This was the work of God which the philosophers, truth-seekers that they were, had been unable to accomplish. Jeremiah knew that the fulfillment of this great promise was not for his day; God would continue to show His people that He was their master for another four hundred years, leading them through the valley of national humiliation, rebellion, and finally subservience to another empire. The proud confidence of the Church would be the knowledge that it possessed the fulfillment of the word of God given to the prophets long years before. The Church lives in what to Jeremiah were “the days that were coming,” the age in which all things might be made new, in which all sons and daughters are given God’s Spirit. This Spirit of the Father who hovered over the chaos to renew the first-fallen world has the power to drive chaos from the human heart and to fill it with His presence. These are the promised days that were coming.