By Raymond Harris
Regarding Scripture: Jeremiah 31.31-34
Note to the Reader – I encourage you to invest additional time reading the Book of Jeremiah in conjunction with this article.
A New Covenant?
While it is likely that most Christians are familiar with the new covenant established by Jesus in the Gospels, it is probable that some modern day believers may not fully understand covenant and how significant covenant is to Israel. Covenant is a concept that permeates the Scriptures, and covenant is a concept contract that governed Ancient Israel. Covenant influenced how Israel conducted personal transactions (like marriage) and governed, most importantly, her theology and conduct before her God – YHWH. All of this is important because as we shall see, Jeremiah will introduce a concept of a new covenant that should pique the interest of all of Israel.
Covenant and Israel
Permit me for a moment to speak in a loose present tense according to Jeremiah’s time frame, which is toward the close of the sixth century B.C.E. and opening of the fifth century. While Jehovah made a covenant with Noah in the new world1 and then chose Abram/Abraham for a special promised covenant,2 it is the covenant mediated by Moses at Sinai that governs the social, governmental, and religious behavior of Israel,3 even when the current situation is a divided nation having the Northern Tribes taken into Assyrian captivity and the Southern Tribes currently facing Babylonian Exile.
Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the other prophets in various places bring the charge of sin and transgression against Israel (whether as one nation of twelve tribes, or two Kingdoms: the Northern ten tribes known as Israel, and the Southern two tribes known as Judah). Is it important that we understand sin and transgression? Sin is loosely defined as transgressing God’s Law, but what law? For present tense Jeremiah time, it would be transgressions and violations of the covenant that Jehovah made with the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai back in the wilderness during the Exodus.
Back at Sinai the then living people, (Hebrews and possibly some Egyptians, remember Manasseh and Ephraim where half Hebrew and half Egyptian because of Joseph, a Hebrew, and his Egyptian wife Asenath4) agreed to abide by the covenant as testified by the twenty-fourth chapter of Exodus. According to Deuteronomy six, the parents were to instruct their children about YHWH and his ways and according to Exodus 31.13 we know that it is for all subsequent Israelite generations.
This covenant and the concept of covenant defined Israel and her relationship to YHWH. She was identified as non-transgressing when she remained faithful to the contract. As a side note, according to the writings of the new covenant, it is interesting that Jesus reiterated Isaiah’s teaching that it is possible that an Israelite (a covenanted partner with Jehovah) could honor God with one’s lips, while one’s heart (their intentions and motives) could be far from Jehovah.5 This means that while one could have outward appearances that demonstrate faithfulness, the inward thoughts and motives could be anything but faithful.
New Covenant and Israel
As one conducts a King James word search, it appears that the only place in which the words new and covenant (whether an exact phrase or all of the words)6 are found in the Scriptures, outside the writings of the New Testament is in Jeremiah. And then, interestingly enough, it is found only in one verse: Jeremiah 31.31. For the Israelites who heard that then current (present tense) message, it must have been an intense moment. This writer can just imagine some of those then current thoughts: “A new covenant! What does that mean a new covenant? We already have a covenant? Why do we need a new one?”
Before we define new, perhaps it is proper to establish the beginning of the context. The verse that contains the idea of a new covenant is almost two chapters away from the beginning of the context that starts in Jeremiah 30.
This word came to [Jeremiah] from [the LORD]: “This is what [the LORD] the God of Isra’el says: ‘Write all the words I have spoken to you in a scroll. For the day is coming,’ says [the LORD], ‘when I will reverse the exile of my people Isra’el and Y’hudah,’ says [the LORD]. ‘I will cause them to return to the land I gave their ancestors, and they will take possession of it.’“
These are the words [the LORD] spoke concerning Isra’el and Y’hudah:7
From that brief quote, we can see that Jehovah is speaking future tense about ending the exile of all of the tribes of Israel (both Israel-the Northern and Judah-the Southern), but it is the last statement that should grab our attention “These are the words” begins the section in which we eventually find Jeremiah 31.31 and the reference to the new covenant.
Like our quote above, Jeremiah 31.31 includes the idea of a future tense “the days are coming” additionally, the Hebrew word for new means “new, new thing, fresh.”8 One might ask, “What makes it fresh?” That question is answered in the next few verses. First Jehovah describes the covenant made with a united Israel back in the desert (which is at Sinai during the Exodus) but adds that the nation was unfaithful by violating that covenant while implying that he himself is a non-covenant breaking (i.e. faithful) husband.
Next, Jehovah says that he is going to place the law (torah) “within them and written on their hearts”9 this is very important. As a contrast, the first covenant was written on stone and kept in a storage location called the Ark of the Covenant, as opposed to the new covenant that will be written and kept inside each person. Perhaps, this additional (new) concept is part of what makes the new covenant so fresh, should we not take from this that the new covenant implies that the law (torah) will be living and breathing?
There is much more that can be said and probably needs to be said about covenant, but our space has expired for this week. It is my hope that this article has provided some additional insight in to the power of the new covenant. As New Covenant believers, we accept that Yeshua (Jesus) mediated the new, but it is my hope that we will have a greater appreciation and understanding for the depth of our God, Jehovah, and his covenant. May the LORD bless us as we continue studying.
1. “Covenant between Jehovah, Noah, his descendents and the world.” Genesis 9.1-17, NASB.
2. “Covenant between Jehovah and Abraham and his descendents.” Genesis 12.1-3; 15.1-21; 17.1-27, NASB.
3. “Covenant between Jehovah and the Children of Israel, mediated by Moses.” Exodus 19.1-24.18, NASB.
4. “Hebrew and Egyptian possibilities.” Genesis 41.45, 41.50-52, NASB.
5. “Honor with Lips.” Matthew 15.8-9; Isaiah 29.13, NASB.
6. King James Version Word Search of “new covenant” e-Sword, Version 8.0.5, April 16, 2009.
7. “The Context.” Jeremiah 30.1-5, Quote: Complete Jewish Bible, Link: NASB.
8. Hebrew definition of “new” Strong’s Number H2319; Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew Definitions; e-Sword, Version 8.0.5, April 16, 2009.
9. “Written on their hearts.” Jeremiah 31.33, Quote: Complete Jewish Bible, Link: NASB