Many biblical scholars consider Jeremiah 31:31–34 to be the most important passage in the book of Jeremiah and believe that it contains the deepest insights in the whole of the Old Testament. This passage speaks of a “New Covenant” in the Old Testament. The prophet says that the Lord God will write His law on the heart of the individual. The text gives us a clear picture regarding the fulfillment of the covenant in the believer in Jesus Christ and of His covenant with Israel.”
In the Old Testament, the theme covenant plays an important role. The Hebrew word that is used for covenant in the Old Testament is ברית which means a contract or agreement between God and his people. Covenant can also mean a formalized relationship between two persons or groups or between God and his created world. It can also mean to agree (with); to enter into a formal agreement; to grant or promise by covenant. The idea is to remain in mutual commitment which paradoxically recognized both the initiative of God in the arrangement and insisted on the reality and necessity of human choice as well. According to a covenant treaty, there is a demand to preserve a commitment from the people. The term covenant can be conditional or unconditional.
Significance of the Covenants in the Bible
Adamic – Creator
Noahic – Sign of protection
Abrahamic – Blessing of the nation
Mosaic – Deliverer / liberator
Davidic – Monarchic period
The Need for a New Covenant
The significance of the covenant that we find in the prophets is that they walked closely with God, knowing the mind of God and declared God’s will to their contemporaries according to their own historical context. The message has its impact in the present, sometimes continuing into the immediate future. Those reading a prophetic message later in history could discern its significance in their lives and consider it to be as if spoken for their sake. Prophets were not foretellers, but forth-tellers. They were people called by God to speak on God’s behalf. God’s servants the prophets are the guardians and the interpreters of the covenant stipulations (laws), the will of God for the people of God in God’s world. True prophets share the pathos of God and they are constantly attentive to the thoughts, words, and deeds revealed in the cosmic realm. They frequently call back people who have become apostates, who reject God’s kingship or leadership in their lives.
The need for a ‘New Covenant’ is to change the inner nature of human beings that they may be able to obey God’s law or commandments. It is God who changes the desires of the heart. In verse 33, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people”, He will write His “law” within their hearts. It will be on their minds and will influence their actions/life style. Moses’ old covenant was written on a slab of stone (Exodus 31:18; 34:28–29; Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:22). What was needed was a covenant written in their hearts, a change from inside to the outside of depraved sinful man. Man’s sinful, rebellious nature demands a radical change that only God can accomplish.
The Covenant and the Prophets
In the prophetic books, we read that the nation came under the judgement of God when the people completely ignored the Mosaic covenant and did not follow God’s commands. In such situations, the prophets strongly condemned the priests, kings, and people for their disobedience to the Mosaic covenant, especially under the rule of the Davidic kingdom. Therefore the prophets insisted that the priests did not know the law (Hosea 4:6, Jeremiah 2:8). The prophets warned Israel of impending consequences because of their breach of the covenant. During the monarchical period, the prophets kept alive the idea of covenant, and their warnings and preaching was essentially a reminder to Israel of its failure to keep the covenant.
Thus prophets were indeed concerned with the covenant, even though they avoided the use of the word. And they demanded absolute fidelity to Yahweh and his commandments, they warned the Israelites, and they made them aware of God’s promises. Therefore the function of the prophets is to warn Israel about the consequences if they break the covenant and condemn them for that but encourage them to keep the covenant. The keeping of the covenant would bring blessings; if not kept, it would be followed by curses. Since the people of Israel could not keep the covenant law as it is too difficult for them, therefore Prophet Jeremiah talks about the ‘new covenant’ to help the people of Israel understands their relationship with God. Thus, Jeremiah spoke about a “New Covenant” which would be written in the hearts of people.
The Lord promises the success of the new covenant and God takes the initiative to renew the covenant. In contrast to “thou shalt not”/”thou shalt,” found in the Mosaic Covenant, instead “I will put,” “I will write,” “I will forgive” are the words found in the ‘New Covenant’. It is God who changed the covenant actor from the second person to the first person, by taking initiative to help the people of Israel to renew their hearts as they could not keep the law of the old covenant. The new covenant is a demonstration of God pursuing the guilty sinner until he/she comes with a repentant heart to the Lord and finds a ransom from self. The new covenant is a covenant of sovereign grace. It accomplished what the law and the old covenant could never do.
This new covenant law clearly speaks about the paradigm shift of God’s grace from rejection to acceptance, which is sheer God’s grace for the Israelites and also for all humankinds. It is the duty of the individual to keep the covenant, and God will continue to provide the Holy Spirit to carry it out. The new covenant is an intimate personal relationship with God. The passage clearly teaches us that every individual must have their own experience with their God to be included in this covenant, cf. John 3:1-16. The new covenant is for eternity; it cannot be broken again. The text reminds us about the nation turning to the Messiah. This includes all Israel, not only the chosen individuals; the salvation of the Lord is for all. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and also the Apostle Paul see the final and eternal restoration of Israel (Isaiah 59:20f; Jeremiah 31:33; Romans 11:25–26).
Jeremiah 31:33–34 is an accurate description of the new covenant under which the true Christian lives. It encourages the Christian to have communion with God and helps us to walk with the Holy Spirit. Theologically, a covenant is to show people how God communicates and acts accordingly. Through this ‘New Covenant’, God helps us to remain in communion with God to live a life in all its fullness in and through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rev. Dr. N. Subramani,
Associate Translation Director and Translation Consultant,
The Bible Society of India