Summary of the Text
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
Exile and Catastrophe: There is debate about when this passage was written. Taken at face value, these verses can be identified with a concrete moment in history. The beginning of Jeremiah 32 says, “This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of Zedekiah King of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. The army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was confined in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace of Judah.” Scholars place this moment in the year 587 B.C.
However, some point out how this passage, along with the text surrounding it (chapters 30-33) seems uncharacteristically hopeful for Jeremiah, colloquially known as the “weeping prophet” for all the persecution he received because of his prophecies criticizing the leadership of Judah and its temple worship practices.[i] Additionally, this entire passage is omitted from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This could imply a later authorship for these verses than Jeremiah’s life. Still others believe that scribes compiled and added to Jeremiah’s words while living in Babylonian exile.
Either way, these words are a profound message of hope in bleak times. Whether it was Jeremiah writing to a nation under siege, with ruthless enemies closing in, or later authors supplementing Jeremiah’s words while living in a foreign land under a ruthless despot, these words of hope speak boldly to a people in dire need. If assumed to be from the earlier date, Jeremiah offered these words to a people in fear of losing everything they knew – their political leaders, their homes, their livelihoods, their ability to worship corporately, and possibly their loved ones or their very lives.
If assumed to be from a later date, like during the Exile, these words were addressed to a people who had already lost everything. Possibly having seen the destruction of the temple, their very understanding of how God was present in the world was destroyed. John Calvin describes the context this way: “As they were then exposed to slaughter,… the children of God saw thousand deaths; so that it could not be but that terror almost drove them to despair; and in their exile they saw that they were far removed from their own country, without any hope of a return.”[ii]
The Book of Consolation: Chapters 30-33 have been dubbed “The Book of Consolation.”[iii] These four chapters offer hope to a people in catastrophe. The first two chapters offer this hope in a poetic form while the second two chapters are written more in prose. Just as Jeremiah is confined in the courtyard of the guard, the people of Judah are entrapped by their enemies. Thus the hope presented in these chapters is concrete. In the same way that the day and the night continue their covenant with God, God will be faithful to his people.
But what does this hope look like? Is it simply a hope for a bygone era for a people no longer living? There are multiple layers to this hope. At its most immediate, the words of these four chapters are words of hope to the people of Judah that one day, their enemies would perish (30:16). One day they will return to the promised land (30:3). Chapter 32 (verses 42-45) describes a more grounded hope – that God will give Israel prosperity and economic growth. The ultimate aim of this, though, is that all Israel would be restored to God (31:1). Jeremiah 31:31 proclaims, “’The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.’” The following verses show that this restoration of God’s people will restore God’s people in a way that surpasses the original covenant.[iv]
The verses for this Sunday (Jeremiah 33:14-16) also point to multiple layers of this hope. While they address the immediate hope of restoration and safety from Israel’s enemies, they also talk of a righteous branch, sprouting form David’s line. In addition, verse 16 describes a new name for Judah – “The Lord our righteousness.” This is a word play directly in contrast to King Zedekiah, who’s name means, “The Lord is righteous.” So with the presence of this righteous branch, sprouting from David’s line, Israel will finally experience God’s righteousness in a way Zedekiah never was able to provide.
The verses immediately following our passage complicate matters, though. Jeremiah 33:17-18 explain that David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, nor will priests, who are Levites, ever fail to have a man to stand before God continually to offer burnt offerings. While we can easily draw a connection to Jesus with the comments about David’s throne, it becomes more challenging as we consider the continuous presence of Levites offering sacrifices. Even though the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, it was destroyed again in AD 70. Similar language is used in Jeremiah 23:5 and 6, but there it does not also refer to the ongoing Levite presence.
These complications show how this text offers hope and speaks to people in various times. God ultimately did deliver all of Israel from the hand of Babylon, and a new temple was created. However, as Christians, we also see the work of Jesus as the true fulfilment of these words. Additionally, we also look to Christ’s return as the complete fulfilment of God’s promises. Look below at the next section for more comments about this. Ultimately, this passage, as a part of the Book of Consolation, invites God’s people to embrace hope in the midst of catastrophe – God’s people in all times and places.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Jesus, the Righteous Branch: Christians have historically interpreted this passage as one about Jesus, the Messiah. At its most general level, these verses and the those immediately following it are saying that the Davidic monarchy and the priestly work of the Levites will continue in Israel. God and king were two primary identifiers of Israelite culture. This was a profound message of hope.
More specifically, Jesus, in his ministry, fulfilled the words of this promise. Not only would he ensure a David reign (albeit a different looking one from what people had envisioned), but he also would become the ultimate sacrifice, fulfilling the priestly role as well. As a result of Jesus’ presence, the people would take on a new name – “The Lord is our righteousness.” The messiah would be living in distinction to the king of Jeremiah’s day, Zedekiah. Where Zedekiah had failed, the messiah, would succeed. And we profess this messiah to be Jesus.
Already, but Not Yet: However, ascribing these passages to Jesus requires some deeper theological work. If Jesus is the messiah, then how come all of these promises described throughout chapters 30-33 have not completely come to pass?
As Christians we believe the words of Matthew 4:17, when Jesus began his formal ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection inaugurated this new kingdom. The Kingdom of God is at hand here and now already, but not yet fully realized. Jesus has gained victory over sin and death on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
We also believe as Christians the words of John 14-17, when Jesus gave his farewell discourse to his followers and closest friends. He promised that he was going to prepare a place, and he will one day take us to be with him. In the meantime, he has given us his Holy Spirit. There will still be trouble in the world, but he has overcome the world.
Through the lens of the gospels, we can read these words of the prophet as speaking of multiple realities. Not only did they offer a concrete hope to the people of Judah as described above, but they also spoke of the coming Messiah, Jesus. And even still, they describe a day to come when Christ will return, when his kingdom will be fully realized.
Modern Lens: How does this touch my heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
Advent – Waiting in Hope: Advent is a season of waiting. As a child, this waiting seemed to take forever. At the end of Advent was Christmas! However, we wait not just for the coming of the Messiah on Christmas morning, but also for the second coming, when Christ will return, making all things new, as described in Revelation 21. So the beginning of the church year reminds us that we are a people in waiting. We are a people of hope because God is still at work in the world. Said another way, we remember the words of the Apostle, Paul, in Philippians 1, that God will be faithful to carry on to completion the good work that God has started.
Waiting is rarely fun. It’s often painful. We wait for the results from a lab test. We wait in traffic. We wait in line at the department of motor vehicles. We wait for an apology that might never come. Waiting is a visible sign that we live in a fallen world, that not all is as it should be. For if everything were as desired, we wouldn’t have to wait for it.
But waiting also shapes us. In the waiting, we can grow bitter, letting resentments fester. We can become paralyzed with fear. We can use the waiting as an excuse to do nothing. Waiting, however, is not passive. This text shows us that we can be a people who wait in hope. Our hope is in the Lord who is faithful. God will restore God’s people. God brought the Messiah, Jesus, who was God in the flesh. And one day Jesus, this Messiah, will return again. So in the waiting, we are not passive. Rather, we join with God, in God’s mission, working to more fully bring about God’s kingdom.
A Hope Grounded in Reality: As we look around, we see many challenges, just as the original hearers of these words saw in their day. The promised hope of this passage in not an empty hope, devoid of connection to concrete reality. The people of Judah were experiencing real suffering, and the words of the prophet spoke of a real hope that their situation would not always be so bleak. In fact, not only would their situation change, but God would restore them in ways beyond their imagination. Not only would they return from exile, rebuild their temple, eventually no longer be under Babylonian rule, but the Messiah, the hope of the entire world would come from them.
In our day, there is much for which we can despair. Churches have lost quite a lot since March of 2020. Most churches in the United States still have a fraction of the in-person attendance of before. Loved ones have died. There is ongoing economic uncertainty and political unrest. People seem to be more divided than any other time in recent memory. Pastors and church leaders are contemplating quitting at record numbers. For some, it feels that the 21st century church in the western world is in an exile of a sort.
However, just as was the case in Jeremiah’s day, God is still at work. The Messiah is still our source of hope and strength. Like the people of Judah, we are called to be a people who wait in hope. One day Jesus will come again to make all things new. In the meantime, we look for where the Spirit of God is at work, and we join with God in the waiting.
Themes and Ideas for Preaching:
The beginning of Advent is a time to begin waiting. This text shows us that God is at work in the waiting. This waiting is an act of hope, because the Messiah will come. This particular Advent season might find more of us waiting, in need of hope, than usual. This passage serves as an invitation to renew our hope in Jesus while we wait.
[i] For example, see R. E. Clements, Interpretation: Jeremiah, ed. James Luther Mays and Patrick D. Miller Jr. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 193.
[ii] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, vol. 4, ed. And trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950), 247.
[iii] J. Andrew Dearman, NIV Application Commentary: Jeremiah and Lamentations, ed. Terry Much (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 267
[iv] John Goldingay, Jeremiah for Everyone, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 172
Austin Hill has been the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Dodge, IA since 2013. Originally from Southern California, Austin received a B.A. in Psychology from Seattle Pacific University and his M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he met his wife, Sara. In 2017, Austin completed his Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
In Austin’s “free time,” he loves to fly (Austin earned his private pilot’s license in 2013) read books and play video games. You can learn even more about Austin on his blog, www.austindhill.com.
Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.
G.K. Chesterton, Quoted in Signs of the Times, April 1993, p. 6.
Hope In God
Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying.
And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time. It is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it. That is not hoping in God but bullying God. “I pray to GOD-my life a prayer-and wait for what he’ll say and do. My life’s on the line before God, my Lord, waiting and watching till morning, waiting and watching till morning.”
Taken from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson Copyright (c) 1980, 2000 by Eugene Peterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com