In the first leg of our journey through Jeremiah we focused on the man and his preaching of judgement. We will now do a bit of touring through the middle chapters, but most of our time will be spent on just half a verse—a promise:
For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. (Jer 31:34b)1
First we need to recall Jeremiah’s preaching of judgement, especially the way that Jeremiah’s listeners were so set against the word of God that the sound of it revolted them and drove them not further but closer to their destruction. What happens when an irresistible force—the word of God—hits an immovable object—his faithless bride? Carnage. The word of God reached out in terrible power to bring the Babylonian armies crashing down upon his beloved children. Was no other solution possible? Our answer was no. The people’s serial unfaithfulness had killed off any capacity for repentance, placing them beyond forgiveness:
Roam through the streets of Jerusalem,
see and know!
Search her squares to see
if you can find a man,
if there is one who does justice,
who seeks faithfulness,
that I may forgive her…
They have made their faces harder than rock;
they have refused to turn. (Jer 5:1, 3b)
In view of that bleak picture, today’s half-verse has a bit of explaining to do. What has changed so that God can promise to “forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more”, using the exact words—iniquity and sins—that he used back in Jeremiah 14:10 when he said he would remember their iniquity and punish their sins?
On one level the answer is straightforward. God hasn’t changed his mind about judging them; what has changed is that after they have been punished God promises to make a new covenant with them, in which he will forgive them. Yet if we look closely at our text in its context we’ll see it’s not that simple. God is promising to do something much harder than simply forgiving them like he’s done previously time and again. The forgiveness he now offers is something quite new, and we need to pause until we grasp what that is.
Christians are not exempt from the tragedy of relationships in which forgiveness stops working. I know some loving Christian parents whose teenager used to steal money from them in order to pay for his drunken and abusive lifestyle. The police would be involved, the child would weep and repent, the parents would forgive him, and he would steal again. Eventually the words “I forgive you” can lose any power to restore the sinner.
God’s relationship with Israel was just like this, and he prepared them for his new covenant promise with a cycle of six songs of restoration. They are not straightforward songs, because they are filled with the pain caused by Israel’s persistent faithlessness. Here is the beginning and ending of the first song of Jacob’s restoration:
Thus says the LORD:
A voice of terror we have heard,
of dread, and there is no peace.
Ask now, and see,
whether a male gives birth?
Why then have I seen every strong man
his hands on his belly like a labouring woman?
and every face turned deathly pale?
Alas! for great is that day
there is none like it;
it is the time of Jacob’s distress;
yet from it he shall be saved.
And you—do not fear, my servant Jacob,
says the LORD, and do not be dismayed, Israel;
for see, I am saving you from afar,
and your offspring from the land of captivity.
and Jacob shall return and shall be quiet
and untroubled, and no one shall make him afraid.
For I am with you, says the LORD, to save you;
for I will make an end of all the nations
among which I scattered you,
but you—I will not make an end of you.
I will chastise you with justice,
and to leave you unpunished? Never! (Jer 30:5-7, 10- 11)
Just when you think the poem is happily concluded, the last two lines seem to cancel the offer of peace and replace it with vigorous punishment. When is this punishment? Now? After the return from exile? A second exile? It does not say. There are no simple solutions left. Yes, God could forgive. He could save and restore. But what then? What will he do when they next turn against him? Forgive once more and repeat the cycle? God will save, yes, but forgiveness is no longer going to be enough. Something new and impossible will have to happen, as impossible as a male giving birth.
The very end of the song cycle reinforces this with another gender-bending image:
How long will you turn this way and that,
O daughter of turning?
For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth:
a female will encompass a man. (Jer 31:22)
I’m still puzzling over this verse 15 years after my first attempt, but the one thing it does teach with complete clarity is this: God has a plan to fix human faithlessness through a huge, impossible reversal of his created order. How? The answer is as mysterious as the verse itself.
Which brings us to the famous new covenant promise. The word ‘new’ is used only twice in Jeremiah, and we have just seen its first appearance. Its second use, nine verses later, to describe the new covenant, seems to be a deliberate echo. Jeremiah wants us to feel that the new covenant will be as new and impossible as the overturnings of nature the song cycle depicts. Here is that famous promise (to make its internal structure clearer, I have inserted a numerical sequence):
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD:
1st: I will put my law within them,
on their heart I will write it.
2nd: I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
3rd: No longer shall a person teach their neighbour
or their brother, saying,
“Know the LORD!”
For they shall all know me,
from the least to the greatest,
declares the LORD.
For I will forgive their iniquity,
and their sin I will remember no
more. (Jer 31:33-34)
In other words, the new covenant contains three linked promises. Previously, Jeremiah had complained that “sin is engraved on their heart with an iron stylus” (Jer 17:1). But now God will overwrite an original sinful text with his own words, and when God’s will starts shaping their will a relationship becomes possible. The phrase “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” reflects marriage and adoption. Israel will become God’s bride and remain faithful because his law will be written on her heart. The final result of this is that everyone will know God, and each will live by their righteousness placed within them by an inner transformation that amounts to an impossible and mysterious new work of creation.
It’s an amazing promise! But its climax is, if possible, even more amazing. Our chosen half-verse begins with a ‘because’ that stands as the explanation for all three previous statements. It’s because of the forgiveness described here that the people will be recreated inwardly. To put it another way, forgiveness is the reason why God will write on their heart. This is so startling and novel that it deserves to be restated: the inner transformation—which neither the covenant promise, nor the Mosaic law, nor Jeremiah’s preaching ever achieved—will now be wrought by divine forgiveness. God will not forgive them because they have become godly; they will be made godly by virtue of God’s act of forgiveness.
This is a promise to praise God for. But it is also troubling, because forgiveness just doesn’t do that! The forgiveness Jeremiah and the prophets talk about doesn’t precede repentance, and it doesn’t produce repentance.
Forgiveness doesn’t precede repentance because the sacrificial law says that sin must be followed by some act of turning back to God, of sacrifice or repentance, before atonement and forgiveness can be offered. Even outside the law it’s the way relationships function. First David confessed his adultery and murder in Psalm 51, and then God forgave him. Remember Jeremiah 5:1—“See if you can find one person who seeks faithfulness, that I might forgive”. Forgiving before the sinner has stopped sinning just doesn’t make sense.
If that’s a problem, the idea that forgiveness might produce repentance is even more difficult. There are plenty of books and films about ‘the power of forgiveness’, but nearly all of them deal with the benefits that come to those who find it in themselves to forgive others. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Corrie ten Boom, survivor of a German death camp, who was asked by one of the camp guards for forgiveness. After a struggle, she forced herself to take his hand, only to find a change begin inside her:
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.2
It is rarer for forgiveness to transform the forgiven person. In Jeremiah’s world, it was not just rare but non-existent. Nowhere outside of Jeremiah 31:34 is there an expectation that forgiveness makes the forgiven person less inclined to reoffend. On the contrary, Israel’s history shows that forgiveness generates complacency. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is crooked above all things; it is incurable—who can know it?” Israel took forgiveness as a sign from God that they could get away with sinning again.
With these problems in mind, it is time to take a closer look at our half verse.
They shall all know me… for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. (Jer 31:34)
Notice what God promises to forgive here: iniquity. This is not normal. The word ‘iniquity’ describes evil behaviour beyond the power of the law to forgive. Previously God had only forgiven Israel’s iniquity under extraordinary circumstances, extending forgiveness on appeal quite apart from covenant or law: a forgiveness offered solely out of his divine goodness. Forgiveness of iniquity is first mentioned after the golden calf incident, when God reveals himself to Moses as:
The LORD, the LORD, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in faithful love and constancy, holding on to faithful love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Exod 34:6‑7a)
Moses’ response was to pray with amazing boldness:
If I have found favour in your eyes, LORD, then please, LORD, travel with us. Though this is a mutinous people, forgive our iniquity and our sin, and make us your inheritance. (Exod 34:9)
In Israel’s later history we find a handful of times when a prophet intercedes with God to forgive iniquity, and the appeal is always made to God’s name, or his faithful love—but not by the time Jeremiah came on the scene:
The LORD will remember their iniquity
and punish their sins.
Then the LORD said to me,
“Do not pray for the welfare of this people.” (Jer 14:10-11)
Judah was cut off even from extraordinary forgiveness because, as the song cycle makes quite clear, the long pattern of sin and forgiveness simply couldn’t go on. Forgiveness had done nothing to fix the problem of sin-inscribed hearts.
Which brings us back to our text, where God’s promise to “forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more” is not only a direct reversal of Jeremiah 14, but also an explicit allusion to Exodus 34. Whatever is going on in the new covenant, it is not enough simply to say that God is compassionately wiping out past debts; there is nothing new about that, and when it has been done in the past it hasn’t solved anything.
We can only conclude that however extraordinary the forgiveness of iniquity may have been, God is now making it an ordinary and foundational provision of his new covenant. For the first time, God has stipulated that his divine identity as one who loves and forgives will be what determines the covenant relationship, not our tendency to reject that love and fall under curse. This is quite different from overlooking sin. There is a divine self-giving involved that goes far beyond that, and if forgiveness now has the power to transform the forgiven person as it never had before, it seems that can only be because in some quite new way, God gives himself to us in the forgiveness he now holds out.
There is one more facet of this promise we need to look at. We know the consequence of this new covenant forgiveness: it transforms the forgiven person from within. But what about the act of forgiveness itself? Is there some outward event that marks the moment of forgiveness? For example, the act that marks the forgiveness of a criminal is their release from jail. In Israel’s case, the transformative act of God that marks their forgiveness is his bringing them back from exile. Jeremiah looks forward to a day when God will bring his people home, and his understanding is that God’s act of bringing them out of their captivity will be instrumental for their inner renewal. This is the starting-point for the rest of Jeremiah’s thinking about the power of forgiveness, and next time in our third and final visit to this book we will see how that unfolds. For the moment, let me just say that the return from exile Jeremiah had in mind was not the one that happened under Cyrus in 539 bc. For God’s people, the inauguration of the new covenant era lay further into the future.
So what have we seen? Forgiveness is not enough. However, the new covenant holds out a new type of forgiveness that does not simply declare us right with God but makes us right with God. This forgiveness inwardly recreates us so that our heart is facing towards God and not away from him. And that opens in us a door through which the word of God enters to transform us from within, rather than destroying us from without.
God does this by manifesting his very self to us and in us as the Lord, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love. This is a mystery, but far less so for us than it was for the prophets of old. In Christ’s obedience at the cross we have seen the terrible shape of God’s self-giving. That such a gift could release a power of forgiveness that is like a new creation is still mysterious, but no longer surprising. As Jesus said at his last supper, “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28).
Jesus was preparing his disciples through his healing miracles to grasp the power of new covenant forgiveness. Remember his words when he raised the paralyzed man:
“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” (Mark 2:9-11, NIV 2011)
Jesus wanted the disciples to see this miracle as a work of resurrection power, a sign of the forgiveness he came to bestow. After his own resurrection they would come to experience for themselves, as we now have, the self-giving of Jesus that extends to his presence in each one of us by his Spirit, a self-giving that literally makes each of us a new creation.
We have been entrusted with a gospel to proclaim. We speak, painfully, a word of judgement—a word of fearful danger for those who hear and ignore it. But the gospel is good news because after judgement there is forgiveness. Have you ever thought what a humbling thing it is to be entrusted by God with the privilege of holding out his self-giving, his steadfast love, his forgiveness of iniquity? To be an agent of his recreation? To be the mind and heart and lips and life that shape a word of unstoppable power, a word that makes Christ present and brings the dead to life?
As Paul told the Corinthians:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:16-20, NIV 2011)
And as Jeremiah prayed:
LORD, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water. Heal us LORD, and we will be healed; save us and we will be saved, for you are the one we praise. (Jer 17:13-14)