Re-creation in the words of Jeremiah

It’s been my privilege in two previous issues to be your tour guide for a quick trip through Jeremiah—more of a scenic flight than a safari.1 Today our tour ends with the book’s final chapters—but here’s the story so far.

We’ve seen a people whose hostility to the word of God was so ingrained that gospel preaching only made things worse. Their identities were so bound up in being independent from God that they could not have submitted to his lordship even if they had wanted to. They were beyond forgiveness, their relationship with God irretrievably broken down.

But God loved his faithless children to the edge of reason, and he promised to intervene so radically in their lives that it would be like a new creation. Specifically, God’s intervention would take the form of a new type of forgiveness. This was not just a wiping of the slate, but a new and powerful expression of God’s character, a giving of himself that breaks in and transforms someone from within. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this is that God did not just offer his transforming forgiveness as a special concession. He decreed that it would become the foundation of a whole new covenant, so that from now on it would be normal for every one of his people to be bound to him in faithful love.

We now follow the thread of Jeremiah’s teaching about forgiveness through to the end of his book. We’ve only just begun to mine the riches of God’s new covenant forgiveness, and to go deeper we need to discover why Jeremiah holds two other acts of God alongside God’s act of forgiveness, and why he cannot think of forgiveness without them.

Judgement accompanies God’s forgiveness

Today’s tour begins with the third song of restoration, which looks forward with joy to returning and rebuilding under the rule of a royal prince who will draw near to God—a priestly activity—with a directness that would normally be impossible. Through the mediation of this priest-king, a covenant relationship will be sustained:

This is what the LORD has said:


Look—I am restoring the fortunes of Jacob’s tents,

and on his homes I will show compassion.

Each town shall be rebuilt upon its hill,

and each citadel on its proper site shall stand.

Out of them shall come thanksgiving,

the sound of laughter.

I will increase their number,

they shall not dwindle;

I will cover them with glory,

they shall not be disdained.

Jacob’s children shall be as in ancient times,

his assembly founded firm before me;

I will punish all his oppressors.

His prince shall be one of them,

his ruler from among them shall emerge;

I will let him draw near and approach me—

for who is he who would risk

his life to approach me? says the LORD.

And you shall be my people,

and I will be your God. (Jer 30:18‑22)2

Like the other songs, this one cannot rest content with a simple word of restoration, and it continues in a more disturbing vein as it reveals the intent of God’s heart:

Look, the storm of the LORD!

Wrath is in the air;

a tornado swirling

about the head of the wicked shall whirl.

It will not return, this burning anger of the LORD,

until he has done, and until he has established

the intent of his heart.

In days to come

you will understand this.

At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God

of all the families of Israel,

and they shall be my people. (Jer 30:23–31:1)

What is the intent of God’s heart? Yes, certainly judgement, but his deepest intent according to the whole song cycle is the restoring of fortunes (v. 18) and the establishment of a covenant relationship. The bracketing of this word of judgement by covenant promises (“you shall be my people, I will be your God”, in 30:22 and 31:1) is a strong clue to this. Somehow, it doesn’t say how, God’s wrath will accomplish the restoration of a relationship with his covenant people. The message of this song seems to be that while God will bless his restored people with the mediation of a priest-king, that alone will not be enough to create and sustain a covenant relationship. On the other hand, God’s wrath might be.

The fifth song paints a picture of the recipients of God’s love. In its first stanza we hear the sound of Jacob returning from exile. God’s promised great salvation is bestowed upon a very unusual gathering. A normal assembly in Israel consisted of priests and leaders and warriors, but not this one:

For thus says the LORD:


Sing out for Jacob joyfully,

whoop among the heads of nations!

proclaim, praise, and plead

“Save, O LORD, your people,

the remnant of Israel.”

 Watch me bring them from a northern land!

I will gather them from earth’s edges.

Among them, the blind and lame,

the pregnant and new mothers as well;

a great assembly, they’ll return here.

Weeping they shall come,

as they pray I will bear them,

I’ll lead them to brooks of water,

by a level path where they won’t trip;

for I am Israel’s father,

and Ephraim is my firstborn. (Jer 31:7-9)

The returned exiles in this song are a collection of males whose disabilities excluded them from public worship, together with women at their most helpless and vulnerable. These lowliest of condemned exiles return with weeping. The nature of God’s love is that he pours it out on people such as these. God gives his living water to the condemned, the weak, the contrite; he preserves them from ever stumbling again, these he adopts, nurtures, honours. The central message of this song is that only the judged can know what it is to be forgiven. In the context of these two chapters, it works the other way around as well: God’s word of new covenant forgiveness transforms only those who are broken by his word of judgement.

It is important to reflect on this, because it is a profound truth of the gospel we preach and of the Christian life. We must be careful that we don’t preach judgement as a prelude that we move on from to forgiveness. At its worst this can lead to a thoughtless triumphalism in which life becomes a series of victories accompanied by loud barracking and cheering. What a travesty of Christian joy that is! The joy of the forgiven person is the inexpressible joy of the judged and weeping exile. That’s why we never tire of singing songs like:

And can it be that I should gain

an interest in the Saviour’s blood?

Died he for me, who caused his pain?

For me, who him to death pursued?

Amazing love, how can it be

that thou, my God, shouldst die for me!

Just as God’s goodness is revealed equally through his judgement and his forgiveness, so there are two sides to our identity in Christ. To think of yourself as forgiven without remembering you are judged is as distorting as thinking yourself judged without remembering you are forgiven. To appreciate the dimensions of new covenant forgiveness, we must remember that God’s powerful word of forgiveness transforms only those who are broken by his word of judgement.

Most of the remaining chapters of Jeremiah are concerned with the power of the word of God to judge. After preaching to no avail for 23 years, Jeremiah preached for another 20, and, though he saw his words of judgement vindicated when Jerusalem fell to Babylon, he never saw God’s future forgiveness materialize. I suspect he realized the fall of Jerusalem had one immediate positive effect: it scattered not only Judah but also the word of God among the nations, where it began to take root in people beyond the borders of Israel, such as Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian (Jer 38:7-13; 39:16) and Nebuzaradan the Babylonian (Jer 40:1-5). The age of the Gentiles was dawning, and the climax of Jeremiah’s book is the series of oracles to the nations of the world, beginning in Egypt (Jer 46) and culminating in Babylon (Jer 50–51).

It’s not until the final oracle against Babylon that Jeremiah really picks up the theme of forgiveness again, and it’s here that we see the second act I mentioned at the start, which always accompanies God’s promised new forgiveness: God’s act of returning his people from exile.

A return from exile accompanies God’s forgiveness

As soon as Jeremiah gets started in his poetic description of Babylon’s fall, the judged and weeping exiles reappear:

In those days and at that time, declares the LORD,

the people of Israel shall come,

they and the people of Judah together,

weeping as they go,

and the LORD their God they shall seek.

Of Zion they shall enquire,

faces turned to this road.

“Come, let us bind ourselves to the LORD

in an eternal covenant that will never be forgotten.” (Jer 50:4–5)

The language of the song cycle is everywhere, but this time we are also shown the circumstances of Israel’s return. Babylon is pictured as a predator slain by God so that Israel could be drawn, alive, from its belly:

A hunted sheep is Israel,


The first to devour him:

the king of Assyria.

This last to crush his bones:

Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.

Therefore, this is what the LORD of Armies, the God of Israel, says:

I hereby punish the king of Babylon and his land

as once I punished the king of Assyria,

and I will return Israel to his pasture,

where he shall graze on Carmel and Bashan,

on the hills of Ephraim and Gilead

to his heart’s content.

In those days and at that time, declares the LORD,

Israel’s iniquity will be sought

but there won’t be any,

also Judah’s sins,

but they won’t be found.

For I will forgive

those I made into a remnant. (Jer 50:17-20)

In a great reversal, Israel the profane sheep has ended up holy again, and somehow the death of Babylon has been instrumental. This is not just a historical statement about the physical return—the theological consequences of the final verses suggest that something spiritual is going on here, that somehow out of Babylon’s death comes a life for Israel purified of iniquity and sins. Once again we see that this new life is the product of forgiveness, but now we also see that God’s life-giving forgiveness comes through death. How does the death of Babylon result in the removal of Israel’s iniquity? There is no reason it ought to, no reason the death of the beast must be followed by the sheep’s extraction, dead or alive.

Already Babylon is beginning to emerge in this oracle not just as an ancient power but as a symbol of judgement, of death itself, and it may be that Israel’s return from the death of exile causes death itself to be destroyed.

The further we get into this vast oracle, the less Babylon looks like the historical Babylon and the more she looks like a cosmic symbol, a universal enemy who stands for death and everything in creation opposed to God. By the end of chapter 51 she is given the code name Sheshak; her fall is described in almost apocalyptic terms:

How Sheshak has been captured!

Seized—the praise of the whole earth!

How Babylon has become

a wasteland among the nations!

Over Babylon the sea has risen;

by its roaring waves she is engulfed.

Her cities are become a wasteland,

a desiccated, desert land;

a land in which nobody lives,

across which no human travels.

I will punish Bel in Babylon,

and force what he swallowed from his mouth.

No more to him shall nations stream;

even the wall of Babylon falls…

The heavens will shout for joy over Babylon;

and the earth, and everything in it

for from the north will come to her

despoilers, declares the LORD.

Babylon is to fall

because of the slain of Israel

just as because of Babylon

the slain of all the earth have fallen. (Jer 51:41-44, 48-49)

Those last four lines seem to suggest that the judged and exiled Israelites are the instrument of Babylon’s fall. It’s like the image of the beast ripped open so Israel could emerge alive. This time, because Babylon is pictured as the universal cosmic enemy, verse 49 suggests that, in restoring his people to a new covenant life free from iniquity and sin, God will destroy death itself. In symbolic terms, Israel’s resurrection will be the death of death.

We’ve not had time to do more than lift the corner of Jeremiah’s vision and peek inside, but something as sweeping as the death of death is hard to conceive of except in the resurrection of Jesus. Jeremiah presents this defeat of evil and death as the consequence of God’s self-giving forgiveness. Does that mean God ‘forgave’ Jesus when he raised him from the dead? No, not in the way that he forgives us. Yet what he did in Jesus is precisely what his forgiveness does in each of us.

God’s transforming forgiveness does not just recreate us inwardly, and it doesn’t simply bring us back to life spiritually. It forges a completely new type of life inside us by breaking death’s power over us. There is no forgiveness without judgement, for only the judged can be forgiven. But the act of forgiving us changes the world.

We have seen what it looks like, this life that forgiveness forges, in the brief sojourn of the resurrected Christ among his disciples. The life he now possesses cannot be contained within the borders of a decaying universe, and the blow God dealt to death by raising his Son to new life was a universal coup de grâce whose effects will not be completely felt until the heavens and the earth themselves have been remade.

The logic of new covenant forgiveness—that once unleashed there will be no stopping it until it unmakes the world—is the logic that determines the end-point of Jeremiah, the New Testament, and world history. The return from exile begun at the resurrection is completed in John’s vision of an Israel from every nation guided to springs of living water, their weeping eyes dried:

“Therefore they are before the throne of God,

and serve him day and night in his temple;

and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;

the sun shall not strike them,

nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,

and he will guide them to springs of living water,

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:15-17)3

John turns to Jeremiah 50–51 for his description of the end of human society as we know it. With the fall of Babylon in Revelation 18—symbolic of Rome, every society opposed to the rule of God, and the forces of evil and death that rule in God’s stead—the prophets and saints whose blood was found in her are raised to join the heavenly triumph (Rev 18:24–19:4) and the way is paved for a new heavens and a new earth.

So we reach the end of our tour. Like Jeremiah we are called to boldly proclaim this prophetic word. Jeremiah preached his Babylonian oracle in the fourth year of king Zedekiah (Jer 51:59), at a time when Babylon was at the height of her power and Jeremiah’s words must have seemed like escapist fantasy. The gospel of judgement and forgiveness that we preach is just as disturbing today. It is an announcement of the total destruction of society as we know it, that its fabric and everything in it, good and bad, will be dissolved and history ended with a finality that is completely unpredictable by science or philosophy or common sense.

What has the power to open the eyes of this generation to such impossible truths? To bring them to the impossible admission of their guilt, and to the impossible recognition of their Lord and their God? The word of forgiveness that we call the gospel has this power, and its power to bring the dead to life is released in its fullness when the word is spoken. The act of power by which history will end and a new creation descend is nothing more or less than the very same word of judgement and forgiveness already spoken: Christ.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb 2:14-15)

  1. See ‘Judgement in the words of Jeremiah’, The Briefing #401, 2011; ‘Forgiveness in the words of Jeremiah’, The Briefing #403, 2012.
  2. The Old Testament verses in this article are the author’s own translations.
  3. The three quotations come from Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8, but are echoed in Jeremiah 31:9, 16.

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