In the last section, we covered Israel's history from Solomon all the way up to the exile. Here in this next section we're going to transition to looking at what the Prophets say to God's people during their time in exile, and especially what they say about the new covenant. We'll get to Jeremiah 31 later--this section will focus on what we learn about the new covenant from the prophets as a whole. We'll split this into two sections: 1) Understanding the original context; and 2) Overviewing the general themes:
I. Understanding the ORIGINAL CONTEXT:
A) The Prophets: Jeremiah is the only prophet who actually uses the phrase, “new covenant”, and he only does so once, in a passage recorded in 31:31-34. But even in the overall context of this passage in Jeremiah 31, it's clear that Jeremiah associates the new covenant with some particular overarching themes, such as Israel's returning to their land (30:3; 32:37; 33:7); the reversal of the covenant curses (31:4-5,12-14,28; 32:40-42; 33:6-7,10-11); the raising up of a new Davidic king (30:9; 33:14ff); as well as God's writing His Law on the hearts of His people (31:33; 32:39-40); the forgiveness of sin (31:34; 33:8); and the reiteration of God's covenant promise that Israel would be His people and He would be their God (30:22; 31:33; 32:38). All of these themes are centered around what God would do for His people when He brought them back from their captivity in Babylon. So, what's really vital for us to understand is that the “new covenant” is associated with all the things that God would do for Israel when He restored them from exile. And though the other prophets don't use the specific language of the “new covenant”, they do speak of these same themes.1 Many of the prophets announced Israel's future restoration, but this was especially true of the Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.2
B) The Situation: In Ezekiel 37, the prophet has a vision of a valley filled with dry bones. The Lord explains the vision to the prophet Ezekiel in this way: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.'” (37:11). Israel's situation was so hopeless it was like a grave. The exile was death, and now they had been buried in Babylon. Through all His dealings, God had been so merciful to them, but they had “turned their mercies into miseries.” God had given them a thousand chances, but they had blown them all; and now it was too late. Everything was ruined. They had scorned their temple and squandered their king. They had cast themselves out of the land and now they lay like dead corpses in the graves they dug for themselves in Babylon: “No exiled Israelite could paint a darker picture of the condition of a captive and scattered people. The situation was beyond human remedy.”3
C) The Message: Everything shouted that God was done with Israel. But the prophets, speaking in God's name, declared something very different. In the words of Jeremiah: “'This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,' declares the Lord. . .” (Jeremiah 25:11-12). “For thus says the Lord, 'When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.” (29:10). Exile was real, but it wouldn't be the last word. It was awful, but it wouldn't be final. Israel had turned their mercies into miseries, but God intended to turn “their miseries again into mercies.” They had let the temple become a heap of ruins, but God would rebuild it. They had thrust themselves out of the land, but God would bring them back in. They lay as dead men in their graves. But as Ezekiel looked over that valley of bones, God told him: “Thus says the Lord God, 'Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.'” (37:12-13). In other words, “[God] could bring them out of Babylon into their own land, against all seeming improbabilities and impossibilities. Though they were as dead and dry bones, though buried in their graves. . .yet God could open their graves, and bring them out of their graves.” What the prophets were announcing to God's people was completely astounding: If Israel's exile in Babylon was death, then what the prophets foretold was resurrection.4
II. Overviewing the GENERAL THEMES:
We mentioned that the new covenant is associated with all the things God would do for Israel when He restored them from exile. In Jeremiah 31:31, the Lord speaks of these future dealings as “a new covenant” with His people; but that's not the only way it's described in Scripture. Another way God describes these future dealings with His people is in Jeremiah 32:40, where the Lord says He would make “an everlasting covenant” with them. And in Ezekiel 34:25, the Lord looks ahead to these days and describes His dealings with Israel as making “a covenant of peace” with them (cf. Ezekiel 37:26).
These Scriptures are all talking about the same thing; just using slightly different language. But in all these passages that speak of Israel's future restoration, we can mention two things: 1) God is referring to these future dealings with His people in the language of covenant. What God was going to do for His people was make a covenant with them. This is exciting. We haven't heard about God making a covenant with His people since the days of David. But now God is saying: I'm getting ready to make a covenant with you once again.5 2) This covenant God would make with His people wasn't going to happen until later. All these passages speak about this covenant God would make with Israel in the future tense. In Jeremiah 31:31, the Lord says: “Behold, days are coming. . .when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. . .” It's the same thing in Jeremiah 32:40: “I will make an everlasting covenant with them. . .” And in both Ezekiel 34:25 and 37:26, God says, “I will make a covenant of peace with them. . .” It's all in the future. Every other time God makes a covenant with His people, it's always in the present tense: the Lord comes to Adam in the garden and makes a covenant with him; He establishes his covenant with Noah; He cuts a covenant with Abram; He confirms His covenant to David. But now here, it's in the future tense, to show us that God isn't actually making this covenant with the exiles in Babylon—He's speaking of something yet to come.
To summarize: 1) God is declaring He is going to make another covenant with His people. 2) This covenant is described in Jeremiah 31 as a new covenant, but it's also described in other places in the prophets as an everlasting covenant (Jeremiah 42:40) and a covenant of peace (Ezekiel 34:25; 37:26). And lastly, 3) This covenant is associated with all the things God was going to do for Israel when He restored them from exile in Babylon. What were all these things that God was going to do for Israel? There were five promises in particular that God was making to His people: God was going to return His people to their land; He would raise up for His people once again a Davidic king; He was going to grant a widespread spiritual reformation of His people; He would reverse the covenant curses He had sent to His people; and He would rebuild the temple and dwell with His people once again.6
A) Return to the land: The first thing God was promising to the exiles in Babylon was that He would bring them back to their land once again. In Jeremiah 30:3 we read: “'For behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, 'when I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel and Judah.' The Lord says, 'I will also bring them back to the land that I gave to their forefathers and they shall possess it.'” Ezekiel likewise announces: “Thus says the Lord God, 'Behold, I will take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land. . .” (37:21). As our first parents were cast out of Eden, Israel had been cast out of Canaan. But it wasn't the final word. God would gather His scattered people and bring them back into their land.
B) Raising up of the Davidic King: Not only would the Lord gather His scattered flock from among the nations; He would also raise up for them a shepherd. God declares through Ezekiel: “I will care for my sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered. . .Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them himself and be their shepherd.” (34:23-24). Obviously, David had already lived and died many years before. But the prophets were foretelling the coming of One like David who would come forth from David and reign on his throne (Isaiah 11:1,10; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:14-16). Ezekiel says: “I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king will be king for all of them; and they will no longer be two nations and no longer be divided into two kingdoms. . .My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. . .” (37:21-22,24). Notice how Ezekiel emphasizes that Israel would have one shepherd and be one nation. Ever since the kingdom had been divided under Rehoboam, there had been two shepherds leading two distinct nations (one in northern Israel and one in Judah). But the prophets looked forward to a day when God would unify His people under one shepherd.7
C) Renewal of the people: Earlier we mentioned that God's people went into exile because they had become a church that had stopped following her Lord. There was a spiritual leprosy that had spread throughout God's people; an infection of chronic unbelief. The church, as a whole, had become an apostate church; and this corporate apostasy had led to the corporate judgment of the exile. But the prophets announced that God would do two things for His people: 1) He would forgive them. God says through Jeremiah: “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (31:34). It would, indeed, come at a great cost, but Israel's sins would be completely atoned for. And not only would God forgive His people, 2) He would change them. This seems to be the primary focus of the new covenant passage in Jeremiah 31. God says: “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.” (31:33). Ezekiel likewise speaks of God giving His people a new heart and putting a new spirit within them (36:26-27). And so, the Lord would accomplish a great work for His people in atoning for their sins, and He would accomplish a great work in His people in changing their hearts. Both these things He would do in the restoration.
D) Reversal of the covenant curses: Leading up to the exile, God's people were made to experience the covenant curses of famine, pestilence, and the sword. The exile was the ultimate covenant curse. But now, the prophets foretold a reversal of the curses: Instead of famine there would be abundance; instead of drought there would be showers of blessing. The tree of the field will yield its fruit and the produce of the earth will bring forth its fullness (Ezekiel 34:25-29). God would “call for the grain and multiply it, and. . .multiply the fruit of the tree and the produce of the field” (Ezekiel 36:29-30); and He would “eliminate harmful beasts from the land” so that His people could “live securely” (34:25). In short, there would be “a [cataclysmic] reversal of the curse of sin.” The covenant curses were sent as judgment for sin. Scripture tells us that the ultimate curse for sin is death; and in the exile, God's people were as dead men in Babylon. But in the restoration there would be a resurrection, and “the resurrection is the ultimate reversal of the curse of sin.” Israel was dead in their sin, but God would raise them from the dead; and in doing so, set into motion a cataclysmic reversal of the curse of sin.8
E) Rebuilding of the temple: When Solomon had dedicated the temple, the Lord appeared to him and warned him that if he or his sons turned away from following the Lord, God would cut off Israel from the land that He had given them, and the house, which He had consecrated for His name, He would “cast out” of His sight; it would “become a heap of ruins” (1 Kings 9:7-8). Sure enough, when the Babylonians come against Jerusalem and defeat it, among other things “they burned the house of God. . .and destroyed all its valuable articles.” (2 Chronicles 36:19). The temple—the place that had represented God's presence among His people—had been burned to the ground. But when the Lord promised to bring His people back to their land, He also made another promise: “I will. . . set My sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.” (Ezekiel 37:26-27). God's sanctuary had been destroyed—but it would be rebuilt again. The Lord even declares that the glory of the second temple “will be greater than the former” (Haggai 2:9). Not only would the temple be rebuilt—the next one will be better than the first. And once it was rebuilt, it would never again be destroyed, for this sanctuary would endure forever.9
Israel had been cast out of their land, but God would bring them back. They had squandered their king, but God would put His Davidic shepherd-king back on the throne. God's people suffered from chronic unbelief, but the Lord would forgive their sins and change them from the inside. They had brought on themselves the curses of the covenant, but God would grant a cataclysmic reversal of the covenant curses. The temple had been burned to the ground, but God would raise it back up again:
1 Jeremiah only uses the phrase “new covenant” in 31:31, but 31:31-34 is part of the overall context of chapters 30-33 where Jeremiah is speaking of Israel's restoration. So, Jeremiah's understanding of the new covenant shouldn't be limited to 31:31-34 but extends (at the least) to the whole of chapters 30-33. This is confirmed by the fact that the same things promised in 31:31-34 are reiterated throughout the whole of 30-33: God's writing His law on the heart of His people isn't just mentioned in 31:33 but reiterated in 32:39-40. The forgiveness of sin, heralded in 31:34, is repeated in 33:8. The promise that God would be Israel's God and they would be His people isn't exclusive to 31:31-34, but is given both before (30:22) and after (32:38). And these same themes are also trumpeted by the other prophets. Thus, as Ligon Duncan puts it: “Jeremiah 31. . .[is] the only passage in the prophetic literature which uses the terminology new covenant. . .But. . .even in passages where the terminology of new covenant is not used in the Old Testament, the concept of new covenant is very present.” And again: “Though Jeremiah is the only prophet to use the term new covenant, he is certainly not the only prophet to use the concept of new covenant.” Robertson likewise notes of Jeremiah 31:31-34: “Although this passage in Jeremiah alone in the old covenant Scriptures mentions specifically a 'new covenant', the concept of the new covenant cannot be restricted to this single prophecy. A significant complex of ideas surrounds Jeremiah's prediction of the new covenant. These ideas are developed rather extensively in a group of prophecies found in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It is only in the broader context of these passages related to the new covenant that the message of Jeremiah 31:31-34 may be appreciated fully.” (pp273-74). And again: “It is essential to see the new covenant prophecy of Jeremiah in this total biblical-theological setting. Although the term 'new covenant' occurs only in Jeremiah 31, the complex of ideas depicting the future expectation of God's people has a very broad base.” (p278).
2 Roberts notes: “This covenant was first and most especially revealed to three holy prophets from the Lord, and by them to the Jews: 1) To the prophet Isaiah long before the captivity of the Jews in Babylon came to pass. . .2) To Ezekiel in the twelfth year of their captivity. . .3) To the prophet Jeremiah in the eighteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar. . .God revealed and foretold by his prophet Isaiah, that He would make such a covenant with His people, that should be captives in Babylon, long before the captivity came to pass. This is very observable in the fourth and last part of his prophecy which is promissory, from chapter 40:1 to the end of his book, which is especially directed to His people, with reference to their captivity in Babylon, which should certainly come to pass. Most, if not all his sermons after that, observably insisting upon their Babylonian captivity, their comforts under it, their certain deliverance out of it, and the happy restoration of their church and common wealth, their temple, city Jerusalem, etc, when they should be brought again into their own land. . .God revealed this covenant also to Jeremiah in the court of the prison, in the eighteenth year of the captivity, when Jerusalem was besieged [in Jeremiah 32:37-40]. . .God revealed this covenant to his prophet Ezekiel [in 34:23-25]. . .His covenant promises are also sweetly laid down in chapter 36:22, etc. And afterwards [when] God having brought him in the Spirit into the valley full of bones, representing the dead and hopeless condition of the captives in Babylon, among many other sweet expressions, has these words [in Ezekiel 37:26-27]. . .In which chapters 36 and 37, this covenant is most sweetly described; especially in 36:22 to the end; and in 37:21 to the end. . .There are sundry other passages in the prophets setting forth the excellent blessings promised in this covenant; but this covenant is most eminently and peculiarly described by Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah.” (pp1086-90).
3 The first quote is from Francis Roberts, p1103. The second is from Edmund Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, p194.
4 Both quotes are from Francis Roberts. The full quotes are: “The sins of these Jews turned their mercies into miseries. . . But it is only the infinite wisdom and goodness of God, that according to this His covenant, turns their miseries again into mercies.” (p1103). And: “[God] could bring them out of Babylon into their own land, against all seeming improbabilities and impossibilities. Though they were as dead and dry bones, though buried in their graves. . .yet God could open their graves, and bring them out of their graves. He could give them a resurrection in Babylon.” (p1094). Roberts also says: “They could destroy their temple and holy city; God alone could cause them both to be rebuilt. They could cast themselves out of Canaan; God alone brings them back again into Canaan. They could bring themselves into Babylonian bondage and graves; God alone can break their bonds and bring them out. . .” (Roberts, p1103). And again: “In that sad and long captivity, God's covenant with David lay as dead, and David's seed as buried and cut off; but God would deliver them thence, and revive them out of their graves.” (p1110). Roberts comments again: “Oh they too much dishonored God, and forgot this His faithful covenant, when they spoke so despairingly: 'Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost, we are cut off for our parts.' But what said the Lord? 'Behold, O my people, I will open your graves ([namely], your Babylonian graves) and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.' He would open their graves, and raise up their dead and dry bones, rather than His faithful covenant should fail, and not be performed.” (p1100). Roberts concludes by saying: “Hence, No Difficulties whatsoever or seeming impossibilities can hinder the accomplishment of Gods Covenants and Promises. God in this covenant promised to bring His people out of Babylon into Canaan, and to place them there. Alas! How hard and impossible a thing might this seem unto them? Canaan was wasted and depopulated; the holy city and temple destroyed and laid on heaps; the Jews carried captive into Babylon and there entombed like dead persons in their graves; the Babylonian kingdom being at that time the great and potent empire over the world, unlikely to be subdued by any visible power; and Babylon itself the royal seat of the empire being so strongly fortified; naturally by the great river Euphrates, artificially by walls extraordinarily thick and high. Yet notwithstanding all these difficulties and visible impossibilities, Gods covenant and promises for the Jews deliverance were exactly performed when the seventy years were accomplished, Cyrus and Darius taking Babylon in that night after Belshazzar and his Lords had sensually feasted and quaffed in the silver and golden vessels of the temple: immediately after which Cyrus proclaims liberty to the captives to return into Canaan for rebuilding of the temple and Jerusalem. So they were placed in their own land, and (though they had troublous times, and many subtile malicious and potent adversaries, whereby the work was long obstructed and retarded, yet) they builded, prospered and finished.” (Roberts, pp1207-08).
5 The context of this covenant as compared with those previous is also significant: “When God made covenant with Israel at Sinai, they were a newly redeemed people; when he covenanted with David they were a people advanced to high prosperity and peace under a royal government; but when He covenanted with these captives, they were in an afflicted and enthralled condition. Then at Sinai, after at Zion; now, in Babylon. Then, in an anarchy, without any settled government; after, under a monarchy, under kingly government; but now, under tyranny, even the cruel Babylonian government.” (Roberts, p1222).
6 These themes have been categorized in slightly different ways. Ligon Duncan follows O Palmer Robertson who summarizes these major themes “which relate essentially to the new covenant concept” as: 1) The return of exiled Israel to the land of promise (Jeremiah 30:3; 32:37; 50:5-19; Ezekiel 37:21,26); 2) The restoration of God's blessing on the land [and resurrection of His people (Jeremiah 32:43; 31:38-40; Ezekiel 37:12, 26); 3) The divine fulfillment of previous covenantal commitments (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 37:24-25); 4) The Internal renewal by the work of God's Holy Spirit (Jeremiah 3:17; 31:33; 32:40; Ezekiel 37:14, 23); 5) The full forgiveness of sins (Jeremiah 31:34; 50:20; 33:8); 6) The union of Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 31:31; 50:4; Ezekiel 37:15f; 34:23); and 7) The everlasting character of the new covenant (Jeremiah 50:5) (see pp273-78). We have combined #4 and #5 and will deal with them together; we haven't included #3 and #7 as these seem to strike more at the nature of what the new covenant is as opposed to what God has promised to do in the new covenant (we'll come back later to deal with the nature of the new covenant). Francis Roberts summarizes the major themes in this way: “The subject matter or substance of this covenant on God's part, consisted in many excellent covenant mercies promised therein to His afflicted captives. . . 1) His raising up the Messiah, [namely] Jesus Christ unto them. . . 2) His redeeming them out of Babylon's captivity, and bringing them into their own land. . . 3) God's cleansing of His people the Jews, when redeemed out of Babylon . . .from all their idols, from all their detestable things, and from all their transgressions. . . 4) God's putting His Spirit within them, for the new framing and spiritualizing their heart. . . 5) God's presence and residence in His sanctuary and tabernacle among His people, by His Spirit, Word, and public ministry forever. . . 6) God's greatest covenant relation between himself and them; [namely] that He would be their God, and they should be His people. . . 7) Finally, the seventh and last covenant blessing, which the Lord in this covenant promised to His captives, was; the mutual covenant constancy between God and them in this everlasting covenant: He would not turn from them, and they should not depart from Him.” (p1105ff-1199).
7 Duncan notes: “the idea of him being one shepherd is very significant, because the last time there had been one shepherd was when Solomon was reigning. Ever since, post Solomon, there had been two shepherds at least reigning in and amongst the peoples of God in the northern and southern kingdoms. And Ezekiel is longing for the day when there is one shepherd.” Robertson says: “a hallmark of the new covenant will be the merging of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. . .As the people of God are bound in the new covenant to the God of the covenant, so they are bound inseparably with one another.” (p277).
8 The quotes are from Ligon Duncan. The full quote from Duncan is this: “There will be a reversal of the curse of sin. Which is, of course, death. . .The dry bones resurrected are a picture of the everlasting covenant and how it brings a reviving to the people of God, from death to life. . .And of course, the redemption of our bodies. . .is seen to be a direct fulfillment of that old covenant promise of the full restoration of blessings. The resurrection is the ultimate reversal of the curse of sin.”
9 The imagery of Ezekiel 37:26-27 is rich. The ESV Study Bible draws out the significance of the two Hebrew words used in these two verses: “The oracle's conclusion emphasizes the centrality of God's presence to the renewed people, the greatest of all blessings by far. The 'dwelling place' [of v27] (Heb. mishkan) recalls the wilderness tabernacle. The 'sanctuary' [v26] (Heb. miqdash) points rather to the temple, in particular the renewed temple, which will occupy Ezekiel's attention in chapter 44.”