Background~Lo, I have set thee this day over the nations, and over kingdoms, to root up, and to pull down, and to waste, and to destroy, and to build, and to plant (Jer 1:10). The emphasis is on the negative. Of the six verbs used to describe the purpose of the Prophet’s mission, the first four are foreboding (root up, pull down, waste, destroy).
With these words God indicates to Jeremiah what his mission as a prophet is to entail; it is a mission primarily of judgment, its purpose is, however, to bring about renewal (build, plant). It is a mission that demands a response (preferably repentance) from those who hear the preaching: I will suddenly speak against a nation, and against a kingdom, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy it. If that nation against which I have spoken, shall repent of their evil, I also will repent of the evil that I have thought to do to them. And I will suddenly speak of a nation and of a kingdom, to build up and plant it. If it shall do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice: I will repent of the good that I have spoken to do unto it. Now therefore tell the men of Juda, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying: Thus saith the Lord: Behold I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: let every man of you return from his evil way, and make ye your ways and your doings good (Jer 18:7-11). The people of Judah and Jerusalem failed to amend their ways (Jer 25:2-11, Jer 34) and were taken into exile (Jer 39:1-11). Those who would come through the purifying fire of the Babylonian invasion and exile would be built up, planted once again in the promised land (Jer 24:1-6, Jer 31:27-28) It is against this background that the “The Book of Consolation” (Jer 30-33) from which today’s reading is taken. the “Book of Conslation” begins: This is the word that came to Jeremias from the Lord, saying: Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel, saying: Write thee all the words that I have spoken to thee, in a book. For behold the days come, saith the Lord, and I will bring to and end the captivity of my people Israel and Juda, saith the Lord: and I will cause them to return to the land which I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it (Jer 30:1-3). It is this return with which today’s reading is concerned.
Jer 31:1 At that time, saith the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
At that time. When the end of the time decreed for the exile comes.
I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Reverses the fact that the people had fallen into idolatry. No longer willing to be God’s children (Jer 3:4, Jer 3:19) they declared that wood and stone (i.e., idols) were their father and mother (Jer 2:27).
Jer 31:2 Thus saith the Lord: The people that were left and escaped from the sword, found grace in the desert: Israel shall go to his rest.
Jer 31:3 The Lord hath appeared from afar to me. Yea I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore have I drawn thee, taking pity on thee.
The Lord has appeared from afar to me. It is the people personified (“me”) rather than the prophet speaking here. The separation of exile which took the people far from God is coming to an end.
Found grace in the desert. God’s people who escaped from the punishment of exile have repented and returned to the devotion their ancestors showed early in the Exodus (see Jer 2:1-2). It was precisely for this reason that the punishment had come (Deut 30:1-5, see Hos 3:14-20). Thus God’s everlasting love is manifested. The people had utterly forsaken him, but he was unwilling to utterly forsake them.
Jer 31:4 And I will build thee again, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel: thou shalt again be adorned with thy timbrels, and shalt go forth in the dances of them that make merry.
Jer 31:5 Thou shalt yet plant vineyards in the mountains of Samaria: the planters shall plant, and they shall not gather the vintage before the time.
I will build thee again.The prophet’s mission from God was to root up, and to pull down, and to waste, and to destroy, but only so that things might be rebuilt and replanted (Jer 1:10). Here God is said to do the rebuilding, the people the planting. Behind all of this is the fact that the Promised Land had been devastated by the Babylonian invasion (Jer 4:23-28, Jer 9:9-15), one of the covenant curses for infidelity (Deut 28:38-44). The situation will be reversed.
O virgin of Israel. God’s once devout bride (Jer 2:2) had turned to infidelity, breaking the covenant (symbolized as a marriage) and went chasing after false gods like a common harlot (Jer 2:20); like a camel in heat (Jer 2:23-3:4). The people’s covenant infidelity (often called “harlotry”) will be reversed, the people will once again be “virginal.”
Thou shalt again be adorned with thy timbrels, and shalt go forth in the dances of them that make merry. Reversing the end of joy and the silence that ensued because of the exile (Jer 7:34, Jer 16:9, Jer 25:10).
Jer 31:6 For there shall be a day, in which the watchmen on mount Ephraim, shall cry: Arise, and let us go up to Sion to the Lord our God.
The worship of idols will end, and worship will once again be centered on Sion.
Jer 31:7 For thus saith the Lord: Rejoice ye in the joy of Jacob, and neigh before the head of the Gentiles: shout ye, and sing, and say: Save, O Lord, thy people, the remnant of Israel.
The RSV translation reads: For thus says the LORD: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, `The LORD has saved his people, the remnant of Israel.’
As head of the Gentiles (“chief of the nations”) God was in control of both his own people and their captors, and his renewed, repentant people are here bidden to both celebrate and make known to all what God as done for them.
Jer 31:8 Behold I will bring them from the north country, and will gather them from the ends of the earth and among them shall be the blind, and the lame, the woman with child, and she that is bringing forth, together, a great company of them returning hither.
I will bring them from the north country. A reference to Babylon which had invaded from the north (see Jer 1:13-16, Jer 4:6, Jer 6:1, Jer 10:22, Jer 47:2). The people will be brought back from their exile by the way they entered it (Jer 3:18, Jer 23:8, Jer 31:21).
And will gather them from the ends of the earth. This could be taken in parallel with the previous clause for, according to some scholars, the ends of the earth was a common designation for an empire or its capitol.
And among them shall be the blind, and the lame, the woman with child, and she that is bringing forth, together, a great company of them returning hither. An image of the ease of the return journey (see next verse with comments, also Isa 40:11, Isa 42:16.
Jer 31:9 They shall come with weeping: and I will bring them back in mercy: and I will bring them through the torrents of waters in a right way, and they shall not stumble in it: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
They shall come with weeping. A sign of their repentance.
I will bring them through the torrents of waters…they shall not stumble….for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn. God’s providential care for his people on their return from exile. Even the lame mentioned in the previous verse will be able to cross raging torrents of water. The reference to God as Father to Israel and Ephraim as his firstborn connects nicely with the previous verse which spoke about pregnant women and mothers with children being part of the return.