Jeremiah's 6 key words

Wed, 25/03/2009 - 11:32 -- James Oakley

I've just read Palmer Robertson's treatment of the book of Jeremiah in his The Christ of the Prophets. (It comes on pages 267-282). What a treat!

Robertson shows how, "as with Hosea, Amos and Isaiah, the principal message of the prophet finds its summation at the time of his call to the prophetic office." (268). In Jeremiah's case this means, amongst other things, 6 key verbs (4 negative and 2 positive ones).

  • Uproot
  • Tear Down
  • Destroy
  • Overthrow
  • Build
  • Plant

"While the significance of these terms in the message of Jeremiah is often recognized, their regular appearance at critical moments throughout the book is not generally noted." (270). Robertson then takes the reader to 7 key texts in Jeremiah, and shows how those 6 verbs are at work in those portions and how the message of the whole book is framed accordingly. It's a wonderful piece of structural observation. As with all interpretation, an observation like that never exhausts what could be said about the shape and message of a biblical book, but it gives one very valuable perspective through which to read the entire book as an integrated whole.

Seeing as I'm studying chapter 31 at the moment, I thought I'd reproduce what he says about that chapter. It's a fairly long quotation, but if you've got 5 minutes and what to enjoy his observations, read on …. The excerpt below is from pages 276-278.

The most significant message of Jeremiah is generally acknowledged to be his prophecy concerning the new covenant’ But the connection of Jeremiah 31 with the total message of the book as a consequence of its being bracketed by strong references to the key words of Jeremiah is not often appreciated. This larger context of the new covenant prophecy of Jeremiah places this section in a framework that in seed form anticipates the rejuvenation not merely of Judah but of the entire fallen universe.

In future days, the Lord will “plant” the house of Israel and the house of Judah “with the [seed] of men and of animals” (31:27 NIV)’ As he once ‘(watched” over them to “uproot” and to “tear down,” to “overthrow” and to “destroy,” so in the coming days he will “watch” over them to “build” and to “plant” (31:28). These verses are literally permeated with phrasing taken from the key words of the call of Jeremiah. All six original verbs appear in one verse, along with a double use of the verb watch, reflecting the opening vision of the almond tree (1:11-12).

The judgment of exile is inevitable. The words of God’s prophets to this effect will surely be fulfilled, because the Lord is “watching” over his word. But beyond uprooting will be replanting. That this “planting” involves the “seed of men and of animals” hints at the prospect of a new cosmic beginning. Not just Israel, but the world will take on a different form.

But what ongoing hope could a people have when God has so clearly announced his intention to drive a rebellious nation out of their land? If disobedience had ruined them once, what would prevent the recurrence of the same tragedy again? Jeremiah explains that as all redemptive history was structured in the past by divinely initiated covenants of grace, so the future expectations of God’s people will rest in the establishment of a new covenant with even fuller manifestations of grace (31:31-34).

Even as the nation totters on the brink of devastation, this new covenant provides a future hope for Israel and involves points of continuity with past covenantal dealings as well as points of radical newness. The torah of the Lord shall be in effect; but now this law shall be inscribed on the hearts of God’s people rather than on cold stone tablets. Sins shall be removed, but apart from the repetitious offering of sacrifices. Knowledge of the Lord shall be the essence of the new covenant relation, but no teachers shall be needed to inculcate this knowledge.

The ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy concerning restoration according to the provisions of this new covenant cannot be satisfied by a purely physical return of Jewish peoples to the geographical territory of Palestine, such as that which occurred in the last half of the twentieth century. That type of return was accomplished at the end of Jeremiah’s specified seventy years. But the rejuvenation of the heart along with the restoration of the entire earth by the replanting of the seed of man and beast can alone fulfill the expectations of the new covenant prophecy (31:27, 33-34).

At the same time, this expectation of the new covenant in Jeremiah comes to expression in the only way in which it could be presented under the shadowy forms of the old covenant era. In accordance with Jeremiah’s key words, the city of Jerusalem will be “built” for the Lord “from the Tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate” (31:38 NIV). Even the places corrupted previously by dead bodies will be “holy to the Covenant LORD” (31:40a-b). In this revived state, the city will never again be “uprooted” or “overthrown” (31:40c).

Despite the old covenant form in which this prophecy comes to expression, this new covenant breaks the bonds of the old covenant in the progression of redemptive history by accomplishing a vital union with God through the work of the Holy Spirit on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20 Heb. 8:7-13). From this perspective, the formative impact of the new covenant across the span of human history since the time of Jesus can be appreciated. It is not by the events occurring in a single geopolitical entity of the globe during one historical moment that the new covenant finds its fulfillment. All across the stage of human history this radically new commitment of the Lord in the new covenant has accomplished a restoration that has shaped and continues to shape the origins and destinies of the peoples and nations of the world.

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