31 [a]“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
31:31–37. The words of this oracle are central to Jeremiah’s message, and they constitute the passage in the book that has had most impact on the New Testament and on Christian teaching. Most ancient and modern commentators consider these words to be original words of Jeremiah, and they generally attribute them to the early stages of his ministry, because they express support for King Josiah’s religious reform.
The oracle is made up of two contrasting parts: the first (vv. 31–32) describes the Old Covenant, broken by the people’s sins; the second (vv. 33–35) speaks very forcefully of the New Covenant which will endure forever.
The old Covenant is described in terms of three characteristic features: it carried the force of tradition because it was a pact made “with the fathers”; it was a sign of divine election, as can be seen from a phrase exclusive to Jeremiah: “when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt”; and it showed the Lord’s authority over his people.
The new pact has three key features, too: it is new, it is something interior, and it is heartfelt, written upon their hearts. It is new, because prior to this the pact with God was never described in that way; that is, it is new not in terms of the previous covenant which has ceased to operate (cf. Heb 8:8–13) but in the sense that it is definitive and will not be superseded. When, at the Last Supper, Jesus said the words of consecration over the chalice: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant” (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25), he brings Jeremiah’s words to fulfilment. It is interior because it is etched in the heart of the people and of each individual. Its content did not change (it is the Law of God) but people will know it in a different way: the previous covenant was written on tablets of stone (Ex 31:18; 34:28ff), but this one will be written on the heart and soul of man. Therefore, it is part of a person’s very being; it is not just an external obligation; people’s well-formed consciences tell them what they ought to do; if they fail to live up to the demands of the until they are converted and are redeemed from sin. In the Letter to the Hebrews it says, by way of explaining this passage, that in the New Covenant Christ has obtained forgiveness of sins for us through the cross, and therefore the old sin offerings no longer have any effect: “Where there is forgiveness (of sins), there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb 10:18). Finally, it is heartfelt because it is based on a loving relationship between God and his people. The wording that Jeremiah likes so much (“I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33; cf. 7:23) implies bonds of fidelity and love. The nearest precedent for this is Hosea, who used the metaphor of marriage as the hinge of his preaching and who defined sin as estrangement from God, and punishment in terms of marital breakdown: “Call his name Not my people, for you are not my people and I am not your God” (Hos 1:9). Therefore, moral imperatives should not come via legal imposition from outside; they should arise from a person’s heart—the aim being not so much perfect, guiltless behaviour as living in union with God: “All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them” (1 Jn 3:24).
The New Covenant has given its name to the “New Testament”, on which the new people of God is founded, as the Second Vatican Council says: “At all times and in every race God has given welcome to what is right. God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased him to bring men together as one people, a people that acknowledges him in truth and serves him in holiness. He therefore chose the race of Israel as a people unto himself. With it he set up a covenant. Step by step he taught and prepared this people, making known in its history both himself and the decree of his will and making it holy unto himself. All these things, however, were done by way of preparation and as a figure of that new and perfect covenant, which was to be ratified in Christ, and of that fuller revelation which was to be given through the Word of God Himself made flesh. ‘Behold the days shall come saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, and with the house of Judah. […] I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. […] For all of them shall know Me, from the least of them even to the greatest, saith the Lord’ (Jer 31:31–34). Christ instituted this new covenant, the new testament, that is to say, in his Blood, calling together a people made up of Jew and Gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit” (Lumen gentium, 9).
Source: The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries. Biblical text from the Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate. Commentaries by members of the Faculty of Theology, University of Navarre, Spain.
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I am a cradle Catholic, wandered in the desert of sin for 20 years and returned into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church in 2005. I am the founder of Joe Catholic, a lay apostolate designed by men for men. Our mission is to aid lay men in answering the universal call to holiness and equipping them to be the spiritual leaders of their families. Simply put, we help people learn, live and share their faith.
I recently completed my Masters in pastoral theology from Ave Maria University and work as the Magnet Program Coordinator at the Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet in Dallas.