Jeremiah’s New Covenant vs. Christianity

Chris Sandoval

The New Testament authors frequently manufactured prophecies about Jesus by twisting Old Testament passages out of context to make them say things the original authors never intended. The Old Testament prophets had nothing to say about Jesus, who lived many centuries after their time; they only spoke about the concerns of their own times, as we read in treatises by Jim Lippard on the Secular Web[1], and American patriot and deist Thomas Paine[2]. Here we examine one spectacular but commonly overlooked example of misquoted prophecy–Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New Covenant.[3]

Historically, Christians have claimed that the Christian Church replaces ethnicIsraelas God’s chosen people.[4] The most important New Testament proof text for this doctrine is Hebrews 8:7-13, which is here quoted in the Revised Standard Version. The author of Hebrews argued that the defective Old Covenant of Judaism atoned for sin piecemeal through never-ending sacrifices at the Temple, but the superior New Covenant of Christianity wiped out sin for good through Jesus’ single sacrifice on the cross:

For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:
“The days will come, says the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah;
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
on the day when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of the land of Egypt;
for they did not continue in my covenant,
and so I paid no heed to them, says the Lord.
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach every one his fellow
or every one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for all shall know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
and I will remember their sins no more.”
In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to be vanishing away.[5]

Here, the author is quoting Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34:

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, 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. 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. 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.

In reality, Jeremiah’s new and everlasting covenant is not Christianity in the first century AD; it pertained to the return of the Jewish exiles from the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BC, a generation after Jeremiah’s time. After the exile, God was to forgive the sins of the Jews unconditionally, and reform their rebellious will so that they would never sin again. Thus they would always be worthy of God’s blessings, and dwell safely in the land of Israel forever. The prophet made this clear in several commonly overlooked parallel passages:

Then the word of the LORD came to me: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Chaldeans. I will set my eyes upon them for good and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. (Jeremiah 24:4-7)

“Now therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning this city of which you say, ‘It is given into the hand of the king of Babylon by sword, by famine, and by pestilence’: Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. (Jeremiah 32:36-41)

The word which the LORD spoke concerning Babylon, concerning the land of the Chaldeans, by Jeremiah the prophet:
“Declare among the nations and proclaim,
set up a banner and proclaim,
conceal it not, and say:
‘Babylon is taken,
Bel is put to shame,
Merodach is dismayed.
Her images are put to shame,
her idols are dismayed.’
“For out of the north a nation has come up against her, which shall make her land a desolation, and none shall dwell in it; both man and beast shall flee away.
“In those days and in that time, says the LORD, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come; and they shall seek the LORD their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the LORD in an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten.’ (Jeremiah 50:1-5)

“Israel is a hunted sheep driven away by lions. First the king of Assyria devoured him, and now at last Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon has gnawed his bones. Therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing punishment on the king of Babylon and his land, as I punished the king of Assyria. I will restore Israel to his pasture, and he shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and his desire shall be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead. In those days and in that time, says the LORD, iniquity shall be sought in Israel, and there shall be none; and sin in Judah, and none shall be found; for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant. (Jeremiah 50:17-20)[6]

The New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 actually applies exclusively to the Jews in the land of Israel. To make sure nobody could miss the point, Jeremiah stresses in the following verses that God’s election of Israel as his chosen people is eternal and unconditional:

Thus says the LORD
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon
and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar–
the LORD of hosts is his name:
“If this fixed order departs
from before me, says the LORD,
then shall the descendants of Israel cease
from being a nation before me for ever.”

Thus says the LORD:
“If the heavens above can be measured,
and the foundations of the earth
below can be explored,
then I will cast off all the descendants of Israel
for all that they have done,
says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 31:35-37)[7]

The second problem with Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecies is that they utterly failed. They had to be fulfilled either in the sixth century BC or not at all, for they are linked to the Babylonian Exile. Jeremiah’s “seventy-year” exile began in 587 BC when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and deported its inhabitants to Babylonia. Throughout this period, Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple were to lie in ruins, and the Jews were to dwell as exiles in foreign lands.[8] The exile ended forty-nine years later in 538 BC, the year after King Cyrus of Persia had conquered Babylonia, when he allowed the exiles to return to their homelands.[9] At this time, God was supposed to bestow the blessings of the New Covenant upon the Jews.[10]

Some Jews did return to Palestine at the end of the Exile, but God did not miraculously reform their hearts or keep them in their land forever as predicted by Jeremiah. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi condemn the postexilic Jews as sinners. Furthermore, the Jews were scattered from Palestine after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Most of the Jews just remained in the Diaspora from Babylonian times till the present.

When their prophecies failed, the Old Testament prophets had several “outs.” The most important was the conditional prophecy theory. Jeremiah claimed that God would revoke a promise of blessing if a nation rebelled against him, and revoke a threat of punishment if they repented.[11] Similarly, when Jonah predicted that the wicked city of Nineveh was about to be destroyed, the Ninevites repented and God spared them. The prophet Micah predicted that the Assyrians would dismantle Jerusalem, but God revoked his original threat when King Hezekiah repented.[12] However, the failure of the New Covenant prophecies cannot be so conveniently explained away because they are unconditional: God was to change the sinful hearts of the Jews to make them willingly obey him, and thus merit his blessings in the land of Israel forever.

Jeremiah’s prediction of the New Covenant is a double embarrassment to Christians. The author of Hebrews erred in reading this passage as a prediction of the Christian Gospel. And Jeremiah erred in writing this passage as a prediction of Israel’s eternal blessings after the Babylonian Exile. Jeremiah’s prophecy has been misused by New Testament authors, and falsified by subsequent history. These twin problems impeach the claims of the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible to be the inerrant, inspired Word of God.

Notes

[1] Jim Lippard, “The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah” (1993), Secular Web, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_lippard/fabulous-prophecies.html (accessed 30 Apr 2008).
[2] Thomas Paine, “Examination of the Prophecies” (1807), Secular Web, http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/thomas_paine/examine_prophecies.html (accessed 30 Apr 2008).
[3] It is rare to find a Bible commentary written for lay readers that explains the New Covenant prophecies in the detail they deserve. A welcome exception is Harper’s Bible Commentary ed. James L. Mays (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1988), 636-637. See also Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 1962), 1:128-130.
[4] Romans 2:25-29; 4:11,16-18; 9:6-8,22-26; 10:12; 11:17-24; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:6-9,14,25-29; 4:21-31; 6:15-16; Ephesians 2:11-22; 3:6; Philippians 3:3; Colossians 2:11; 3:11-12; Hebrews 2:9-16; 4:9; 12:22-23; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9-10; Revelation 2:9; 3:9; 7:3-8; 14:1-5; 21:2-3,9-14. Cf. Matthew 3:7-9; 8:11-12; 21:41,43; Mark 12:9; Luke 13:29; 20:16; John 8:39-44; 10:16; Acts 15:14.
[5] Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:3-9; 6:16; Hebrews 10:15-17.
[6] Cf. Jeremiah 31:1; 33:4-9. Similar prophecies are found in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:14-21; 16:59-63; 18:31; 36:22-36; 37:15-28), in Isaiah (Isaiah 40:2; 43:22-28; 44:21-22; 45:17; 54:7-10; 55:3,7; 59:21; 60:21; 61:8), and elsewhere in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 30:1-10; Hosea 2:16-23; Zephaniah 3:11-13; Zechariah 8:8; 13:9). Similar language in different contexts is found in Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; 1 Kings 8:57-58; 1 Chronicles 29:18-19; 2 Chronicles 30:12; Jeremiah 11:4.
[7] Cf. Jeremiah 33:14-26.
[8] 2 Chronicles 36:20-23; Ezra 1:1-4; Jeremiah 25:11-13; 29:10-14; Daniel 9:2; Zechariah 1:12; 7:5.
[9] Isaiah 44:24-28; 45:1-7.
[10] Jeremiah 50:1-20.
[11] Jeremiah 18:1-11. Cf. Ezekiel 3:16-21; 33:12-16.
[12] Jeremiah 26:12-19; Micah 3:12.

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