The Goodness of Work Restored (Jeremiah 30-33)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

For twenty-three years, Jeremiah prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem (from God’s case against Judah in chapter 2 through chapter 28).[1] Then in chapters 30-33, the prophet looked forward to the restoration of God’s kingdom. He described it in terms of the joy of work without the defilement of sin:

Again I will build you and you shall be built, O virgin Israel.[2] Again you shall take your tambourines and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Again you will plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: 'Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.' [3] (Jer. 31:4-6)

The overall frame of Jeremiah’s prophecies is sin, then exile, then restoration, as we see here. While restoration in Judah was still far off,[4] the prophet gave a reason for the hope promised to the exiles in 29:11. In the restored world, the people would still work, but while in the past their work led to futility, now they would enjoy the fruit. The restored people would have lives of work, enjoyment, feasting and worship all tied into one. The picture of planting, harvesting, playing music, dancing and enjoying the harvest depicts the pleasure of work in faithfulness to God.

Faithfulness to God is not a side issue, but the heart of enjoying work and the things produced by work. The “new covenant” described in Jer. 31:31-34 and 32:37-41 repeated the importance of faithfulness.

The days are surely coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that 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 on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. (Jer. 31:31-34)

In one stroke we see a restored world: work enjoyed by the people of God as it always ought to have been, with hearts that are faithful to the law of the Lord. The people will be restored to what they always ought to have been, working for the common good because of their experience of God’s presence in every aspect of life. Robert Carroll remarks, “The rebuilt community is one in which work and worship are integrated.”[5] We may not expect that this will be fully true for us now because we are still in a world of sin. But we can gain glimpses of this reality now.

The prophet attacked “the false pen of the scribes” (Jer. 8:8), the greed and deceit, saying “‘peace, peace’, when there is no peace” (Jer. 8:10-11). He noted that Judah’s gods were as many as Judah’s towns (Jer. 11:13). In 20:3-6, he prophesied the Babylonian exile after being beaten and put in stocks in Jerusalem; chapter 21 is a clear prophecy of coming destruction with one last chance to do justice and deliver the oppressed (Jer. 21:12). In chapter 25, the refrain is that “the work of their hands” is evil, and God will use evil people [Babylon] as a sword against evil people throughout the earth (showing the destruction of all evil nations). All the while Jeremiah begged people not to listen to lying prophecies (Jer. 27), Hananiah predicted that Babylon would return the exiles and all the loot within two years.

The naming here (“virgin Israel”) is a statement of renewal. Contrast it with Jer. 2:23-25, 33; 3:1-5, etc.

Or Jer. 32:15: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (cp. Jer. 32:43-44, 33:12).

This oracle is tied to the cultic celebration and worship of God (Jer. 31:6), which at this point in the book is a vital issue because the people had been thrust out of the house of God and failed in their worship (cf. Jer. 11:15). For the false approach to worship, see esp. Jer. 7:1-15.  Jeremiah 31:4-6 is not intended as a catalog of good kinds of work, but it is worth noting that music-making and dancing are affirmed and honored.

Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah, Old Testament Library (London: SCM Press, 1986), 590.