Wednesday of Week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:1-7

Another upbeat reading from the prophet with a (not really deserved) reputation for doom and gloom. Jeremiah today continues his message of hope for the restoration of the two kingdoms, north and south, once again to be formed as one nation under God.

We are now at the beginning of chapter 31. Continuing the theme of restoration begun in the previous chapter, Jeremiah records the words of the Lord to:

1. all the people of God, v.1 (prose);
2. the restored northern kingdom of Israel, vv.2-22 (poetry);
3. the restored southern kingdom of Judah, v..23-26 (prose); and
4. Israel and Judah together, vv.27-40 (prose prologue, vv.27-30; poetic body, vv.31-37; prose epilogue, vv.38-40 – each section beginning with the words, “The days are coming…”).

Today’s reading just contains the first seven verses of the chapter which speaks of the good news of the return from exile of Israel, the Northern Kingdom.

It begins with the repetition of the covenant promise: “I will be the God of all the tribes of Israel, and they shall be my people.” God had never been unfaithful to this covenant but the people had, again and again.

There is now pardon in the desert for those “who have survived the sword”. They are the just remnant which will return home from years of captivity and exile in the alien land of Babylon.

The desert or wilderness is sometimes seen by the prophets (e.g. Hosea) as a place of conversion. Israel’s original journey through the desert was seen as a time of childlike fidelity to God. Here, there is now seen a second Exodus, this time from the Arabian Desert, which will bring Israel back once again from exile and slavery into its own land.

“Israel is marching to his rest.” Israel originally was Jacob’s other name but here it refers to the Northern Kingdom. It is also called by Jeremiah: Samaria, Ephraim, Jacob and Rachel.

The Lord now expresses his affection for his people. “I have loved you with an everlasting love, so I am constant in my affection for you.” This gentle and tender language is in strong contrast to some of the severe chastisements we have seen in previous readings from the prophets, including Jeremiah himself. But this love was there even in their times of suffering when they felt they were abandoned. Later, we read in the Book of Revelation, “God chastises those whom he loves” (Rev 3:19).

Now God promises to restore Israel, the Northern Kingdom, as it was. There will be music with festive tambourines and dancing, signs of religious joy. Tambourines were played especially after military victories and this contrasts strongly with their sad plight in Babylon. “Beside the streams of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Zion, leaving our harps hanging on poplars there… How could we sing one of Yahweh’s hymns in a pagan country?” (Ps 137:1-2,4)

They will plant vineyards once more in Samaria. It had been conquered in 722-721 BC but one day would be resettled by God’s people. “Those who plant them shall enjoy the fruits.” Since the law laid down that the fruit of a tree could not be eaten until the fifth year after planting it, a return to long-term peaceful residence is envisioned, a situation of political and social stability.

On the mountains of Ephraim the watchmen will call out, “Let us go up to Zion”, that is, to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the role of watchmen to be stationed on high points to observe the phases of the moon which would decide the celebration of the big festivals. (Today, Muslims also have watchmen to observe the rising of the new moon indicating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.)

“Rise up! Let us go to Zion, to the Lord, our God.” In the days of King Jeroboam I, the people of Ephraim, that is, the northern kingdom, were required to worship at shrines within the kingdom. But now the prophet sees them going, as they used to do, to the Temple in Jerusalem which was in the southern kingdom – one sanctuary for a united people.

“Go up” was a technical phrase to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The city was built on a hill. We see the phrase used in the New Testament also.

The reading ends with a series of acclamations of joy and triumph. Israel is the greatest of the nations, not because of its size or power but because of its special relationship with God. The people will cry: “The Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel!” The Hebrew word for ‘save’ is the basis for the “Hosanna”, which the people of Jerusalem cried out to welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday (see Matt 21:9).

Once again we hear the same words of hope by a people who had every reason not to hope. But their hope was justified as ours will be too.

And let us pray for the restoration of modern Israel in a way that guarantees justice and peace for its people and all their neighbours.

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