As I stated in my previous posts, the covenant formula occurs repeatedly in the Old Testament. It is part of the stock language of the Old Testament that is used to express God’s covenant relationship to his people. In The Covenant Formula, Rendtorff provides a helpful introduction to the covenant formula and its relationship to various elements of Old Testament theology. In this post, I will look at the covenant formula in Jeremiah 31:31-34, the famous passage about the “new covenant.”
The Covenant Formula and the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34
The covenant formula is prominent in the book of Jeremiah. After its initial occurrences in Jeremiah 7:23 and 11:4, the covenant formula occurs in predictions concerning Israel’s future after the exile (24:7, 30:22, 31:1, 31:33, 32:38). Among these, the best known passage is Jeremiah 31:31-34 in which the Lord speaks about the days to come in which he will make a “new covenant” with both Israel and Judah (northern and southern kingdoms). He refers back to his covenant with their fathers (31:32) and contrasts the new covenant with that former covenant.
Next, the Lord speaks about the new covenant that will come. Rendtorff (86) notes, “The tenor of the new covenant will be that God puts his Torah ‘in their innermost parts and writes it on their heart’” (Jer. 31:33). The intended result of writing it on their heart is obedience to God’s Torah. This will allow for the endurance of the covenant, because those with whom God makes his covenant are to be obedient to his commandments (Exod. 19:5-6). The thought of Jeremiah 31:33 is related to Moses’ prediction that God will someday deliver his people from exile and circumcise their hearts so that they might be obedient (Deut. 31:1-14, Rendtorff 86). Jeremiah has already referred to the need for a circumcision of the heart in 4:4 and 9:25-26.
God relates his renewed covenant with his people, his “new covenant,” to the covenant that goes back to Abraham by placing the covenant formula at the end of Jeremiah 31:33. The Lord says, “I will be their God and they will be my people” (31:33). God’s words concerning the new covenant assert that it, like the former covenant, is an act of grace on God’s part. He graciously establishes his covenant with his people. His people of the covenant are to show that they are truly people of the covenant by living up to God’s requirement, namely, that his people should be obedient. Covenant and obedience clearly belong together.
Rendtorff does not talk about the place of Jeremiah 31:31-34 in the New Testament, but Jeremiah 31:31-34 is important there. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the only passage in the Old Testament where one finds “new covenant.” Therefore, Jesus must be alluding to it at the Last Supper when he talks about the “new covenant” in his blood (Luke 22:20). Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 at length in Hebrews 8:8-12 and 10:15-18. Peter shows that he recognizes the close relationship between covenant and obedience in 1 Peter 1:1:2 (see my blog post on that verse).
Coming Up: The covenant formula in Ezekiel