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.
A good portion of the book of Jeremiah is not a happy story. God’s people are living unfaithfully. They have forgotten God’s Covenant, and because of this amnesia, they are exploiting their neighbors, ignoring the poor, the outcast, and the immigrant. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God says to the people: “Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you. Don’t trust in lies. Reform your ways and your actions; treat each other justly; stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin. Only then will I dwell with you in this place.”
The book of Jeremiah is dominated by doom and gloom, condemning the people of Judah for their great disobedience and announcing the imminent destruction of the nation and the exile to Babylon that would come in 587 BCE.
Amid this dark valley of despair and judgment, however, a dense cluster of promises concentrated in Jeremiah 30-33 shine like a brilliant star. They radiate with bright promises of hope, comfort, and restoration. These four chapters proclaim that after the judgment of exile is over, God will bring God’s people back to the land of Judah and restore them as a new and faithful people once again. Jeremiah chapters 31-34 are about the new future that only God can create. “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31).
The old Covenant is the one that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai and that had its basis in the Law, the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets. This new Covenant will have the same goal as the old covenant: to love God and to love our neighbors as God’s people in the world (Exodus 19:5-6; Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:5), but instead of writing on stone tablets, God has written the new covenant on the very hearts of his people. The biblical understanding of the “heart” is that it is the center of human intellect and will, knowing what is right and having the desire to do it.
Therefore, in this new covenant God’s people will internalize the word of God so profoundly that it will be like those habits that we don’t even think about. What do you do that comes as second nature? I doubt you think too hard about how to brush your teeth or comb your hair. Faithfulness to the new covenant will be like this. It will be done without thinking. We will know the ways of God so well that we won’t even think about them. They will flow naturally out of us.
The new covenant is all about God’s action in getting inside our hearts and reprogramming our words, actions, habits and feelings to conform naturally so that we become the faithful servants of God we were created to be.
Studying the Bible or theology in community with others is one important way that we write the commandments of God on our hearts. We learn about, wrestle with, and internalize the stories of scripture so that as we are living in the world we see the connections between the stories of scripture and our unfolding stories.
Throughout scripture, we see examples of our need to absorb God’s commandments. For example, the prophet Ezekiel literally ate the scroll containing the word of God (Ezekiel 3:3) so that God’s words would become a part of him. Similarly, Reformed theologian John Calvin said studying the Bible is like putting on eyeglasses that allow us to see God in God’s Creation. It is as if we move on from the study of the Bible and theology and walk out into the city of Dallas with permanent Kingdom sunglasses on, seeing the world through God’s eyes.
The necessity of studying theology and scripture is also a good reminder that the Bible is not a history book in which we read about the adventures of followers of the past. The Bible is a living, breathing document inspired by the Spirit, through which God’s Spirit still speaks. As a professor of mine would say, “The Bible is not the last word but the living word.”
If we are to live as God’s people, we must take time to let the stories of God’s people fill our hearts and shape our minds, to help us have Kingdom of God vision. When we write God’s commandments on our hearts, loving God and loving our neighbor become second nature.