“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” This chorus is popular with the young ones. (Or so I’ve been told!) It expresses the fond and dear desire for Jesus to take up residence within us.
The gospel of John and the book of Revelation each call Jesus the Word (Jn 1:14, Rv 19:13). Jesus is the Word of God. Not pushing the metaphor too far, but we can see Jesus as the word who enters into us and dwells in our heart, as the request in the chorus goes.
[photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash]
Someone who knows about the word being consumed is the prophet Jeremiah. I’ll get back to that in a moment. First, I have a story to tell.
Jeremiah was born and received his call to be a prophet during the time that Josiah was king. Josiah was a good king; it was important for him to be faithful to Yahweh, the Lord.
It just so happens that some of his officials were doing spring cleaning in the temple. They were digging through some knick-knacks and thingamajigs. We’ve all done that. One of them stumbled upon a scroll that caught his eye. Upon examining it, he announced, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord” (2 Kg 22:8). They brought it to Josiah, and it was read to him. (On a side note, it’s believed that the book made up much of what we call Deuteronomy, but that’s a story for another time!)
The king was alarmed, because they hadn’t been doing what was written in it. So they sought the counsel of Huldah the prophetess. She said, “You’re right, boys, we’ve really screwed up. We’ve got to our act together, or we’re in for some bad times.” After hearing that, Josiah instituted a program of ridding the land of all the pagan altars and pagan priests. That was the world Jeremiah grew up in. Now back to eating the word.
When he was called as a young man, Jeremiah reports, “the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’” (1:9-10). We’ll hear more about that later.
Jeremiah’s life was ery hard—in fact, it was horrible. We see in the book several times when he bitterly complained to the Lord about his fate. One time he even accused the Lord of tricking him, of deceiving him, and he said, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (15:16). The word of the Lord entered his heart, only to prove to be the source of great misfortune.
Jeremiah had such a crummy life because he was the bearer of bad news. The Babylonians are on the way, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We might as well get used to it. What we can do is to return to the Lord. (King Josiah’s efforts proved to be unsuccessful.)
Long story short, the prophet was considered an enemy of the state, and he was treated accordingly. He was ruining the morale of the troops. He was ridiculed, beaten, tortured, imprisoned.
But finally, Jeremiah has some good news. After all the mayhem, the land will be restored. It will be livable for both humans and animals. And in a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s call, the Lord “will watch over them to build and to plant” (v. 28). Nonetheless, in the process of rebuilding and replanting, there are some things that have to go.
This is going back a few years, back to the 1970s. There was a TV show my parents liked to watch, The Flip Wilson Show. He portrayed a character that turned out to be the one most people liked, Geraldine. Probably her best-known line was, “The devil made me do it!”
What a great line. You can absolve yourself—you can forgive yourself—of any deed if you can pin the blame on anything or anyone else, including the devil!
In Jeremiah’s time, there’s a saying the people use that falls into the category of “things that have to go.” “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (v. 29). I can’t say I’ve ever eaten sour grapes, but I have bitten into lemons on many occasions. (When I was a kid and we were at a restaurant, I liked to take the lemon slice in a glass of water and eat it.)
What kind of face do you make when you eat something sour? One way of describing it is having your teeth set on edge.
The point of the saying is, “We aren’t to blame for our actions. We had no choice; we’re paying for the sins of our parents and those who came before them.” If they can’t say, “The devil made me do it,” they still have a good excuse. They can still shift the blame from themselves.
However, in some sense, they are not altogether wrong. If we think of a family system, there are things we inherit—certain behaviors, ways of looking at the world. That can be for better or worse. Maybe we come from a background in which we were encouraged, we were nurtured, we were allowed to dream. Problems were dealt with in more or less constructive ways. It doesn’t mean everything was perfect by any measure. We are imperfect, incomplete humans, but on the whole, there were primarily positive things to pass on.
Sometimes things don’t go so well. If our background is one in which violence, abuse (of whatever kind), and pessimism pervaded, we can learn that’s just how life goes. Though, the negative stuff doesn’t have to be that severe. There can be unresolved grief, ways in which reality isn’t dealt with, harmful secrets. So in that sense, our background really can affect our behavior.
But the prophet says, “That’s not good enough!” “But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (v. 30). You can’t use that excuse forever. You are responsible for your own actions. You have to pay the piper! That can sound pretty harsh, but the good news is they aren’t left to work it out for themselves. The good news begins in verse 31.
A whole new world opens up. A grace not yet known is promised. “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.” “The days are surely coming.” There is wide disagreement as to what that precisely means. One thing seems clear, though: a new covenant will emerge from destruction and exile. By the way, this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where the term “new covenant” appears.
As Christians, we obviously see Jesus as the fulfillment, the embodiment, of the new covenant, the new testament. Still, we shouldn’t jump ahead. We need to see what that meant to Jeremiah and the people of his time. The message continues, “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” (v. 32).
Something we often do is to regard the Ten Commandments, for example, as a list of rules to obey. There’s much more going on. It’s not simply a bunch of “dos” and “don’ts.” It is a vision of the blessed life, a life lived in the harmony of shalom. Faithfulness to the Lord looks like this. That’s the message of the prophets. It comes from the heart. But we need help in that! We need help in persevering.
So here we go: “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” (v. 33).
I will write it on their hearts. The late Bruce Prewer referred to that as “divine graffiti.” What will this divine graffiti accomplish? “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, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (v. 34). With God’s word written on their hearts, they will not need to teach other to know the Lord.
It will be from the least to the greatest. Everyone’s invited! Here’s how Eugene Peterson put it in his paraphrase, The Message: “They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God. They’ll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow.”
This is the heart of Jeremiah’s vision. When God’s word is written on the heart, everyone will understand.
Now, depending on their disposition, there’s a class of people who might not welcome such an arrangement. They might think it’s a raw deal. David Rhymer calls this a “dangerous exercise of prophetic imagination.” Why should it be called dangerous?
Have you ever had a teacher who did not want their position questioned or presented with another viewpoint? Maybe it was someone whose ego was too bound up in his or her work? Maybe we could say they were too big for their britches!
I once had a history professor who invited students to ask him about the subject matter, claiming, “I know all.” Admittedly, he was saying it with a bit of humor, but it was clear he felt he would not have any trouble answering any question. One student was wondering about something, and it was obvious our teacher didn’t know the answer. He fumbled a bit and responded, “Well, it would have been such-and-such.” He was basically guessing. (Having said all that, I really came to like the guy!)
Getting back to the text, the religious leaders might simply reject out of hand Jeremiah’s word, his assertion of what one day shall be. It’s their job to read and interpret God’s word, and it’s the people’s job to “simply listen and do as they were told without question.”
Their job is to sit down and shut up.
When God’s word is written on our hearts, everyone is treated with care and respect. Everyone is treated as the sisters and brothers we truly are. Everyone is valued. As the prophet Joel reports of the Lord, “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28-29).
When the Spirit fills our hearts, our petty divisions are erased. No longer will be build walls. Going along with verses 35 to 37, with all of those cosmic promises, it will last until the end of time!
So, to recap: following the disaster, the people are promised a new day, but they can’t blame their forebears for their hard times. It’s true; those who’ve gone before might have set the stage in ways that are difficult, even catastrophic. Still, it has to be said, there comes a point when it’s time to grow up. When that happens, the promise is there will be the grace to see it through. Actually, there is the grace like never before, as said earlier, one not yet known.
When the Lord writes on our hearts, we are forgiven, now and forever.
“Into my heart, into my heart, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; / Come in today, come in to stay, / Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” It might sound trite and cute, but there is immense depth. The next step is ours.
 David Rhymer, “Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Interpretation 59:3 (July 2005), 295.
 Rhymer, 295.