21 “Set up road signs;
put up guideposts.
Take note of the highway,
the road that you take.
Return, Virgin Israel,
return to your towns.
22 How long will you wander,
unfaithful Daughter Israel?
The Lord will create a new thing on earth—
the woman will return to the man.”
23 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “When I bring them back from captivity, the people in the land of Judah and in its towns will once again use these words: ‘The Lord bless you, you prosperous city, you sacred mountain.’ 24 People will live together in Judah and all its towns—farmers and those who move about with their flocks. 25 I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint.”
26 At this I awoke and looked around. My sleep had been pleasant to me.
(Jeremiah 31:21-26 NIV)
In previous passages, we saw the Lord share His plans with His children, then share His redemption plan for His people with the world. In our last session, we saw the Lord’s heart of love and compassion for His children, focused on the northern tribe of Israel. Today’s passage changes the spotlight from the northern tribe of Israel to all the promised land, then to the southern tribe of Judah.
Verse 21 says to mark the roads well so that the exiles will find their way home to the promised land. This marking of roads is more spiritual than physical so that the people returning to the Lord and the promised land will not get sidetracked and wander after false gods again.
Verse 21b refers to God’s people as “virgin Israel”, and verse 22a refers to them as “unfaithful daughter Israel”. These seem like two diametrically opposed terms for the same “person” (God’s children). In fact, they are one in the same. Yes, they had a past of unfaithfulness to God. Their rebellion is what led to the exile in the first place. But God cares enough to discipline His children when they choose to stray, and now they have a fresh start, a new beginning.
Verse 22b is a bit of a mystery as to its original meaning. Most scholars agree that it is some sort of ancient proverb. The first phrase uses the word “create” – this is the same word employed in Genesis 1:1 when God created the heavens and the earth. Whatever the second half of the phrase may mean, it will be something as unique and never before seen as the creation of the world from nothing.
So what does the last phrase of verse 22 (“the woman will return to the man”) mean? Scholars’ understandings vary widely. Most likely, this phrase keeps with the contrast of verses 21b and 22a and refers to 2:23-24 where God called His children “she-camels” running back and forth in search of lovers (other gods). This reference would be like 22a, as an unfaithful daughter; following the path straight to the promised land would be like 21b, as a young girl going straight home.
Instead of God having to pursue His children, could it be that His children would seek their relationship with Him? Are God’s children coming home to reconcile with their Father and starting their life over? Old habits and ingrained ways are hard to break, but through God’s transformation of our lives from the inside out, redemption is available.
Verses 23 – 25 paint a beautiful image of restored life in the promised land, particularly Judah and specifically Jerusalem. The land will be a safe haven to worship God, and they will find rest and peace there with the Lord.
Verse 26 is another puzzling statement. The phrase seems to indicate that Jeremiah has received this revelation from the Lord in his sleep. Compared to many of the other visions and words from the Lord that may have come as nightmares, this one is pleasant.
May we remember that God is a God of new beginnings. We all have a “past”, with sins of commission and sins of omission that we wish we could “do over”. Through Christ, our sins are forgiven and He gives us a fresh start. We don’t deny our past, and we do not define ourselves by our mistakes. Instead, may we see who God is making us into from this point forward.