We saw in our first article the importance of the marriage contract theme throughout the book of Jeremiah. To appreciate the prophecy of Jeremiah we need to have this picture firmly imprinted on our minds. It is the story that dominates the prophecy of Jeremiah.

A true to life picture of the problem

If we think about a marriage that has gone wrong, we know that any breakdown occurs in stages over time. It was the same with Israel. It started well and the marriage vows were readily adopted (Exod 24:7): “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient”. But cracks started to appear in the wilderness and were further widened when Israel possessed the land.

The bride has started to play fast and loose with other lovers. The groom considers the situation: where does the fault lay, has he failed in any way? But we find that he has done everything possible to make the marriage work. What then of the bride? Consideration brings out the dreadful facts. Despite a good start she has never really appreciated what her husband has been doing for her; she has taken it all for granted. Worse than that, she assumes he is bound to do all the work for her. She considers the house he has built and concludes that he will never give it up and since that is the case she can do as she likes. She also considers the marriage contract as obligating him to support her no matter how she behaves.

The husband informs her that he is most assuredly bound by the marriage contract, but not in the way she thinks. In the contract he has bound himself to correct her waywardness and take drastic measures in doing so. Those measures will involve burning down the house and subjecting her to confinement and correction. Despite all this, he tells her of the glorious future he has planned for them when she becomes faithful to him. He then informs her that the neighbours who have influenced her to do evil will not escape their own correction.

The marriage contract in Jeremiah

This picture we have described is the framework upon which the whole book of Jeremiah is built. It outlines the terms of a divine marriage agreement made with the nation and vindicates Yahweh’s faithfulness in upholding those terms. The theme is summed up in the words of chapter 4:28: “I have spoken”. The words are reiterated in chapters 30:2; 35:14,17 and 36:2. God had spoken to them in times past—in the marriage contract, in the law delivered on the day they became His people—and He was now bringing these words to their attention.

This is why the book is written in its present order. Once it is rearranged in chronological order the thematic picture is destroyed and the key message lost. The overriding consideration is that Scripture is written by inspiration. God does not make mistakes. He arranges Scriptures in the form that best suits His purpose.

Chapter 1 is a discourse between Yahweh and Jeremiah; then chapter 2 gives the first message to the people. Both of these chapters take us back to the time of the giving of the Law of Moses. The calling of Jeremiah in chapter 1 is expressed in language that is reminiscent of Moses speaking of God’s intention to raise up a prophet (Deut 18:15-19). Though the prophet Moses spoke of is ultimately Jesus Christ, yet there is also a sense in which the language pointed to the words and work of Jeremiah.

Let us picture the situation. Moses starts the process by separating the nation of Israel from Egypt and binding them in covenant to Yahweh. Then Moses tells them God will provide another prophet who will complete the process of binding them to that covenant. Now, between those two events, the nation had become unfaithful, broken the covenant, spurned Yahweh and behaved like a harlot. Since Yahweh will never break His promise, He must now break the nation’s addiction to idols. Moses could not achieve this, so God raised up Jeremiah to expose the nation’s infidelity in the strongest terms and warn them of the consequences of that behaviour.

Like Moses, he had no confidence in himself but, like Moses, he would speak all of God’s words. Now embedded within the words of Deuteronomy 18:19 is the warning: “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him”. Jeremiah was raised up to give emphasis to this warning and would speak of God’s work in sending them back to the home of idolatry in Babylon.

When we come to Jeremiah chapter 2, we are given a picture of Israel travelling through the wilderness as a new bride with the groom (v2-3). This wonderfully tender image is then contrasted with her present philandering as a repulsive harlot (v20,36). It is a disturbing and dramatic transformation.

So how will God respond to this betrayal? It takes the rest of the prophecy to unfold the way that Yahweh will rescue the marriage. Ultimately, He will bind Israel to himself in singleness of heart. He has spoken previously about the covenant He made with them at Sinai but they failed to keep it. He will therefore make a new covenant (in fact, it will outline the terms relating to the promises originally given to Abraham and to David) and in this way He will reunite with His bride in faithfulness and true holiness. It is the outworking of this wonderful plan that determines the layout of the book.

When we consider the theme, “Yahweh hath spoken”, we are really speaking about the righteousness of God. And in speaking of God’s righteousness, we are saying that God’s words and actions are always right and always inevitably true. God will never fail to keep His word (Jer 33:20-21).

Let us consider how this works out. God initiated a covenant with Abraham and made it the foundation of faith. Hence Abraham is called the father of the faithful (Gal 3:6-8). Next came the promise concerning Abraham’s descendants, both natural and spiritual Israel. To the national seed, God made a temporary covenant through Moses, with a view to preparing them for the bringing into force of the Abrahamic covenant (Gal 3:19,24).

Next, he initiated His covenant with David, expanding the Abrahamic covenant in its vista by adding a regal element to the covenant. In Jeremiah 4:28, Yahweh says, “I have spoken”, and in doing so He is making it clear that Israel’s survival is not dependent on any righteousness attributable to them. When Israel said three times, “All that Yahweh hath spoken we will do” (Exod 19:8; 24:3,7), they were expressing their acceptance of the terms of the marriage covenant (cp Jer 31:31-32). The prophet draws attention to this in 2:2 and 3:14 where He speaks as a husband to His bride, castigating her for her failure but drawing her to Him in love. This helps us to understand the significant theme of the covenant that permeates the words of God through Jeremiah.

The structure of the prophecy

When it comes to studying the books of the Bible, I like to get a grip of the structure of the book so that I can understand its approach to the message. I spent years testing ideas on the theme of Jeremiah, then I decided to write verse notes on the book to get the flow of thought. By the time I had studied 20 chapters the theme became clear. As we indicated previously, it is summarised in the words of chapter 4:28—“I have spoken”.

To understand this, we have to go back 100 years to Hosea and Isaiah. Hosea presents the picture of a faithful husband who is determined to make his marriage a success despite the wife being wayward. He has made a covenant and he will not only keep it but make it work.

Isaiah, on the other hand, turns his mind to what the marriage has produced—a generation of wayward children, styled “a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters” (1:4). They were sons and daughters of a wayward mother (cp 3:16-17). How was God going to turn them away from that evil? By producing a son who would follow His Father’s good ways (50:4-9) and develop a seed of faith (53:10). This son would have the task of restoring the relationship between God and His national bride (50:1-2) and the results of that would make the barren wife rejoice in her extended family of faith (54:1-4).

This is where Jeremiah becomes more relevant. He will pick up the marriage theme and deal with its requirements as outlined in the original marriage covenant. Chapter 1 prepares Jeremiah for the task ahead. Chapter 2 makes a reference to Sinai where the original marriage covenant took place. The chapter further describes how that good start was marred by evil and then goes on to examine the behaviour of both husband and wife. God asks the question (v5): “What iniquity have your fathers found in me”? And the answer is clearly—none! He has done everything to save the nation.

On the other hand, His national bride had turned to idolatry and become like the untamed and reckless wild ass (2:24). She saw herself as free to do as she pleased in contrast to her husband who had bound Himself to look after her no matter what.

The prophet continues his rebuke with the marriage theme in mind. A married couple dwell in a house together and Israel believed that nothing would happen to the house of God nor to themselves (7:4). Wrong, says Jeremiah! Yahweh will destroy the house and cast His people out of His sight (7:14-15). They thought that the marriage covenant of Sinai protected them, but the prophet showed them that, in fact, that same covenant required judgment upon them.

The range of emotions shown by God as a husband is unparalleled in biblical literature: sorrow, lament, weeping, wailing, grief, pain, anguish, regret, heartache, anger, disappointment and frustration are all evident. His national bride has betrayed Him and now God must act. From chapters 4–10 God asks Israel question after question about her behaviour and then in 11:1-8 brings her attention back to the covenant terms at Sinai. Because they have disobeyed that covenant, God has no choice but to punish and exile them (cp 22:9).

The great climax of the marriage theme is presented in 31:31-34 where God says that He will make a new covenant with Israel because they broke the first, “although I was an husband unto them”. This will be a covenant that will touch their hearts and will demonstrate the point of 4:28, “I have spoken”. His Word is trustworthy and faithful and nothing He has spoken will ever fail.