Hope For Your Future.

Thus says the Lord:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
    she refuses to be comforted for her children,
    because they are no more.”

Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
    and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
    and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
    and your children shall come back to their own country.
I have heard Ephraim grieving,
‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined,
    like an untrained calf;
bring me back that I may be restored,
    for you are the Lord my God.
For after I had turned away, I relented,
    and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh;
I was ashamed, and I was confounded,
    because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
Is Ephraim my dear son?
    Is he my darling child?
For as often as I speak against him,
    I do remember him still.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I will surely have mercy on him,
declares the Lord.

“Set up road markers for yourself;
    make yourself guideposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Return, O virgin Israel,
    return to these your cities.
How long will you waver,
    O faithless daughter?
For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth:
    a woman encircles a man.”  Jeremiah 31:15-22 ESV

Rachel, the wife of Jacob, is pictured as weeping for her children. She was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. This was in spite of the fact that she had been barren. And in her frustration over her barrenness, she had demanded of Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Genesis 30:1 ESV). And Jacob responded in exasperation and anger, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2 ESV). But God gave her a son and she named him Joseph, saying “God has taken away my reproach” (Genesis 30:22 ESV). But she was not satisfied. She wanted more. “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Genesis 30:23 ESV). And God would grant her wish. She gave birth to Benjamin some years later, but would die in childbirth. Jacob would bury her and the town of Ramah is recognized as the location of her tomb.

Rachel would become the grandmother of Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons born to Joseph in Egypt. Their descendants would become two of the major tribes in northern Israel. So this imagery of Rachel weeping for her children is a metaphor for the sorrow associated with the defeat and deportation of the northern kingdom in 722 B.C. by the Assyrians. The image of a mother weeping over her lost children is a powerful one. It portrays a deep sorrow and a inconsolable sadness that nothing can assuage. But God speaks into this situation of deep despair, saying:

“Do not weep any longer,
    for I will reward you,” says the Lord.
“Your children will come back to you
    from the distant land of the enemy. – Jeremiah 31:16 NLT

He is going to reward her. For what? In the Hebrew, the reward or wage is tied to Rachel’s work. Her weeping is seen as a form of effort being expended on behalf of her lost children. It is a picture of repentance and remorse over their fate. And God says that He is going to reward her for her efforts. And that reward will be in the form of hope in the midst of her helplessness and sorrow.

“There is hope for your future,” says the Lord.
    “Your children will come again to their own land.” – Jeremiah 31:17 NLT

A woman’s posterity was wrapped up in the lives of her children. Remember, Rachel had been barren at one time, and God had blessed her with two sons. But now, she is pictured as having lost all that was important to her: Her grandchildren and her future. But God provides assurance that her children, once lost, would be found and returned to the land.

The prophet, Hosea, paints a sad picture of how Ephraim and Manasseh ended up in Assyria.

“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk;
    I took them up by their arms,
    but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of kindness,
    with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,
    and I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall not return to the land of Egypt,
    but Assyria shall be their king,
    because they have refused to return to me.
The sword shall rage against their cities,
    consume the bars of their gates,
    and devour them because of their own counsels.
My people are bent on turning away from me,
    and though they call out to the Most High,
    he shall not raise them up at all.” – Hosea 11:3-7 ESV

But Jeremiah provides an encouraging counterpoint to Hosea’s prophecy. He records the words of God saying, “I have heard Ephraim grieving” (Jeremiah 31:18 ESV). The exiled Israelites are pictured as calling out to God in sorrow and repentance, crying, “bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the Lord my God” (Jeremiah 31:18 ESV). And God responds with words of grace and mercy. “Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:20 ESV).

God promises to bring Israel back to the promised land, but more importantly, back to Himself. And He tells them to mark the path they took to get to Assyria. It would be by that same path that they would return. They would be required to reverse the direction of their previous journey, illustrating their repentance and return to God.

“Set up road markers for yourself;
    make yourself guideposts;
consider well the highway,
    the road by which you went.
Return, O virgin Israel,
    return to these your cities. – Jeremiah 31:21 ESV

This brings to mind another mention of paths and highways mentioned earlier in the book of Jeremiah.

Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” – Jeremiah 6:16 ESV

The people of Judah, the southern kingdom, had refused to walk the way of God. They had chosen disobedience over obedience. They had wandered from the ways of God, choosing to follow the ways of the world, pursuing false gods and seeking pleasure in those things forbidden by God. But God was going to bring them back. They would one day walk in the right direction, headed back to God rather than away from Him. He would return them to the land, but it would be their return to Yahweh that made the difference.

In verse, God shifts the imagery from that of a son to a daughter. He speaks to Israel as a faithless and adulterous daughter. Throughout the writings of the prophets, you see references to Israel’s spiritual adultery. The Hebrew word for apostasy is the same word used to describe an adulterous wife. Israel had prostituted herself with all the false gods of the lands around her. But now God calls His wandering bride back:

“Return, O virgin Israel,
    return to these your cities.
How long will you waver,
    O faithless daughter?” – Jeremiah 31:21-22 ESV

He refers to Israel as a virgin, cleansed and purified from her sins. Her adultery would be forgiven. Her spiritual defilement would be removed. And then God makes a rather enigmatic statement: “For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encircles a man” (Jeremiah 31:22 ESV). This is a difficult verse to understand and there have been a lot of different opinions over the years as to its exact meaning. But if we consider the context, it would seem that God is referring to an adulterous wife who returns to her husband. The Hebrew word that is translated as “encircles” in the ESV is cabab and it has a range of meanings, including “to turn towards, change direction, return”. It would seem that the “new thing” to which God is referring is an adulterous woman returning to her husband. That would have been a rare occurrence in those days. In fact, for a man to take back his adulterous wife would have, according to the Mosaic law, made him an adulterer as well. In the book of Hosea, we have recorded the real-life story of Hosea, whose wife committed adultery on numerous occasions. But God commanded Hosea to take her back.

And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” – Hosea 3:1 ESV

And that unlikely act of a husband taking back his adulterous wife was to be a real-life example of what God was going to do with the nation of Israel.

“For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.” – Hosea 3:4-5 ESV

Wayward Israel would return to God. The adulterous wife would return to her faithful husband. It would be out-of-the-ordinary. It would unprecedented and unheard of. It would be a new thing on the earth. God would make the impossible and improbable happen. He would provide hope for the future when there was none. He would provide restoration when condemnation seemed to be the only option. He would show forgiveness where none was warranted. He would show mercy when none was deserved. Because He is faithful and His love is everlasting.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson≠≠