God Wants to Make Us Happy
“Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, proclaim it on distant coasts” (Jeremiah 31:10).
What kind of news is about to be given following these solemn words of Jeremiah, which we heard in the canticle just proclaimed? It is consoling news, and it is no accident that the chapters that contain it (see 30-31) are described as the “Book of Consolation.” The announcement refers directly to ancient Israel; however, in some way, the Gospel message can already be discerned in it.
The following is the heart of this announcement: “The Lord shall ransom Jacob, he shall redeem him from the hand of his conqueror” (Jeremiah 31:11).
The historical background of these words is found in a time of hope experienced by the people of God, almost a century after the North of the country was occupied by the Assyrian power in 722. Now — at the time of the prophet — the religious reform of King Josiah represents a return of the people to the covenant with God, and hope arises that the time of punishment is over.
The possibility emerges that the North will be free once again, and Israel and Judah will be reconsoli-dated in unity. All, even the “distant coasts,” must be witnesses to this wonderful event: God, the shepherd of Israel, is about to intervene. He who permitted the scattering of his people, now comes to gather them.
A Future of Happiness
The invitation to joy is unfolded with images that are profoundly moving. It is a prophecy that makes one begin to dream! It depicts a future in which the exiled “will see and sing,” and will find again not only the temple of the Lord, but also every good thing: wheat, wine, oil, the young of flocks and herds.
The Bible is not about abstract spirituality. The joy it promises does not affect only man's inner being, because the Lord cares for human life in all its dimensions. Jesus himself did not fail to underline this fact, inviting his disciples to trust Providence also for material needs (see Matthew 6:25-34).
Our canticle emphasizes this point of view: God wants to make the whole man happy. The endowment he prepares for his children is expressed in the symbol of the “watered gardens” (Jeremiah 31:12), images of freshness and fruitfulness. Mourning is turned into joy, as one is satiated with delights (see verse 14) and abundant goods — so much so that dancing and singing are spontaneous. There will be irrepressible joy and the people's delight.
A Disloyal People
History tells us that this dream is yet to come true — but certainly not because God failed to keep his promise. Once again, because of their infidelity, the people were to blame for this disappointment.
The book of Jeremiah itself demonstrates this with the unfolding of a prophecy that ends in suffering and hardship, leading progressively to some of the saddest phases of the history of Israel. It is not only that the exiled of the North will not return, but that Judea itself will be occupied by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.
‘They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them.’
Bitter days now began when, on the shores of Babylon, the lyres were hung from the willow trees (Psalm 137:2). There was no desire to sing for the pleasure of the captors. It is impossible to rejoice if one is uprooted by force from the home-land, the land where God had made his dwelling.
Love That Never Ends
And yet the invitation to joy that characterizes this prophecy does not lose its meaning. In fact, the ultimate justification on which it rests remains firm, expressed especially in several profound verses, which precede those provided in the Liturgy of the Hours.
It is important to keep them in mind, while reading the expressions of joy in our canticle. They describe in vibrant terms the love of God for his people. They indicate an irrevocable pact: “With age-old love I have loved you” (Jeremiah 31:3). They sing the fatherly exultations of a God who calls Ephraim his first-born and shelters him with tenderness: “They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them; I will lead them to brooks of water, on a level road, so that none shall stumble. For I am a father to Israel” (Jeremiah 31:9).
Although the promise was not fulfilled at that time, because of the children's lack of accord, the love of the Father remains in all its poignant tenderness.
This love is the golden thread that unifies the phases of the history of Israel, in its joys and sorrows, its successes and failures. God does not limit his love; and the punishment itself is only an expression of it, with a pedagogical and salvific meaning.
On the solid rock of this love, our canticle's invitation to joy evokes a future in God that, although deferred, will come sooner or later despite all the frailties of men. This future was realized in the new covenant with the death and resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. It will have its complete fulfillment, however, at the eschatological return of the Lord.
In light of such certainties, Jeremiah's “dream” continues to be a real historical possibility — depending on the faithfulness of men — and, above all, a final goal, guaranteed by the faithfulness of God and already inaugurated by his love, in Christ.
Therefore, in reading this saying of Jeremiah, we must let the Gospel resound within us — the wonderful news promulgated by Christ in the synagogue of Nazareth (see Luke 4:16-21). Christian life is meant to be a real “jubilation,” which only our sin can injure.
Prompting us to recite these words of Jeremiah, the Liturgy of the Hours invites us to anchor our life in Christ, our redeemer (see Jeremiah 31:11) and, in our personal and communal life, to seek the secret of true joy in him.
(Translation by Zenit and Register)
- October 21-27, 2001