When we read the prophets, we are often in pearl-hunting mode. The vast bulk of the prophets feels like a confusing, murky mess, but every now and then we’ll stumble across an encouraging verse such as “in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isa. 30:15). Or perhaps we’ll come across a spectacular prophecy about Christ: “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 23:5).
But what if the whole of the prophets were profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness? What if every verse of the prophets was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope? Wait, those questions sound vaguely familiar . . . (see Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16).
To unlock the whole of the prophets, we must grasp the pattern of judgment unto restoration. This simple three-word phrase captures the entire prophetic message. In this article, we’ll see how this pattern unlocks the message of Jeremiah, and then how this pattern is fulfilled in Christ and His church.
Judgment unto Restoration in Jeremiah
Immediately after Jeremiah’s ordination as a prophet (Jer. 1:4–9), the Lord provides him with a summary of his message: “See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10). This verse is the thesis statement of the book. Notice how the first four verbs are destructive words and the last two verbs are constructive. Here is the judgment-unto-restoration pattern. And Jeremiah will speak it not only to God’s people but to all the nations.
From this point on, the book of Jeremiah feels like a chaotic jumble of texts, with no clear reason for why one unit follows another. The text flits backward and forward in time, from prayer to vision to story, and often very abruptly (the structure is actually highly purposeful, but not on the surface). However, if you remember the thesis statement from Jeremiah 1:10 and the fact that the prophets are always describing either judgment or restoration, you will never be lost. You need only ask: Am I hearing about judgment or restoration?
For example, we read in Jeremiah 4:6, “Raise a standard toward Zion, flee for safety, stay not, for I bring disaster from the north, and great destruction.” This clearly describes judgment that is coming on Jerusalem (Zion) from a foe in the north. In the vision that follows, we do not need to discern exactly when the events take place to profit from how it expands our understanding of judgment. In Jeremiah 4:19, we see the wild terror and panic of those who are judged: “My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent, for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.” And in Jeremiah 4:23, we see how God reverses the created order when He judges His people: “I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.” Most crucial is the reason for God’s white-hot wrath, which is Israel’s sin: “Your [wicked] ways and your deeds have brought this upon you” (Jer. 4:18).
Some units, such as Jeremiah 4:5–6:30, are sustained expositions of judgment. Other units, including Jeremiah 31:1–9, dwell exclusively on restoration. Reading these sustained expositions of judgment or restoration reminds one of a collage. In a collage, many individual pictures are laid next to one another to form a whole, often without smooth transitions between the pictures. Instead, the pictures are simply laid next to one another. Consider a text such as Jeremiah 31:1–9, where we hear about Israel’s restored covenant relationship with God (Jer. 31:1), her dancing with joy (Jer. 31:4), planting and enjoying fruit (Jer. 31:5), pilgrimage (Jer. 31:6), and so on. Jeremiah piles on imagery to say, “Here are a variety of different facets of the coming restoration; God is going to do all these wonderful things as part of a grand redemptive package.”
But perhaps the most interesting texts are those that join judgment and restoration. How will God’s people go from one to the other? How can they end their judgment and once again know the blessing of God’s fellowship? The road out of judgment is paved with repentance. Jeremiah speaks to the exiles who went to Babylon in 597 BC and says that notwithstanding the judgment that has come on them, “they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me [i.e., repent] with their whole heart” (Jer. 24:7, emphasis added).
Other prophets have insisted on the same demand for repentance before restoration can commence (see Deut. 30:1–3). What makes Jeremiah distinct is the perfect clarity he gives on how, because sin has utterly enslaved God’s people, they can never repent in their own strength. Repentance, if it is to take place, will happen only if God takes the initiative to give them a new heart. Notice how Jeremiah 24:7 begins: “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord,” and as a result they will return to the Lord with their whole heart. The whole heart of repentance is a heart the Lord Himself gives! This astonishing redemptive promise is the essence of the famous new covenant passage (Jer. 31:31–34), which speaks of God’s writing His law on their hearts so they finally will be able to obey Him.
So, Judah and all the nations will be judged for their sin. But, paradoxically, the death of judgment leads to the new life of restoration for those who repent. The prophets not only threaten; they also give hope. All the prophets are about judgment unto restoration.
Christ, the Great Fulfillment
With this pattern before your eyes, how do Jesus’ words to the disciples on the road to Emmaus read to you? “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25–26). Do you see the judgment-unto-restoration pattern in this saying? The disciples should have recognized that “all that the prophets have spoken” were about Christ’s suffering unto glory. Christ connects His sufferings (i.e., His death on the cross) with the judgment God spoke against Israel and the nations. And He connects His glories (i.e., His resurrection and ascension) with the restoration God promised. The end result is “lightbulbs!” as a friend of mine would say.
- Jesus is the true Israel who came to experience the fullness of the judgment due to Israel and to us. Every time we read of the horrors of judgment in Jeremiah, it should magnify the sufferings Christ endured for us. Every time we read of the indictments of Israel’s sin, it should clarify our sin, for which Jesus went to the cross.
- Jesus is also the true Israel who was the first recipient of the restoration the prophets promised. Jeremiah promised a true king who would reign amid true worship, joy, and, best of all, obedience from the heart. These promises have already been fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20), and we await the consummation of this restoration on the last day. Every time we read the promises of restoration in the prophets, do not think woodenly of a hyperliteral fulfillment of these texts in some future day in the land of Israel. Recognize what the New Testament everywhere proclaims—that the restoration promised in Jeremiah has already come upon us through Christ’s resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit (see Gal. 3:14; Heb. 11:10).
Jesus is not referring to a few isolated passages, such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, when He speaks of His sufferings and the glories to follow in the prophets. Instead, He has laid His finger on the great linchpin of the entire prophetic message—judgment unto restoration—and has said it is all about Himself. This pattern was first fulfilled in a shadowy way in Israel’s exile to Babylon in the early 500s BC. But Jesus’ death and resurrection are the climactic, ultimate realization of this pattern.
The Church in Union with Christ
Where do we fit in? Because of our union with Christ by faith alone, the two-part judgment-unto-restoration story of the prophets is our story as well. We, too, suffered and died with Christ, and we, too, live with Him (Gal. 2:20). In other words, we have already been judged, and we already participate in the restoration promises of the prophets. Just think: the Son of David already reigns over us, the new covenant has begun, we already have the law written on our hearts, we already have the forgiveness of sins, and so on. But the surprise of the New Testament is that the promises have not yet unfolded in their full splendor. We still await the full ingathering of God’s people, the complete judgment of God’s enemies, and the fulfillment of the other promises in Jeremiah. So, while God’s judgment on us for our sins is as much a thing of the past as Jesus’ cross is a thing of the past, the prophetic promises of restoration are still unfolding for us. In short, the story of the prophets is a story we are living right now.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 15, 2020.