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.”