What Is New about the New Covenant? (Jeremiah 31)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

Listen to the Passage

Read the Passage

31Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

God’s Law Within

Even before exile runs its course Yahweh has already planned a lasting cure for the spiritual malady that made exile necessary in the first place. He resolves to make a “new covenant” with the entirety of his people (Jer. 31:31) that is “not like the covenant that [he] made with their fathers on the day when [he] took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, [his] covenant that they broke” (Jer. 31:32). This clearly refers to the covenant Yahweh made with his people at Sinai and renewed at Moab. But, as noted above in the Overview of Jeremiah 30–33, it is mistaken to understand the contrast between the “old covenant” and the “new covenant” as a theological dichotomy between law and grace. The contrast lies instead between Yahweh’s grace in establishing a covenant relationship “when [he] took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” and Israel’s ingratitude when “they broke” that relationship through persistent disobedience. The old covenant was thus breakable but not bad itself. Though the apostle Paul is often enlisted in Christian theology to criticize the old covenant, he asserts in more than one place that the OT law is fundamentally good (e.g., Rom. 7:12, 16; 1 Tim. 1:8).

ESV Expository Commentary

Four biblical scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the narratives of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.

The innovation of the “new covenant” comes in its addressing of the issue of Israel’s apostasy. At an unspecified time in the future Yahweh will make a new covenant in which “[he] will put [his] law within them, and [he] will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). The word rendered “law” is torah, a term that refers broadly to “instruction” in this context, not merely the legal stipulations of the Pentateuch.1 The fact that torah will continue to be a part of the “new covenant” indicates that obedience to God’s “instruction” will remain a crucial part of relationship with him. The discontinuity with the “old covenant” lies in God’s word being indelibly written “on their hearts” to a broader extent than his rebellious people were able to do on their own power. Other OT passages already speak of the need for obedience to God that comes from the heart, especially the injunction of Proverbs to “write them [i.e., the wise parent’s instruction from God] on the tablet of your heart” (Prov. 3:3; 7:3; cf. Deut. 10:16).

Since the old covenant could be broken by disobedience, the new covenant will impart a greater ability to obey (as Jer. 31:34 will shortly explain). The result will be the kind of covenant relationship that Yahweh has always sought with his people: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (v. 33; cf. Gen. 17:7; Ex. 6:7; Heb. 8:10; Rev. 21:3). Here and elsewhere in the Bible the notion of covenant in the OT is more of a familial relationship than a legal contract (although the latter connotation of the word has come to dominate in the English language).

The primacy of relationship is why the former need for the people to exhort one another (“Know the Lord”) will be superseded by Yahweh’s fresh promise that “they shall all know [him], from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:34). The possibility of knowing Yahweh was always the goal of the old covenant (e.g., Deut. 6:4–5; 7:9; Hos. 2:20), but the fact that said covenant was breakable meant his sinful people could easily become estranged from him. Precisely here lies the newness of the new covenant, when Yahweh will forgive the sins of his people (Jer. 31:34), which keep them from knowing him (cf. Isa. 59:2; Jer. 9:24; 22:16; Hos. 4:1). That is, lasting forgiveness from God is not the mark of the new covenant but its enabler, so that all people may know Yahweh as the old covenant intended but sin prevented it from doing.

Relationship between Covenants

An issue in interpreting Jeremiah 30–31 is how the “new covenant” relates to previous ones Yahweh made with his people, particularly those with Abraham, Israel (via Moses), and David. One common approach is to classify the covenants of the OT on the basis of a contrast between unconditionality and conditionality. The “new covenant” of Jeremiah is seen in this taxonomy as God’s unconditional overriding of the conditional requirements Israel failed to keep. Eugene Merrill expresses such a view:

The Lord gives the new heart, he re(makes) them his people, and he even guarantees that they will return with all their heart. This raises the conditionality of the Mosaic covenant to the level of unconditionality. The Lord demands of his people that they repent of their sins if they hope to remain his covenant nation, but he provides requisite grace to do so. . . . There is nothing here but pure, unconditional grace.2

As eloquent and stirring as Merrill’s statement is, it overlooks how Yahweh’s covenant with Israel was initiated by the divine grace of the exodus that both preceded and sustained its requirements (Ex. 19:4–6; 20:2).3 Obedience to Yahweh’s torah likewise continues to be part of the “new covenant” he initiates with the exiles (Jer. 31:33), since torah is itself a gift to Israel (Deut. 4:1–8).4 In sum, the concepts of conditionality and unconditionality are problematic for using opposing sides of a legal metaphor to describe the relational essence of the covenants God makes with his people. The substance of covenant is better expressed by the familial declaration of Yahweh that recurs in Jeremiah 30–31: “You shall be my people, and I will be your God” (30:22; 31:1, 33). The frequency of this declaration across the OT and NT indicates that Jeremiah’s “new covenant” resembles other covenants in the Bible that similarly present God as both sovereign covenant maker and relational covenant sustainer (cf. Gen. 17:8; 2 Sam. 7:14; Ezek. 36:28; 2 Cor. 6:18; Rev. 21:7).

Given such theological continuity, why does the writer of Hebrews emphasize discontinuity in stating that “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Heb. 8:6–7)? And, following a full citation of Jeremiah 31:31–34 (Heb. 8:8–12, the longest quotation of the OT in the NT), the passage continues, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). It is crucial in this respect that the author of Hebrews introduces the Jeremiah quotation with the editorial phrase, “He finds fault with them when he says: ‘Behold, the days are coming . . .’” (Heb. 8:8). That is, the fault of the old covenant (8:7) lay in how the people themselves were faulty and prone to breaking it (Heb. 8:8a), thus incurring the need for the “new covenant,” which follows in the passage (Heb. 8:8b–12).5 Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews explains that Yahweh instituted the better promises of the new covenant for this reason: “They did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them” (Heb. 8:9).

These statements in Hebrews 8 indicate that the good promises of the old covenant allowed people to respond to God, but they chose not to. The real but rejected possibility of obedience for old-covenant believers is also why the writer of Hebrews has already quoted the psalmist’s injunction against hardening one’s heart (Heb. 3:7–11; cf. Ps. 95:7–11). Now that the new covenant provides the additional assurance of better promises (cf. Heb. 8:8–12; 10:15–18), Christians must become even more vigilant to heed the call to “draw near [to God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:22–23). Jeremiah would heartily agree with Hebrews that spiritual transformation in the “new covenant” invites deeper repentance and faithfulness on the believer’s part, rather than encouraging fatalism.


  1. Cf. Walter Brueggemann, The Theology of the Book of Jeremiah (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 127.
  2. Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion: A Theology of the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 530.
  3. Gordon J. Wenham, “Grace and Law in the Old Testament,” in Law, Morality, and the Bible, ed. Bruce Kaye and Gordon J. Wenham (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 3–23.
  4. Daniel I. Block, “The Grace of Torah: The Mosaic Prescription for Life (Deut. 4:1–8; 6:20–25),” JETS 162 (2005): 3–22.
  5. Richard D. Phillips, Hebrews, REC (Phillipsburg, NJ. P&R, 2006), 278–279; Craig R. Koester, , AB 36 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 390.

This article is by Jerry Hwang and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary Series: Isaiah–Ezekiel (Volume 6), edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.

Popular Articles in This Series

View All

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.