Recently, my reading of the Old Testament has been greatly enhanced by John Goldingay’s excellent new translation, The First Testament. Goldingay, a well-respected Old Testament scholar, uses his Hebrew fluency to defamiliarize the ancient text for modern readers. For many readers of the Bible, terms like “salvation” and “righteousness” have become so familiar as to be devoid of much currency today. Thus, Goldingay uses words like “deliverance” and “faithfulness” as substitutes to jar us into a deeper understanding of well known texts.
One such passage that has resonated with me in my reading is Jeremiah 31, particularly Goldingay’s rendering of verse 3:
Yahweh said this: The people found grace in the wilderness, those who survived the sword. As Yisra’el went to find its rest, ‘From afar Yahweh appeared to me.’ With permanent love I loved you; therefore I’ve drawn you out with commitment.Jeremiah 31:2-3, The First Testament
In the wake of judgment and exile, this word comes from on high: God’s love is permanent love. It is grace in the wilderness. It is rest. What follows is a vibrant promise of restoration, the ostensible outworking of this permanent love.
I shall build you up again so that you are built up, Miss Yisra’el. You will again deck yourself with your tambourine and go out in the dance of people having fun. You will again plant vineyards on Shomron’s mountains; planters will have planted and will begin to have the use of them. Because there will be a day when lookouts call out on Ephrayim’s highland, ‘Set off so we may go up to Tsiyyon, to Yahweh our God.’Jeremiah 31:4-6, The First Testament
The realm of Yahweh’s permanent love is characterized by music and movement; by the sounds of joy; by the freedom to cultivate and enjoy the land once more and to safely journey into the presence of God. The realm of Yahweh’s permanent love is even described as a place where people are “having fun.”
Mission accomplished, Goldingay. Can you remember the last time you heard someone use the word “fun” to describe the realm of God’s love?
“With permanent love, I love you.”
I went to our local deli the other day and I noticed that the guy behind the counter had a lady’s name tattooed on the inside of his arm, right at the bicep. I caught myself thinking, “Boy, I sure hope it works out for them.” Maybe it says something about me, but I wondered what he would do about the tattoo if they split up.
But this is Yahweh. After all the times she has violated the terms of the covenant, he still speaks graciously to “Miss Yisra’el,” offering her grace in the wilderness with permanent love tattooed on his bicep.
Last weekend I spoke at a mental health conference spearheaded by several Christian counselors in our community and hosted by a local church. I am not a mental health professional but based on my 20-year ministry career, I was asked to speak on ways the church can respond to mental health stigma. I arrived a few hours before the opening session to work through some of the technical details for my presentation. The church lobby was filled with frantic “pre-game” energy as volunteers were busy setting up vendor booths and registration tables. But amid the clamor, I noticed a huge sign, unavoidable with massive block letters at the main entrance:
YOU ARE LOVED
The conference organizers were making a bold declaration along the lines of Jeremiah 31. They were announcing the realm of Yahweh’s permanent love. Entrants were to be met with this immediate proclamation: “This is a place of grace in the wilderness. As Israel went to find its rest, you can find rest here. God loves you with permanent love.”
As I made my way through the lobby into the hallway, I noticed these same words were plastered everywhere, on posters and signs taped up on the walls: YOU ARE LOVED. While I can’t be certain that Jeremiah 31 was at the forefront of anyone’s mind when those signs were being displayed throughout the church building, I also can’t help but think that these ancient words found some level of fulfillment in our midst.
“With permanent love, I love you.”
Over the course of the conference, I was reminded of the essential nature of this message. One attendee described the bitterness she still harbored toward members of her former church who literally demonized her depression, seeking to “exorcise” her condition which they erroneously believed to be the product of demon possession. Another family shared with me the fresh pain of losing a loved one to suicide just a few weeks earlier. Yet another attendee talked to me about her dissociative disorder and the anxiety and identity issues that accompany it. I lost track of the number of times people acknowledged the ways they had been abused.
As someone who is unqualified to speak deeply into issues related to mental illness, I knew I was out of my depth and I was grateful that so many trained mental health professionals were on hand to lend their expertise to the conference attendees. But I also choose to believe that the very articulation of these various circumstances are evidence that the Jeremiah declaration at the front door had been taken seriously. I choose to believe that these honest and unfiltered conversations occurred because these words were “tattooed” everywhere, announcing the realm of Yahweh’s permanent love. And I prayed that our dialogue represented a portion of Yahweh’s work of building up Miss Yisra’el once again.
This is the greatest knowledge of all: to know that you are loved. Maybe this knowledge will help my new friends find joy once again. I believe this knowledge leads us into a new realm. I believe it helps us survive the sword, to hear the sounds of tambourine and dancing again. I believe it delivers us into seasons of bounty and harvest and security once more.
There is grace in the wilderness.
You are loved.