The Book of Jeremiah, at its most basic, has two themes: The estrangement of Israel from the Lord leading to grave consequences, and the eventual mercy of the Lord when Israel repents and returns. Many of the chapters contain these two themes, back-to-back, including the chapters in this reading assignment.
RETRIBUTION AND REDEMPTION
The Lord charges Israel of Jeremiah's day with a greater misconduct than previous generations. "Because your fathers have forsaken me, saith the Lord, and have (1) walked after other gods, and have (2) served them, and have (3) worshipped them, and have (4) forsaken me, and have (5) not kept my law; And ye have done worse than your fathers; for, behold, ye (6) walk every one after the [stubbornness or hardness] of his evil hearts, that they may not hearken unto me: Therefore will I cast you out of this land into a land that ye know not, neither ye nor your fathers; and there shall ye serve other gods day and night: where I will not shew you favour" (16:11-13). It is interesting that to have a hardened heart was considered worse by the Lord than to abandon true worship and follow after idols!
But in the very next verse, we find a promise of redemption. It is not to happen right away, but in "the days [that] come," probably the very latter days. It will be such a great rescue, that it will eclipse the Exodus from Egypt! Where for thousands of years, the Israelites have uttered their oaths by saying, "As the Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt," they will after this time swear, "as the Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them" (16:14-15).
DETAILS OF THE RESCUE
The Lord explains how the gathering is to be accomplished: First he will send out the fishers (16:16). Fishers of ancient times used large nets in which they could reap a massive harvest in one catch. So was the beginning of the harvest of souls in the early days of the Restoration. As the missionaries went to England, to Canada, to Wales, to Denmark, large groups of converts joined at once. Hundreds of investigators gathered at the Benbow Farm in England, for example, studying the Bible together, seeking the true religion, and they joined the Church as a large unit when the missionaries arrived. A similar event happened in Canada. So many saints joined the Church in Europe that the Perpetual Emigration Fund was set up in order to finance their gathering. They traveled across the plains of the United States in huge wagon trains and handcart companies, part of a massive movement.
After the fishers are finished with their work, the Lord will send the hunters. "They shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks" (16:16). Today the missionaries in those same countries do not find large groups of religious seekers waiting for them to bring the gospel. Instead they must hunt among the crowds, tracting door-to-door, finding here one and there one. It's very common for a missionary to a European country to see only one or two baptisms during his entire mission. But the hunters are just as important to the Lord's work as the fishers!
The work of the gathering will spread over the entire earth. "The [nations] shall come unto thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity, and things wherein there is no profit" (16:19). They will realize that if they make their own gods, they are not gods, they have no power (16:20). Therefore, at this time ["this once"] they will come to the knowledge of the Lord Jehovah (16:21).
DUALISM IN JEREMIAH
"For thus saith the Lord, that after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good work toward you, in causing you to return to this place" (29:10). "The number seventy is another combination of two of the perfect numbers, seven and ten...The product exhibits the significance of each in an intensified form. Hence 7 x 10 signifies perfect spiritual order carried out with all spiritual power and significance. Both spirit and order are greatly emphasized" (BibleStudy.org).
This prophecy can be seen as having two fulfillments. 70 years after Jeremiah, Cyrus freed the captive Israelites. Many decided to stay in Babylon, the northern Israelite captives having been there for nearly 200 years, and the Judaens having been there for 70 living an agreeable lifestyle, as Jeremiah prophecied (28:4-7). Ezra 1-6 tells us of the small group who first returned, rebuilt the altar of the temple, and then began an effort to resurrect the temple itself (Alec Motyer, The Story of the Old Testament, p. 163).
However, this prophecy is also being fulfilled in our day through the Restoration of the gospel after the Great Apostacy, as well as in individual lives after their return from personal apostacy. We each can reap the beautiful promise offered by the Lord:
"For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. And I will be found of you, saith the Lord: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the Lord; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive" (29:11-14). Remember that the word "place" often has an underlying meaning of "temple" in the Old Testament. We can each be returned to the temple from the captivity of our sinfulness if we seek the Lord diligently.
A MESSAGE OF HOPE FOR PARENTS
"I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people...I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee [to me]" (31:1, 3).
Jeremiah 31 is full of beautiful images of the redemption of the Lord and the return of his people. I see an especially hopeful message to parents of wandering children: "A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Ra[c]hel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not" (31:15). Rachel was one of the matriarchs of the nation of Israel. Ramah was the place where the Israelites were gathered before their deportation. It was north of Jerusalem, possibly near to Rachel's grave. How many righteous latter-day saint parents have wept as they watched their children being herded off to Babylon by forces beyond their control? Fortunately, this is never the end of the story. "Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope [for thy future], saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border" (31:16-17).
"And it shall come to pass, that like as I have watched over them, to pluck up, and to break down, and to throw down, and to destroy, and to afflict; so will I watch over them, to build, and to plant, saith the Lord" (31:28).
This promise of the Lord is shown in this oft-quoted statement, repeated most recently by Elder Eyring in October 2009 General Conference: "Elder Orson F. Whitney, in a general conference of 1929, gave a remarkable promise, which I know is true, to the faithful parents who honor the temple sealing to their children: 'Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold...Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.'"
THE NEW COVENANT
"Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah" (31:31). This covenant would not be a law of outward observances, like the Law of Moses (31:32), but a complete transformation of the soul. This difference is shown in latter-day temple worship. Beyond offering sacrifices of animals or birds to redeem them from sin, the latter-day templegoers are offering the consecration of not only everything they possess, but their whole beings, not to simply return them to a sinless state, but to elevate them to a godly state.
"After those days [any statement like this usually refers to the latter days], saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people" (31:33).
There will be no more need for missionary work. "And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord" (31:34).
How sure is this prophecy? The Lord tells us. "If heaven above can be measured [it can't], and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath [they can't], I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done" (31:37). In other words, Israel will never be cast away permanently. The redemption of Christ will always be available to her. This is true even in an individual sense. Some may think their sins are beyond the reach of the redemption of Christ, that their hearts can never be purified, but the Lord's mercy and power are endless.
JOURNEY BACK TO ZION
The journey that many of us in the latter days must make to reach a state of purification is symbolized in the story of the engraver of the Salt Lake Temple, John R. Moyle.
"John R. Moyle lived in Alpine, Utah, about 22 miles as the crow flies to the Salt Lake Temple, where he was the chief superintendent of masonry during its construction. To make certain he was always at work by 8 o’clock, Brother Moyle would start walking about 2 a.m. on Monday mornings. He would finish his work week at 5 p.m. on Friday and then start the walk home, arriving there shortly before midnight. Each week he would repeat that schedule for the entire time he served on the construction of the temple." (Jeffrey R. Holland, "As Doves to Our Windows," Ensign, May 2000.)
Likely, Brother Moyle would have traveled across the mountain from Alpine to present-day Draper, and on across the Salt Lake Valley to Temple Square. The journey he took can be followed on Google Maps. Click on "Get Directions," type "Alpine, Utah" as Point A, "Draper Temple, Utah" as Point B, click on "Add Destination," and type "Historic Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah" as the final destination. It is a 20-minute winding journey by car from Alpine to Draper today, and another 30 minutes, mostly on the freeway, from Draper to Temple Square, although Brother Moyle's route was probably a little more direct.
Brother Moyle would have traversed weekly:
"Once when he was home on the weekend, one of his cows bolted during milking and kicked Brother Moyle in the leg, shattering the bone just below the knee. With no better medical help than they had in such rural circumstances, his family and friends took a door off the hinges and strapped him onto that makeshift operating table. They then took the bucksaw they had been using to cut branches from a nearby tree and amputated his leg just a few inches below the knee. When against all medical likelihood the leg finally started to heal, Brother Moyle took a piece of wood and carved an artificial leg. First he walked in the house. Then he walked around the yard. Finally he ventured out about his property. When he felt he could stand the pain, he strapped on his leg, walked the 22 miles to the Salt Lake Temple, climbed the scaffolding, and with a chisel in his hand hammered out the declaration 'Holiness to the Lord.'" (ibid.)
Likewise, we find ourselves maimed by the world as we go about our daily lives. We must sometimes enlist the aid of loved ones to amputate the damaged, infectious parts of ourselves, our habits of sin, and replace them with new habits, painstakingly carved one day at a time, in order to make that long walk to back to God. But as we do so, the Lord meets our efforts with the grace of his Atonement, and we are able to climb up the scaffolding to the temple and reach a state of "holiness to the Lord."
This is the promise of the Lord in Jeremiah. "Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the [ends] of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall return thither. They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of [living] waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn" (31:8-9).