The Holy City Shall Be Built (Jeremiah 33:48-40)
This is the ninth in a short series of posts dealing with the proper interpretation of Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). If you’re new to this subject (or to my blog), you’ll want to read the essay with which I introduced the series (just click here).
My goal in these eschatological adventures is two-fold.
First, I want to open up something of the Christ-centered truth and beauty of OTKP to my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Secondly, I want to reason a little with my premillennial brethren. In particular, I want to make the case that we all will best understand, enjoy, and profit from OTKP when we see that its true sphere of fulfillment is: 1) Christ, 2) the New Covenant he instituted by his blood, 3) the two-staged spiritual Kingdom he has already introduced (and will soon consummate), and, 4) the New Covenant community he is creating out of elect Jews and Gentiles: the Church.
In short, I would like my premillennial brothers to reconsider the amillennial approach to the interpretation of OTKP.
Since the end of the age will soon be upon us, it is important that we stand together as much as possible. Seeing eye to eye on eschatology would definitely help. These essays—and the book in progress from which they are extracted—represent my best effort at contributing to that worthy goal.
Since the prophetic texts I deal with are quite long, I have not reproduced them here. You will need to bring an open Bible to each blog. My hope and prayer is that you will enjoy them all
The Holy City Shall Be Built
Jeremiah 30-33 contains a great many OT prophecies of the Kingdom, strung together like the pearls of a beautiful necklace. Owing to its concrete historical imagery, this one is especially difficult. Is it amenable to a spiritual, New Covenant interpretation, or must we look for a literal fulfillment in a future millennium?
The Problem in a Nutshell
On the one hand, we can see from verse 40 that this is indeed an OTKP. God is clearly speaking of his eschatological City, a City that will not be plucked up or overthrown any more forever. In other words, according to the New Covenant Hermeneutic, he is actually speaking of the Church.
On the other hand, because this prophecy specifically mentions a number of geographical landmarks familiar to the Jews of Jeremiah’s day, it hardly seems possible that God could be referring to the Church; that he must instead be predicting a latter day restoration of physical Jerusalem, perhaps along the lines anticipated by premillenarians.
Two Dead Ends
How, then, are we to resolve this quandary?
One tempting solution is to argue that the prophecy is partly historical and partly eschatological; that it blends predictions of the restoration of Jerusalem under Nehemiah with predictions of the upbuilding, sanctification, and eternal security of the New Jerusalem, the Church (Rev. 21:1f).
However, upon closer inspection it soon becomes clear there really is no way to determine which phrase or sentence of this prophecy is historical and which is eschatological. Yes, there may be an allusion to the restoration of Jerusalem under Nehemiah (Neh. 3:1, 12:39). But if we desire to preserve the integrity and perspicuity of our text, our only recourse is to view it as completely historical or completely eschatological. It cannot be both. Therefore, since verse 40 clearly marks it as eschatological, we conclude that this is indeed an OTKP through and through.
As for the premillennial solution, it too fails. For quite apart from NT teaching on the simple, two-fold structure of the Kingdom, the text itself explicitly states that this City will endure forever, and not for a mere one thousand years.
Some premillenarians would, perhaps, be willing to affirm the perpetuity of an earthly Jerusalem. But as we have seen over and again, this would immediately entangle them even further in the morass of prophetic literalism, since the Jerusalem of most OTKP is a city where priests and Levites perpetually minister, where animal sacrifices are perpetually offered, and where Feast Days are perpetually observed. However, according to the NT, all these institutions are forever obsolete. But if they are obsolete, then so too is the (earthly) city with which they are everywhere associated in the OT (John 4:21, Gal. 4:25).
Good NT logic drives us, then, to the conclusion that this is an OTKP in which God is indeed speaking of the eschatological upbuilding and final state of the Church. But how exactly are we to interpret the details?
A City for the LORD
In verse 38, God tells us that the City will be rebuilt for the LORD. This reminds us of Paul’s word to the Ephesians, that Christ, even now, is building up his Church to be a dwelling place for God by the Spirit; and that in the Age to Come, the Church will exist for the glory of God to all generations (Eph. 2:22, 3:20-21).
But what about the Tower of Hananel and the Corner Gate? What NT significance can we attach to these?
According to some commentators, these well-known landmarks stood on opposite ends of the old city; according to others, they stood at the opposite ends of the northern wall. In either case, the idea here seems to be that the whole city will belong to the LORD. And indeed this is the thrust of the entire prophecy, which declares that the City and all of its environs will be holy to the LORD.
The NT supplies us with the meaning: The whole Church—and the whole world she inhabits—will one day be without spot or blemish or any such thing, but will have the very glory of God (v. 40, Joel 3:17, John 14:23, Eph. 2:21, 5:26-27, Rev. 21:2, 10-11).
The Hill of Gareb
In speaking of a measuring line that goes straight out to the hill of Gareb and then turns to Goah, verse 39 also alludes to the expansion of the Church, and to the complete healing of the world that she will inherit in the regeneration: Through Christ, God will swallow up all things—even death itself—in victory (Dan. 9:25, Mt. 13:31-33, Rom. 8:18f, 1 Cor. 15:54, Col. 2:19, Rev. 5:9).
This message becomes clear as we further consult the details. For example, commentators tell us that Gareb was a hill to the northwest of Jerusalem where lepers dwelt; and that Goah was the place of capital punishment. If so, the idea here would be that the Redeemer’s mighty arm will extend to the vilest offenders and the worst sufferers: Upon condition of simple faith in Him, He will gladly gather them all into the healing precincts of the Holy City, (Mt. 11:5, 28, Luke 15:1-2, 1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Hinnom Itself, Holy to the LORD
Verse 40 certainly seems to confirm this line of interpretation, telling us that the sacred environs will even include the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom. This was the garbage dump of Jerusalem, a place of fire, refuse, and stench, long ago cursed and defiled by king Josiah, since there the apostate Jews had caused their children to “pass through the fire” to the Ammonite god, Molech; and there they had buried their remains (2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 32:35).
Here, then, in thickly veiled imagery, God promises that Christ, at his return in power and judgment, will transform even Topheth—and every other defiled corner of his universe—into New Heavens and a New Earth, the home of righteousness (Mt. 13:41, Phil. 3:21, 2 Peter 3:10, Rev. 21:1-5).
In that happy Day, all the earth—and all the City of the saints who inhabit it—will be holy to the LORD, forever (Rev. 21:2, 10).
By way of conclusion, we should note that this OT Kingdom prophecy is quite similar to two others found in Zechariah, both of which deal with eschatological Jerusalem (14:9-11, 29-21). Yet in Zechariah’s prophecies, it is even more clear that the prophet is looking ahead to the eschaton—to the World to Come—and that he does so using richly symbolic language that points mysteriously to the things of Christ and his Holy Bride/City, the Church.
We find, then, that the great German commentator, C. F. Keil (1807-1888), was quite right to sum up the message of this prophecy as follows:
The prophecy does not refer to the building of Jerusalem after the exile, but to the erection of a more spiritual Kingdom of God in the Messianic age. Indeed, it reaches to the time when the Kingdom of God shall have been perfected. It contains under an Old Testament dress the outlines of the image of the heavenly Jerusalem that John saw on Patmos in its full glory.
In so speaking, Keil shows himself a master of the New Covenant Hermeneutic.
We do well, I think, to follow his lead.