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Jeremiah 31:22

"How long wilt thou go about, O thou backsliding daughter? for the LORD hath created a new thing in the earth, A woman shall compass a man."

What is this referring to?

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Ahh!! This is a difficult and tricky phrase which has flummoxed many exegetes. There is no agreement among any group of interpreters about what this means. For example, does Jer 31:22d mean -

  • The woman is Mary "surrounding" (being pregnant with) Messiah? (Benson)
  • "Israel, the erring but repentant wife, shall woo her Divine husband" (Ellicott, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, Gill)
  • The female will protect the strong man (Barnes)
  • The church prevailing over its enemies (Matthew Poole)
  • "by a very slight change in the Heb. vocalisation, obtain the rendering, a woman shall be turned into a man, i.e. shall be given the courage of a man, so that all fear and hesitation on her part may be at an end." (Cambridge)
  • "instead of shyly keeping aloof, or worse (as hitherto), Israel, Jehovah's bride, shall, with eager affection, press around her Divine husband." (Pulpit)

... and so forth. (There are many more!) None of these are consistent with the context of the earlier part of the chapter.

So, here is my two cents worth, since this site encourages the expression of views about such matters.

Context

The earlier part of Jer 31 (V1-22) is uniformly about the return of sinful, wayward, back-slidden Israel to their homeland, and faithfulness to God, following the Babylonian captivity. Any interpretation must fit within that context.

Verb סָבַב (sabab)

The translation of this Hebrew verb, in this instance in Piel imperfect tense/aspect. This verb is used in two closely related senses (extracted from BDB)

  1. to encompass or surround something
  2. to turn around or return to something

The simplest solution, consistent with the context is the second meaning, thus creating the translation (with my explanation in brackets):

the woman (exiled Israel/Judah) will return to the man/husband (ie, God)

I note that this is the understanding of the NIV and NLT. The tacit cultural back-story is that a divorced/separated woman does not and could not return to he husband, especially in view of the explicit prohibition (Deut 24:1-4) - that is why it is a "new thing".

[Indeed, in the absence of an intervening marriage, the story of Hosea shows that a wayward wife returning to he husband is very unusual.]

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Looking at the various interpretations and commentaries of Jeremiah 31:22 can lead to a sense of awe at the richness of the word of God, such that the depth of revelation in a single verse of Scripture cannot be plumbed by any one person or perspective. Without intending to discredit anyone else’s, I want to share my own understanding of Jer 31:22, with the knowledge that this effort too will fall short of fully capturing the shades of meaning in the text.

The theme in Jeremiah 31 is the relationship between God and his people. This relationship is often depicted in Scripture in terms of the relationship between man and wife (Hos 2:19, Is 54:5), and verse 22 is understood in this light. The virgin/woman is considered to be representative of Israel, and the man of God.

In the first section of Jeremiah 31, the relationship between God and his people is like a dance wherein God leads and his people follow. God draws forth, and they are built/rebuilt (vv 3-4). He brings/gathers; they come/return (vv 8-9). In the ebb and flow of their relationship, God calls into being a new thing: a woman, Israel, compasses a man, God.

This new thing is a new dynamic in the relationship between God and his people. However, what it refers to is not fixed but changes depending upon one’s point of view. Approaching the text from a historical perspective yields the most straightforward interpretation. Whereas before they were wayward and backsliding, a woman compasses a man is an image of Israel turning back to God and encircling His altar in faithful worship.

I will wash my hands in innocence, And I will go around Your altar, Lord – Ps 26:6

But this image begins to shift when we consider Jeremiah 31 in terms of a Messianic prophecy. As such, the new thing that God has created relates to the pivotal event in the relationship between God and his people: the birth of the Messiah. Here, Israel compasses her God in that the Messiah will come forth from the midst of Israel (cf Is 9:6, Mi 5:2). But the words could also refer to Mary, who is herself a representative and paragon of Israel. Consider how the words “Blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Deut 28:4 YLT), words that were promised to Israel, are applied to Mary in the NT (Lk 1:42). [See interpretation of the Berleburger Bible, cited in the commentary of Keil and Delitzsch (biblehub)].

There is yet another way to approach the text of Jer 31:22 and that is from a spiritual perspective. Here, the words are viewed through the lens of a spiritual rather than historical definition of Israel (Galatians 3:7-8). From this perspective, the image of a woman compassing a man refers to how each person in Christ is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), being built into a dwelling place for God and a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16, Eph 2:10-21, Jn 14:17).

Though they seem distinct, the concepts in one perspective are in some ways mirrored in the others; not surprising, since they are represented by the same words/imagery. In my opinion Jeremiah 31:22 captures the long history of God’s relationship with his people, from an Israel that is bound to temple and altar to one defined by faith. And at the center of it all is the Messiah, the true Israel of God.

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