Jeremiah 31:7-9

Our Life Support System

Richard Niell Donovan

I really like this scripture text from Jeremiah. It is God’s promise that he will save his people. I like stories about God saving his people, because I am one of his people. You are his people too. This scripture gives me hope. It should give you hope, as well.

To understand the scripture, you need to know its background. The Israelites were God’s people, and he watched over them closely. However, the Israelites disobeyed God, and he allowed them to be punished for their disobedience. Their punishment was quite severe. God allowed the Babylonians to defeat them in battle and to take them into captivity. The Babylonians took them on a forced march from their homeland and made them slaves in Babylon.

False prophets promised an early return from exile, but Jeremiah told the Israelites the truth—they would be in captivity for seventy years. The people who had marched from their homes in Israel to captivity in Babylon would die in slavery. Jeremiah therefore calls on the people to seek the welfare of Babylon and to pray for it—a very revolutionary idea to the Israelites—praying for their enemies.

But Jeremiah reassured the Israelites that God loved them and would redeem them as a people. Those who had committed the sins that resulted in their captivity would indeed die in slavery, but God would redeem the people in the next generation. God would bring them back to their home in Israel. God would include even the weakest and most vulnerable people among them—the blind, the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor. In other words, God’s salvation of his people would be complete.

Jeremiah said, “They shall come with weeping…” (31:9)—not tears of sadness but tears of joy. God said:

“I will cause them to walk by rivers of waters,
in a straight way in which they shall not stumble;
for I am a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn” (31:9).


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When I read this scripture, I was reminded of Terry Anderson, who spent almost seven years in prison in Beirut.

Anderson had been an agnostic, but had felt God’s hand drawing him to the church—even before his imprisonment—even in spite of his agnosticism. He tells of passing by a church while at home in England. He found himself drawn inside, where he meditated in silence. Not long afterwards, he returned to Beirut.

Then, on March 16, 1985, gunmen in Beirut grabbed him from the street and shoved him into the back seat of a waiting car. They took him to the small room that was to be his cell. They blindfolded and chained him. He couldn’t see anything, hear anything or talk to anybody. After several days of this terrible isolation, he protested. A guard asked what he wanted, and Anderson requested a Bible. Oddly enough, the guard granted the request—giving Anderson a Revised Standard Version Bible with a red cover.

Anderson read through the Bible completely—again and again—10 times—20 times—possibly 50 times. He gained an intimacy with the Bible that few people ever enjoy. He saw how this portion in the Old Testament related to that portion in the New Testament. The Bible began to come alive in his hands. The people of the Bible became his personal friends.

Anderson found special comfort in the letters which Paul had written from his prison cell, almost 2000 years earlier. Anderson’s earlier life had not been very exemplary, and he remembered with shame the way that he had treated people—and he found comfort in the Bible’s words of forgiveness.

Anderson’s days dripped away—slowly—slowly—one by one. He had good moments and terrible moments, but mostly he had moments—and hours—and days. They passed so slowly, and he had no reason to believe that he would ever be released.

Finally, on December 4, 1991, his captors did release him. When reporters asked if he could ever forgive his captors, he surprised us with his answer. He said, “Yes, as a Christian I am required to forgive, no matter how hard it may be.”

Anderson had entered prison one man, and had emerged from prison another man. He had entered prison an arrogant man and had emerged from prison a forgiving man. He had entered prison an agnostic, and had emerged from prison a Christian.

After he had been released from prison, he reflected on those changes and remembered another prisoner about whom he had read in the Bible. That prisoner was Joseph. Joseph’s brothers had sold Joseph into captivity in Egypt, intending to do him harm. Years later, when he finally confronted his brothers in Egypt, he said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” That was true for Joseph in his captivity; it was true for Paul in his captivity; and it was true for Terry Anderson in his captivity. In each case, God had been present with these prisoners in their cells, and had transformed their experience from evil to good.

Joseph had emerged from his cell to become second-in-command to Pharaoh. He was able to bring his family to Egypt where they would have food during the famine—and where they would grow into a great people—the great people of God.

Paul had not emerged from his prison cell, but his captivity gave him the solitude to write letters to churches and friends—and those letters became part of our New Testament. Paul’s hours of solitude were translated into words that have guided Christians through the centuries—and continue to guide us today.

Terry Anderson entered prison an agnostic—an unkind, unforgiving, harsh man. He emerged from prison a Christian who could say, “Yes, as a Christian I am required to forgive, no matter how hard it may be.”

I love the story of Terry Anderson, and I love these verses from Jeremiah. Both stories tell of captivity, and both stories tell of release and freedom.

Listen again to Jeremiah’s words. Keep in mind that he spoke to a people who were in captivity and who would be in captivity for many years. But they are not gloomy words, but are words of hope—words of joy. Jeremiah said “For thus says Yahweh”:

“Sing with gladness for Jacob,
and shout for the chief of the nations:
publish, praise,
and say, Yahweh, save your people,
the remnant of Israel” (31:7).

And then God promises:

“Behold, I will bring them from the north country,
and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth,
along with the blind and the lame,
the woman with child
and her who travails with child together:
a great company shall they return here” (31:8).

These words should encourage us. They were words of hope for the Israelites as they suffered through their captivity, and they should be words of hope to us as we suffer through our captivities.

You might ask, “What captivity? I am not in prison.” True enough! But in another sense, it is not true. We all go through captivity during our lives.

• The captivity of loneliness.
• The captivity of fear.
• The captivity of guilt.
• The captivity of illness.
• The captivity of too little time and too much responsibility.
• The captivity of too little money and too many bills.

It is all too easy for us to become imprisoned by our work, our amusements and our possessions. Our prison is the treadmill of busyness on which we walk—eyes always focused forward, never seeing the flowers at the side of the road—having no time for beauty but only for survival. Someone has called us consumer-captives. We are captives of the things that we have. We are captives, more especially, of the things that we want.

God’s prophet breaks into the darkness of our captivity with his great light, saying:

“Sing with gladness…
and say, Yahweh, save your people” (31:7).

And God does save us. He says:

“They shall come with weeping;
and with petitions will I lead them:
I will cause them to walk by rivers of waters,
in a straight way in which they shall not stumble” (31:9).

Many of you have experienced it. God has brought you from darkness into his great light. God has saved you, and is saving you every day. I have just begun to get acquainted, but you have begun to tell me your stories—and there are beautiful stories of salvation, even in this little congregation.

God has saved others of us in less dramatic ways. A woman said to me, “I was always raised in the church, and never experienced a dramatic conversion. I envy people who did, because it must be so exciting.”

I never experienced a dramatic conversion either, because I too was always raised in the church. God didn’t have to save me in a great and dramatic fashion, because he was always saving me by inches. But I too have experienced:

• The captivity of loneliness.
• The captivity of fear.
• The captivity of guilt.
• The captivity of illness.
• The captivity of too little time and too much responsibility.
• The captivity of too little money and too many bills.

But God has come to me day-by-day to save me from my captivity. He has said, “Come with me, and I will lead you beside streams of water—on a level path where you will not stumble.” He has saved me over and over again, and continues to save me every day.

God comes to you day-by-day to save you from your captivity. He says to you, as he said to me, “Come with me, and I will cause you to walk beside rivers of water—in a straight way where you will not stumble.”

Today, if you have not experienced God’s salvation, I invite you to come and do so. Come and find release from your captivity. Come and accept the freedom that God promises. Come and experience the freedom that God gives. Come and commit your life to him.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan