Missions: Commentary on verse 10 of Jeremiah 31
What do the words in Jeremiah 31:10 about distant coastlands mean to us today?
When the Hebrews heard the words "distant coastlands"1 recorded in Jeremiah 31, they did not think of enormous cruise ships leisurely wandering around the Caribbean. They did not think about Facebook posts by friends on a cruise ship somewhere or vacationing in Hawaii or on idyllic Greek islands.
For most Israelites, talking about proclaiming the name of the Lord in "distant coastlands" would have been way outside their comfort zone. What they likely thought about was how far away those coastlands might be. They would also have been thinking of the difficulties God's messengers would encounter in getting to places to fulfill the proclamation: "Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim His praise in the islands" -- Isaiah 42:12.
As we know from the Gospel story of Jesus calming the storm, a trip across the Sea of Galilee -- which is about the same size as Seneca Lake in New York state -- could be a harrowing experience. Or, think about Jonah's story. Then there is the abundance of folklore about sea monsters and ancient maps with drawings of fearsome creatures devouring ships and sailors. As to the time frame for journeys, Paul's trip from the port of Caesarea across the Mediterranean to Rome took six months.
Clearly, in the Old Testament, there is an understanding that God's name was to be recognized and proclaimed and exalted everywhere. Isaiah talked about it. The Israelites sang about it in Psalm 97:1, "The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice."
As for Jeremiah, he prophesied right before and after the Babylonians overran Jerusalem. Rather than being tightly focused on one event, Jeremiah had words for far beyond that moment. In the same chapter in which he talks about the coming New Covenant, Jeremiah echoes the words of Isaiah 42 and Psalm 97:1 by writing, "Hear the word of the Lord, you nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands." Jeremiah's combination of the New Covenant theme with talk about the nations hearing the word of the Lord foreshadows Christ's Great Commission.
Some believers excuse their non-involvement in world evangelism by saying, "We have to reach those at home first." These passages in Psalms, Isaiah, and Jeremiah about distant shores and the islands of the sea clearly disagree with such isolationist thinking.
The Great Commission to go and evangelize all peoples would not have been a surprise to anyone versed in the Old Testament. Psalms, the book most quoted in the New Testament, points us to world evangelism. Isaiah, the second most quoted book in the New Testament, points us to the far corners of the earth. Jeremiah, whose reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem earned him the label "weeping prophet," looked beyond the devastation of his beloved city to places far away that needed to hear the word of the Lord.
As we reflect on these Old Testament passages, we must ask: Is my local church doing the right things to ensure the fulfillment of these calls to action? Is what I am doing lead others to heed the call to proclaim the word of the Lord in faraway places?
1"Distant coastlands" is the NIV wording. Phrases used in other English Bible translations include "lands far away acros the sea," "far-away shores," and "nations across the sea."-- Howard Culbertson,
This mini-essay on a world missions Bible passage is one of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series published in Engage magazine. That series explores what the Bible says about missions.