Q. God said through Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night … Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will Israel ever cease being a nation before me.” But there are many portions of Scripture that say that the sun, moon, and stars someday will cease to shine. So, my question is, when will Israel cease from being a nation? Can you help me understand the context and time frame in which this will happen, assuming it will happen?
Personally I would not connect what God says through Jeremiah in this passage with the larger question of how God’s covenant promises to Israel relate to the culmination of God’s redemptive purposes in the coming of Jesus and the creation of the church as a covenant community composed of people from all nations. I believe that God is speaking here to the Israelites within the context of their own lives and experience. And within that experience, the sun, moon, and stars effectively will not cease to shine. And so God is able to appeal to their endless duration (endless from a human perspective) as a guarantee for the promises he is making.
This statement comes within a longer passage whose overall concern is the return of the Israelites from exile. It begins: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you. The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,’ says the Lord.” The concern at the time was that Israel would indeed cease to be a nation: Its exiled people would be dispersed throughout large empires, they would never return home, and their identity would be lost. God is promising that that will never happen, and to guarantee that promise, he is appealing to something else that, within the framework of the people’s experience, would never happen either. This approach is sometimes described as “divine condescension,” with the word “condescension” not used in a negative sense, but to mean that God graciously and generously relates to us within the context of our own experience.
I think there is a comparable example in Psalm 72. That psalm is a prayer for the king of Israel, perhaps meant to be offered for each new king as he takes the throne. It says, in part: “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice. … May he endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.” Clearly this reference to the sun and the moon is not meant to specify a time period of limited duration on the basis that the sun and moon will not endure forever. After all, the poetic parallel to that reference is “through all generations.” Instead, this is the equivalent of the expression we see in several other places in the Bible, “May the king live forever!” The reference is just being made within the framework of an earthly perspective.
So what God really wanted to say through Jeremiah to the Israelites was that they would not be dispersed in exile at that time and lose their identity as a nation. God was promising, in terms they could understand, that he would never let that happen. And he did not. God brought them back from exile and re-established them in the same land in which they had been living. From there, God fulfilled his promise to send the Messiah, Jesus.
As I said at the beginning, I feel it is a separate question how God’s covenant promises to Israel relate to the culmination of God’s redemptive purposes in the coming of Jesus and the creation of the church as a covenant community composed of people from all nations. Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, give different answers to that question, and there would not be room in this post even to give a brief sketch of the range and scope of those answers. But I think we can say with assurance both that God will fulfill all of his covenant promises to Israel and that God wants the community of the redeemed to be “a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”