Sorrow Turned to Comfort and Joy
Jeremiah 31:7-26 tells us how to sleep well at night knowing everything is going to be OK.
Sometimes it’s hard to find anything to be joyful about. When you or someone you love is sick, or you’ve just experienced the loss of a loved one, “joyful” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Instead, we’re more likely to think of “sorrow.”
But God’s promise to his people is that our sorrow will be turned into comfort and joy. God’s promise isn’t to take our tragedy and turn it into something we’re happy about but to lead us from a place of sorrow to a place of comfort and joy.
Christmas, for example, is a holiday that is all about comfort and joy, yet it has a sorrowful dark beginning that is rarely told.
After the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem, the angels warned them not to return to Herod in a dream. In Matthew 2:16, it says:
Then Herod, when he realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men.
So the Christmas story, as joyful as it is, starts as a story of grief and sorrow. And as Matthew recalls the tragic events, he thinks of the words of Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be consoled, because they are no more (verse 18).
So, while Mary and Joseph and the wise men were celebrating the birth of Jesus in Egypt, the town of Bethlehem was weeping. And they can’t be comforted because their suffering is so intense.
To fully understand the connection Matthew is making with Rachel, we need a little background information. Rachel was the wife of Jacob, and she became pregnant with Benjamin. Unfortunately, the pregnancy was difficult, and she died while giving birth in Ramah, a little-known town just outside of Bethlehem.
When Rachel died, she lost her children. She was separated from them, and so she wept over her loss. Rachel is a symbol of any person who has ever experienced the loss of a loved one— the loss of a child, the loss of a friend, the loss of a parent or a spouse.
Now, the point of this message isn’t to convince us that death and suffering can become good things. The truth is, answers to why God allows terrible things to happen are complicated and difficult. Not even Jeremiah had all the answers, but he knew where to turn for comfort.
So the message for us is that we can be comforted by God’s grace. Our tears of sorrow can turn to tears of joy. Not because we all of a sudden see the tragedy of what we’ve gone through as good, but because the God of all comfort will give us new experiences to laugh and rejoice about.
Jeremiah 31:16–17 says:
Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for the reward for your work will come— this is the Lord’s declaration— and your children will return from the enemy’s land. There is hope for your future— this is the Lord’s declaration— and your children will return to their own territory.
During the days of Jeremiah, Ramah was a refugee camp. It’s where the Babylonians took their prisoners before the long forced march to Babylon. Mothers were separated from children. Starvation and disease were rampant. Families were in despair. So Rachel wept.
The misery of God’s people was real and needed to be acknowledged, but there was still hope for a bright future. Lasting comfort was promised to them, if not in this life, in the next. Sometimes our grief is so severe that we will carry it to the grave, but eventually, our sorrow will turn to joy.
So God’s promise to his people is that while we may weep now, our tears will not last forever. There is hope for a better tomorrow as God gives his people comfort.
There are nine ways in Jeremiah 31 that God promises to comfort his people.
1. Comfort of Worship
Jeremiah 31:7 tells us the faithful sing for joy and receive comfort as they worship. “Sing with joy for Jacob; shout for the foremost of the nations!” The meaning of “foremost of the nations” is not just those who have survived but those who are regarded as foremost by remaining faithful.
Jeremiah 31:12–13 says:
They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion...the young women will rejoice with dancing, while young and old men rejoice together.
These public displays of worship aren’t just for show. They shout and sing and dance praises out of genuine joy to their God. And in verse 23, God says they worship him with specific words.
When I restore their fortunes, they will once again speak this word in the land of Judah and in its cities: ‘May the Lord bless you, righteous settlement, holy mountain.’
“May the Lord bless you, righteous settlement, holy mountain” is a quote from Psalm 48. So it’s like the people worship God corporately out of their version of a hymnal!
Every Sunday, we gather together to receive comfort from worship. There is no substitute for singing praises to God and being reminded of his grace for the Christian. We may feel like we need to be alone after a particularly tough week or an upsetting event, but the quickest path to recovery is through worshiping with God’s people.
How often have I forced myself (before becoming a pastor) to go to a church event that I didn’t feel like going to? But after I went, I was sure glad I did because God gives us comfort through our worship together.
2. Comfort of Answered Prayer
In the second half of verse 7, Jeremiah says, “Proclaim, praise, and say, ‘Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel!’” In other words, God’s people are specifically told to pray for salvation, and if they do, God promises to answer.
Jeremiah 31:8 says:
Watch! I am going to bring them from the northern land. I will gather them from remote regions of the earth.
God’s people are encouraged to pray and will be comforted by the assurance that he answers. Perhaps when you became a Christian, you prayed a prayer like this:
“Lord, I admit I am a sinner. I need and want Your forgiveness. I accept Your death as the penalty for my sin and recognize that Your mercy and grace is a gift You offer to me because of Your great love, not based on anything I have done. Cleanse me and make me Your child. By faith, I receive You into my heart as the Son of God and as Savior and Lord of my life. From now on, help me live for You, with You in control. In Your precious name, Amen.”
J.D. Greear says, “It’s not the prayer that saves; it’s the repentance and faith behind the prayer that lays hold of salvation.” So when a person prays in faith for salvation, God absolutely will save them. That’s a very comforting truth.
3. Comfort of Promised Preservation
In the second half of verse 8, it says:
...the blind and the lame will be with them, along with those who are pregnant and those about to give birth. They will return here as a great assembly!
God’s promise of preservation means he’s going to keep us alive until our tasks in this life are complete. So we don’t have to worry about dying before “our time.” For the Israelites, it meant that even the weakest among them would make it back home safely because God wasn’t finished with them yet.
The blind, the lame, and the pregnant are the last people we would expect to survive, yet they do because of God’s preservation. God has special care for those who are weak. So there is great comfort in knowing that God cares for the vulnerable because he will be faithful to accomplish all he sets out to achieve in their lives.
4. Comfort of Promised Return and Repentance
Returning to God and repenting go together. Repenting means turning and going in the opposite direction. So when God brought the Israelites home, they returned with repentant hearts; as it says in Jeremiah 31:9, “They will come weeping, but I will bring them back with consolation.”
Consolation is a word that means “supplication” or a humble request for mercy. In other words, God comforts or consoles us through the process of repentance.
Jeremiah 31:18–19 says:
I have surely heard Ephraim moaning, “You disciplined me, and I have been disciplined like an untrained calf. Take me back, so that I can return, for you, Lord, are my God. After my return, I felt regret; After I was instructed, I struck my thigh in grief. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”
These words of moaning are the words of repentant people. Ephraim, representing the people of Israel, especially those from the north, were on their way home to be comforted. And the main reason they receive comfort is that they come back to God with repentant hearts knowing God will forgive them.
True repentance involves recognition and remorse and the Israelites that returned, first of all, recognized their sinfulness. In other words, they didn’t try to make excuses for what they were. They were sinners, and they knew it.
But they also felt remorse. They didn’t just have an academic understanding of their sinfulness; they felt sorry and ashamed. They were humiliated and full of grief.
So through their repentance, they received comfort as all people do who get right with God. Nobody on their death bed is comforted by the fact of how “great” they are. As people near the end of their life struggle for each breath they are humbled to think about meeting their maker face-to-face.
But don’t wait until you are on your deathbed. Confess your sinfulness and let God welcome you back home today.
5. Comfort of Promised Forgiveness
Every sinner who truly repents receives forgiveness. Jeremiah 31:20 says:
Isn’t Ephraim a precious son to me, a delightful child? Whenever I speak against him, I certainly still think about him. Therefore, my inner being yearns for him; I will truly have compassion on him. This is the Lord’s declaration.
How could a good father fail to forgive his son? Even when God the Father thinks of the sins we’ve committed, his heart draws toward the fact that we are still his children. So his heart yearns for his children and has compassion on us.
Think of the prodigal son. When the son came home sorry for wasting his inheritance on worldly pleasures, the father “was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
So remember that through Jesus Christ, we are the Father’s adopted children. When we repent, he always welcomes us back and forgives us. That’s so comforting.
6. Comfort of Promised Guidance
Maybe, there is nothing more comforting than finding someone who knows the way when we're lost. God always knows the way and according to Jeremiah 31:9, he says,
I will lead them to wadis filled with water, by a smooth way where they will not stumble, for I am Israel’s Father, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
According to this verse, God’s promised guidance doesn't involve taking the most difficult path possible. Instead, he promises to lead his people along the smooth way where they will not stumble, and plenty of refreshment is available.
That’s good news, but don’t be presumptuous. If we stray from the path, we can expect trouble which is why we are encouraged in verse 21 to…
Set up road markers for yourself; establish signposts! Keep the highway in mind, the way you have traveled. Return, Virgin Israel! Return to these cities of yours.
Have you ever received bad directions? Maybe the directions you were given were good except for one minor detail—we were told to turn left when we should’ve turned right. People make mistakes, but God always gives good directions, and when we follow them faithfully, there is great comfort.
7. Comfort of a Promised Shepherd
This point is related to the last point of promised guidance but with a little more specificity.
In Jeremiah 31:10 it says:
Nations, hear the word of the Lord, and tell it among the far off coasts and islands! Say, “The one who scattered Israel will gather him. He will watch over him as a shepherd guards his flock.”
On our way home to God, the good shepherd promises not to scatter his people. Instead, he gathers us together, protects us, and watches over us.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd who watches over all his sheep. John 10:7 says Jesus is the gate for the sheep and “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” That’s the comfort of a promised shepherd.
8. Comfort from Promised Ransom and Redemption
The words ransom and redemption are two words for salvation but with different connotations, as seen in Jeremiah 31:11.
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and redeemed him from the power of one stronger than he.
“Ransom” is the word for money paid to a kidnapper. What’s the ransom? It’s the price we pay to get our loved ones back. “Redeem” is what a family member does to secure the release of a relative who has fallen into debt or slavery. It’s what Boaz did for Ruth when he married her to preserve the family line.
Matthew 20:28 says Jesus came “not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In other words, Jesus gave his life to buy his loved ones back. And Jesus also redeemed his people as it says in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us...”
So ransom and redemption are both family matters because we don’t redeem or pay the ransom of those we’re not related to. So Jesus had to become a man to redeem us, which is what I think Jeremiah’s getting at in verse 22:
How long will you turn here and there, faithless daughter? For the Lord creates something new in the land— a female will shelter a man.
This may sound a little unclear, but Jeremiah says the Lord will “create” something the world has never seen before—a female will shelter a man. While the language here is open for interpretation, what is more “new” than Jesus, the Son of God, when he was sheltered inside Mary’s womb?
Verse 22 references Jesus, the God-Man who came into the world to ransom and redeem his people and bring the most incredible comfort of all.
9. Comfort from God’s Provision
God’s promise to his people isn’t that they will barely scrape by but that they will be entirely provided for. So, for example, all the good food they can imagine will be theirs according to Jeremiah 31:12.
They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will be radiant with joy because of the Lord’s goodness, because of the grain, the new wine, the fresh oil, and because of the young of the flocks and herds. Their life will be like an irrigated garden, and they will no longer grow weak from hunger.
Verse 12 speaks of a time of great comfort and thanksgiving—a time when there will be unimaginable abundance and bounty. Even the priests will have plenty, according to Jeremiah 31:14.
I will refresh the priests with an abundance, and my people will be satisfied with my goodness. This is the Lord’s declaration.
Every November, we celebrate Thanksgiving with a delicious meal. Typically, as we celebrate, we focus on all of our past blessings, which is fine, but Thanksgiving isn’t all about the past for Christians. It’s about the future too.
The meal we all enjoy is a reminder of God’s past provision, but it’s also a shadow of the promise of God’s future provision. So even if we can’t enjoy all of the food or even when we’re not feeling particularly thankful, we can still celebrate by looking forward to the future fulfillment of God’s promises.
And that leads to one final point. We receive God’s promises by faith.
Received by Faith
When God told Rachel to dry her tears, he wasn’t just condescendingly comforting her. He wasn’t saying, “It’s OK, I’ve lost loved ones, too.” No, he was saying, “dry your eyes because I’m going to make everything right.”
He told her that her sorrow would be turned to comfort and joy because she would see her sons and daughters again. In fact, with the coming of the Messiah, one day, she would become part of a family more incredible than she ever imagined.
So God’s hope isn’t just a consoling hope; it’s real hope. Sometimes it’s difficult for us to have faith in the promises of God, especially when life is hard and full of suffering. But God promises our suffering will not last forever. Jeremiah 31:13 says:
I will turn their mourning into joy, give them consolation, and bring happiness out of grief.
This verse is similar to the promise of Matthew 5:4, which says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That’s God’s promise to us, which we receive by faith the way Jeremiah did.
By faith, Jeremiah was writing from Jerusalem. He was likely in some prison cell, and if he was able look out the window, all he saw was destruction and death. And yet he held on to God’s promises. He held on to God’s promise to “satisfy the thirsty person and feed all those who are weak.” And then verse 26 says, at this, Jeremiah awoke and looked around because “My sleep had been most pleasant to me.”
So receive the comfort of God and sleep well at night knowing that everything is going to be OK. Someday there will be no more tears, no more death, no more suffering—only joy. That’s God’s comforting promise for all his people.