Does that phrase roll off your tongue without much thought? Yeah, she likes to hear it, and it settles a lot of potential arguments.

Or, how about the way you start a letter — even to someone you hardly know — with the word Dear? Like, “Dear IRS. . .”

I’d like to remind you that dear is really a very dear expression. I’m using the word with a different meaning here: dear as expensive, costly, precious. It’s used that way in the United Kingdom more than in the US: “I paid a dear price for this dress”; or “Driving under the influence cost him dearly.” This is actually closer to the original meaning of the word. The Old English deor comes from a German root that means costly or precious, which seems to have the original idea of valuable or weighty, as a precious jewel might be.

This sense that the basic meaning of our word had to do with substance, with something that really matters, is behind the fact that, changing the vowels a little, the same root word comes out as dire, as in a “dire outcome,” or a “dire disease.” Next time you say “Yes, Dear,” to someone you care about, you’d better mean it, or there may be dire consequences.

The Hebrew language has an equivalent word. It’s used more than twenty times in the Old Testament to describe costly jewels or expensive clothing. There is only one time when it is used to refer to a person, and in that instance, our English translations use the word dear:

Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he the child I delight in? (Jeremiah 31:20)

Why does the Prophet Jeremiah single out Ephraim with the descriptive word which means precious, valuable? Why does this particular one of the Patriarchs of Israel matter especially? Why is he someone the Lord focuses on?

We will only add to the mystery if we go back to the first book of the Bible and see how Ephraim’s grandfather Joseph blessed him in a special way, above his older brother and above his uncles (Genesis 48:8-22). This isn’t explained very well in the historical record, but apparently, Jacob was looking down through generations to a special symbolic role Ephraim played in God’s unfolding plan of salvation.

Somehow, Jeremiah saw that role as well. He mentions Ephraim four times in Chapter 31 (verses 6, 9, 18, 20) as the special object of God’s forgiveness and redemption. Ephraim symbolizes those whom God considers dear in a profoundly special way.

Immediately after this conversation about a symbolic Ephraim who is uniquely dear to God, Jeremiah comes out with the dramatic prophecy of the “NEW COVENANT” God promises to establish with his Eternal People:

It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt . . . . But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
(Jeremiah 31:32-34)

When Jesus hosted the Lord’s Supper with his disciples, he said:

This is the NEW COVENANT in my blood.
(Matthew 26:28; also 1 Corinthians 11:25)

And the author of Hebrews, after quoting from Jeremiah’s New Covenant text, reminded the First Century believers and us:

Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one. . . . In speaking of “a new covenant,” he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:6-7, 13)

So, my conclusion is that the NEW COVENANT Jeremiah prophesied about is between Jesus Christ and his Church (us). And Ephraim is you and me. We are the ones he identifies as DEAR, valued, special, precious, mattering enough that he was willing to die for us.

He’s calling you. When you answer him with “Yes, Dear!” you’d better mean it.

– Pastor George Van Alstine