Jeremiah 30:21 states—-and here I will quote the New Revised Standard Version because that is what I read in my daily quiet time—-“Their prince shall be one of their own, their ruler shall come from their midst; I will bring him near, and he shall approach me, for who would otherwise dare to approach me? says the LORD.”
The KJV is a bit different: “And their nobles shall be of themselves, and their governor shall proceed from the midst of them; and I will cause him to draw near, and he shall approach unto me: for who is this that engaged his heart to approach unto me? saith the LORD.” Whereas the NRSV presents God asking who would dare to approach God unless God brought him near, the KJV depicts the prince engaging his heart to approach God.
The LXX seems to apply to all of Israel what the MT relates to the prince. To quote Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint: “And their mighty ones shall be over them, and their prince shall proceed of themselves; and I will gather them, and they shall return to me: for who is this that has set his heart to return to me? saith the Lord.” God in the LXX is gathering to himself the people of Israel, not just the prince. Or the “them” whom God is gathering could be the mighty ones, but I think that it makes more sense to interpret the “them” as all of Israel, for soon before “them” in that verse is “themselves,” and that refers to Israel.
The HarperCollins Study Bible states in its commentary on v 21: “To approach God was normally a priestly prerogative (see Ex 29.4, 8; 40.12, 14; Lev 7.35). Cf. Ezekiel’s prince in Ezek 46.1-18.” John MacArthur in his study Bible similarly says that the Governor in Jeremiah 30:21 is approaching God as a priest. MacArthur goes so far as to suggest that this Governor is the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Jeremiah 30:21 surprised me somewhat, but it also baffled me a bit. I did not know that Jeremiah envisioned an eschatological paradise in which the prince would approach God as a priest. What I did not understand, however, was the part of the verse asking who would dare to approach God, or who would engage his heart to approach God. Why is that part there? What point is it making in its context? “It teaches us that we do not deserve to enter into the glorious presence of God,” someone might say. Sure, but why did Jeremiah throw that point in? What was its function within the passage, what Jeremiah was saying, and the historical situation that he was addressing?
Perhaps its function is to assure Israel that her representative—-the prince—-can approach God, in a time when Israel may be doubting this. Israel has just experienced devastation and exile. She has suffered from God’s holy hatred of sin, and she may feel unworthy to approach God, especially a God so glorious that no human being could casually approach him. God could be comforting Israel by reassuring her that her representative would be approaching him, and yet God wants to indicate that this is indeed a remarkable task, for who would approach so holy and glorious a God?
Suppose that part of the verse does not mean “who would otherwise dare to approach me” and instead means “who is this that engaged his heart to approach me”? Could the point be that the prince is taking the initiative in approaching God, that he recognizes his and his people’s need for God and thus approaches God in faith? It’s like Moses taking the initiative of going to the Tent of Meeting and seeking God’s face, when Israel is alienated from God due to the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 33). Is the prince taking leadership as a man of God, as Moses did? Well, perhaps. I read one commentary that suggested that. But Jeremiah 30:21 is not just saying that the prince is approaching God, but that God is drawing the prince to him. It’s not just about the prince’s initiative, but God’s invitation and initiative. God is making the first move. Could the point of Jeremiah 30:21 be that no one would approach God, unless God first drew that person? Does God want to emphasize his drawing of people to himself to comfort Israel that God loves and cares for her, or to stress that God deserves glory for Israel (or actually her representative) coming to him?
But why is God changing the rules and letting the ruler approach him, when before that only the priests could? Well, perhaps it is hasty to assume that a king could not perform a priestly function before the exile. There were biblical authors who believed that only priests could approach God in the sanctuary, but there are also parts of the Bible where kings do priestly things, such as wearing an ephod or blessing the people. See my post here about Psalm 110, where the Davidic king (presumably, according to certain historical-critical interpretations) is said to be of the priesthood of Melchizedek.
Or maybe Jeremiah’s point is that, in Israel’s eschatological restoration, there will be greater intimacy between Israel and God. Jeremiah 33:21-22 envisions the restoration of the Levitical priesthood, so there will be Levites in Jeremiah’s eschatological paradise. But perhaps the point of Jeremiah 30:21 is that holy priests will not be standing between Israel and a holy God, for Israel’s representative, her prince, will be able to approach God. God in that case is identifying himself even more with Israel, a refreshing message, in light of Israel’s experience of God’s wrath.