"Thus says the LORD, 'The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness - Israel, when it went to find its rest.' The LORD appeared to him from afar, saying 'I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness… With weeping they will come, and by supplication I will lead them; I will make them walk by streams of waters, on a straight path in which they will not stumble; for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn.'" - Jeremiah 31:2-3, 9
At first glance, it appears that this prophecy of Jeremiah is aimed at the people of Judah who went into exile under the Babylonians. But a closer look reveals that it's literal reference is to the northern tribes of Israel who were taken captive by the Assyrians and forced to live in the northern and north-eastern parts of the Assyrian Empire in 732 and then in 722 BC. It is to these tribes, sometimes called after the most prominent tribe of Ephraim and collectively called Israel as opposed to the tribe of Judah, that the prophecy relates, at least as to its surface meaning.
"So what does this have to do with me?" you might ask. Let me explain. After the kingdom of Israel was divided, when Rehoboam succeeded Solomon on the throne in Jerusalem, the ten northern tribes - all except Judah and Simeon - formed a kingdom under Jeroboam. Jereboam didn't want the people of the northern tribes to travel to Jerusalem for the major holy days as they were used to doing, so he made two idols and put one in the southern and one in the northern part of his kingdom and consecrated a new priesthood to serve these gods. This greatly encouraged idolatry and apostasy in the northern tribes. God sent prophets such as Elijah, Elisha, Hosea and Amos to plead with them to return to Him but they were adamant in their refusals. While they were members of the covenant nation, they were behaving as the nations around them.
Finally, the threatened judgment came upon them and the Assyrians, in two separate actions, removed the leading portion of the population, leaving behind the poorest people, and sent them into exile. While in exile, they became so mixed with the nations around them that in fact they were little distinguishable from those nations. Yet God said they would return. Did they? Yes, it is true that some of those whom the Assyrians left behind ended up moving south into Judah. We have evidence of that in Luke 1:36 where Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher (one of the northern tribes) testified concerning Jesus when He was brought as a baby by His parents to Jerusalem to be dedicated to God. Also, the Apostle Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5;see also 2 Chronicles 30:10-11, 21; 35:17-18). The rest of the northern tribes, from the poorest of the land, intermarried with foreigners that the Assyrians imported from elsewhere in their empire to repopulate region. These later became known as "the Samaritans". So one part of the northern tribes moved south to become mixed together with Judah, another part stayed in their ancestral lands but intermarried with foreign peoples and the rest became mixed with the peoples in northern Assyria and parts of Persia. These were the so-called "lost tribes of Israel."
So to whom is God referring here in this prophecy? The northern tribes had, in effect, become no different than the "Gentiles" or idolatrous nations. In prophecy, from that point onward, since it could not be known who might be a member of Israel and who wasn't, because they had mixed with the nations, God's redemption of the Gentiles was often referred to in terms of His redemption of the northern tribes. The Apostles understood this. Paul took a prophecy that, from a literal sense, referred to the "lost" northern tribes of Israel and applied it without hesitation to the Gentiles (compare Romans 9:23-26 withHosea 1:8-10 and 2:23). Therefore, as we look at this prophecy, we should not expect a literal fulfillment of the northern tribes, still intact, coming back to live in what today is known as the West Bank. So how is it fulfilled? It is fulfilled by the Lord leading people to Himself, treating them as though they were members of the covenant nation of Israel, speaking to them in terms of His covenant love: "'I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness…'" Many have read those words and applied them to themselves, even though they were not literally Israelites, descendants of Jacob. In so doing, were they taking the words out of their context and misapplying them to themselves? Not at all! The Lord did draw them to Himself. Jesus spoke concerning the crucifixion He was about to endure, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself." (John 12:32)
God, through Jeremiah, says "With weeping they will come, and by supplication I will lead them…" When the Holy Spirit moves in a person's life, He will often bring them to tears as they see how their sins have hurt others and especially their loving Lord. This will inspire them to pray for forgiveness and cleansing from their sins. But this is only the beginning of God's work. He does not intend to leave them in sorrow and longing but will lead them into the joy of their salvation: "I will make them walk by streams of waters, on a straight path in which they will not stumble…" The "rest" and refreshing they will receive beside the spiritual streams of water will answer their cries for help. The "straight path" upon which the Lord will set them, will bring them out of the wilderness in which they have long languished.
Still, it was "in the wilderness" that they found grace. It was not while they were enjoying the good things of life that their hearts were softened toward God. No, rather, it was when God's guiding hand led them into a time of suffering, disappointment, grief, loss, frustration or a sense of despair. While this can harden people even more against the Lord, in those that these things have their intended effect, a humility is born and a sense that the created things are not of ultimate value, as they once thought. Instead, they are reminded of their Creator and of their absolute need of Him. The truth is that the created things that we so admired and so sought after are, when we do not know God or love Him first, a wilderness. It is only when our spiritual eyes are opened and we see we have been chasing mirages in the wilderness that we are in a condition to really seek the Lord.
And how wonderfully this prophecy concludes: "for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn." Rather than merely referring to a small group of people descended from the ten northern tribes of Israel; a people who have disappeared forever either into the tribe of Judah, the Samaritans or the Gentiles, it ultimately refers to God's desire to save all peoples, in every nation. He is their father and is treasured by Him as a father of those days treasured his firstborn. When, after His resurrection, the Apostles asked Jesus if it was then that the kingdom would be restored to Israel, He replied, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth." (Acts 1:7-8) Israel had been dispersed - into Jerusalem and Judea, into Samaria, and into the remotest parts of the earth - but God would gather them back to Himself through the preaching of the gospel and the outpouring of His Spirit upon "all flesh" (Joel 2:28-29)
Please stop a moment and read again the wonderful words of the prophecy and realize how much the Father loves you and wants you to come to Him! He regards you as His child and longs to be merciful toward you and bring you into the true "promised land", His kingdom of "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:17)