This is the penultimate Bible Study I delivered at Swanwick, Derbyshire, last summer.
God created a divers universe and world, and saw that they were good. God made humans in God’s image, male and female he made them, to express her own diversity, and to rule the earth as they would. That’s a complicated sentence (referring to God as ‘he’, ‘she’ and then ‘they’) but the doctrine of the Trinity is, of course, a recognition that diversity is built into the Deity. My colleague from Cambridge days, Nicholas Lash, once described the Trinity to me as two blokes and a bird! Anyway, the point is that God trusted us to act as God would. Big mistake! Power and pride and curiosity and a pile of other things got the better of humans, and, as a result of all this, murder erupted and other forms of violence towards other people and the whole created order.
God wills shalom: peace, wholeness. All created beings should live in peace with each other and in harmony with the universe. The easy thing would be to exclude humans from the process. But God seems to be reluctant to do that. So instead of giving up on the human experiment, he planned to redeem his error.
She created a people, the Jews, to be a light to the nations. And eventually, he elected a second people, Christians, to further this task. Meanwhile, there are hints that God’s love for other people wasn’t exhausted by these two choices. For example, in the book of Amos:
Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (9.7)
The special attention the Bible pays to God’s dealings with Jews and Christians isn’t to single them out for being especially good, or favored to the exclusion of all else. It is to take a major part in the task to help God recreate humans in God’s image.
This, then, is one influential and enthralling reading of the biblical story of the divine engagement with humans. One problem with it is that Jews and Christians have often no more been able to live up to God’s hopes than has anyone else, from Adam and Eve onwards.
But again, instead of abandoning the human experiment, God improvises and keeps on reminding recalcitrant Jews and Christians (as he does other people) of their obligations, and of their potential for good. In the Old Testament, the prophets were that group of people who kept bringing an often faithless people back to what God demands of them. They reminded Israel that God and his people had mutual obligations. One biblical way of expressing the prophets’ task was to have them emphasize the covenant that God had made with the Jews on Mount Sinai, to be his God, to look after them, and to tell them again and again that their responsibility was to obey God’s laws. Another way of looking at the prophets is to see them as the people’s moral conscience. Although they can often be caricatured as prissy scolds, that’s to do them an injustice. Basically, they were saying: If you don’t trust God, if you act in ways you know he disapproves of because they’re against your best interest, or if you second guess God and think you know better, then as sure as night follows day, you will bring disaster upon yourselves.
This means that prophets read the signs of the times. Unfortunately, we often turn them into a coven of Mystic Megs, gazing into crystal balls and foretelling the future, whether it be the birth of Jesus, or the date of Israel’s calamitous destruction at the hands of a great empire, or the end of the world, or whatever. This is to trivialize them and to put their importance in the wrong place. The point was not that they knew precise hours and dates of future events, but that they knew all about the likely results of the foolish and wicked things they presently saw in the events around them. Think of them as you would the father of an out-of-control teenager, saying, often to no effect: ‘If you carry on like this, then…’ He doesn’t know for sure when a bad thing will happen, but he surely knows that it must.
Jeremiah was late on the scene as a prophet. There had been prophets in Israel for over half a millennium before he was called by God, as a small boy, in about 626 BC. Moses is always a special case, but I reckon Jeremiah to be the greatest of prophets, a pain-filled and tragic figure. Ten of the original tribes of Israel had already disappeared into history when, almost a century before Jeremiah’s birth, the Assyrians had destroyed the northern kingdom. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained, in a small kingdom of Judah based on Jerusalem. Jeremiah prophesied during this final forty years of Judah’s history. It will help us understand Jeremiah, if we take a look at the cataclysmic events he lived through.
A few years after the call of Jeremiah, King Josiah began widespread religious reforms, sweeping away the idolatry of his father and grandfather and restoring the sole worship of Yahweh. Jeremiah approved of this. But after Josiah was killed by Egyptian forces at Megiddo, now famous as Armageddon, in 609, his reforms ran out of steam, and were even reversed. By this time, Assyria was played out as a great power, and the new macho kid on the block was Babylon, under King Nebuchadnezzar II.
The Egyptians quickly deposed Josiah’s successor as king, and placed Jehoiakim on the throne. He paid lots of money as tribute to Pharaoh Necho until the Egyptian ruler was defeated by the Babylonians at the battle of Carchemish in 605; thereafter, he paid Nebuchadnezzar instead. But when, after three more years, the Egyptians and Babylonians were still fighting each other, Jehoiakim took a gamble and returned his allegiance to Egypt. As a result, the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem in 599. During it, Jehoiakim died, probably murdered, and his body was thrown over the city wall, possibly to appease the Babylonians. They weren’t having it, though, and eventually Jerusalem fell in March 597. Jehoiakim’s son Jeconiah was deposed as king, and replaced by his uncle, Zedekiah. Jeconiah was exiled to Babylon, where he lived peacefully for many years.
Zedekiah didn’t learn from his brother Jehoiakim’s mistake. Instead of paying tribute to the Babylonians and accepting status as a vassal king, and against the advice of Jeremiah and many others, he entered into an alliance with the new Egyptian Pharaoh Hophra. A Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem again in January 589, and the city fell after a terrible eighteen months, during which people turned to cannibalism, even eating their own children, in order to survive. The city was badly damaged and looted by the victorious Babylonians. Solomon’s Temple and the Ark of the Covenant were destroyed and with them, one might think, the Jewish religion itself. Zedekiah’s sons were put to death before his eyes, and then he was blinded and sent in chains to Babylon. There were no more kings of the Jews until Roman times, five centuries later.
I expect you to have remembered all this information, and will shortly give you a quiz on it! The important thing to remember, of course, is that the times were perilous, bloody, and just plain awful. The Jews were in the wrong place at the wrong time and made the wrong choices. The kingdom of Judah lay at a crossroads where fighting Assyrians, Egyptians and Babylonians were bound to meet. It seemed as if, in order to survive, the king must choose one or other great power as an ally, in order to survive. They chose badly.
Some of the great prophets of old had, in similar circumstances, counseled a king to trust in God and in no earthly prince. But it looks as though the kings in Jeremiah’s time, Josiah and his successors didn’t feel able to follow that strategy. Look at it from their point of view. As great powers fought it out for dominance, with Judah as a pawn in their game, the kings must have thought that any advice to do nothing was crazy, even if it came with an assurance that God would take care of his people. And it was understandable that they preferred to deal with Egypt. Compared to Assyria and Babylonia, Egypt was a long established empire and could be expected, despite setbacks, to see the other powers off. But that never happened.
The kings were encouraged by some prophets who urged them to take the steps they did. Jeremiah regarded them as false prophets, and this brought him into trouble with them and with their followers. One of these supporters was Passhur, who was deputy chief priest of the Jerusalem Temple. At the beginning of our chapter, having heard Jeremiah prophesying judgment upon the king and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Passhur had him beaten, which may have meant forty stripes indicated by Deuteronomy 25.3, and put on stocks overnight. This did not browbeat Jeremiah into submission. When he was released, Jeremiah defiantly said to Passhur that his name would no longer be Passhur, meaning ‘splitter’ or ‘cleaver’, but would now be the Hebrew word for ‘terror on every side’, because he would be a terror to his friends, whose deaths he will witness at the hands of the Babylonians. Passhur himself would be exiled with his family to Babylon, and there he and they and his surviving friends would die.
Passhur’s decision to punish a prophet can’t have been an easy one to make. You don’t really want to get on the wrong side of someone who’s a mouthpiece of God, telling it as it is. Yet Jeremiah was in a minority, even among the prophets. Most prophets were being more upbeat about events. To Jeremiah, they seemed like frauds, whistling in the dark. To them and to Passhur, who seems also to have prophesied a bit, he seemed the odd one out, the charlatan, who could therefore be punished for being such.
Passhur was wrong, but not necessarily a wicked man. Like so many people, he fooled himself, hearing what he wanted to hear instead of what he must hear for his good. Would we have done differently than Passhur? Some of Jeremiah’s actions seemed treasonous, lowering the country’s spirits at a time of national emergency and counseling appeasement of the enemy. The analogy isn’t exact, but Jeremiah must have seemed more like Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill. After the first siege of Jerusalem, Jeremiah wrote a letter to Jews who’d been taken to Babylon. In it, he counseled them:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.” (29.4-9)
Wise words, to us who have the benefit of hindsight. But, at the time, they would have seemed spineless and treacherous to many, perhaps most Jews. In fact, after the second siege of Jerusalem, during which Jeremiah had been imprisoned and left to starve in a muddy cistern, punishment for lowering the morale of the people and the soldiers by his gloomy prognostications, the Babylonians freed him and let him choose where he wanted to live. He went to Mizpah, a city in Benjamin. Then he was taken, perhaps against his will, to Egypt, where likely he died.
In fact, Jeremiah was a realist, not a traitor. The smaller part of his realism was his recognition that the Jews could not hope to win if they angered a great power, so should keep quiet and keep their heads down rather than take sides. The greater part was his acknowledgment that God sought the welfare of the Babylonians, and presumably the Egyptians, as well as Jews. Jeremiah’s letter makes this clear. God loves all whom he has made, despite their violence, and wants them to lead peaceful lives, marrying, planting gardens, and stuff like that where people co-exist rather than fight and kill.
Jeremiah certainly suffered for his treachery, if that’s what it was. He was attacked by his own brothers (12.6),beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet (as we’ve seen), imprisoned by the king (37.18), threatened with death (38.4), and opposed by a false prophet (28).
Here’s the thing: Jeremiah hadn’t wanted to be a prophet, and tried to get out of it when God called him, claiming he was too young and wasn’t an adequate speaker (1.6). I think we must take Jeremiah’s reluctance at face value. Other prophets, like Isaiah, thought it was cool to become a prophet. He’d said: ‘Here am I! Send me’ (Isaiah 6.8). There wasn’t a prophetic convention to pretend to be surprised at being called by God, whilst actually loving it, like a hotly-tipped Hollywood actor playing down her chances of an Oscar and doing the whole ‘who? me?’ thing when her name is called out to come up and get it. Isaiah was okay with being a prophet, and was on record as saying so. Not so, Jeremiah.
Jeremiah prophesied, reluctantly. He knew the cost of that form of discipleship, and hated it. In the early part of the Book of Jeremiah, there are a series of what have been called ‘the Confessions of Jeremiah’ (11.18-12.6, 15.10-21, 17.14-18, 18.18-23, and 20.7-18). These lament the tragedy of his vocation. There are two of them in our chapter, verses 7-12 and 14-18.
Let me remind you again that the prophet’s witnessed to God’s creative desire for shalom, a universe at peace and in harmony. The forty years we’ve looked at today shows the human capacity for power play, viciousness, and self-deception. Jeremiah lived in a violent world, and told the truth about God, who willed non-violence but who spelled out to his people the consequences of living in other ways.
Jeremiah suffered the consequences of witnessing to the truth. The first of these confessions begins his lament that ‘I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.’ He admits that the mockery and worse that he faces make him want to give up his vocation. And so we get to one of the greatest of biblical verses: ‘If I say, “I will not mention him [God], or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.’ Some commentators try to extrapolate from this verse details of how the prophetic gift works – like a consuming fire. That strikes me as fastening on the relatively trivial in order to avoid dealing with what it tells us of the immense pain and anguish of the man, who simply can’t give up his vocation despite his anger at its ruination of the life he wants to live, with friends and family. This verse gives the lie to those trivial taunts that religious people always or mostly are in it for what they get out of it. Not always.
That verse tells of a man all but destroyed by his vocation as truth-teller, who determines to keep shtum; yet the truth burns within him, and he can’t hold it in. Powerful stuff! Why, is a great question, and you should ask it when you talk together afterwards.
So Jeremiah was stuck in playing a role he hated, because of its consequences to him, yet somehow unable to give it up. Remember what happened to Passhur, the Temple grandee, earlier in this chapter. His name would be changed to ‘terror on every side’ and he would end his life in despair, a failure. Jeremiah picks up that new name, and applies it to himself: ‘For I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.”’ Is Jeremiah saying that he’s no better than Passhur, in despair, a failure?
The first confession in our passage ends with a recognition that God’s on his side as a dread warrior, and that God’s delivered him, or will do, from the hands of evildoers. This strikes a false note at the end of these bleak verses, and some commentators think that they were added later by some pious scribe who couldn’t cope with their desolate sentiments. For myself, I’m rather inclined to think that Jeremiah did what many of us do when things go pear-shaped. Having got the anger and agony off his chest, he then muttered pieties, as a sort of whistling in the dark, hoping against hope for better things to come whilst not really believing it.
The second confession in this chapter is rather like Job 3 and, indeed, is likely an influence on that book. It’s a cry of utter despair and anguish. Jeremiah curses the day of his birth, and the man who told of the news of his arrival to his father. He asks that that man be overthrown and burned up, as were Sodom and Gomorrah. Jeremiah wishes instead that his mother had died in childbirth and him with her. There’s a classic bit of transference, of course. In cursing the messenger, and wishing his mother and himself dead, Jeremiah is really cursing God, and wishing his vocation to be a prophet, dead and buried. And there’s no pious utterance at the end of this passage. Only pain, and anger, and despair.
For the most part, the relationship of a prophet to God is beside the major point of the content of the prophetic message to God’s people. But Jeremiah’s anguish raises the veil over the bond between God and her prophet. This is Chapter 20 and there are fifty-two chapters in the Book of Jeremiah. Whilst the book isn’t in chronological order, the positioning of this lament in the book suggests that God wasn’t through with Jeremiah. There’s more to this story after this dreadful outburst. Even so, subsequently there are no more confessions of Jeremiah. God’s silence in the face of this outburst is fascinating. Does God feel guilty at what he’s demanded of his prophet? Is he simply ignoring him? Or is silence sometimes the only appropriate response to tremendous grief and pain and outrage?
We’re left with an awful irony. God who wills shalom, peace, harmony, non-violence, allows catastrophic violence to befall those who, for the sake of others, keep alive the message of God in dark times. The influence of Jeremiah’s confessions casts a long shadow over the rest of the Bible, especially on the story of Job, the description of the suffering servant of the Lord in the later chapters of Isaiah, and the life and death of Jesus. Perhaps, to suffering individuals, out of the silence, eventually speaks a divine voice of redemptive love? If so, it must sometimes seem too little, too late.
And yet. The apostle Paul tells us that Christ ‘is the image of the invisible God’, who makes ‘peace through the blood of his cross’ (1: 15, 20). Peace or non-violence is not a negative or passive thing. It is costly, as the cross of Christ demonstrates. The life of Jeremiah, too, reminds people of faith that the way to peace is sometimes through violence: through violent times, to be sure, but also in risking violence for the sake of truth. I teach my students about Gandhi, in the course of a class on the History of Modern India, and about Dr. Martin Luther King, in a course on U.S. History since the 1960s. They suffered greatly, paying the final price with their own life, in showing that peace, for the sake of truth, is far better than violence.
Points for discussion
- Why didn’t Jeremiah give up being a prophet?
- Are religious people in it only for what they get out of it?
- Is non-violence only about not being violent?