The following is the first half of an invited presentation I gave at University UMC in Chapel Hill for “Table Talk; Pastor-Led Conversations for Youth and Adults.” I was invited to speak on Jeremiah by Mitzi Johnson, Pastor of Spiritual Formation, for the 2016 series “Scandal, Politics, Thrills, and Love in the Prophets.” I halved it for length, and Part II can be read next week at this time.
Dining at a well-known burger joint in Durham, I barely noticed an inconspicuous reference to scripture tucked away in a corner of the take away box. Tiny tokens of Christian convictions, contained in coded verse, must surely be intended for only the most Biblically literate among our number. Californians like Laura and I may be accustomed to seeing these three scripture citations adorning various In-N-Out tableware;
- John 3.16; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
- Revelation 3.20; “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
- Proverbs 24.16; “for though they fall seven times, they will rise again, but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.”
I wonder if cherry picking scripture like this and slapping it onto any flat surface we can find is done in the hopes that God will bless our businesses or our bottom lines. It certainly seemed like an attempt to bless our BOMBS when, in 2010, military grade optics manufacturer Trijicon was exposed for similarly inscribing any number of scriptural references onto rifle sights they were selling to the Army and Marines. As it turned out, the company affixed different verses of the bible to each product in their catalogue, most of which zeroed in on themes of light (and, by extension, darkness).
We are accustomed in America to the marriage of Church and state, we are used to seeing the confluence of God and country. So when I saw a reference to Jeremiah wrapped around my juicy burger, the only noteworthy detail was that it didn’t draw from the typical canon we’ve seen thus far. Rather than Wisdom, like Proverbs, Apocalypse, like Revelation, or some mixture of the Gospels and Epistles, my ground chuck was wrapped round with Prophetic literature. The verse in question was Jeremiah 29.11, which some of us know by heart;
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Some of us may breathe a sigh of relief at the seemingly benign adoption of a major prophet by an equally benign, and growing, foodie culture amongst our neighbors to the north. What makes me nervous is the context we lose by cherry picking scripture in order to proof text our eating habits, or our military culture, for that matter. The problem with stamping our goods and services with biblical references is that it takes the teeth out of our holy texts. What happens when fire and brimstone is drowned out with high fructose corn syrup and bacon grease? What if the assurance we take from Jeremiah’s isolated utterance is dangerously removed from the wider context within which welfare and hope is offered? Let’s look more closely at the Weeping Prophet, who he was and what mournful message inspired his tears.
As we open the book that bears his name, we learn that Jeremiah is “the Son of Hilkiah,” from Anathoth, a Levitical city in the lands belonging to the southern tribe of Benjamin. His father was High Priest during the Reign of King Josiah, one of only two kings referred to in glowing terms by the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. Josiah inherited a tumultuous political and religious landscape from his father Amon and grandfather Manasseh, both of whom had turned away from God and even retrofitted the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for worship of idols. The last time the tribes of the south had been faithful to their covenant was under the rule of Manasseh’s father Hezekiah, the only other good king of Judah. Hezekiah had watched firsthand as Sargon II of Assyria had utterly destroyed the ten tribes of the northern lands in 722 BCE. The miraculous survival of the tribes of the South (including Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon), may have contributed to Hezikiah’s contrition.
Hezekiah is venerated in scripture for resuming the practice of Passover amongst the remaining tribes, restoring the Jerusalem Temple to its former glory, destroying sites of idol worship, reforming a corrupt priesthood, and successfully resisting the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 BCE after refusing to pay tribute to the Assyrian king. His memory and successes died with him, however, as his son Manasseh and grandson Amon largely contributed to the decline of pious worship in the lands.
King Josiah’s reforms mirrored that of his great grandfather Hezekiah. In the twelfth year of his reign, Jeremiah’s father Hilkiah discovered a “Book of the Law” during renovations in the Temple. Scholars dispute exactly what this book was, but there is some consensus that its contents eventually became the book of Deuteronomy. For those without theological training, Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Pentateuch (AKA the first five books of the Bible), and it retells much of what is contained in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Deuteronomy, then, emerged as an alternative telling of events and rules already recorded in earlier versions of what were already becoming holy texts. Reintroducing the importance of Israel’s divinely ordained history likely helped Josiah’s cause by refocusing attention on his people’s narrative trajectory.
The additional perspective this Book of the Law provided may have been something like the first three episodes of Star Wars; by reintroducing material and providing additional context for interpreting cultural history, interest in the whole storyline increased. Despite her protest earlier this year, I refused to watch Episode VII until Laura agreed to see Episodes I through VI, in that order. Even though some may complain that nothing can be as good as the original, others may question if the latest addition is ‘canon’ or not, and some may insist the developments make the whole storyline worthlessly relative, in truth the context of the story does not change so much as it expands. One way or another, the additional material draws us back in to a story we thought we knew inside and out. If Jeremiah’s generation is like our own, being given a new and unique lens on an aging storyline generates renewed brand loyalty or at least market share. After all, how many of you or your kids have Episode VII merchandise?
Context is important any time we read a text written “a long time ago in a (setting) far, far away.” The more degrees of separation between us and an original document, the more difficult it will be to interpret it reliably. Knowing a bit about the historical setting helps us appreciate how what Jeremiah said to his own audience may have something to say to us. So let’s keep digging.
When he is called, Jeremiah shares Moses’ vocational reluctance, insisting “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” This presents a problem, since prophets are known for their words. The Hebrew word for “prophet” is a passive masculine pronoun; navi, from the root word nava; to speak. A prophet is one spoken to by God, and the word implies emptiness, or openness, a void filled by God’s word. Prophets are nothing if not spokespersons for God; the words they share do not belong to them.
“Do not be afraid,” the Lord says to Jeremiah, touching him on the mouth; “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me.” The timing of his call must have been confusing, for Josiah had just begun his reforms and the people seemed in the midst of repentance. Nonetheless, through the Lord’s reluctant mouthpiece the people are asked;
What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. (Jer 2.5-7, excerpts)
Jeremiah hates his call, and, like Job, even curses the day he was born. (Jer 20:14–18, cf. Job 3:3–10) His inner struggle is palpable, and we see him vacillate between obedience to God and sympathy to people he surely knows and loves with his whole heart. Not even his own hometown is spared; when the people of Anathoth threaten to kill Jeremiah unless he stops “prophesying in the name of the Lord,” God reveals to him that “the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine; and not even a remnant shall be left of them.” True justice knows no favoritism. Prophets know that God can and does judge, no matter how innocent we might think we are.
Jeremiah might have taken solace in the fact that he was not alone. He came of age around the time Isaiah’s prophetic ministry concluded, and it’s possible they interacted. The prophets Nahum, Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah were also active at the same time as Jeremiah. The prophetess Huldah was as well, though she leaves us no known writings. She confirmed for Jeremiah’s father Hilkiah that the Book of the Law was from the Lord. According to Huldah, the Lord declared judgment; “disaster on this place and on its inhabitants.” The king would be spared from seeing God’s wrath because he had torn his clothes in grief at hearing the solemn news. This put Jeremiah in an odd place; his call was to preach destruction to the very generation that was in the process of repenting. This may have something to do with those words we may be more familiar with, of God telling Jeremiah
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer 1.5)
Before the king tore his clothes, before his people turned briefly from their idolatrous ways, God anticipated the need for Jeremiah’s menacing ministry. The significant context here is not culture, but God’s call, rumbling up from a covenant that the people ignored and debased under two prior administrations.
Josiah’s reforms would not be enough to spare the people from eventual desolation. Rather than getting it over with, God had Jeremiah prophesy through the reigns of five kings until 587 BCE, when the Babylonians finally accomplished in Judah what the Assyrians could not; complete and utter destruction of Solomon’s temple and the relocation of the remaining Israelite tribes. Throughout the time of his ministry, God forbade him those things that normally bring people joy, like attending weddings or feasts, having children,or even being “in the company of merrymakers.” The tragic climax of his ministry, if we must call it that, is of witnessing the destruction of Jerusalem, the holy city and the supposed dwelling place of God.
We get some of this historical and political context in the book of Kings, which is so long it took up two scrolls. Authorship of Kings is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, and scholars generally agree that it was first composed the same time Jeremiah was alive and active, even if it was not the prophet himself who put quill to papyrus. It is the length of Kings and Jeremiah that make Jeremiah a “major prophet.” But to answer the question of why he weeps, we will turn in a moment to his most heart breaking contribution to scripture; the book of Lamentations.