Entering the World of Jeremiah

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Excerpted from Michael L. Brown, “Jeremiah,” in the revised edition of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Tremper Longman and David Garland, editors (forthcoming, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), used with permission, with thanks to Zondervan Publishers.

Entering the World of Jeremiah

According to Jewish tradition, after the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah chose to go into exile with his people, marching with the captives as far as the Euphrates, at which point he decided to return to his homeland (or, was directed by the Lord to return) in order to offer comfort and help to those who remained behind. When the exiles saw that he was about to leave them, they wept bitterly and cried out in a loud voice (cf. Ps 137:1), “Our father Jeremiah, are you also abandoning us?” He answered them: “I call heaven and earth to witness, if you had shed a single tear when you were still in Zion, you would not have gone into exile” (Pes Rab 26:8). That simple anecdote, the creation of tradition and yet conveying so much truth, plunges us straight into the world of Jeremiah, a world so tragic, filled with disappointment and pain, and a world in which the lonely prophet towered above his contemporaries.

Of course, it is often easy for us to read millennia-old accounts that describe death and devastation, misery and grief, suffering and tears, and to remain unmoved. After all, the written text can seem so impersonal and distant, and we do not actually hear the cries of the wounded and dying – in reality, the people involved are complete strangers to us – nor do we smell the smoke rising from the flames of destruction. And when it is scripture we are reading, the tendency to remain unmoved is potentially greater, since we become familiar with the biblical stories, demonizing the villains, lionizing the heroes, and seeking primarily to gain theological or practical insight from the (sometimes) stern dealings of God with his people, forgetting that these were real people too, with very real hopes and dreams and all too human disappointments and hurts.

This is not the case, however, with the book of Jeremiah, a book which makes it almost impossible for the reader to escape unscathed, both emotionally and spiritually. Jeremiah the man is all too real – from his daunting call to a be a prophet while still in his youth to the internal agony he often felt; from the difficult message of judgment he proclaimed for more than four decades to the categorical rejection of his message by kings and princes, prophets and priests alike; from the years of loneliness he endured, commanded not to marry or have children and with precious few real friends, to the heights and depths of his relationship with God, ranging from almost indescribable joy to absolute despair, at times even cursing the day of his birth and feeling utterly betrayed by the only One he could really trust. Through these prophetic pages, this ancient, historical figure becomes strangely contemporary, removed in time and culture and yet so near, jumping off the pages of the OT and making his appeal to us, sharing his burden, his sorrow, his agony, yet somehow offering hope.

Phillip J. King, in his Archeological Companion to Jeremiah, noted that, “From the methodological point of view, dissecting an ancient text and excavating a tell are quite similar experiences” (xxiii), and in many ways, this is quite true. Both the archeologist and the exegete seek to uncover different layers, the one, of earth, the other, of meaning; the one, of successive settlements, the other, of textual history. But in other ways, excavating a tell and dissecting the biblical text are quite different. One is silent; the other cries out; one is dead, the other is alive; one lies hidden beneath the earth, waiting to be discovered; the other beckons to us, calls us, urges us, challenges us. Certainly that is the case with the book of Jeremiah, as the prophet himself speaks again with passion and power as if he was standing in our midst today.

But he is not the only one who comes alive to the reader of the book that bears his name. Other figures come alive with vividness and clarity: Jehoiakim, arrogant, insecure, and downright wicked; Zedekiah, weak-willed, double-minded, and enslaved by fear; Hananiah, the very image of a false prophet of shalom; the Judean remnant in Egypt, urged on by their wives, and to a person, it appears, more defiant after judgment than before; Baruch, obedient and faithful but despondent; Ebed Melech, a rare hero, determined to save God’s servant from the miry pit.

The tragic events that unfold in this book are also hauntingly real: the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, inspiring terror as they make their approach; the starvation of a city under siege; the exiling of the people from their ancestral land; the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the temple; the slaughtering of the sons of David and the blinding of a king from David’s line; the weeping women teaching their daughters how to mourn. And this is just a sampling. In this prophetic book, one actually does hear the cries of the wounded and dying and one does smell the smoke rising from the flames.

Against this bleak and burning backdrop, the extraordinary faith of God’s prophet stands as a soaring, unshakable monument, as he never backs down in public and never refuses a divine commission, speaking words of ultimate hope instead – including wonderful promises of restoration and a new covenant – even making a personal investment in Judah’s future, buying his uncle’s field as a down payment on his nation’s coming restoration at a time when its destruction was only moments away. Something sacred transacted between God and his servant, and that sacred transaction was profound enough to carry Jeremiah through a terribly turbulent era and a very difficult life, ultimately producing an extraordinary book with an extraordinary message for the ages.

A pivotal moment in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is striking in its relevance, taking us behind the scenes into the heart and soul of a very public and influential leader:

By January 1956, with the Montgomery bus boycott in full swing, threatening phone calls, up to 40 a day, began pouring into King’s home. Though he put up a strong front, the threats unsettled him. One midnight as he sat over a cup of coffee worrying, the phone rang again, and the caller said, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” King later described what happened in the next few minutes.

“I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. . . . She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute.

“And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. . . .

“And I discovered then that religion had become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it. . . . I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak, they will begin to get weak. . . .’

“And it seemed at that moment I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world. . . .’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.” Christian History 65 (Vol. XIX, No. 1), 40.

Only God knows how many times Jeremiah reached that same breaking point, although his laments and confessions proclaim loudly and clearly that he was no stranger to such moments of private anguish. And only God knows exactly what happened between the Lord and his servant at such times. But this much is certain: Jeremiah ultimately withstood each test and took his stand again and again, and because of his perseverance he, being dead, yet speaks (Heb 11:4b), continuing to impact us by his words more than 2500 years later.

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