prophet Jeremiah in thought

Studying Jeremiah 21 8-14

We are studying Jeremiah 21:8-14 for Sunday, May 17 [Syttende Mai, Norwegian National Day, btw!] It is a deep, dark prophetic pronouncement on the consequences of chronic injustice. [Here are some questions on the text.] Here [at last] are some notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Jeremiah is a long book. It announces at the beginning that Jeremiah is a priest, or at least a member of a priestly family, his location (Anathoth, in the land of Benjamin, so this would make his hometown a place near Jerusalem), and the time: from the days of Josiah through the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah. That is, the worst time in the history of Israel (Judah) up to that point.

In fact … as I’m thinking of this … just imagine what it must have been like to live through the Josian reforms, and to have been one of the people thinking that maybe at last now we Judeans were moving in the right direction, and maybe we would be able to turn things around. I’m guessing Jeremiah was one of those people. And then to have experienced the death of Josiah, and the ascension of Jehoahaz, and then Jehoiakim, and the desperate and extortionate maneuvers to actually go back to the way things had been before Josiah … and then the Babylonians … and the confusion and turmoil and ideological in-fighting about what’s “the right thing to do” in a situation like this …

Can we even imagine? [That’s a ruefully rhetorical question.]

I’m afraid this is one of those texts that makes me think: the people who say politics doesn’t matter for Christians, who our leaders are doesn’t matter – I think those people are mistaken. I think it does matter. At least, the Bible reads like it matters. And it matters who and what we support, and for what reasons. And I fear that this text, the text of Jeremiah, makes the criteria we ought to be paying attention to very clear – just in case we were unclear about them from the rest of the Bible. If we support policies and leaders who are committed to fleecing the poor … well, the Judeans paid a steep price for that. So, if precedent is anything to go by …

This text, then, is one that make me feel deeply despondent, because it feels much more timely than is comfortable.

There’s some background and context for us, of the reader response kind.

Jeremiah must have been identified as an important voice, too, by people living at his time and shortly after. Because: the book of Jeremiah that we have seems to have undergone some complex editing, including the addition of biographical, narrative portions to chronicle his life story, and the re-aarrangement of his pronouncements – not exactly chronologically, more often topically, with “the main determinant of the sequence of materials [being] the concern to reflect upon the significance of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile.”[1]

Our text for Sunday is in the middle of a section of several chapters that addresses the leaders of Judah directly, and spells out the consequences they are facing as the punishment for their injustice and arrogance.

Chapter 21 begins with a formal royal request brought to Jeremiah on behalf of King Zedekiah, asking Jeremiah to “inquire of YHWH” for them, since King Nebuchadrezzar and the Babylonians are at the gate, and they say “perhaps YHWH will perform a wonderful deed for us, as he has often done, and will make him withdraw from us.” (Jeremiah 21:2) We are reading part of Jeremiah’s (that is, YHWH’s) response to this [audacious] request.

We are skipping verses 3-7, which describe in explicit terms that God is going to destroy Zedekiah et al. without mercy, and starting with verses 8-10, which give some advice to anyone who wants to survive this disaster, and continuing with a speech addressed to “the house of the king of Judah” – that is, addressed to a more general audience than “King Zedekiah,” but “the kingly house, i.e., the king and his family, under which are here comprehended not merely women and children, but also the king’s companions, his servants and councilors.” [2]

This word may seem out of context at first, but as I read it, it fits with the context of verses 8-10, which challenge “the people” to choose the right side – and the right side isn’t the one you might have thought, because the word of the prophet is: defect to the Babylonians. The import of verses 8-14 seems [to me] to be to encourage each person to decide who they’re going to identify with in this situation, who they’re going to listen to – and in this situation, the one in which Jeremiah is addressing these words to the people it directly concerns, as a matter of life and death (literally, see verse 8), the prophetic instruction challenges what I suspect are their customary loyalties and their habitual sense of identity.

When God is dead set against your country and your leaders, and is actively supporting your enemies, then … if you want to be on God’s side, which is the side of life and any shred of hope …

At least, that seems to be what YHWH was saying to these Jerusalemites in 587 BCE or so. What that means for us in 2020 CE we’ll have to think about.

The crux of the matter may be – how do we discern what God is doing in a situation, how do get good at reading the signs of the times?

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CLOSER READING: We have two distinct prophetic messages, each introduced by the instruction (to Jeremiah) “say”; one in verse 8, introducing something to say “to this people”, one in verse 11, introducing something to say “to the house of the king of Judah”.

I can’t help feeling it’s significant that God describes the people of the city of Jerusalem in generic, distant terms: “this” people, “this” city, not “my people” (which we have seen plenty of times in prophetic speech), not calling Jerusalem by name … something like the way my mom used to say to my dad, when I had done something really egregious, “your daughter” …

We’ve heard God set a “way of life and a way of death” before people in the past. In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, the way of life involves loving YHWH your God, obeying YHWH’s commandments. Here, verse 10 makes clear that loving God would require people to defect to the “Chaldeans” (that is, the Babylonians) and literally “fall” (verse 9) before them – I am thinking, prostrate themselves, the way one would before a conqueror, a king, a person to whom you would give allegiance … ouch. Because God is going to kill everyone who stays in the city.

A case of “those who want to save their life will lose it,” maybe. (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24)

Also note, that the consequence for the person who is a traitor to the nation that has betrayed YHWH and who is loyal to YHWH in this situation, is to “have his life as a prize.” The phrase uses a word that would be used in the context of war: it means literally spoil, booty. This defector will win his life back, as a prize of war. There’s a war on, and the loot that these folks, who surrender, stand to snatch from the wreckage of the defeated, as if they are victors, is their own lives.

Counter-intuitive, to say the least. [And this thought might remind us of Paul’s image of the person escaping “as through fire” in 1 Corinthians 3:15. It’s extreme.]

So, loyalty to God in this situation calls for disloyalty to the administration that is the object of God’s fury.

God is still gracious enough to have made a way out for that remnant of people who are willing to take it, but at this point it’s a mighty difficult way to take. You’d have to have a lot of trust in Jeremiah and God and the Babylonians to take it, it won’t be pleasant even then, and all your friends will block you on FB and call you names. You’d have to be desperate in the extreme.

You’d have to be willing to lose your life to save it.

And what are the chances that you would recognize that Jeremiah is telling the truth about the situation? When you are accustomed to recognizing the authority of people who say very different things from him?

Notice the “for evil and not for good (tov)” language in verse 10; a rhetorical reversal of what is so many people’s favorite verse from Jeremiah, 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare (shalom) and not for evil …”

So … I think to myself, reading texts like this, it would be a good idea to know who we ought to be identifying with in the Bible. God says awfully different things to different people in different situations. Which people are we?

Turning to the instructions to the members of the king’s house [we might think: family members; advisors; high-ranking influencers …], they’re addressed by the epithet “house of David.” This is a creepily ambiguous term in this context, because it’s an identity that ought to provide some security. Probably DOES provide a sense of security.

But what does it mean to belong to the house of David? It might be more about behavior than about genealogy.

The demand is to “Execute [or, judge – obey – plead – defend] justice in the morning, and deliver the plundered from the hand of the oppressor.” That’s what they need to do.

That word translated “execute justice” here is a big word. In Hebrew it’s din. Unless I am completely off base here – and I may be, so take this with a grain of salt – this is the same word that in contemporary Arabic would be translated “religion” but which also means “what you owe,” your obligation or duty. It is also a big word, the biggest, in that tradition.

The obligation of the ruler is to rescue the one who is being plundered from the hand of the oppressor. Basically: to defend the weak, the ones who are liable to be taken advantage of. By implication: these leaders are not doing that.

Now, God is about to give them a taste of their own medicine: they are about to become the plundered, and the ultimate ruler [God] is about to not rescue them, and to not show them any mercy or compassion, and they are about to see how they like it.

The end of verse 12 – this unquenchable fire that is being kindled by the refusal of the house of the king to stand up for justice for the plundered – may echo, or at least make us think of the end of Song of Songs, where we also run into an unquenchable fire.

Many waters cannot quench love, strong as death, fierce as the grave, its sparks flashes of fire.

And if God loves the poor, who are being plundered …

“God is love” and “Our God is a consuming fire” are not saying different things.

Whether this will comfort us may depend on how hard we have been defending the poor from being plundered lately.

Verses 13 and 14 seem to refer to the royal palace, the hideout of the “house of the king.” That structure would have been close to, but physically lower than the Temple of Solomon [I think this is correct], so that the arrogant thoughts of those who say “Who can come down against us” are at first blush a thought about enemies – the place is fortified – but upon reflection are a dismissal of God, because to “come down” upon the palace, you’d have to come from the Temple … it’s the only higher place in the city.

When God says “I will kindle a fire in its forest,” the commentator in the Jewish Study Bible says this is equivalent to saying “I will kindle a fire in the palace.” It’s a reference to the great hall known as the Forest of Lebanon in Solomon’s palace. So that would fit. And that fire, in devouring “all that is around it,” would mean the palace, the residents – and also the Temple.

(The Temple where people have been reassuring themselves with the formal worship of the one true God, even though it doesn’t do anything to turn their hearts and their deeds towards God’s substantive demands. “The Temple of YHWH is here, the Temple of YHWH is here …,” we’re standing on the promises of God, so, hey, it’s all good.)

Because, seriously, why would God care if that Temple is destroyed? It’s not like God needs a house.

In verse 14, the word translated “punish” can also mean “take care of,” “observe,” “take note of” – that is, it has the flavor of paying attention, and holding accountable. God is paying attention to what these people’s deeds do, what their fruit, their consequences are. God is paying attention to what counts.

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This text disturbs me a lot.

What disturbs me the most is that I feel pretty sure that people on all sides of our own contemporary public disasters feel like they’re the ones who would be standing with Jeremiah and God, and that their opponents, “they,” whoever “they” are, are the ones God is judging and is getting ready to bring disaster upon.

I think “we,” whoever “we” are, are normally deeply convinced we’re on the right side.

But my guess is that the people in Jerusalem in 587 BCE thought that, too.

It’s easy for us now to see how wrong they were.

I would feel a lot better if it were easier for me to see how wrong I am, and about what.

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[1] Marvin A. Sweeney, “Jeremiah – Introduction and Annotations.” The Jewish Study Bible. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler eds. Oxford University Press, 2004. 919.

[2] Jim West, Jeremiah For the Person in the Pew (revised), Quartz Hill Publishing House, 2015, 103.

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fresco of the Prophet Jeremiah
Prophet Jeremiah as envisioned by Michelangelo

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