We are studying Jeremiah 22:1-10 for Sunday, May 24. After last week’s unrelieved doom, we get a ray of possible hope in this prophetic sequel from Jeremiah, which comes immediately after last week’s text in the book of Jeremiah. Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This text is the next oracle concerning the royal house of the kingdom of Judah, in a section of the book of Jeremiah which addresses the king, priests, and prophets (Jeremiah 21 – 24). All these leaders have evidently been busy incurring YHWH’s displeasure. The consequences, as we know, will be the Babylonian exile – which is on the near horizon at this point.
In last week’s text, there was no second chance in sight. In this passage, however, there’s a conditional promise that could give rise to some hope for the future continuity of the house of David.
Neither last week’s nor this week’s text are in the lectionary, making them another one of those things you wouldn’t know were in the Bible if all you knew was the lectionary. The first few verses of the next chapter are there, however – maybe because they can be read as references to Jesus. Christians like those parts of the prophetic corpus.
There are place references in this text: Gilead and Lebanon. Gilead, let’s recall, is land east of the Jordan River that became the allotted territory of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, after some tense negotiation with Moses. Numbers 32 tells that story. It has the reputation, then, for being lush and attractive. Lebanon in Biblical imagery is territory to the north of the land of Israel, renowned for its magnificent forests.
The text seems to divide into several discrete speeches; we are looking at the first, and [oddly, perhaps] to a portion of the second; it might make more sense if we included verses 11-12, which seem to make a unit with verse 10. Verse 13-29 seem to form another unit, a speech addressed specifically to King Jehoiakim, verses 20-23 another, addressed to the people, and verses 24-30 a final speech in this chapter, again addressed to Jehoiakim.
Both the speeches we are looking at for Sunday are addressed to a collective: the king, AND court AND people who take part in national life. Verses 6-8 do start out with singular forms, but the singular form corresponds to the “house” of Judah, and comes back to a plural form in saying “they have forsaken the covenant with YHWH” in verse 8. So I maintain that the prophet is speaking to a group of people throughout this text, and part of what makes it a unit of text is that it’s addressed to a group of people in this way, in contrast to an individual king as some of the later speeches are.
Because the text is addressed to a collective, to the people who make up the king’s house or “enter the gates” – who participate in civic life, it seems – this set of messages may feel more relevant than those later ones to us. We are not kings, but we are people who are in a position to support this or that national policy, this or that national leader, this or that national attitude. Alas.
CLOSER READING: In verse 1, God tells the prophet to “go down” to the house of the king of Judah. Is the prophet standing in the Temple? Or is the prophet somewhere else, and does the reference to “going down” have a moral-ethical connotation? Either way, the prophet has to lower himself to come face to face with the inhabitants of this house.
I think the text in verse 2 is a little more ambiguous about the identity of the King of Judah than the NRSV makes it out to be: “Hear the word of YHWH, King of Judah, one sitting on the throne of David …” If the text were going to assign the kingship of Judah to YHWH, it would presumably say “YHWH, the king of Judah,” so I think I understand the decision, but … I think the uncertainty fits better with the message itself, and I think it might not be a coincidence.
The identity of the true descendant of David is conditional; it’s someone who does what YHWH commands: who does justice and righteousness, who snatches the plundered out of the hand of the extortioner, who doesn’t do wrong or violence to the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and who doesn’t shed innocent blood.
We can talk about what that doing of justice and righteousness would look like in 2020.
I assume the hand of the oppressor/extortioner has something to do with money or resources, possibly debt, and possibly slavery, but I haven’t been able to track down a source that goes into what we know about the specific practices that would have attracted the label of “oppression” or “extortion” in the 6th century BCE. “Oppression” and “justice” are easy words to toss around, so it would be nice to pin them down to some specifics.
Verses 4 & 5 present an either-or, conditional future possibility set: “obeying this word” (literally, “doing” it) will mean kings will come through the gates; the throne of David will be occupied, and the trappings of military victory, the chariots and horses, will come along with that; but “not hearing these words” has different consequences.
The words used for those consequences are “wilderness” kinds of words. The “desert” of verse 6 is the midbar the people were in for the whole book of Numbers (B’midbar). That is: the people have been in the wilderness before, when they needed to learn to rely on God and do what God tells them to do. And now they are facing a remedial return to the wilderness, perhaps.
The nations that will see the devastated city will have an answer to the question of why this happened, and that answer equates worshipping God with doing the word given in verse 3. That is, doing justice and righteousness just IS worshipping God, and worshipping God just is doing justice and righteousness.
Not doing it is equivalent to prostrating oneself in worship to some other god or gods.
[Way to go, Jeremiah. No wonder this hasn’t gotten a lot of shares.]
In a time when some people seem to have gotten the idea that people are only worshipping God if they’re sitting together with few hundred or thousand other people with a roof over their heads, ticking all the boxes in the liturgy [and everyone has a liturgy, whether they call it that or not], it’s sobering to be reminded that mere assembly may not even meet the baseline standard for worshipping the King of Kings that is “doing justice and righteousness.” And that not doing that amounts to falling down prostrate before some other god or gods.
And as the great seminary professor Dr. Stephen Ray always signed his email, “Any time is a good time to do justice.”
Whether or not we’re working from home.