by Roger Wyatt | 29th December 2020 | more posts on 'Getting to grips with the Prophets'
Photograph: Roger Wyatt. At the Western Wall - Jerusalem.
The first six chapters of Jeremiah make difficult reading and perhaps represent some of most challenging texts in the Old Testament. The young prophet Jeremiah is called by God, in the first chapter, to take a message of coming disaster to the people of Judah and Jerusalem; the prophet begins his ministry in the streets of Jerusalem, during the reign of king Josiah (640 to 609 BC). The chapters under consideration in fact represent two prophetic moments, one in 627 (Jeremiah 2 to 3:5) and the other in the following year, 626 (3:6 to the end of chapter 6).
Although at relative peace with the nations around them, and although Josiah represented a king who would ‘do right in the eyes of the LORD’, the small kingdom of Judah was suffering from the spiritually aberrant aftermath of the wicked reign of Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh. Under the reign of Manasseh, Judah and Jerusalem had become a hot bed of corruption, idolatry and empty religion. The commands of God had been forgotten, the temple was filled with shrines to other gods and some form of organised religious prostitution, so common to other religions of the time, was operating in the very place where God had said his Name would be.
Jeremiah’s first prophecy can be dated exactly to ‘the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah’ (Jeremiah 1:2), that is 627. The eponymous prophet is instructed by God to go out into the streets of Jerusalem and proclaim his inaugural message. It is on Judah’s unfaithfulness that the first prophecy centres and despite the relentless predictions of Jeremiah over the coming destruction, every verse is filled with God’s heartbreak over the behaviour of his people. God had loved them as a husband would love a wife from the early days of their wanderings in the wilderness. However, the gentle yoke of God had been broken and torn off (Jeremiah 2:20) ‘long ago’ and Jeremiah speaks of a ‘choice vine of sound and reliable stock’ (Jeremiah 2:21) that had become ‘a corrupt, wild vine’. The text continues to pronounce that no amount of washing could remove the ‘stain of guilt’ (Jeremiah 2:22); the sin of Judah and her thirst for idolatry is compared to the lusts of a swift she-camel or wild donkey ‘in her heat’ that cannot be restrained: ‘For you, Judah, have as many gods as you have towns’ (Jeremiah 2:28).
The second prophecy is equally unrelenting in its condemnation of Judah and Jerusalem. There are very few glimmers of hope, no messianic interludes, no sudden jumps to extended descriptions of an end time where Judah prospers. It is a bleak presentation of a people that had returned God’s faithfulness with faithlessness. God had longed for his people to call him Father and had hoped they would have learned from the exile of the northern kingdom, but it was not to be so. Indeed, the prophet declares that the behaviour of Jeremiah’s audience demonstrated that ‘faithless Israel is more righteous than unfaithful Judah’ (Jeremiah 3:11).
It is not immediately obvious how to date Jeremiah’s second prophecy which commences in 3:6 with the words: ‘During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me’. However, a little historical insight into what was unfolding in the ancient world of which Jeremiah was part, goes someway to providing an answer. The ancient Near East was about to undergo a period of great change and cracks were beginning to show in the Neo-Assyrian empire that had, for the past three hundred years, dominated the geo-political world of the Near East. After the death of the last great Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, in 631, his weak successors proved to be ineffective in managing the vast empire. However, it was the seemingly sudden arrival of the Chaldean Nabopolassar on to the stage of Near Eastern politics that was about to change everything. It is a moment captured by Jeremiah 4:6, ‘A lion has come out of his lair; a destroyer of nations has set out. He has left his place to lay waste your land’ (Jeremiah 4:7). Whilst ordinarily interpreted as Nebuchadnezzar, there is a sense of immediacy to the passage that makes such an interpretation highly questionable. In fact, if anything, the prophecy that follows relates to the coming of the king of Babylon, first embodied in the founder of the Neo-Babylonian empire, Nabopolassar, who came to power in 626, the year after Jeremiah’s first prophecy.
The rise of the Babylonians, would of course result in unparalleled calamity for the Judahites in 586, and in Jeremiah 4:19 the prophet is given a prophetic vision of the destruction that was to come:
‘‘‘Oh, my anguish, my anguish!
I writhe in pain.
Oh, the agony of my heart!
My heart pounds within me,
I cannot keep silent.
For I have heard the sound of the trumpet;
I have heard the battle cry.”’
The presentation of the coming Babylonians that follows is a detailed and accurate one, they are described as a ‘distant nation. . . an ancient and enduring nation. . . a people whose language you do not know, whose speech you do not understand’ (Jeremiah 5:15). Moreover, the Babylonians are portrayed as mighty men, devourers, who eat up (אָכַל aḵal) all in their path. Even the remnant of Judahites that will be spared are destined for exile: ‘so now you will serve foreigners in a land not your own’ (Jeremiah 5:18). God, it seems, is intent on punishing Judah and Jerusalem, and declares ‘“Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?”’ (Jeremiah 5:29).
Descriptions of the coming disaster continue into the final part of Jeremiah’s second prophecy and are almost too difficult to read. Certainly, for Jeremiah, they are unbearable and in Jeremiah 6:26 he cries out in a moment of pain and compassion, ‘‘“O my poor people, put on sackcloth”’. The textual journey represented by the first two prophecies, has brought Jeremiah, and indeed the reader to a theological impasse. How can such a vision of future destruction, orchestrated by God, be so devoid of hope? God’s response to Jeremiah’s cry represents an explanation of his incomprehensible vision: ‘“I have made you a tester of metals and my people the ore”’ (Jeremiah 6:27). All along, it has been the fiery words of God, put in the mouth of the prophet that exposed the stubbornness of the people of Judah and Jerusalem and it becomes apparent that no amount of punishment could instigate moral or spiritual change: ‘In vain I punished your people’ (Jeremiah 2:30). God declares in the final verses of chapter 6, ‘They are bronze and iron; they all act corruptly’ and verse twenty nine and thirty develops the metallurgic analogy further:
‘The bellows blow fiercely
to burn away the lead with fire,
but the refining goes on in vain;
the wicked are not purged out.
They are called rejected silver,
because the LORD has rejected them.’
The meaning of the comparison is fairly self-evident; it was the job of the metallurgist to heat the lead ore, to extract the silver, purging out the worthless impurities. God’s own people, however, would not respond to the process exemplified in the analogy of the metal worker. God wanted to bring forth silver, a precious, soft, malleable metal, but instead the hearts of his people proved to be like bronze and iron, hard and unrelenting.
The two opening prophecies of Jeremiah, represent an examination of the true nature of wickedness and, as such It makes difficult, but essential reading. God will work with a people who are soft and malleable, who are willing to admit their faults and change their ways, but those who stubbornly refuse to admit their offences, those who will not even respond to God’s discipline, store up for themselves unavoidable destruction. In the end, the first six chapters of Jeremiah represent the account of a people that had gone too far in their rebellion and could not find the way back to their first love, nor indeed did they want to return there.