First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2012
Commentary on the Text
This passage of Jeremiah is within a section of the book known as The Little Book of Consolation (ch. 31-33), since its primary theme is encouragement and hope in the midst of horrible catastrophe and despair. A large section of chapter 33 (14-26) is lacking in the Septuagint, the second century BC Greek translation of the OT. This suggests that it comes from a later time period than other sections of Jeremiah.
Unless it is important for certain confessional reasons to maintain that Jeremiah himself authored all of this material, this in itself poses few interpretive problems. There are some differences in emphasis between this section and earlier writings of Jeremiah that seem to reflect later concerns (450-400 BC). These include a new emphasis on the expected role of the priests and temple, which is mostly negative in Jeremiah's view (cf. Jer 7-8), but which takes on great importance in the post-exilic era (cf. Haggai). Also, there is the focus on the necessity of a Davidic king, without emphasizing the characteristics of obedience, justice, and righteousness of his reign that most often marked earlier prophetic expectations (cf. 21:11-12, 23:5-6; Isa 9:2-7).
However, while differing in specific focus, these verses are very close to Jeremiah's larger theme, "to build and to plant," that was interwoven throughout his message from the beginning of his ministry, along with the warning "to pluck up, and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow" (see Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10; cf. 18:7-10 and 31:28). Also, these verses seem to be adapted from 23:5-6, which are generally agreed to have been Jeremiah's. So even though the later community may have tried to clarify Jeremiah's message and apply it in concrete ways to their own history and concerns, thereby confirming its ongoing validity as God's message, they adhered closely to the main thrust of Jeremiah's original message.
Finally, though, beyond concerns about origin or authorship the text lies before us as a testimony from the community of Faith, as Scripture, as canon. It is finally that canonical shaping of the traditions, no matter what their origin or history, that must be the focus of our interpretation, and proclamation.
While The Little Book of Consolation is not dated as such, the historical context in which it is to be heard is clearly and vividly portrayed in chapter 32 (which chronologically follows chapter 37; much of the latter sections of Jeremiah are not in chronological order). The Babylonian armies under Nebuchadrezzar were laying siege to Jerusalem, with its fall and destruction imminent (see The Rise of Babylon and Exile, especially the reign of Zedekiah).
Babylon had already captured the city once in 598 BC, and replaced the Davidic king (Jehoichin) with a puppet king, Zedekiah. However, because of world events and a resurgent nationalism, Zedekiah was persuaded to rebel, which precipitated the return of the Babylonian armies to lay siege to Jerusalem in 588 BC. Within months of the beginning of that siege, a new Pharaoh came to power in Egypt. Sensing the threat posed by Babylon control of Palestine, Pharaoh Hophra sent an army north to confront the Babylonians and relieve the siege of Jerusalem. As the Egyptian army approached, the Babylonians temporarily lifted the siege (37:4-5), which led to a euphoric sense of relief in Jerusalem as many insisted that God had provided another miraculous deliverance as He had done in the days of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-19).
But Jeremiah knew better. He continued to insist, as he had for 40 years, even in the face of threat of execution as a traitor, that this time God would not spare the city and the land. It was not only because the people had so long been unfaithful to Him, but also because they continually refused to repent and return to God beyond expecting Him to bail them out of trouble (chs. 6-7). The "weeping" prophet (8:18-9:1) knew that an end was coming, and in fact was only a matter of months away.
Still, Jeremiah resolutely held out the hope of a new future. Unlike glib prophets of prosperity like Hananiah who too easily saw possibility inherent in the present (ch. 28), Jeremiah saw a newness arising only beyond the ashes of a devastating catastrophe. For Jeremiah's vision of the future to be true, that future had to be God's future, not a future orchestrated by kings and soldiers, implemented by alliances and power, and worked out in the security of false ideas about God. Jeremiah's hope was rooted in the ongoing activity of God in the world on His terms, and on His terms only.
And yet, that hope of building and planting could not remain only a hope, only a "pie in the sky" dream with no anchor in the concrete life of the people. So Jeremiah, as do all the prophets, took what God had revealed to him about Himself and His purposes and translated that understanding into a concrete message for the people in terms that could provide them with a genuine hope.
Jeremiah had acted out that message in concrete ways by purchasing a field at the very time when there appeared to be no future (see Commentary on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15). His message was that God would "restore their fortunes" (32:44), not in the sense of riches, but in the sense of normalcy. That is, beyond the time of horrible destruction bearing down on them, solely by God's grace, they would again be able to buy fields, to conduct business, to plant crops, to raise children, to worship God in the temple. It would not be identical with the present in many ways; that is the nature of endings. But it would encompass the commonplace things that constitute human existence, the things that really matter most. That is the nature of God's faithfulness.
It is in this context that this reading needs to be set and understood. "Days are surely coming" affirms the continuity and ongoing validity of God's work with the people. Even in the face of the worst crises, and the despair that endings bring, beyond the ending is a newness that is rooted in God Himself. The emphasis in verse 14 falls on the role of God: "I will fulfill the promise I made." The "promise" here should not be understood as simply a historical prediction to be checked off when it corresponds to a certain event. Rather, "promise," the "word" of the Lord, is nothing less than the faithfulness of God that calls the people to live in trust of that faithfulness, even in the ending of Exile.
The "righteous Branch" was the historically concrete form earlier prophets had used to express the promise, the faithfulness of God. That metaphor was first used by Isaiah of Jerusalem a hundred years earlier to express the hope of a new king who would replace the faithless Ahaz and become the vehicle for God's new work among the people (11:1f).
Israelite kings were supposed to reign for God as His anointed, modeling for the people the justice and righteousness of God, and caring for the people as a shepherd. But so many of the kings had led the people in destructive worship of foreign idols, had used their position for their own advantage, and had depended on the strength of military power and foreign alliances to secure their position. In all of Israel's history after David, only five kings in the Southern Kingdom, and none in the Northern Kingdom, were remembered as being even marginally faithful to God.
Some of the people, especially the prophets, began to long for a righteous king who would once again shepherd the people with "the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord," who would "not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the lowly of the earth" (Isa 11:2-4). For a time, it seemed Hezekiah had fulfilled that expectation; but then his son Manasseh undid most of the good he had done. Then some expected Josiah with his reforms to fulfill that role; but Josiah had died a sudden death, and his revival also died.
So the people, faced with the greatest catastrophe imaginable, again longed for God's intervention in the figure of a great leader who would somehow solve the crisis. And even as the years, and centuries, after the Exile unfolded, they understood enough about God's faithfulness that they still expected God to raise up a new leader to restore the nation. Jeremiah had not spelled out exactly what role that leader would fulfill beyond establishing justice and righteousness. He only proclaimed in the only historical context available to him, the Davidic monarchy, that God had not abandoned His people.
The passage here likewise expresses the faithfulness of God in the same historical images of a new Davidic king in the metaphor of the Branch, affirming as strongly as possible that God would restore the Davidic monarchy, that He would bring about new beginnings out of the ending of the Exile. Those historical images even extend to the priesthood where the restoration beyond the Exile would include the offering of sacrifices, which implies a new temple, a return to some form of normalcy as had already been attested by Jeremiah's purchase of the field.
It is not really relevant to the message of this passage to move into debates about whether the promises (v. 17) actually worked out in history, unless we have already made historical prediction the primary purpose of this passage. History actually tracked differently than Jeremiah, or this passage, anticipated.
But the point of the message, as it impacted the reality of the people's lives to bring them hope in the midst of failure and despair, was far more about God and his faithfulness to them, sinful through they were, than it was about a specific new earthly king. And it is that message about the faithfulness of God in committing Himself to a people in spite of their disobedience, and in the middle of judgment on sin, that provides the basis for a new understanding of God when a new "Branch" sprang forth from the root of Jesse in a stable in the City of David! (see Matthew's use of the metaphor of "Branch").
And finally, it is that faithfulness of God, expressed again and again throughout history, that is the foundation of our hope. It is in our understanding enough about God to know that He has promised that He will not leave His people or the world as it is in the grip of sin, that allows us again to expect a coming, an Advent, in which the King and Lord of all the earth will establish His reign and restore the fortunes of all people. That is the expectancy with which we begin this Advent season!
As a preaching text, the theme of hope from endings is a natural focus. We all face endings of one sort or another in our lives. But the endings of this passage are not just the day to day difficulties that we sometimes face, the things that bring us frustration and worry. The endings that lie behind this passage are life and death matters, physical endings and even spiritual endings. The hope of this passage will mean very little unless it is set against the background of the total absence of a future.
As in the text, some of those life and death endings of our lives are the direct result of our selfish and sinful choices that bring horribly devastating consequences. Sometimes they are the consequences of someone else's sinful actions. Perhaps even endings that are not even directly explainable in terms of sin might also be included here. When faced with those endings, we naturally want some way out, some way to avoid the pain and reality of the situation. There may be times of great and wonderful deliverance. But sometimes not.
Yet, far more than the endings that lie behind this passage is the hope that is affirmed. That hope is not just hoping, but is a profound faith that is empowered to envision a new future solely on the basis of God and His grace. People who have no future need to hear proclaimed the promise of God: "Days are surely coming!" This text calls us to believe in the words of promise even before the endings have become apparent. It calls us to live the promise as a matter of lifestyle. And even in the midst of ending, it calls us to focus on the possibility of a new future rather than focus on the loss of the past.
This text, then, is not just the prediction about a future event that for us is long past. It proclaims to people something about the nature of God. We should be cautious that we do not too easily promise what kind of future they can expect. But there should be no hesitancy in proclaiming that with God, there is always a future!
As an Advent text, this passage not only calls us to reflect on the faithfulness of God in the past as He worked in Israel's history, especially as that faithfulness worked out in the Coming of Jesus the Christ. It also calls us to hold the present realities of life within the cradle of expectation. That does not mean we should call people to abandon the present for some utopian dream. But it calls us to affirm that the present is not the final chapter. The world that we experience, with all of its sin and pain and misery, is not God's final word. Days are surely coming!
Being careful not to move into allegory, this text can still address the endings that sin brings and has brought, and yet also point to the deliverance and salvation incarnated in Jesus. In other passages the metaphor of light into darkness communicates the new work of God in the world and in the lives of people. Here, the metaphor is new life, new growth from a dead stump. This does not lend itself to Atonement theories, but it clearly proclaims the willingness of God to extend grace in the midst of the consequences of sin. The "worst," sinner lying "dead" in his sins needs to hear the message of newness that the Coming of Jesus proclaims. And it is a newness that will take concrete, historical form! Days are surely coming!
We are called to live in the present, yet with the expectation that in some concrete way that we cannot yet envision, God will work His own restoration of all things. Days are surely coming! That is a call not only to expectation, but to faith in God.
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