18th Sunday After Pentecost
September 22, 2013
Commentary on the Texts
This reading touches on what is one of the most well known features of the book of Jeremiah: the personality and inner turmoil of the prophet himself. Jeremiah has come to be known as the "weeping prophet," largely from this passage and a few others (13:17, 14:17). The book of Jeremiah is filled with the imagery of death along with the songs and wails of mourning (e.g., 6:26, 9:17-21). It is from these features associated with the prophet that we get the word jeremiad, which usually describes a pessimistic outlook on life or the future. Jeremiah's traditional association with the book of Lamentations, a writing filled with the outpouring of hurt and despair at the destruction of Jerusalem, has also contributed to this perception of the prophet.
Some scholars have observed that we know more about the individual Jeremiah and his own inner struggles as a prophet than any other person in the Old Testament. On one level, this is true. In this book we are given a glimpse into his life as a prophet, his own inner doubts and feelings, his struggle against opposition, and his close work with colleagues like Baruch. Some have tried to evaluate Jeremiah's temperament from the pages of Scripture. Others have even gone so far as to try to analyze the man psychologically in an attempt to understand the forces that drove him, and conclude that he was neurotic or manic depressive.
Yet, although it may be true that we are afforded a rare glimpse into the inner life of a prophet in the Jeremiah traditions, there are other aspects at work here that lessen the significance of this factor, especially as a tool to understand the biblical text. It is easy to focus on Jeremiah's personal struggles, the personal laments, the weeping, the anguish at the coming catastrophe, the pessimism about the present and immediate future and draw conclusions about the person. Yet we must remember that the Jeremiah traditions were passed down through a community of faith that was far more concerned about what this material said about God and his work in history than it was about the eccentricities of a particular prophet. They did not value and preserve this material for its biographical value but for its theological value.
And even if we understand the bulk of the Jeremiah collection to be from the prophet and his circle of disciples (primarily Baruch), as many scholars do, it is obvious that the message from God that Jeremiah proclaimed was the most important thing that he did for the entire 40 years of his ministry (c. 626-586). Even the traditions themselves remember that Jeremiah pursued this message with a single-mindedness that irritated almost everyone around him, including the king, to the point that they were ready to kill him on more than one occasion! To shift the focus to something other than the message itself would be to violate the very traditions that we are trying to understand.
This simply suggests that when we move very far into the personality of the prophet and attempt to use modern categories such as psychology to understand this material, or allow assumptions about the personality of the man to overshadow the content of the material, we have risked missing the message. Finally, the message of this material is not psychological but theological, what it communicates about God, about us, and about how we relate to God. In today's reading, the value does not lie in what it tells us of Jeremiah, but in what it tells us about God.
Since there are no details present by which to date it, we do not know the immediate historical context of this passage. But as in most of the book of Jeremiah, the wider context is the impending invasion of the Babylonians, first in 598/7 and then again in 587/6. These invasions resulted in the total destruction of the city of Jerusalem including the city walls and Solomon's Temple, as well as the deportation of a large number of the leading citizens to exile in Babylon. The references in the earlier part of chapter eight to the people fleeing to the fortress cities (v. 14) and to the sound of the invaders' horses in Dan (the northernmost territories of Israel; v. 16) suggest that the invasion had already begun. Even though these may be only metaphorical allusions about impending events, the effect is still to establish the literary context of these chapters as the imminent destruction of the entire country and the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. This lends a sense of urgency to this section, and provides a basis for the grief and suffering expressed here.
This reading occurs in a section of the book that collects together various sayings relating to the sins of the nation and the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The book has already presented the substance and major themes of Jeremiah's message, and this collection of sayings continues to expand on those themes. Without needing to delineate the structure of this entire section, since it is complex and loosely organized, one feature is worth noting. The chapter division here is different in Hebrew than it is in English. In the Hebrew text, chapter 8 ends with what is 9:1 in the English text (HEB 8:23 = ET 9:1), and begins chapter 9 with the English 9:2 (HEB 9:1 = ET 9:2). The Hebrew interprets 9:1 as the completion of the lamentation that concludes chapter 8, while taking the next verse (9:2) with verse 3.
As the variant chapter divisions hint, there is some question about the extent of this particular poetic unit. While the Lectionary reading has followed the Hebrew division and has understood the unit to extend through 9:1 with 9:2-3 standing alone, some see those two verses as part of the previous lamentation. The problem with connecting them is that 8:18-9:1 seem very clearly to be spoken primarily in the voice of Jeremiah (see below), while verses 2-3 are labeled as a pronouncement from God ("says the Lord," v. 3; cf. v 6). Some have suggested that this formulaic saying at the end of verse 3 should be eliminated on textual grounds, but there is equal evidence for retaining it. So while 9:2-3 is not a part of today's reading, these verses need to be seen as a continuation of this poetic unit shifting the focus more to God and his evaluation of the people, while still retaining the sense of grief and disheartenment reflected in Jeremiah's lamentation.
Still, rather than solving this particular question on literary or textual grounds, there may be a more important theological reason for this juxtaposition here and lack of clarity about who is actually speaking where. The effect of beginning with Jeremiah speaking of his grief at the coming catastrophe and concluding the same saying with God speaking about leaving the people (v. 2) is to blur the lines between Jeremiah's speech and God's speech, with the result of equating Jeremiah's grief with God's grief. Later in chapter 9 the judgment of God (v. 11) is clearly linked with grieving (vv. 10, 17). This suggests that it is not Jeremiah alone who grieves at the plight of these people, but that Jeremiah is reflecting the grief of God (perhaps "divine pathos" might be a better overarching category, as, for example, in Hosea 11:1-11, although there is a growing recognition that "grief" and "suffering" are appropriate terms to describe God; rf. Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God, Fortress, 1984).
In this sense, Jeremiah's grief is another form of symbolic action, whereby the prophet acts out the message he is bringing to the people. And that message is that while the people are going to die because of their reckless abandonment of God (9:20-22), he is not the kind of God who takes delight in such consequences. In fact, God is the kind of God who is grieved, who suffers, because of the sins of his people and the consequences they bring. This gives a different dimension to the anger at sin so often attributed to God even by Jeremiah (e.g., 4:26, 7:18, etc.). It is here portrayed as an anger that arises from hurt at the consequences the people suffer. It is close to a parental metaphor where a parent is angry at the foolish decisions that a child makes solely because the parent knows that the mistakes may cost the child her life. The anger is but another side of love that finally suffers. The idea of a God who suffers for the sins of his people may be an idea foreign to some theological systems that maintain that God must be above suffering to be God, but it is not an idea foreign to Scripture. Other aspects of this passage reinforce this idea (see below), and we will return in a moment to its implications.
The inner dynamic of this reading is not immediately obvious, even though it also contains some important clues to the theological message. Some translations interpret v. 19c is a parenthetical comment, often setting it apart in English versions. However, there is no need for such a move if it is understood that the passage is structured as a dynamic interchange between God, the people, and the prophet. It is not so much a dialog, as it is the prophet verbalizing the attitudes of the people as well as God's response to those attitudes.
Jeremiah: My joy is gone, my sorrow is beyond healing, my
heart is sick! Listen! The cry of the daughter of my people throughout
the land! (vv. 18-19a)
Two things emerge from noting this structure. First, the condemnation against idolatry, a symptom of breaking faith with God, is at the center of both the grief and anger of the prophet (and thereby God), as it has been throughout the book (v. 19c). The grief works outward from the main problem, the people's unfaithfulness to God that has provoked God. Here Jeremiah portrays, not a God who simply thunders against the sins of the people, but a God who asks with an air of perturbation, even confusion, why his people are acting in this way. Earlier in the chapter, God had asked the same question (v. 5), with the same overtones of the senselessness of their actions (v. 7; cf. Isa 1:3).
One of the most common ways Jeremiah uses to refer to the failure of the people is the theologically laden term "know." This word in Hebrew does not refer simply to knowledge in an abstract way, but also to intimate relationship between persons, so that they "know" each other. It is such a powerful concept in Hebrew, and conveys such an intimate relationship, that this word is the common term for sexual relations between a husband and wife. These people should have that kind of intimate relationship with God, they should know God. He had revealed himself to them over centuries of history, and had every reason to expect that they would have responded by knowing him. And yet, they did not know (emphasized in two surrounding passages, 8:7, 12, 9:3, 6).
Here is another basis for the connection between anger and grief. This is not anger because they have violated a law and now deserve to be prosecuted and punished for legal violation. This is anger because they have failed to establish the most basic of relationship between themselves and the one who had given them life and purpose in the world. The anger of the prophet (and God) does not stand alone here. It is not anger at legal transgression, but a profound anger that has deeper roots in sadness and grief. It is anger at the waste of a future created by God for these people, a future that they have squandered because they have refused to know God. While God may be provoked at their lack of knowledge, the result is profound grief and suffering because of the consequences of refusing to know.
Second, the people's comments also reflect another aspect of the problem. The first comment could be taken as a plaintive confession of God's presence with his people, while the second could be heard as a cry of despair, even of repentance, in the face of the coming disaster. But Jeremiah's characterization of the people to this point in the book will not sustain such a reading. His main contention against the people is that they have been unfaithful to God with no sign of repentance.
Jeremiah saw the signs of unfaithfulness all around him. For some, unfaithfulness to God was outright sin: oppression, corruption, idolatry, lust (5:7, 28). For others, unfaithfulness was trusting in the security they could amass by their own power or trusting in gods they could fashion with their own hands rather than truly trusting in God the Creator and ruler of all the universe (2:27b-28; cf 10:2-3, 17:5). For some, unfaithfulness was a shallow religion that allowed them to believe what they wanted to believe about God. They saw God existing only to fulfill their own selfish dreams and ambitions. And some of the prophets were the worst because they proclaimed to the people what they wanted to hear. Against these ancient "prosperity" preachers Jeremiah brought to bear some of his most scathing denunciations (6:13-15a; cf. 14:14). For others, unfaithfulness was a superficial religion that saw in the worship of God a magic formula to success, prosperity, and security (7:4, 8-10). And some were faithless because they had grown cynically indifferent to the things of God and thought none of it really mattered (5:12).
Jeremiah understood that all of this came from a basic misunderstanding of what it means to serve God and to be his people. He understood that at the heart of all of the people's unfaithfulness was a basic selfishness, a self-centeredness that would not totally submit to God (8:47; cf. 17:9). And this stubbornness of heart (4:4) had led them to the point where they had practiced evil for so long that they could no longer tell the difference between evil and good, and therefore saw no reason to change, indeed, could not change (3:24, 4:22; cf. 13:23).
And yet, the people continued to go through the motions of religion thinking that God was on their side. They thought that Yahweh still dwelt peaceably in the Temple, and that they were secure because of God's presence (note the two versions of the Temple Sermon where Jeremiah denounced such thinking, 7:1-8:3, 26:4-6). They did not know, indeed refused to know, that their religious systems were empty, that God's presence in the Temple and therefore in their midst was not unconditional, and that their cries of allegiance to God rang hollow in light of their worship of Ba'al (cf. 5:2-3, 2:35). Jeremiah never saw any sign of repentance or change of heart among the people during his entire 40-year ministry. It is this aspect that suggests that these responses from the people are less than they might appear to be.
Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her king not in her? This is more likely the same kind of attitude that had earlier been reflected in the Temple Sermon where the people were confident based on the idea that God's presence in the Temple would guarantee their survival. In this sense, as Jeremiah is weeping over the fate of the people, their response is, "What are you talking about Jeremiah? Does not God dwell in Zion? Then, what is there to worry about?" It is a way to discount Jeremiah's message. And yet the answer from God to such misplaced confidence is to remind them of their unfaithful idolatry.
Harvest is past, summer is ended and we have not been delivered. Rather than being the cry of despair at realizing their fate, this is more likely a challenge thrown back at God. The metaphor of harvest (8:20) was a common prophetic way of talking about accountability to God. Isaiah had made the most direct use of this metaphor when he had compared Israel to a choice vine planted by God, who had then expected a harvest of fine grapes. Yet, after all of God's care, there was only a bitter harvest of worthless grapes because the people had refused to respond to him (see Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7). Jeremiah had picked up this same metaphor earlier in the chapter (v. 13). He even took it one step further, and noted that not only had they failed to produce fruit at harvest time, they had even lost what they were given.
Yet, in an ironic twist to the harvest metaphor, the people demanded that God get with the program and do what he was supposed to do. He had not acted on schedule according to when and how and where they thought he should act, and they are becoming a little impatient with his delay of deliverance. It is similar to the metaphor of tapping their watches to remind God that he is running behind schedule. It is ironic because, indeed, "harvest" has passed and they have less than nothing to show as "fruits" of their relationship with God. The fact that they have not been delivered is not due to temporary inattention on God's part. It is a permanent fact that they have not yet realized.
Both of these statements from the people further reveal the depth of the problem. Not only have they been unfaithful to God, they are so preoccupied with their own agendas that they are totally oblivious to the message of destruction brought by the prophet. It is this total unconcern with the word of God and the looming consequences of their actions that evoke the depth of pathos here. It is one thing to sin against the living God. It is quite another to do so habitually, arrogantly, and senselessly while saying "we have not sinned" (2:35), totally heedless of the destruction swiftly approaching!
The grief that envelops the passage from beginning and end is expressed in metaphors of sickness and death. The people are portrayed as having a terminal disease that has ravaged and broken them and yet they seek no cure and no physician. It is not that such help is unavailable. The implied answers to the prophet's questions are that, yes, there is "balm" in Gilead (cf. Gen . 37:25), that yes, there is a physician available. And yet, the people are not healed. As Jeremiah has already noted, they are, indeed, seeking healing from God (v. 15; cf. 3:22ff, 14:19, 46:11), but only on their own terms, in the place (v. 19b) and time (v. 20) of their own choosing, and without sincere repentance. That only guarantees their death as surely as drinking poisoned water (8:14, 9:14-15)!
The despair and grief is clear in the jumble of emotive words and the striking metaphors associated with weeping (cf. 9:10, 17-22). They intend to communicate profound anguish and sorrow. It is not so much the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding, as devastating as that would be. It is more the inevitability and finality of a tragedy that could have been avoided, of consequences that did not have to be, that evokes such pain.
If we are not careful, we will find it easy to shift the focus to questions of cause and effect, and try to interject other theological questions about the sovereignty of God or the nature of repentance. On other grounds in other places we might raise the question of the possibility of their repentance, or the nature of God's judgment and its relation to grace, or the relation of Jeremiah's theological reading of the situation to a historical reading, or even about the possibility of some future beyond this ending. Yet, none of these questions are relevant to this text. The message is clear and straightforward. The people have sinned, they have persistently refused to repent, and they will die because of their willfulness. And so the prophet weeps. And in doing so he reveals a God who also weeps.
There are two dimensions of this text that provide paths to proclamation, one from the perspective of God and the other from the perspective of the prophet. The first dimension points to a conception of God that sees him much differently than many understand the God of the Old Testament. Too often, people see the God of the Old Testament as a different God than what we think we see in Jesus. While most would not go as far as the early heretic Marcion and repudiate the Old Testament entirely as portraying a deity inferior to Jesus, many still see the Old Testament in negative terms while seeing the "answer" only revealed in the coming of Jesus. They see the Old Testament, and the God portrayed there, as all about law and obedience and violation and judgment. That God, they assume, is always angry, ready to kill people without much provocation. So it is no wonder the people longed for the coming of Jesus to get to a "good" God.
Yet this text (and many others in the Old Testament) clearly reveal a depth to the character of God in the Old Testament that goes far beyond anger and judgment. Here we see a picture of God that is very close to what we see of the same God revealed in Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus sat on the hillside outside Jerusalem and wept over the city only a few days before the people of that city would kill him, here God weeps with the prophet at the failure of his people. We have in this reading, not just a glimpse into the broken heart of Jeremiah, but a glimpse into the broken heart of God!
As Terence Fretheim says:
There is no hope in this passage beyond the death of the people. But with this grief of God so intense, we have some sense that while this death may indeed occur, God's love is so strong that there may be some future. And this is not the end of Jeremiah's message! We do not know here what that future might be, and indeed they are promised none. But this grief calls us anew to trust a God who cares this much! Perhaps, even death will not be the end.
The second dimension of this text arises from understanding the first dimension of God's suffering, and calls us to suffer with him for the sins of the world. We live in a world that in many ways is not far different from Jeremiah's. The problems with which Jeremiah wrestled sound very up to date.
We, as Christians, also carry a double message; death to sinners but hope in repentance through faith in Jesus Christ. We, too, see our message of hope largely ignored in our world, in our society and, yes sadly, in our churches as well. People reject God heedless of any consequences. It has been so since the Garden of Eden. Indifference and non-involvement seem the order of the day in too many places. We are constantly bombarded with messages of modern prophets of success and prosperity who have built their own idols and call on others to worship with them at the creation of their own hands. Too often, even God's people seem too concerned with their own spiritual pulse-taking, too concerned with their own success, prosperity, happiness and comfort to really hear the voices of broken humanity, or even to hear the voice of a lone prophet cry, "Return!"
But the real questions to ask ourselves as modern servants of God lie even beyond this. When our message is proclaimed and ignored, when we see the sin, the rejection of God and the unfaithfulness around us, do we weep with God? If it so hurt Jeremiah to offer hope and then see the people reject it; if it so hurt Jeremiah to realize that that rejection was a death sentence, should it not also hurt us? Do we weep with Jeremiah? Does God weep through us?
This is not the superficial shedding of a tear because of a sad story that stirs our emotions, but like Jeremiah, a lifestyle of weeping that involves the very center of our being, who we are as God's people. Hosea pictured this kind of compassion at the heart of God (11:8): "My heart turns over within me." Do we weep for our neighbors, friends, co-workers, leaders, anyone who is heedless of the consequences of rejection of God, whether it be by wickedness or by superficial religion?
Perhaps for family we can weep; perhaps for "good" people we can weep. But do we weep for the vilest, most ugly, most unattractive sinner?
We might agree that it is just and proper for a 17-year teen to draw a death-sentence for beating an old man to death. But do we weep for him? We can see a certain moral justice when a drug dealer is killed or when a junkie dies of an overdose. But do we weep for them? We can smugly nod our heads in our self-righteousness because a drunk has liver disease or a homosexual contracts AIDS. But do we weep for them? We can become angry when others judge us by what they see and not by who we are. But do we weep for them? We shake our heads in disbelief when our acquaintances, people we know and care about, continually reject God. But do we weep for them?
We find it easy to weep for starving children in Ethiopia or the Sudan, or the horrible conditions in the slums of Calcutta or Mexico City, and we should. We find it easy to weep for the downtrodden and the oppressed, and we should. But do we weep for the oppressor?
If we, as Christians, as recipients of God's unmerited grace, we who claim to serve a God who defines himself as "love", if we do not weep for them, who will? There is an old proverb that says that only women, children, and fools, weep.
But Jesus wept!
Luke 19:41-44 And when he approached, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, "If you had known in this day the things which make for peace. But now they have been hidden from you. For days will come when your enemies will throw up a bank before you and surround you and hem you in on every side. And they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another.
Luke 13:34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent unto her. How often I wanted to gather your children together just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.
Who is Jesus weeping over? Prophet killers!
Phil 3:18-19 For many walk, of whom I told you and now tell you weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose God is their own desires, who set their minds on earthly things.
Who is he weeping over? Enemies of the cross!
And Paul again in Acts 20:18-19:
You yourselves know from the first day that I set foot in Asia how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews.
Who is he weeping over? The Jews who sought to kill him!
Why all this talk of weeping? We often hear that Christianity is a joyful religion, that being Christian should bring peace and contentment and joy and happiness and smiles! Perhaps such a view reflects too much the prophets who cry "Peace, Peace" when there is no peace (6:14, 8:11). Or should not be. Oh, there is initial joy in salvation, in establishing relationship with God. The realization and assurance of God's forgiveness is joyful. Unfortunately, this is where too many Christians stop: to bask in the joy. But as spiritual growth comes, the joy turns to concern and outward, outgoing love. And weeping. Real love must be shared, or it dies. But love hurts, because there is always a risk in loving.
Bill Gaither captured this well in one of his songs:
Our commission from Christ was not, "Follow me and be happy!" or "Follow me and be prosperous!" but "Take up your cross and follow me!" The cross was the ultimate symbol of what it meant to love. And love often hurts. Oh, Jesus promised rest. "Come unto me all of you who labor and carry heavy burdens and I will give you rest." But notice, the promise is rest from labor. Not retirement, but rest; rest to carry another cross.
And the joy? Oh there is joy in serving God! There is hope! But that is not the real goal of being Christian; it is a by-product! I recently saw a church marquee that read: "Jesus came to give you joy." That is much too superficial. Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life." And then he goes on to talk of losing one's life for others.
In John 15:11 Jesus says:
These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."
And he goes on in the next verse (v. 12-13):
This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love no man has than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
The real joy comes through the sharing, through the suffering, through the bearing of other's burdens, through the weeping. Where there is weeping there is hope, because where there is weeping there is love going out to people in need. There is a sharing of pain and suffering. Where there is weeping, someone has turned away from himself long enough to see the pain of others, even to see a death sentence that others cannot see. Where there is weeping someone has realized that a death sentence is about to be carried out. Where there is weeping, someone has realized that even in the death of the worst among us, God himself bears the pain, and weeps. If we have no joy, no real joy in Christian living, perhaps we have not yet learned to weep, to care, to love.
Perhaps some have been searching for joy. Those who do, rarely find it. Those who spend themselves for others always do!!
Psalm 126:5-6 Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes forth weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy bringing his sheaves with him.
Psalm 30:5 Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
Jeremiah lived to see his death sentence carried out. The nation, the people died because they did not return. But Jeremiah's faithfulness, his weeping, provided hope for the future. Later the people looked back and understood that the one who wept was the true servant of God, because that servant understood the hurt in the heart of God. Let us pray for the capacity to weep at the brokenness of our world.
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