Prophet Versus Prophet

Posted: November 14th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Jeremiah, Week 8 | Tags: | Comments Off on Prophet Versus Prophet

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 26:1–29:32



Jeremiah and the yoke of scrap metal
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When is good news not good news? When the good news turns out to be false. In this section, we will read about Hananiah, a prophet who claims to speak from the LORD. We have no reason to doubt his sincerity. On top of that, his message is a lot happier than Jeremiah’s. He predicts a quick end to the exile. The only problem is that his prophecy is not true. In responding to Hananiah’s fairly upbeat message, Jeremiah points out that the LORD does want good things for the people of God. However, these good things will only come after God’s judgment has run its course. The best thing for the exiles to do is to pursue the welfare of Babylon while they are there in exile.

Jeremiah in the Temple

Chapter 25 is often taken to be the ending of the first part of Jeremiah. Chapter 30 begins the second part. In between lie four chapters relating specific episodes in the life of Jeremiah. The first episode begins with a declaration which Jeremiah delivers in the Temple. This is in the first year of Jehoiakim’s reign and, thus, three to four years before the prophecy delivered in chapter 25. It will not come as a surprise to those who have been following the book of Jeremiah from the beginning that this text is not a chronological narrative. Nevertheless, the text does situate this event in a particular time. It may be worth keeping this in mind as the story progresses.

In Jeremiah 26, we do not learn much about what Jeremiah says. That is recorded earlier in Jeremiah 7. The claims in Jeremiah 26 are not particularly remarkable. He warns the people to amend their ways or God will bring destruction. The element that makes this declaration especially provocative is that Jeremiah offers this prophecy that warns of the Temple’s destruction while he is standing in that very space. It is the context, rather than the content of the sermon, that drives the action in Jeremiah 26. In the light of Jeremiah’s message, he is quickly arrested and warned that he will be executed for speaking treasonous words against the Temple (26:1−9). Readers will remember that Jesus is also charged with making claims against the Temple (Mark 14:58).

Jeremiah Before the Judges

A group of judges is quickly assembled. The priests and Temple prophets accuse Jeremiah of prophesying against the city (Amos 7:12−13), claiming he should be put to death (Jeremiah 26:10−11). In his defense, Jeremiah says that he has only spoken what the LORD has commanded him to speak. If they do not approve of his words, their problem is really with God and not Jeremiah. At the same time, Jeremiah notes that he is in their power. They can kill him, and he can do nothing about it. Nevertheless, he notes that should they kill him, they will be bringing innocent blood upon them. His innocence lies in the fact that he is simply doing the LORD’s work in the LORD’s house. For Christians, this scene conjures up the discussion between Pilate and the citizens of Jerusalem in Matthew 27:24−26. While Pilate does not want innocent blood on his hands, the citizens of Jerusalem are quite willing to have Jesus’ blood on their hands, convinced he is guilty.

As the officials ponder Jeremiah’s fate, they claim that he has done nothing worthy of death (Jeremiah 26:16). He has spoken in the name of the LORD. The unstated, but implied, judgment is that speaking publicly in the name of the LORD brings the danger of imminent judgment from God. If one is willing to take that danger on, such a person should not be judged by humans before the LORD has had a chance to validate Jeremiah’s claims.

At this point, some of the elders intervene, noting that during the reign of Hezekiah, Micah offered similar warnings about Jerusalem and the Temple (Micah 3:12). Micah was not put to death. Indeed, his words led the king to repent, which led God to spare the city. The elders wonder if they should do likewise now in Jeremiah’s case (Jeremiah 26:19).

Uriah and Jeremiah

In contrast to the story of Micah, the text turns to take up the story of Uriah, a contemporary prophet who prophesied against Jerusalem and the Temple just as Jeremiah had. Jehoiakim was angered and sought to kill him. Uriah fled to Egypt and Jehoiakim pursued him, brought him back to Judah, and had him executed. As the chapter ends, we learn that only the intervention of Ahikam, a righteous member of a righteous family (2 Kings 22; Jeremiah 40) saves Jeremiah (26:24).

The story of Uriah concretely exemplifies the conflict that rages throughout these four chapters. This is the conflict between the authority and ideology of the king and his “prophets,” on the one hand, and Jeremiah, the servant of the LORD, on the other hand. The words Jeremiah speaks directly undermine the policies and ideology of the royal household. As is often the case with rulers, there seems to be an assumption that if the dissenting voices can be silenced, the policies advocated by those dissenters can be eliminated.

Commanded to Capitulate

Chapter 27 presents the next episode in this conflict. Jeremiah is instructed to make a yoke of metal and straps. While wearing that yoke, Jeremiah is to address Zedekiah, the king of Judah (circa 598 BCE), and the emissaries of the surrounding nations who were also under Babylonian domination. Jeremiah’s proclamation makes clear that the LORD is the sovereign one who controls all the earth. Babylon is the LORD’s instrument for now. Resistance to Babylon during this time is futile. It will simply invite further destruction (Jeremiah 27:1−7). Any prophets who counsel resistance to Babylon are lying and not conveying the word of the LORD. Three times Jeremiah tells his audience not to listen to those who recommend any other course than capitulation (Jeremiah 27:9, 14, 17).

Without question, this would have been a bitter pill to swallow. Our political mythology today celebrates the small and weak force that stands up to the mighty empire. No movies get made about a people who accept the judgment of God and capitulate to the mighty empire. Resistance is heroic. Jeremiah is absolutely clear, however, that resistance to Babylon is resistance to the LORD, and it will only make matters worse.

Jeremiah Versus Hananiah

The attitude that Jeremiah combats in chapter 27 is manifested in a personal interaction between Jeremiah and Hananiah in chapter 28. Hananiah claims to be a prophet with a very distinct word from the LORD which he addresses to Jeremiah in the Temple in the presence of priests and prophets. Hananiah invokes the image of the yoke of the king of Babylon to put his prophecy in direct conflict with Jeremiah’s use of the yoke in chapter 27. Hananiah’s word contains a very precise timetable for the return of the exiles, along with the things which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Temple. He claims that all this will happen within two years (Jeremiah 28:1−4). Such precision provides a clear barometer for determining if he is speaking for the LORD or not.

Since Hananiah has offered his prophecy of peace against Jeremiah’s prophecy publicly in the Temple, Jeremiah responds in kind (Jeremiah 28:5−9). It is unclear whether Jeremiah’s assertion of “Amen!” is sarcastic or sincere. Either is possible. Why shouldn’t Jeremiah at least hope that Hananiah is right? But Jeremiah goes on to make it clear that he does not think Hananiah is right. Moreover, Jeremiah notes that Hananiah’s prophecy of peace puts him at odds with the larger prophetic tradition advocating both covenant faithfulness and judgment for failure to keep the covenant (Jeremiah 28:5−9). In any case, as Jeremiah notes, time will soon tell whether Hananiah is a true or false prophet.

Hananiah’s reaction to Jeremiah indicates that he takes Jeremiah’s words as largely sarcastic critique or simply as an expression of doubt. He breaks the yoke that Jeremiah had been wearing and reaffirms his prophetic claim that the exile will end within two years. At this, Jeremiah walks away (Jeremiah 28:10−11). Hananiah’s prophecy is a message of good news. His reaction to Jeremiah shows that he offers it in the sincere conviction that he is speaking for God. Of course, good news is only good news if it is also true. At this point in the story, there are two conflicting viewpoints. Jeremiah urges acceptance of the yoke of Babylon for as long as God places it there. In contrast, Hananiah believes God will end the exile fairly quickly.

Some time passes and Jeremiah receives a word from the LORD in response to Hananiah (Jeremiah 28:12−16). The response is twofold. First, God has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to discipline the nations, including Judah. God has even given Nebuchadnezzar authority over the animals of the land. The broken yoke of wood will be replaced by a yoke of iron. Second, because Hananiah has spoken falsely, he will die within a year. This mirrors the precision of Hananiah’s prediction. Chapter 28 ends by recording Hananiah’s death two months later. This confirms Jeremiah’s truthfulness and reinforces the severe judgment of the LORD on the people of Judah.

Seek Shalom

Jeremiah 29 covers a letter that Jeremiah sent to those in exile in Babylon. This letter urges the exiles to settle in for the long haul. Verse 7 summarizes the advice in the letter: the exiles are to “Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you,” and they are to pray for the city. The LORD claims that whatever shalom the exiles will experience is tied to the shalom of the city of Babylon. The exiles are not simply to bide their time. They are to engage in civic and social life in Babylon.

When the time is right, the LORD will bring them back to the Promised Land. All through chapters 26 to 29, Jeremiah has asserted the importance of recognizing and conforming to the LORD’s sovereign plan for Judah. This plan is primarily about discipline and judgment in the light of Judah’s sin. Here in Jeremiah 29:11, we read that God’s plan is intentional, not haphazard, and that it is ultimately a plan for shalom. An essential part of this shalom involves the restoration and return of the exiles to the Promised Land (Jeremiah 29:12−14).

In contrast to the message of hope that is offered to the exiles, the fate of those who remain in the land during this time is not so rosy. Because the covenant with Abraham and his heirs is so intimately tied to the land, one might think that those remaining in the land had been favored by God. Not so. Those in the land can look forward to sword, famine, and pestilence (Jeremiah 29:15−19). The lying prophets who suggest otherwise will become a byword among the exiles for God’s judgment (Jeremiah 29:21−23).

Verses 24−32 contain a brief account of one consequence of Jeremiah’s letter. After hearing of Jeremiah’s letter, Shemaiah, one of the prophets in exile, sends a counter letter back to Jerusalem. This letter is addressed to Zephaniah, a priest in Jerusalem. Shemaiah urges Zephaniah to curtail the ravings of the mad prophet Jeremiah. Zephaniah does not do that. Instead, he shares that letter with Jeremiah, who sends one more letter to the exiles pronouncing the LORD’s judgment on all such lying prophets as Shemaiah.

One can see here the latent tensions between those in exile and those remaining in the land. There are conflicting perceptions of where each party stands with God, what God is ultimately going to do, and what the proper policies should be. Into the midst of this, Jeremiah inserts God’s authoritative message that the LORD is in control, has a plan, and that God’s plan is ultimately a plan for shalom.

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. What contrasts do you notice between Jeremiah and Hananiah? Whose message do you find more appealing? What “prophets” do you see in your own culture? How might you discern which prophet is telling the truth and which is telling lies?
  2. How do you think the exiles would have felt when they read Jeremiah’s letter (chapter 29)? What might the command in 29:7 look like in your context? How does 29:11 give hope within the context of judgment and exile?

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Bad, Bad News

Posted: November 7th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Jeremiah, Week 7 | Tags: | Comments Off on Bad, Bad News

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 21:1–25:38


Jeremiah smashing the pottery
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Our political mythologies celebrate the hero who persists despite all odds. When things look their bleakest, the hero perseveres, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Often help comes from an unexpected source. In the book of Jeremiah, everyone recognizes that this would be the right time for such a hero to emerge; it is the right time for the LORD to swoop in and save the day. But Jeremiah is absolutely clear: God is not going to save Judah. The Babylonians are closing in; the LORD is using Nebuchadnezzar to bring ruin on the people. There are only two choices: surrender and survive, or resist and die. There is no heroic option here.

The Judgment of Judah

This section begins a series of words of the LORD delivered by Jeremiah in and around Jerusalem. These words alternate between judgment and restoration, rupture and hope. Chapter 21 opens with emissaries sent by the king asking Jeremiah to inquire of the LORD on their behalf. Up to this point, one has the impression that the political and religious leaders of Jerusalem have persecuted Jeremiah and ignored his message. Now the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar are attacking. The king invokes God’s past saving activity, alluding to the Exodus. Perhaps God can be persuaded to act in a similar way on this occasion if Jeremiah will intervene (Jeremiah 21:1−2).

We do not learn Jeremiah’s own views about the message he delivers. The message, however, is unambiguous. Jerusalem will fall to Nebuchadnezzar. The devastation will be total, bloody, and relentless. This in itself is not new news. What is striking, however, is the use of the first person pronoun. All of this destruction is the work of the LORD. In the same way that the LORD is the one who fights against Pharaoh and who leads Israel to freedom, now the same LORD will fight against Israel. The emissaries from the king ask if the wonders of Exodus are still available to them now. Jeremiah’s answer is, “yes,” but now the “outstretched hand and mighty arm” (21:5) are directed against Judah.

In Jeremiah 21:8−10 the language of Deuteronomy 30:15−20 is used to offer the people at large an option. They can chose life by leaving the city and surrendering now. If they stay and fight, they have chosen death. Following the will of God now requires submission to Babylon. The people are called to abandon any notions of patriotism, to surrender and submit. That is the only way to escape with one’s life.

A Critique of the Monarchy

After these words to the people at large, the final verses of chapter 21 return to address the monarchy. It becomes clear that the purpose of the king is to secure justice for the people, particularly those who are oppressed. Practicing justice is the only way to secure the future of the nation. There are no alliances, strategies, or fortifications that can help. Just do justice. Then the city will flourish.

Just in case Jeremiah 21:11−12 might give the impression that Jerusalem is in the clear, verses 13−14 remind the king that the city is under God’s judgment. They have been complacent, idolatrous, and oppressive. Now God will send fire.

All of chapter 22 and the first verses of chapter 23 focus on the monarchy and specific kings. The ruler bears the bulk of the responsibility for the state of the nation. The health of the religious, commercial, and legal aspects of society rely first and foremost on the king. This section offers a criticism of the monarchy as a whole (22:1−10) and of actions of specific kings.

Do justice; protect the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow; do not shed innocent blood. These are fairly standard prerequisites within Scripture for a just society. Certainly one might say more about this, but one would not want to make justice anything less than this. The future of the monarchy depends on these things. If the kings of Judah will observe them, then they will persist on David’s throne. If they fail at this, then they will have abandoned the covenant and God will bring ruin on them and the city. Interestingly, Jeremiah 22:9 links the practice of justice to the worship of the LORD alone. The failure of justice is linked to idolatry. The passage does not explain the nature of this connection, and this connection may be complex and varied in different times and places. Nevertheless, idolatry and injustice are bound together in this verse. Based on the entirety of Jeremiah, it is clear that Judah’s idolatry makes them blind and deaf in certain important respects. They cannot properly see themselves, their political situation, and their current situation relative to the LORD. They cannot hear and respond appropriately to God’s word delivered through Jeremiah. We should not expect that such idolatry-induced blindness and deafness is limited to Judah’s interactions with God. Presumably, this blindness and deafness works its way out in Judah’s social and economic life, too. In this way, perhaps we can imagine how idolatry and injustice are tied together.

The rest of this chapter continues a critique of the monarchy through accounts of specific kings. The first is Shallum (generally referred to as Jehoahaz elsewhere), the son of Josiah. Josiah, the dead king of verse 10, was a reliable and faithful king who died in battle (2 Kings 23:1−30) with the Egyptians. His son Shallum/Jehoahaz was not faithful and was quickly deposed by the Egyptians and taken into exile (2 Kings 23:31−35).

Shallum appears to have adopted the idea that the quality of his reign would be measured by the luxurious nature of his palace. He built this luxury on the backs of conscripted labor. In contrast with his father — who defended the cause of the poor and needy — Shallum proved to be a self-absorbed king, immersed in injustice. From the perspective of the LORD, the dead Josiah is better off than the living. One should not mourn for him. Rather, people should pity those who live under his unjust son, who will die unmourned (Jeremiah 22:10−19).

After a brief interlude that directs judgment on the community as a whole (Jeremiah 22:20−23), Jeremiah returns to addressing specific kings. Jehoiachin was the son of Jehoiachim and the grandson of Josiah. According to 2 Kings 25:8−17, he only reigned for a few months before Nebuchadnezzar took him into exile, along with his family and much of the wealth of Jerusalem. Here, the LORD announces that even if Jehoiachin were a royal signet ring on the hand of God, God would throw him away (Jeremiah 22:24−30). Perhaps because there is no king left, the LORD turns to address “the land” (Jeremiah 22:29). The land is instructed to close the account on Jehoiachin, treating him as childless, the end of the Davidic line.

This specific word against Jehoiachin is followed immediately by a more general criticism of the leaders or “shepherds” of Judah (23:1−8). Because these leaders have not done their jobs well, because they have not led with righteousness, the sheep have been scattered. The text seems quite clear in asserting that although the LORD has caused the exile or the scattering of the sheep of Judah, it is the shepherds, the leaders of the people, who are responsible for this.

Promise of Restoration

This word of judgment regarding the shepherds also contains promises of restoration (Jeremiah 23:5−8). “In the days to come,” the LORD who has caused the scattering of the sheep will bring them all back home. The exiles will return and flourish. Moreover, God will establish a new Davidic shepherd, a king who will rule with wisdom, justice, and righteousness. This will be such an amazing event that the return of the exiles will outshine the Exodus as one of the LORD’s redemptive events (23:7−8).

This promise of restoration has two important theological components to it. The first concerns this promised Davidic king who will rule with wisdom, justice, and righteousness. Christians will naturally want to see in this promise an anticipation of the coming of Christ. As long as they recognize that such prophetic promises might admit of numerous fulfillments, Christians should not hesitate to read these promises in the light of Christ. The great blessing of prophetic speech is that it speaks into ancient contexts and continues to speak in subsequent contexts as well. The alternative is to have prophetic speech frozen in one particular historical period, incapable of addressing the needs of God’s people beyond a very narrow set of historical confines. Once believers adopt the idea that prophetic speech speaks into its own time and continues to speak to other times, they must then discern in community when and how such speech is relevant to the contexts in which they find themselves. This is not always easy, and the history of the church is marked with failures in this regard. Nevertheless, God delights in forgiving our failures in this area. It would seem then that Christians are far better served by developing their capacities to hear prophetic speech faithfully in their own contexts, including their capacities to recognize and repent of their interpretive failures, than by trying to limit prophetic speech to one single point in time.

The second interesting observation from these verses is that God restores both Judah and Israel (Jeremiah 23:6). The divided kingdom is restored and made one. This must be a sign of hope for Christians who inhabit a deeply fractured body of Christ. That is, God’s desire and promise to reunite divided Israel may foreshadow God’s desire and promise to reunite the divided body of Christ.

False Prophets

The rest of chapter 23 is a full frontal assault on the prophets who opposed Jeremiah and offered an alternative to his message. It is useful to remember that Jeremiah was not the only one in Judah claiming to speak a word from the LORD. There were numerous prophets. Many tried to counter Jeremiah’s unrelenting message of judgment with messages of hope and prosperity. No matter how these prophets seek to justify the divine origins of their messages, the LORD through Jeremiah repudiates them all and promises harsh judgment on those who falsely speak in God’s name. The images here reflect God’s comprehensive rejection of these messages of false peace.

The larger question concerns the people of God. How can they determine which prophets are speaking the truth? Is it Jeremiah or these other prophets? The Old Testament as a whole has an interest in this general question of how to tell true from false prophecy. Deuteronomy offers the answer: The words of a true prophet come true; the words of a false prophet don’t come true (Deuteronomy 18:21−22). Of course, this is correct, but it does not really help the people of Jerusalem at the time they most need it. Waiting to see who turns out to be right is not really an option. It would seem that discerning the true prophet from the false prophet largely requires a people whose life with God is faithful, just, and true. This is precisely not the case with the people of Judah. The situation reflected in Jeremiah 23 is typical of almost all of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. When it is most crucial for the people of God to be able to discern the true prophet from the false prophet, the people’s sin has disabled them for just this task. It is really much better never to need a prophet in the first place.

Good and Bad Figs

After the withering criticism of the prophets in the later part of chapter 23, chapter 24 carries a message of hope for those whom Nebuchadnezzar has taken into exile. At the outset of the chapter, we learn that Jehoiachin, along with most government officials, the craftspeople, and skilled workers have all been taken back to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. There, the Babylonians can keep an eye on them and they can be put to work in service of the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah, who has remained in Jerusalem under the rule of Zedekiah (Jehoiachin’s uncle), is presented with a vision of two baskets of figs. One basket is filled with figs ready to be eaten. The other is filled with rotten figs that nobody could eat (Jeremiah 24:1–3). These two baskets represent the two communities: one in exile, one in Jerusalem.

One might naturally expect that those in exile face the greater humiliation. They have clearly encountered God’s judgment in direct and irrefutable ways. It would seem that they are the basket of rotten figs (Jeremiah 23:5). Nevertheless, contrary to what one might expect, the good figs represent the exiles. The LORD is committed to caring for them and ultimately bringing them back from exile. Moreover, they will come back with new devotion to the LORD (Jeremiah 24:7).

The bad figs represent Zedekiah, his officials, and those who remain (Jeremiah 24:8). If these left in Jerusalem felt any sense that their standing with God was better than those who suffered the judgment of exile, this word from the LORD makes it clear this is not the case. Life for those remaining in the land will be harsh, accompanied by violence and heartache. In this way, the LORD makes it obvious that exile is God’s will for Judah, and through exile God’s purposes can be accomplished.

Jeremiah smashing the pottery
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The Wine of God’s Anger

Chapter 25 begins with a fairly precise historical situation for Jeremiah’s oracle. Verse 1 dates this oracle to 605 BCE. This is the first year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. Jeremiah then situates his own prophetic activity beginning in 626 BCE, 13 years after the beginning of Josiah’s reign. As Jeremiah relates it, he has relentlessly brought the word of the LORD to Judah, but the people have not listened to him. He is not alone. The LORD has regularly sent prophets, and the people have failed to listen.

No matter who has delivered it, the message has remained the same: Turn from evil practices and the worship of idols. Only in this way can the Judeans remain in the land. Verses 1−7 describe a situation of deep-seated unrighteousness among the people leading to multiple prophetic calls to repent. Verses 8−14 lay out an announcement of judgment to the people of Judah. The striking element in this is that Nebuchadnezzar is identified as the servant of the LORD, the LORD’s chosen instrument of judgment. This is similar to Isaiah’s announcement that God would use Cyrus to bring rescue to the people (Isaiah 45:1). The notion that God might use Judah’s archenemy to execute judgment on Judah must have been a bitter word to hear. One of the interesting things about God’s description of this coming judgment is the elimination of the sounds of a happy, prosperous life. No joking, no weddings, no sounds of the mill and daily work.

This announcement of judgment leads to a promise of restoration after 70 years. The instrument of God’s judgment, the king of Babylon, now becomes the subject of God’s judgment (Jeremiah 25:12). The LORD is clear that there is no virtue in the Babylonians that make them particularly suitable for God’s purposes. On the contrary, they, too, are a sinful people and will come under God’s judgment. Indeed, as the next section indicates, all the world is under God’s scrutiny and is liable to judgment.

After announcing a specific judgment on Babylon, Jeremiah receives a new set of instructions in 25:15−29. The LORD instructs Jeremiah to take a cup of the wine of God’s anger. He is to make all the of nations drink from it. The list begins with Jerusalem and Judah; it ends with Babylon. In between, we find a list of the nations of the ancient Near East. Nobody can avoid drinking the wine of God’s anger. All will be punished for their misdeeds. This prosaic discussion turns to a more general and poetic account of God’s coming judgment in verses 30−38. If there is a single theme that ties chapter 25 together it may be this: The LORD is God of all. Even if Judah is first to receive judgment, it still seems that the LORD holds all nations responsible for their conduct. Unlike the beginning chapters of Amos, we do not learn what particular deeds the nations have done. Instead, the emphasis falls on God’s sovereignty.

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. Why is it difficult to tell the difference between a true and a false prophet? In what situations today do you see a struggle between competing “prophetic” voices?
  2. What do you think of the idea that “exile is God’s will for Judah, and through exile God’s purposes can be accomplished”? Why is exile necessary? Why do you think God considers the Judean exiles as the “good figs”?
  3. Read Jeremiah 25:8–14. Do you think it is fair for God to use Babylon to carry out  judgment against Judah, and then to punish Babylon for carrying out that judgment? What does this say about God or God’s will?

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Enacted Judgment

Posted: October 31st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Jeremiah, Week 6 | Tags: | 2 Comments »

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 18:1–20:18


Jeremiah smashing the pottery
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In this section, Jeremiah moves beyond speaking words from the LORD to enacting messages from God. These examples present the same message that Jeremiah has proclaimed from the outset. That is, Judah has no shape, no purpose apart from the LORD. Hence, it is foolish to turn to idols rather than the LORD. Moreover, just as a pot can be irreparably broken, so God is going to shatter Judah. Jeremiah presents Judah’s rejection of God as utter folly. Of course, Judah doesn’t see it that way. Nobody would tenaciously do something that they knew to be foolish, or perform actions destined to bring about their destruction. Nevertheless, Judah persistently turns from the LORD. This phenomenon reminds us that idolatry induces a sort of blindness in us, such that we cannot see the foolishness of our own actions.

The Potter and the Clay

The LORD instructs Jeremiah to visit the house of a potter. Jeremiah is told that at the potter’s house he will hear the word of the LORD. Before he hears, however, he sees. He watches the potter work with the clay. The potter relies on his skill and experience: creating, undoing, and remaking his work so that it eventually conforms to what he wants (Jeremiah 18:1–4). The word of the LORD that Jeremiah hears presumes a certain understanding of what he has seen in the potter’s workshop.

The LORD claims that Israel is like clay in the LORD’s hands (18:6). Certainly, as Paul understands this image in Romans 9:19–22, this affirms God’s sovereignty over Israel. Israel has no shape independent of the LORD. As the potter is sovereign over the clay, the potter also has to respond to the clay. In this way, the LORD also responds to Israel. Even though the LORD is currently planning a future of destruction for Judah, the LORD is willing to relent if Judah will turn back to God. This episode reaches its climax in verse 12 when Judah gives voice to her rejection of God’s plan. Instead of conforming to the desires of the potter’s hands, Judah will assert itself as if it actually controlled its own fate, as if it could shape itself apart from the LORD.

The LORD’s response in verses 13–17 indicates that this is an act of unimaginable folly. Snow does not leave the mountains of Lebanon. It is inconceivable. Yet, Israel has abandoned the LORD. Moreover, they have not abandoned the LORD for another god. Instead, they have concocted their own god, a delusion that has led them astray. As a result, the land will be destroyed and the people scattered.

As with Jeremiah 18:12, “they” speak again in 18:18. In Jeremiah 18:12, “they” spoke in order to assert their self-destructive autonomy against the LORD. They commit themselves to following their own “plan.” In Jeremiah 18:18, “they” speak in order to launch a “plan” against Jeremiah, God’s prophet. The similarities of vocabulary here seem to link the incredible folly of verse 12 and the plan against Jeremiah in verse 18. Perhaps this plot against Jeremiah is simply one example the evil anticipated in verse 12.

It is unclear which aspects of Judean society comprise “they.” Perhaps these are “the priest,” “the wise,” and “the prophet.” They certainly bear the most responsibility for Judah’s plight. These are the people who should have felt the sting of Jeremiah’s words most directly. But in response, they begin to plot against Jeremiah. They will try to bring charges against Jeremiah, claiming that he is an enemy of the state.

This provokes a prayer from Jeremiah to God. As in his previous prayers to God (Jeremiah 11:18–23; 12:1–6; 15:10–21; and 17:14–18), Jeremiah reminds God that he has faithfully fulfilled his mission. He has spoken God’s words to the people, and it has led them to treat him as their enemy. In response, Jeremiah asks God to treat them as enemies, bringing destruction and death on them and their households. At various points, Jeremiah has interceded for the people of Judah before God. All of that is gone from this prayer. Jeremiah wants God to bring the destruction promised in Jeremiah 18:16–17 quickly and directly on those who are plotting against him.

Potter and the clay
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Shattered Relationship

In chapter 19, Jeremiah is instructed to return to the potter. This time, he is to purchase a jug. Then he is to take the jug and bring witnesses from among the politically powerful to a place outside the city. They were to gather outside the Potsherd Gate. This gate is also known as the Dung Gate (see Nehemiah 2:13; 3:13–14). This was the gate through which people took garbage (including broken pots) out of the city. There, Jeremiah delivers a word from the LORD. Jerusalem is to be utterly destroyed because they have forsaken the LORD. They have worshiped other gods, and they have filled the land with the blood of the innocent. It appears that they have also engaged in child sacrifice. The practices here parallel those first articulated in Jeremiah 7:29–33. They have rendered Jerusalem uninhabitable for the LORD. In response, Jerusalem will be destroyed. They will suffer all of the ravages of war, including a siege that will lead them to eat each other in order to survive.

This idea that the people of Judah rendered Jerusalem uninhabitable for God is worth considering for a moment. On the one hand, believers want to affirm that God’s presence is everywhere. There is no place or time that is so ungodly that God is not there. This is incredibly good news. On the other hand, we certainly can create spaces where God cannot dwell as welcome guest or be acknowledged as sovereign. These are particular ways in which God is present. Indeed, these are the ways in which God desires to be present in the lives and communities of believers. When God cannot inhabit such spaces in this way, we should not assume that God is absent. Rather, God is present as an aggrieved lover, or righteous judge, or alienated friend.

The charges against Jerusalem that Jeremiah announces are not new; neither is the judgment that the LORD renders. Now, however, Jeremiah is instructed to enact that judgment by shattering the jug he had brought with him (Jeremiah 19:10). He is to shatter it in a way that will make it irreparable. This physical symbol of the rupture between Israel and God adds a new level of intensity and reality to the message Jeremiah brings. Moreover, the idea that this rupture is irreparable must mean that there is nothing the people of Jerusalem can do to avoid the horrors prophesied by Jeremiah. It cannot mean that God is incapable of repairing the relationship. Given the moments of restoration and renewal sprinkled throughout Jeremiah, it is clear that God can, and will, put the pieces back together.

In terms of the rhetorical shape of Jeremiah, it is reasonable to take the next incident as a direct response to the symbolic breaking of the jug outside of Jerusalem. Thus, as Jeremiah 20 begins, Jeremiah is arrested, beaten, and put in the stocks by Pashhur, the priest in charge of the Temple. This is the first overt action by the Temple authorities against Jeremiah. If they imagined this would intimidate Jeremiah, they were sorely mistaken. As soon as he is released from the stocks, Jeremiah announces a withering word from the LORD against Pashur and his friends (Jeremiah 20:3). After his initial denunciation of Pashhur, Jeremiah announces the destruction of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians; they will plunder all of the wealth of Jerusalem. Finally, the prophecy returns to Pashur (Jeremiah 20:6). Having witnessed all these disasters, Pashhur will be taken into exile, and there he will die along with all of the friends to whom he prophesied lies.

This is an interesting destiny for Pashhur. He himself will not be subject to the violent deaths that await many in Judah. Instead, he will have to watch it all unfold. He will have to live out his days among those who will know that he repeatedly delivered false and misleading words as if they were words from God. Everyone will know him as one of the people who is most to blame for the disasters that will befall Judah. He truly will be a sign of terror among the people.

A Messenger’s Burden

After this bold and courageous response to his persecutors, Jeremiah turns to the LORD and reveals his own fears and anxieties in chapter 20. Jeremiah has no doubts that, unlike Pashhur and his friends, his words from God are true and faithfully delivered. Nevertheless, we see here the toll this takes on him personally.

Although most English translations of Jeremiah 20:7 have Jeremiah claim to have been deceived by the LORD, it is probably better to translate the Hebrew verb patah as “you have taken advantage of me.” The LORD has given Jeremiah a distinct prophetic mission. Faithfully fulfilling this mission brings Jeremiah into inevitable conflict with his friends, neighbors, and colleagues. They mock him openly and plot against him. In response, Jeremiah seeks solace and solidarity with God. So far, that has been elusive. The only other option open to Jeremiah is to keep silent, to abandon his mission. Jeremiah finds such an option impossible. He cannot keep the word of the LORD bottled up inside him (Jeremiah 20:9). In this situation, Jeremiah’s only option is to trust in God to deliver him and to vindicate his mission (Jeremiah 20:12–13). Of course, this alternative can only be achieved with the destruction of Judah. There are no good options here from Jeremiah’s perspective. He can only turn to lament. This is how chapter 20 ends: Jeremiah cursing the day of his birth.

Bearing the word of the LORD in evil times to a corrupt people is fraught with peril, disappointment, and frustration. In such times, the word of the LORD is crucial to any conceivable future between God and the people of God. Nevertheless, the word of the LORD is not necessarily a welcome gift to those who are called to deliver it in such circumstances.

Lessons for Ministry

There are two particular elements in this passage that seem relevant for a theology of ministry. First, one should be very slow and hesitant to take on the mantle of the prophet. It is fraught with peril as the relationships between Jeremiah and other would-be prophets indicate. It would seem that one should seek fidelity in ministry before seeking to be a prophet. Fidelity under certain conditions may lead to, or even require, one to become a prophet. That, however, is a secondary role, subsidiary to fidelity.

The second element that Jeremiah illustrates here is his persistent solidarity with the people to whom he is sent. It would be easy and perhaps psychologically desirable for Jeremiah, as God’s spokesman, to build an emotional wall between himself and the people to whom he speaks. He never does that. Even when he asks God to bring judgment on his enemies, he does so as one deeply enmeshed in the life of Judah. He never claims simply to be the messenger. He is invested in the people to whom he brings such horrific bad tidings. This combination of truthfulness and compassion is at the heart of all truly Christian ministry.

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. Why do you think God has Jeremiah use the potter and the clay as a metaphor for God’s relationship to Israel? What comparisons does the text make (Jeremiah 18:1–12)? How does God — as potter — respond to the nations/Israel — the clay?
  2. Why do you think the Temple officials, led by Pashhur, plot against Jeremiah? Why do they resist Jeremiah’s message from God? What parallels do you see between Jeremiah and Jesus, both persecuted by the religious leaders in Jerusalem?
  3. The Lectio ends by talking about “lessons for ministry” from Jeremiah. What other “lessons” do you see, either for ministry or faithful Christian living, in the first 20 chapters of Jeremiah?

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The Cost of Discipleship

Posted: October 24th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Jeremiah, Week 5 | Tags: | Comments Off on The Cost of Discipleship

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 15:10-17:27


Simeon Solomon, The Drought
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Many of you will recognize that I have borrowed the title of this lesson from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work of Christian discipleship. Bonhoeffer wrote this book to call German Christians out of their complacency so that they might properly address the rise of Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer and the relatively few who followed his call suffered rejection, imprisonment, and often death in order to remain faithful to Christ’s call to take up the cross and follow. There must have been times that these disciples, like Jeremiah in this week’s reading, wondered whether obedience to God’s call was worth the cost.

The Price of Obedience

This passage begins with Jeremiah questioning his own vocation. Jeremiah does not question whether he has been called by God. Instead, Jeremiah questions whether the message he carries is worth the hostility he must face as a result of that message. He does not doubt that God has called him; instead, he laments the cost of that call. He questions whether it was even worthwhile to have come out of the womb. He notes that he has not been involved in any of the practices that typically provoke hostility, such as borrowing or lending money. Nevertheless, he is reviled by his fellows.

The imagery in Jeremiah 15:10–12 recalls Jeremiah 1. When Jeremiah questions whether he is worthy or capable of taking up the mission God has given him, God notes that Jeremiah has been known since he was in the womb. In Jeremiah 1:18, God tells Jeremiah that he will be an iron pillar and a bronze wall, capable of withstanding the resistance his message will provoke. Nevertheless, Jeremiah will experience the fall of Judah. He and his neighbors will suffer the loss of their possessions and their land. Many will go into exile in Babylon. This is due to the sins of the entire nation. As unpleasant as it sounds, the implication is that Jeremiah will prevail against his domestic opponents. But this is hardly the message of comfort which Jeremiah seems to be seeking.

God’s promised judgment evokes an even deeper cry of pain from Jeremiah. Jeremiah begins this lament by noting that the LORD knows all about Jeremiah’s situation as well as Jeremiah’s fidelity. He reminds the LORD that he has suffered reproach because of his fidelity. Nevertheless, Jeremiah has remained faithful to his vocation. Indeed, Jeremiah delighted in the words he received from God. He took up his mission with a certain joy. Now Jeremiah accuses the LORD of abandoning him. He likens God to a spring that promises water, but then dries up (compare this with Jeremiah 17:8). God promised to stand by him, supporting him in what was always going to be a difficult mission. Now God seems to have broken with Jeremiah despite the fact that Jeremiah has been faithful.

Given the way this lament has developed, it calls for a response from God. In Jeremiah 15:19–21, God responds, but not in the way that Jeremiah was hoping. God’s answer plays on the verb “to turn” (shub), which is repeated four times in verse 19 (though that is not always reflected in English translations). The LORD calls Jeremiah to turn, or repent. If Jeremiah will turn toward God, God will turn toward him. If Jeremiah gives up these worthless words, he can continue to speak for God. Moreover, God announces that the people will turn to Jeremiah, but he must not turn to them. Rather than offer false comfort, the LORD has called for even greater fidelity. Jeremiah is called to return to the LORD, directing his attention only on the LORD. He is not to focus on the people to whom he speaks. Their time is up. Even if they turn to Jeremiah, he must not let his gaze waver from God. As chapter 15 concludes, the LORD does reassure Jeremiah that his domestic opponents will not overcome him. The LORD will protect and sustain Jeremiah from his opponents in the land.

Jeremiah has a remarkable freedom in addressing God, even calling God to account. This freedom reflects a deep intimacy. At its base, it reflects a confidence that God and Jeremiah can speak freely with each other; they can say hard things to each other and know their relationship can withstand it. Jeremiah openly calls on God to be faithful; he seeks reassurance that all will be well with him. Jeremiah does not receive the comfort he wants. Instead, God reaffirms a two-fold promise: first, God will defend Jeremiah from his foes among the people; second, this people — including Jeremiah — will suffer destruction and exile at the hands of the Babylonians.

The next words from God that come to Jeremiah begin in a very personal way (Jeremiah 16:1–7). Jeremiah is not to seek a family for himself: no wife, no children. As this passage moves along, it becomes clear that Jeremiah’s solitary life will at least shield him from the grief that all parents in Judah will feel as they see their children die through war and famine.

Just as Jeremiah is forbidden earlier to intercede for these people, in 16:5 God tells him not to mourn for these people. God has removed peace (shalom), steadfast love (chesed), and mercy (rachamim) from this people. This is a devastating confession. These are God’s three greatest gifts to Israel. The relationship between Judah and the LORD cannot persist in the same way under these conditions. Exile and separation are imminent. Despite the severity of this announcement, God also forbids mourning or lament for this situation (Jeremiah 16:5). This indicates that however else one wants to describe things, this is not a tragic situation. This future calamity has real discernable, direct, and avoidable causes. From the LORD’s perspective, this calamity is the predictable, if destructive, result of Judah’s persistent idolatry. In Jeremiah 16:10, when the people ask, “Why has the LORD decreed such disaster against us?” the answer is clear. The LORD sees these people of Judah as the most idolatrous of all the generations who came out of Egypt. This judgment in part stems from the fact that they should have learned from God’s judgment of previous idolatrous generations. Instead, they have been remarkable in their stubbornness.

Future Restoration

In the midst of this anticipation of Judah’s comprehensive judgment, God announces a future restoration (Jeremiah 16:14–21). The juxtaposition of judgment and restoration without any clear transition is quite sharp. Nevertheless, it serves to remind the people that judgment and restoration are united in the scope of God’s plan. This restoration is compared to the exodus. Just as God brought the Israelites out of Egypt into the Promised Land, God will bring the exiles back to the Promised Land from all those places to which they had been scattered. Before that, however, God uses images of fishing and hunting to indicate that the inhabitants of the land will be hunted down and taken away. Those familiar with Jesus’ promise to make Peter someone who fishes for people to become followers of Jesus might now read that passage in a new light. Instead thinking of a leisurely afternoon fishing on a lake, this is a picture of intense, comprehensive searching for prey. Here in Jeremiah, God uses the image of fishing for people as a way to convey a picture of a thorough purging of the land because no one is hidden from God’s sight.

The chapter concludes with a return to restoration. Now, however, in verses 19–21 we read how restoration will affect the nations. They, too, will turn to the LORD. They will recognize the folly of their idolatry and learn that the LORD is the one true God.

Simeon Solomon, The Drought
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Habits and Motives of the Heart

Chapter 17 begins with God’s observation of the ways in which Judah’s idolatry is deeply ingrained. It is inscribed on their hearts in the way words might be chiseled into stone. One of the key points here is that idolatry and righteousness do not just happen. They are the result of patterns of life, habits of thought, learned actions and responses. In short, we are formed into idolatry. The fact that few, if any, Israelites ever sought to be formed into idolaters should remind us that some of the most long-lasting formation in our lives happens without us really recognizing it. The fact that one is not actively seeking to be formed in one way or another does not mean that formation is not occurring. Our desires, habits, and actions are always being formed and shaped. Moreover, as this passage notes, our formation has a direct impact on our children’s formation. Attentive, watchful, prayerful reflection is a crucial practice to develop if one is to resist being formed toward idolatry and the punishment that follows in its wake.

In Jeremiah 17:5–8, we read of a contrast between those who trust in human wisdom and capacities and those who trust in the LORD. The contrast does not leave much middle ground. One trusts either in humans or the LORD. The latter leads to flourishing, the former to withering. If one reads verses 9–13 as a continuation of this reflection, then we are directed to recognize that often the actions of those who are relying on human resources and capacities and the actions of those who rely on the LORD may seem similar. This may appear particularly true in times of seeming prosperity. Sometimes the only difference may lie in the motives of the heart. In such cases, we learn that all hearts are open to God, no secrets are hidden from God. Ultimately, the LORD who knows all thoughts of the heart will reward and punish accordingly.

In Jeremiah 17:14–18, Jeremiah repeats a pattern of lament that we have seen before. He pleads to God for vindication in the face of opposition; he reminds the LORD of his fidelity to his mission. He seeks refuge in God and asks God not to be a source of terror for him. Jeremiah has made God’s cause his own. Now he wants God to make Jeremiah’s cause God’s cause, defeating and punishing his opponents.

Keeping the Sabbath

In response, God tells Jeremiah to position himself at all of the gates of Jerusalem, urging her citizens to keep the Sabbath holy. Failure to keep the Sabbath will lead to destruction. Keeping the Sabbath will result in a secure future under a Davidic king.

For Christians, in particular, this may seem to put an excessive weight on Sabbath observance, particularly in the light of Jesus’ announcement that the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Two things may be said in this regard. First, Sabbath observance is one particular way of showing one’s disposition to the whole of the law. Second, and more importantly, the Sabbath laws are clear opportunities for believers to not participate in the exploitation of those who cannot control their own time, such as low-wage laborers in service industries or those under the commands of overweening bosses.

Alternatively, those of us who have a lot of control over our time may find the Sabbath a troublesome interruption to our struggles to get ahead at all costs.

Largely in the light of Jesus’ treatment of the Sabbath, Christian practices around Sabbath observance vary widely. Even so, if Christians were to reflect critically on their Sabbath practices, they might find that those practices offer a fairly good barometer of the state of our lives.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Jeremiah is able to speak candidly with God, even “calling God to account,” in the words of the Lectio. Do Jeremiah and God speak to each other in ways that surprise you? How might Jeremiah’s boldness in prayer influence your own prayer life?
  2. The Lectio proposes that Sabbath-keeping practices may “offer a fairly good barometer of the state of our lives.” What are your Sabbath practices? Do you feel that you have time for a Sabbath rest? Why might Jeremiah call the citizens of Jerusalem to keep the Sabbath? What is at stake in keeping the Sabbath holy?

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