The End

Posted: December 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Jeremiah, Week 12 | Tags: | Comments Off on The End

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 46:1–52:34



By the waters of Babylon
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It has been a long trek through Jeremiah. Throughout the book, central characters (including Jeremiah sometimes) were certain they knew what God wanted and what God was up to. Time and time again, the LORD disrupts things. If things are constantly destabilized, it is very hard to live faithfully. Nevertheless, in particular times and places, God needs to shake things up.  Sending prophets is one of the ways God does this. Here at the end of the book, the LORD disrupts the nations, directing judgment against them, particularly Babylon. The surrounding nations may have been God’s instrument of judgment against Judah, but they themselves will not escape God’s judgment either.

Oracles Against the Nations

Chapters 46−51 form a clear and discrete section of the book of Jeremiah. They are called the “oracles against the nations.” In the book’s conclusion, we finally see the fulfillment of Jeremiah 1:10 where Jeremiah is commissioned to speak to the nations, to announce their imminent judgment at the hand of the LORD. The nations and peoples addressed here are: Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, Elam, and finally, Babylon. Each of the oracles announce disaster on these places. At the same time, they each are distinctive in their own right.

Oracle Against Egypt

The oracle against Egypt is in two parts: Jeremiah 46:2−12 and 13−26. The first oracle is taken to be a reference to the battle of Carchemish (605 BCE). In this battle, Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians, opening the way for Babylonian expansion into what had previously been the Egyptian sphere of influence. As with some of the earlier announcements, the significant element here is the LORD’s role as the one who oversees Babylon’s victory and Egypt’s defeat.

In Jeremiah 46:10, we even read that this is the LORD’s day of retribution against Egypt for her past misdeeds. Perhaps this is a reference back to Exodus, but we cannot be certain. The imagery, however, is pretty clear. Egypt is seen as the LORD’s enemy, and Babylon is simply God’s chosen instrument against an enemy of the LORD.

Jeremiah’s prophecy against Egypt continues in 46:13. In this discussion, great Egyptian cities fall, Egyptian gods like Apis and Amon are crushed, and Pharaoh is reduced to ineffectual bluster. All of the pieces that undergird Egyptian might are overwhelmed by Babylon, God’s instrument. The result is calamity for Egypt and her people.

In the middle of the oracle detailing the clash of two world powers, God offers comfort to Israel in Jeremiah 46:27−28. Unlike God’s dealings with the nations, God’s dealings with Israel are not retributive. Rather, they are designed to correct and reform her, preparing her for restoration. “I will make an end of all the nations … but I will not make an end of you” (Jeremiah 46:28).  God will ultimately end Israel’s exile and return her to her land.

Oracles Against the Philistines and Moab

The oracle against the Philistines addresses a nation that had once been Israel’s enemy, but whose power was now vastly diminished. They, too, will fall to the Babylonians. Again, however, this is presented as God’s work, not simply the outworking of geopolitical processes.

In contrast to the relatively short oracle against the Philistines, the oracle against Moab is longer even than the oracle against Egypt. The oracle begins with an announcement of doom against various Moabite cities in Jeremiah 48:1−5. The underlying issue here seems to be Moab’s indolence and complacency. In this respect, the prophetic critique resembles Amos 6:1−8 against those who are “at ease” in Zion. The point in each case is not to advocate a life of constant busyness. Rather, it is to address indolent leisure that is acquired at the expense of the oppression of others. Such prosperity breeds complacency in the face of injustice and insolent pride with regard to one’s relationship to God. All of these claims are part of the oracle against Moab.

Finally, after an exhausting litany of disasters that will befall Moab and her people, there is the curious verse in Jeremiah 48:47: “Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the latter days, says the LORD.” No reason is given; it seems simply to flow from God’s mercy.

Oracles Against the Ammonites, Edomites, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, and Elam

We then turn to the Ammonites in Jeremiah 49. This oracle is quite brief. The Ammonites had joined the Babylonian assault on Judah. Later, they rebelled against Babylon and hosted Ishmael, the one who murdered Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41). As with the others, their cities and their gods are ruined. As with the Moabites, the Ammonites also receive a promise of restoration.

The Edomites were the archenemies of Israel. Descended from Jacob’s twin brother, Esau, they rejoiced when Jerusalem fell (Psalm 137:7). The LORD compares their coming punishment with the work of grape gatherers who would at least leave gleanings, and thieves who would only take what they wanted (Jeremiah 49:9). In contrast, the LORD will strip Edom bare. This event cannot be confused with simple military defeat from which the victor takes spoils. Instead, this is a comprehensive retributive defeat for Edom’s opposition to Israel. Despite this, the LORD recognizes that a calamity such as this will produce orphans and widows. The LORD will care for these vulnerable ones. God will be faithful toward them (Jeremiah 49:10−11).

Chapter 49 concludes with three brief oracles. The first concerns Damascus. This great and “joyful” city will be destroyed. Kedar and Hazor seem to refer to Bedouin tribes to the east who do not have cities. Nevertheless, they, too, will fall to Babylon. Elam, to the northeast, is the final target in chapter 49. Unlike the other oracles, this one contains no poetry. Instead, one finds a set of prose verbs signaling comprehensive destruction.

Babylon’s Destruction

Chapters 50 and 51 close out the oracles against the nations. These two chapters, the longest of the oracles, are directed against Babylon. The nation that had been the servant and instrument of the LORD now comes under God’s judgment. As we saw in the oracles against Egypt and Moab, the oracle against Babylon contains explicit judgment of the gods of the Babylonians (Jeremiah 50:2; 51:17, 44, 47, 52). To the extent that these verses grant some measure of existence to these gods, they are portrayed as powerless by the fact of the LORD’s vengeance on Babylon. The attack on images and their makers in Jeremiah 51:17, however, indicates that despite the faith that people may put in these gods, they are nothing more than figments of the imagination. Regardless of how one answers the questions about the existence of other gods in the Old Testament, these verses, along with the Old Testament in general, make it clear that there is only one God worthy of anyone’s love and attention.

The destruction that Jeremiah prophesies for Babylon is comprehensive and complete. In terms of the imagery used, there is little here that is new. All of these images seem to have already been deployed in anticipation of the LORD’s judgment of Judah. The dramatic point here is that these images are now directed at Babylon, the instrument of God. It becomes stunningly clear that although God has used Babylon, no one should infer that this is due to any inherent righteousness in Babylon. Babylon does not cooperate with the LORD; she is merely the LORD’s chosen instrument. Babylon is arrogant and idolatrous. She has served a particular purpose in God’s ongoing drama with Judah, but nothing more. Moreover, it appears that because Babylon has lifted its hand against Judah and Jerusalem, she falls under special judgment (Jeremiah 51:28, 49). Even though it is true of each oracle against the nations, this particular oracle against Babylon is founded on the LORD’s absolute sovereignty over all creation.

Throughout the oracle against Babylon, there are several passages of redemption and renewal directed at Israel (Jeremiah 50:4−5, 17−20, 33−34; 51:5). Israel and Judah together shall return to Zion, seeking the LORD. The everlasting covenant that God initially made with Abraham in Genesis 17:7 shall be renewed. Israel in particular receives promises of redemption, renewal, and forgiveness in Jeremiah 50:17−20. Indeed, each of these promises of redemption are addressed to Israel and Judah. This serves to remind readers that God never desired a divided people of God. Moreover, renewal must involve renewal of the remnants of both Israel and Judah. In verses 33−34, the LORD recognizes that Israel and Judah are both oppressed and held captive illicitly. The LORD will argue their cause and liberate them so that the LORD may “give rest to the land.” There is a fruitful ambiguity here in this phrase “give rest to the land.” On one hand, it may refer to the Promised Land. On the other hand, it may refer to the earth as a whole. If one takes it as a reference to the Promised Land, then it reminds us that the covenant with Israel includes people and land together. The geographical space without the people is a restless place. By liberating and returning the people, the LORD gives rest to the land. If we think of land as the earth more generally, the point is that the renewal of the people of God brings rest to the entire earth in a manner anticipated in passages such as Isaiah 2:1−4. The redemption of the people of God is part of that process of redemption in which all the nations are drawn to God.

The Fall of Jerusalem

Chapter 52 re-narrates the fall of Jerusalem in more detail than in chapter 39. It seems to incorporate materials from 2 Kings 24−25. Having been installed by Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah rebelled against him. A siege ensued, accompanied by famine and all the other horrors associated with a siege. Eventually, the city walls were breached. Zedekiah tried to escape, was captured, and saw his family slaughtered before his eyes. He was then blinded so that the vision of his children dying would be the last thing he ever saw. He was taken to Babylon in chains, where he remained until his death. What follows in Jeremiah 52:12−30 is a fairly detailed accounting of the burning of the Temple and great buildings of Jerusalem, the destruction of the walls, and a listing of the most valuable spoils that were taken back to Babylon, along with the notation that 3,023 people were taken into exile in the seventh year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (598 BCE); 832 in the 18th year (587 BCE) and 745 in the 23rd year (582 BCE).

The book of Jeremiah closes with the brief note that after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, his successor released Jehoiachin, the former Judean king (exiled in 598 B.C.), from prison and showed him great favor (Jeremiah 52:31–34; cf. 2 Kings 25:27–30).

This is not simply the end of the book of Jeremiah. This chapter brings to an end one of the most significant episodes in the life of the people of God. In some respects, the fall and destruction of Jerusalem for Jews parallels the significance of the crucifixion for Christians. It seems to be a time of total darkness. As Jeremiah has presented it, this calamity is both justified and expected. Nevertheless, one can also understand the deep grief and horror felt by the people. Perhaps this final paragraph about Jehoiachin is meant to provide a spark of hope. Perhaps it is meant to indicate that as those in exile pursued the shalom of the place where God had sent them, they were also able to find a measure of shalom for themselves.

Finding Hope During Exile and Judgment

This reminder in Jeremiah 29:7 points to one of the most striking elements of the book of Jeremiah as a whole. The idolatry and injustice of the people of God, the call to repent and the promise of God’s imminent judgment, even the promise of restoration and redemption at some future point, are all themes that appear in other prophetic books. In this respect, the fact that Jeremiah contains such material is not surprising. What is striking about Jeremiah is that it contains a great deal of material about how the people of God are to live in the light of judgment and exile. Jeremiah announces God’s judgment in typical prophetic style. He also, however, offers insight into how the people of God are to behave during exile and judgment. Those in Babylon are to seek the shalom of that city. Those who remain in the land are to stay and serve the Babylonians. Each group is to carry on with the mundane details of daily life. They are to begin to figure out how to walk faithfully with the LORD in these new circumstances, circumstances that nobody would have wanted, even though nobody seemed interested in the sort of repentance that might have led to different circumstances.

Christians are relatively comfortable thinking of themselves as living in apostolic missionary situations, contexts in which they eagerly move with hope and purpose, doing work that God has sent them to do. Even if we don’t always do this work well, even when we don’t inhabit these contexts faithfully, we retain a strong sense of how we ought to carry on. Hope in these situations is a pretty straightforward matter, a disposition whose energy comes from the faithfulness of the God who sends believers out into the world to make disciples of all nations.

Jeremiah stands apart from this. He addressed a people who had lost their way, whose national and religious activities had become corrupted and oppressive, and who had become self-deceived and blind about their standing before God. In the light of the judgment that comes on these people, Jeremiah offers God’s word about how to pick up the pieces, how to carry on, and where one might find glimmers of hope.

I do not want to conclude this study by claiming that Christians in the U.S. are much closer to Jeremiah’s audience than we might think. That is, I do not want to conclude by launching into a rant, noting some of the strong parallels between Judah in Jeremiah’s time and the churches in our own day. Nevertheless, it may be worth noting that attending to Jeremiah carefully in the present may have the requisite capacity to chasten our confidence in our standing before God. Such chastening may lead to creative acts of repentance. Whether or not these defer some impending judgment is not for me to say. Such repentance, however, can only enhance our prospects of loving God and our neighbor more deeply and defer the need for a prophet like Jeremiah.

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. What parallels do you see between the oracles against the nations in chapters 46–51 and the judgments against Judah foretold earlier in Jeremiah? What differences do you notice? Why are these similarities and differences important?
  2. The Lectio notes that Jeremiah’s most striking feature is that “it contains a great deal of material about how the people of God are to live in the light of judgment and exile.” Why is this a significant contribution to the canon of God’s Word? Where else does Scripture talk about how God’s people are to live as exiles? How might living faithfully in the context of exile give hope to the community of God?

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The Blind Leading the Blind

Posted: December 5th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Jeremiah, Week 11 | Tags: | Comments Off on The Blind Leading the Blind

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 41:1–45:5



Flight of prisoners
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If you have ever found yourself in a difficult situation, you know that diagnosing how you got into the mess is often the first step toward making things better. In this week’s section, the people of Judah are in a mess and things look like they might get worse. They need to develop a plan. They ask Jeremiah to approach the LORD. The LORD’s prescription to the people’s plight requires them to accept the diagnosis that their situation is the direct result of God’s judgment on their idolatry. The thing about idolatry, however, is that it often induces a case of spiritual blindness so that you can’t properly diagnose your own illness. This is exactly where the people of Judah find themselves.

Flight to Egypt

In the aftermath of Ishmael’s murder of Gedaliah, Johanan and his men set out in pursuit of Ishmael. It appears that Ishmael has taken many captives with him. When the captives see Johanan coming to rescue them, they run away from Ishmael. Ishmael and some of his men, however, escape back to the Ammonites (Jeremiah 41:11−18).

Here is the situation as chapter 42 begins. Gedaliah, the governor appointed by the Babylonians, is murdered. The man who murdered him has escaped. The leaders of the remaining Judeans assume that the Babylonians will want to hold someone responsible for killing their appointed governor. They want to flee before it is too late. They plan to go to Egypt in the hopes of finding safety there. This seems to be the most prudent course of action.

Before setting out for Egypt, the leaders of the Judeans ask Jeremiah to pray to the LORD about what they should do. Jeremiah agrees, but it becomes clear that the Judeans really just want divine confirmation of their plan to flee to Egypt (Jeremiah 42:1−6).

After 10 days, Jeremiah returns with an answer from the LORD. Although the Judeans vow to follow the word of the LORD in this matter, it is clear that they see only one conceivable course of action: flight to Egypt. If one has been reading Jeremiah carefully for the previous 41 chapters, it is not surprising that God delivers a different answer: stay in the land and God will keep you safe.

This situation provokes a series of conflicts over the cause of Judah’s demise. First, we read in Jeremiah 42:7−12 that the LORD takes responsibility for the disaster which has befallen Judah. This is not Nebuchadnezzar’s doing. Rather, it was the work of the LORD from beginning to end. Because the LORD directed these events, one might take heart from that same LORD’s commitment to “build” and “plant” the people in the land if they remain. The LORD promises to be with them and to save them if only they will remain. This answer to Jeremiah’s prayer on behalf of the Judeans, requires three crucial things from the Judeans. First, they must implicitly, at least, recognize that their situation is due to God’s judgment of them; Jeremiah has been correct from the outset. Second, they must believe that the God who has exercised judgment on them for their sin also loves them and always has. Finally, they must recognize that the God who loves them and judges them for their sin is also capable of saving them and securing their future.

Taking on all three of these convictions is demanding. One can perhaps sympathize with the Judean leaders who simply want to follow the politically prudent path of flight to Egypt. On top of this, however, the LORD promises further judgment and disaster if they go to Egypt (Jeremiah 42:13−22). Of course, if you do not believe that God is the cause of your current predicament, or that God loves you and wants to save you, or that God can accomplish this, then you probably are not too worried about this promise of disaster.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their vow to do whatever God tells Jeremiah, the leaders are compelled to claim that God did not speak to Jeremiah. Instead they argue that Jeremiah is simply conveying the views of Baruch. They seem to think that Baruch is merely a Babylonian sympathizer, though we are not given any real reason for this (Jeremiah 43:3). Instead of developing this strange claim further, we are simply told that the Judeans set off for Egypt, compelling Jeremiah and Baruch to go with them.

When they arrive in the Egyptian city of Tahpanhes, the word of the LORD comes to Jeremiah again. He is instructed to bury some stones in the pavement in front of Pharaoh’s palace. Jeremiah is then told to announce that Nebuchadnezzar will set up his throne right where these stones are. The Babylonians will come and wreak havoc on Egypt (Jeremiah 43:8−13). Again, it is not simply the announcement of this coming disaster which is significant. Rather, it is also the assertion that “the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to send my servant King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon” (Jeremiah 43:10). The LORD is directing these events. This is not simply the prediction that one of the world’s superpowers is going to attack and defeat another superpower. It is the bold, prophetic claim that the LORD is using Nebuchadnezzar to accomplish God’s will.

It is unclear, however, whether this calamity comes upon Egypt because the Judeans have come down there, or if the Judeans will simply be caught up in God’s judgment of Egypt through Nebuchadnezzar. On the former reading, the Judeans are in some measure culpable for the Egyptian suffering. On the latter reading, the Judeans foolishly enter into God’s judgment of Egypt and suffer along with them.

The Blindness of Idolatry

Quickly enough, as chapter 44 begins, the Judeans come under direct judgment. As the LORD sees things, these Judeans have heard the repeated prophetic message against idolatry; they have seen the devastation that has come on Judah because of her refusal to abandon idols and turn to the LORD. Nevertheless, in Egypt they are continuing to make offerings to other gods (Jeremiah 44:6).  Because of this, God promises that they will never return to Judah. They will die in Egypt, objects of horror and ridicule.

The response of the Judeans again manifests a basic conflict over how to understand the causes of Judah’s demise. In Jeremiah 44:15−19, we read the most explicit account of this conflict in the entire book. These men and women of Judah do not attribute their predicament to the LORD’s judgment. Rather, they think it is because they have stopped making offerings to “the queen of heaven” (Jeremiah 44:18). They attribute any prosperity they experienced in the past to their offerings to this queen of heaven (Jeremiah 44:17).

This is a straightforward conflict over how to account for, and respond to, the circumstances of the people of Judah. The troubling element here is that there is very little basis from which to change the views of the Judeans. Their account is plausible to them. Even from Jeremiah’s perspective, one can see why the Judeans’ account makes sense to them. Their idolatry has blinded them to such a degree that they cannot see in any other way; they cannot hear the voice of the LORD. Their idolatry has rendered them blind and deaf to such an extent that further idolatry seems to be the only reasonable response. Maybe they should increase their offerings to the queen of heaven? Even the reality of the fall of Jerusalem and all of the disasters that God has brought upon them cannot penetrate their darkness. They, of course, recognize that the fall of Jerusalem is a calamity, but they do not connect those events to the LORD and the LORD’s judgment. Instead, they attribute it to their failure to make offerings to the queen of heaven.

Jeremiah is in a situation in which success seems only a distant possibility. This is a further testimony to the fact that when a prophet has come on the scene, the situation is usually so far gone, the blindness and deafness so ingrained, that it becomes difficult for the audience to discern why repentance might be called for, much less what repentance might actually entail.

In response, Jeremiah reasserts that the Judeans’ current circumstances are exactly the result of the LORD remembering the idolatries of the people. Jeremiah is quite clear: “It is because you sinned against the LORD and did not obey the voice of the LORD or walk in his law and in his statutes and in his decrees, that this disaster has befallen you, as is still evident today” (Jeremiah 44:23).

Moreover, because the people have so adamantly rejected the word of the LORD and committed themselves to further offerings now that they are in Egypt, God is equally committed to “watching over them for harm and not for good” (Jeremiah 44:27). They will all die in Egypt.

Furthermore, God promises a sign: Pharaoh will be defeated by Nebuchadnezzar, the same king who defeated Zedekiah. Of course, this is not much of a sign. To those opposed to seeing the LORD at work in Nebuchadnezzar, it is equally likely that Nebuchadnezzar would attack Pharaoh for geopolitical reasons and defeat him because of his superior army and tactics.

Difficulty in Discerning Divine Causation

The point here is not to deny God’s providential action and oversight of all things at all times. Rather, it seems worthwhile offering several cautions and qualifications here. First, it is almost always very difficult to discern divine causation in any specific event. Christians should be especially cautious about claiming that certain events are signs of God’s judgment of others. The friends of Job learn that difficult lesson. Secondly, when it can be discerned, God’s hand is usually discerned after the events, not before or in the midst of them. Hence, it is often hard for one’s attribution of divine causation to consistently guide behavior.

Christians, like the people of Judah, need to understand themselves and the world around them in relationship to God. Unless one does that well, it is very difficult to sustain faithful living. Christians can generally do that kind of discernment without having to attribute divine causation to specific events and without having to know God’s rationale for acting one way rather than another. We do need to be able to discern the shape of faithful living in the various contexts in which we find ourselves. However, to discern this, we do not need to know when and how God causes specific events.

The upshot of this is one of the truths that lies at the heart of Scripture: While God’s ways in history may be difficult to discern, especially in the short term, God’s desires for our lives are largely revealed to us in Scripture. Close attention to these desires is the best way to avoid unproductive confrontations with prophets such as Jeremiah.

This section concludes with God’s promises to Baruch in chapter 45. Like Jeremiah, Baruch has been faithful. He has suffered for his fidelity. Hence, even though God is going to “break down,” and “pluck up,” even though those Judeans in Egypt face disaster, God will spare Baruch’s life (Jeremiah 45:5).

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. Why do you think the Judeans decide to flee to Egypt? What reasons are given in the text? What is the significance of Israel returning to Egypt, where they were enslaved for four hundred years (Exodus 12:40–41), and from where God delivered them?
  2. How might a Christian today discern God’s hand in world events? What does the Lectio caution us against in this discernment process? What does faithful living look like in your context?

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Solidarity in Suffering

Posted: November 28th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Jeremiah, Week 10 | Tags: | 1 Comment »

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 34:1–41:10



Flight of prisoners
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If you have ever been in a long, intense argument with someone, you know how satisfying it is when it becomes clear that you were right all along. Jeremiah gets a taste of that in this week’s lesson. The word of the LORD finally comes to pass. Jerusalem falls and the Babylonians take over. The destruction is terrifying and the suffering is immense. After months of mistreatment at the hands of Jerusalem’s political powers, Jeremiah turns out to have been right. He takes no pleasure in this, however. Unlike his fellow Judeans, the Babylonians are well disposed to Jeremiah. They offer him a number of potentially pleasant options. Instead, Jeremiah decides to stay with his people. Now, more than ever, they will need him, and he will stand with them.

The Infidelity of Jerusalem

This week’s lesson begins with a difficult text. Jeremiah 34:1−7 seems to contain a straightforward contradiction. Chapter 34 is set in Jerusalem during the siege. Jeremiah brings a word from the LORD to Zedekiah, the king, when things seem to be at their bleakest (Jeremiah 34:6−7). In verses 2 and 3, God promises to hand Zedekiah over to Nebuchadnezzar. He will go into exile in Babylon. But in verses 4 and 5, another word from the LORD asserts that Zedekiah will die peacefully in Jerusalem and be mourned in a manner proper to a king.

Scholars account for this in a variety of ways. The most plausible is to treat the words in verses 4 and 5 as conditional: if Zedekiah hears the word of the LORD, which would include appropriate forms of repentance, then he will die in peace in Jerusalem.

This way of treating these verses makes most sense if they are read in the light of the two accounts that follow in Jeremiah 34:8−22 and 35:1−19. The first passage tells a story of remarkably bad faith. At the king’s behest, the besieged inhabitants of Jerusalem all agree to release their Hebrew slaves. These would have been debt slaves, those too poor to meet their financial obligations. This seems to be a belated attempt to obey the commands of Exodus 21:1−6 and Deuteronomy 15:1−11 under the compulsion of extreme circumstances. Regardless of the motives behind this decision, we read in Jeremiah 34:11 that the people changed their minds and re-enslaved those whom they had just released.

The statement in verse 21 that the Babylonians had withdrawn from Jerusalem refers to the Babylonian invasion of 589 BCE, which was briefly halted and then resumed in 587 BCE. This withdrawal may have created the false sense of relief that led the people of Jerusalem to renege on their covenant.

In response, the LORD approves of the release of the slaves as a belated attempt at Torah obedience (Jeremiah 34:15). However, because the “covenant” the people made to release their slaves was sworn in the Temple, God feels particularly affronted by their reversal. Their actions have not only broken God’s commands, but have profaned God’s name (Jeremiah 34:16). Therefore, just as the people of Jerusalem released their slaves, God will “release” them (Jeremiah 34:17). In this case, God will release them to destruction. They will be utterly defeated. The next verses play on the word “cut.” In Genesis 15:7−11, the cutting of animals into two pieces is part of a ritual of solidarity. Here in Jeremiah, it is the officials of Judah and Jerusalem who will be cut and left as food for wild animals and birds. As for Zedekiah, he and his officials will be handed over to Nebuchadnezzar.

The Fidelity of the Rechabites

Chapter 35 relates a story from an earlier time, when Jehoiakim was king. The LORD commands Jeremiah to gather the Rechabites into the Temple. There, he is to try to get them to drink wine. The Rechabites neither drink wine, nor own land or vineyards. They live in tents. They have only come to Jerusalem to escape the Babylonian advance.

When offered wine by Jeremiah, they refuse, keeping their commitments to their founder, Jonadab. This fidelity allows Jeremiah to contrast these Rechabites, who have remained faithful to their commitments, with the people of Judah, who have repeatedly ignored or violated their commitments to the LORD, even in the face of repeated calls from the prophets to repent. Thus, even though Judah will face disaster, the Rechabites will be maintained by God.

The story of the freeing and then re-enslaving of the slaves of Jerusalem along with this story of the Rechabites provide examples of the two options presented to Zedekiah in Jeremiah 34:2−3 and 4−5. The first is a story of failed integrity resulting in even deeper infidelity. The other shows that God sustains those who remain faithful to their commitments.

The Burned Scroll

Chapter 36 continues during the reign of Jehoiakim. As in chapter 30, Jeremiah is commanded to write down the words he received from the LORD on a scroll. Unlike chapters 30 and 31, these are words of judgment and imminent disaster. God hopes these words will have some deterrent effect and lead the people to repent.

At this point in his ministry, Jeremiah is unwelcome in the Temple, so he sends Baruch the scribe, one of his allies. The scroll is composed and then Baruch reads it in the Temple on a holy day, at a time designed to give the word of the LORD a large audience (Jeremiah 36:9−10). The aim is to induce the people to repent.

Instead, we learn that the message of Baruch’s scroll works its way up the bureaucratic chain of command until it is finally read to Jehoiakim. The king demonstrates his contempt for Baruch, Jeremiah, and their message from God by burning the scroll piece by piece. The text poignantly relates that the king and his advisors neither tore their clothes nor showed any fear in the face of this message designed to do just that (Jeremiah 36:24). Rather, the king orders the arrest of Baruch and Jeremiah.

The LORD hides both men and instructs them to write a new scroll to replace the one Jehoiakim burned. This version contains a direct judgment of Jehoiakim, promising death and disaster to him and his household (Jeremiah 36:27−32).

Jeremiah Imprisoned by Zedekiah

As chapter 37 begins, we learn that Zedekiah ultimately comes to sit on the throne. Nebuchadnezzar establishes Zedekiah as king, but then Zedekiah rebels against his Babylonian masters. The Babylonians come to restore their claim on Jerusalem. The Babylonians have the city under siege when Egypt, the superpower to the south, begins to march toward them. This causes the Babylonians to abandon their siege for the time being. Zedekiah is now faced with a series of political decisions. In Jeremiah 37:2, we learn that to this point, Zedekiah and all his advisors ignored the words of the LORD that came through Jeremiah. In the light of these new circumstances, however, Zedekiah sends emissaries to Jeremiah, asking him to pray to God for guidance (Jeremiah 37:3). The word from the LORD is unequivocal. The Babylonians will be back, and they will take the city. All that is happening now is a brief respite.

During the respite following the withdrawal of the Babylonian forces, Jeremiah tries to return to his hometown to take care of family business. At the gate to the city, he is arrested. Jeremiah is accused of trying to defect to the Babylonians. Despite his protests of innocence, he is beaten and jailed.

After “a long time” (Jeremiah 37:16), the king sends for him and asks if he has heard any word from the LORD. Perhaps Zedekiah thought that a sufficient amount of time in prison would soften Jeremiah’s message. He does not seem to grasp the possibility that Jeremiah’s message might be something more than Jeremiah’s own vision of things. The idea the God might actually be speaking through Jeremiah seems inconceivable to Zedekiah. Jeremiah gives a brief message, summarizing all that he has been saying: Zedekiah will be handed over to the Babylonians.

At this point Jeremiah does insert himself into the dialogue (Jeremiah 37:20). He asks Zedekiah not to return him to prison. He claims that he will die there if he returns. As awful and corrupt as our contemporary habits of incarceration are, it is also important to remember that in the ancient world, prison was not a place designed for rehabilitation. It was designed to punish, break, and ultimately eliminate those who ended up there. The conditions would have been horrific. Jeremiah plaintively asks why those “prophets” who claimed that the Babylonians would never attack Jerusalem had not also been put in prison. They had clearly been wrong, whereas Jeremiah has been correct. The king offers a modest concession. Jeremiah will be held in the court of the guard rather than in prison and receive a daily ration of bread. He does not set Jeremiah free, however.

Jeremiah in the Cistern

Jeremiah in the cistern
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Jeremiah’s fortunes take another turn for the worse in chapter 38. A faction led by Shephatiah, Gedaliah, Jucal, and Pashhur incite the king to re-imprison Jeremiah. They have heard Jeremiah’s prophetic advice that those who surrender to the Babylonians shall live and those who stay in the city will die. They note that this message is quite discouraging to the soldiers and others who remain in the city. In effect, Jeremiah is charged with undermining the morale of the people. His accusers advocate death for Jeremiah, The king claims to be powerless against these men and hands Jeremiah over to them (Jeremiah 38:5). His actions here are reminiscent of Pilate. Zedekiah neither agrees with those who accuse Jeremiah, nor does he act to save Jeremiah. As a result, Jeremiah is cast into a muddy, waterless cistern where he will surely die unless he gets some help.

Help comes in the form of one of the king’s servants, Ebed-melech. He prevails upon the king to help Jeremiah. The king, who just agreed to hand Jeremiah over to his accusers, now agrees to help Jeremiah. He is lifted out of the cistern and “remains in the court of the guard,” which is where chapter 37 ends.

The Foretold Destruction Finally Occurs

We learn of one final conversation between Zedekiah and Jeremiah in the latter part of chapter 38. The despairing king asks meets with Jeremiah in private. Jeremiah hesitates to answer the king’s questions, since he knows that the word of the LORD will not please Zedekiah and Jeremiah does not want Zedekiah to take that out on him (Jeremiah 38:15). Zedekiah promises not to “kill the messenger” (Jeremiah 38:16). The news from Jeremiah is neither new nor pleasing to the king. If Zedekiah surrenders, he will save himself and the city. If he resists, he will die and the city will be destroyed. In Jeremiah 38:14−28, we see that Zedekiah is a man torn between several opposing factions. If he surrenders, he will anger the pro-resistance group that has been so hostile to Jeremiah in chapters 37−38. He is further afraid that he may be handed over to the pro-Babylonian Judeans, already in Nebuchadnezzar’s camp. That would also be risky. In addition, he seems persuaded by elements of Jeremiah’s prophetic insights. Nevertheless, he does not trust the LORD to protect him. In the end, all he and Jeremiah can do is agree to deny that their conversation ever took place (Jeremiah 38:24−28).

After a siege of roughly 18 months (2 Kings 25:1−7), we read in Jeremiah 39 that the Babylonians finally take Jerusalem. Zedekiah tries to escape, but is captured. Things play out as the LORD declared through Jeremiah. Zedekiah’s family is slaughtered before his eyes. His eyes are then gouged out. Those who seem most useful to the Babylonians are taken away into exile. The city is torched. The poor are left behind and given some land to work (Jeremiah 39:1−10). Just 10 verses narrate the events that the LORD described through Jeremiah in terrifying detail throughout the earlier chapters of the book.

Abiding with the Remnant

The Babylonians hand Jeremiah over to Gedaliah for safekeeping. It would appear that Nebuchadnezzar knows of Jeremiah and sees him as favorably disposed to Babylonian interests. He seeks to provide security for Jeremiah. In some respects, this confirms the view of the anti-Babylonian group who saw Jeremiah as a traitor. The text says nothing about this. Instead, it simply notes that Jeremiah “remained with his own people” (Jeremiah 39:14).  Perhaps this is a way of asserting Jeremiah’s solidarity with the people. He gets no particular benefit and certainly no joy from seeing a Babylonian victory. Instead, he abides with those who remain.

Almost as an afterthought, a word from the LORD comes to Jeremiah confirming that Ebed-melech, the servant who secured Jeremiah’s release from the cistern in chapter 38, will be protected from the Babylonians “because you have trusted in me, says the LORD” (Jeremiah 39:18).

As chapter 40 begins, a Babylonian official narrates the basic plot of this book for Jeremiah: The people sinned against the LORD. Therefore, the LORD has used the Babylonians to bring judgment upon Judah. The information is not new, but to have it so clearly laid out by a Babylonian must have appeared as a deep irony to Jeremiah and to subsequent readers. Sometimes those outside of the community of believers have a much clearer insight into the ways of God.

Be that as it may, this Babylonian official offers Jeremiah a choice to go wherever he pleases: He can return to Babylon with the official and be well looked after. He can stay behind and be taken care of. He can go somewhere else if that seems good to him.  In the end, Jeremiah stays and joins himself to Gedaliah, who is in charge of governing the remnant of Judah (Jeremiah 40:6).


Like all rulers appointed by an occupying power, Gedaliah’s position is tense. He stands between Babylon, on the one hand, and the people of Judah, on the other hand. Moreover, the Judeans themselves seem divided about how to respond to the fall of Jerusalem.

Interestingly, Gedaliah describes his own role as representing the Judeans to the Babylonians and not the other way around (Jeremiah 40:10). He is their advocate, not Babylon’s instrument. Gedaliah’s proposal to the Judeans is similar to the recommendation Jeremiah offered those in exile in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:1−7). That is, seek the peace and welfare of the place where God has put you. Build, plant, and pray, waiting for the LORD’s direction (Jeremiah 40:7−12).

Gedaliah must understand that he has enemies, both among the Judeans and among neighboring states. He learns from his ally Johanan that the Ammonite king has sent Ishmael, who is from the deposed Judean royal family (Jeremiah 41:1), to assassinate Gedaliah. Gedaliah does not believe this report (Jeremiah 40:16).

This turns out to have been unwise. What is worse is that Gedaliah receives Ishmael as a guest, eating bread with him (Jeremiah 41:1). In what must be seen as a disgraceful and cowardly abuse of hospitality, Ishmael kills Gedaliah and those with him. To add to his crimes, Ishmael slaughters a group of pilgrims from the north who have come to mourn the fall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 41:4−10).

This section of Jeremiah has covered the situation immediately leading to Zedekiah’s demise and the fall of Jerusalem and the promising but brief provisional government of Gedaliah. This all happens precisely as the LORD spoke through Jeremiah. Throughout these chapters, Jeremiah suffers the repercussions for prophesying the imminent fall of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he remains faithful to his vocation. Moreover, when he is given the opportunity to retire to Babylon and be well cared for, he opts to “remain with his people.” These chapters reflect God’s fidelity to God’s promises regarding Judah, and Jeremiah’s dual fidelity to his mission to speak the word of the LORD and to stand with the people of Judah in their darkest hour.

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. What motivates Jehoiakim, Zedekiah, those with Shephetiah, and others, to oppose Jeremiah? Why is it so compelling to ignore or silence such a prophet? If you were Jeremiah, how would you respond to these persecutions?
  2. Though Jeremiah has many enemies, he also has friends (some unexpected!) who help him or treat him well: Baruch, Ebed-Melech, Zedekiah (sometimes), Gedaliah, the Babylonian officials. How do these friends help Jeremiah at key moments? What do you think motivates them to aid Jeremiah?
  3. The siege, destruction, and exile of Jerusalem is a traumatic event for God’s people. How does such a cataclysmic event align with God’s plan for the restoration of Israel and Judah?
  4. Why do you think Jeremiah choose to remain with his people? What evidence from the text supports your view?

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Restoration and a New Covenant

Posted: November 21st, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Jeremiah, Week 9 | Tags: | Comments Off on Restoration and a New Covenant

By Dr. Stephen Fowl

Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland

Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 30:1–33:26



Jeremiah and the yoke of scrap metal
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In real estate, the maxim is location, location, location. Apparently, this was also true in Jeremiah’s time. The material we will cover in this Lectio relates a real-estate transaction between Jeremiah and one of his relatives. Jeremiah is in prison and the Babylonians have Jerusalem under siege. Things look very bad. At just this time, Jeremiah is offered a tract of land in Anathoth. Under normal conditions, this would seem like a good idea. After all, Jeremiah’s family is from Anathoth. Unfortunately, at the time he is offered the land, it is under Babylonian control. It is occupied territory. It is this location that makes it the ideal piece of land to convey God’s message of hope. Sometime in the future, the people of God will occupy that land again. It is worthless now, but it will become valuable. This story becomes one
of several episodes in this section relating God’s promise
to renew and redeem Israel in the future.

Without question, the book of Jeremiah is unrelenting in its account of the LORD’s judgment of Judah. There is much more in this text about plucking up, pulling down, destroying, and overthrowing than there is about building and planting (Jeremiah 1:10). This week’s chapters, however, focus on restoration and renewal using a variety of styles and images.

The Book of Consolation

Initially, Jeremiah is instructed by God to “write in a book all the words I have spoken to you” (Jeremiah 30:2). Because of this command, chapters 30 and 31 are sometimes referred to as the “book of consolation.” These chapters are directed to a time in the future when God will restore both Judah and Israel. This claim is significant because it shows that God has not abandoned the Northern Kingdom and does not intend either for Judah to remain alone or for Israel to be divided (Jeremiah 31:27).

After this introductory statement of the LORD’s plan to restore the people of God, the rest of chapter 30 employs a diverse and rich set of images to account both for Judah’s judgment and for God’s promise of restoration and redemption. At the same time, God does not neglect the fact that Judah’s wounds are serious, self-inflicted manifestations of God’s just judgment. Nevertheless, God will not and has not abandoned Judah. God’s intention is both to judge and to heal and restore. God’s sends “the storm of the LORD” to accomplish a purpose. Then God restores because of God’s steadfast love of Israel. This is a fierce dynamic; it is hard to understand and acknowledge when one is in the midst of the storm of the LORD. Ultimately, the people of God will understand this (Jeremiah 30:24), but Jeremiah suggests these words may be hard to grasp now.

Hope for the Future

Chapter 31 continues this theme, compiling further images of restoration and renewal. There will be joyful noises, productive harvests, security, consolation, and flourishing (Jeremiah 31:1−9). The implication of verse 6 is that Jerusalem and the Temple will be rebuilt. Overall, “my people shall be satisfied with my bounty” (Jeremiah 31:14).

Chapter 31 contains the famous verse about Rachel weeping for her lost children, which Matthew uses to illumine Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:18). When Matthew uses this verse, it conveys unrequited anguish and mourning. Matthew then has Jesus announce comfort for the mourners in Matthew 5:4. In Jeremiah 31:15−17, this anguish is directly requited: “There is hope for your future, says the LORD: Your children shall come back to their own country” (31:17).  Although the imagery is not always clear (e.g., “a woman encompasses a man,” 31:22), the tone is unquestionably hopeful, pointing to a future of healing and blessing.

Following the voice of Rachel weeping, the text moves to consider the voice of Ephraim pleading (Jeremiah 31:18−20). God hears Rachel’s crying and answers with hope. God also hears Ephraim’s cry. It is a cry of repentance and hard-won discipline. Ephraim has recognized his sin and seeks to return home. God has not forgotten Ephraim and promises mercy.

As the images of restoration and comfort continue, we read in verse 26 that this has been like a very pleasant dream for Jeremiah. This must certainly be the case in the light of the previous chapters.

Verses 27−30 offer a reprise of Jeremiah 1:10. The days are coming when God will sow and plant. Plucking up, breaking down, overthrowing, and destroying have already happened. It is time for building and planting. Nevertheless, each generation will be responsible for its own actions. Presumably, this indicates that future restoration does not rule out future judgment if the people of God stray.

Covenant Written on the Heart

The next verses, Jeremiah 31:31−34, are probably the most famous verses in Jeremiah. In the future, God promises to make a new covenant with Judah and Israel (again stressing the reunified kingdom). The reference to the Exodus indicates that this covenant is in contrast to the Sinai covenant. The chief difference here seems to be between a written document and something written on the heart. It would seem that the written law tends to invite misunderstanding if not disobedience. At the very least, there appears to be the sense that the written law is something separate from those who seek to embody it. Obedience to the written law requires teachers and discipline. The covenant written on the heart requires no teachers or interpreters. Its requirements are clear and will be embodied by all, from the least to the greatest.

Christians should read this promise with some care. On one hand, it is unacceptable for Christians to assume that this new covenant is a covenant made with them and that the old covenant is one made with Israel that has now been nullified. A God who makes an “everlasting” covenant with Abraham and his people (Genesis 17:7, Jeremiah 32:40) and then abandons that covenant in favor of a new covenant is not a trustworthy God. On the other hand, Christians should assume that the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God is a continuous, but climactic, part of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. It begins the decisive renewal of Israel that will draw all the world to God (Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 2:2−4).

At the same time, in 2 Corinthian 3:1−6, Paul also seems to indicate that by the power of the Spirit, Christian communities are, at least, the first fruits of that process of God writing on our hearts. That is, Paul claims the material, outward lives of the Christians in Corinth are to be a testimony to God’s writing on the hearts of believers through the Spirit. Of course, given what Paul has already said about the Christians in Corinth, it is clear that this process has yet to reach its consummation. Nevertheless, the important aspect of Paul’s invocation of this new covenant language to speak about the Christian community is that he is not drawing a contrast between flesh and Spirit or outer and inner parts of our lives. Rather, the contrast, as with Jeremiah, is between a written text and a text written on the hearts of believers that is only evident through their outward lives.

In addition to the presence of the Spirit, the fact that those early Christian communities were made up of Jews and Gentiles together were signs that Jeremiah 31:31 was being fulfilled in their midst. Nevertheless, they also recognized that although this prophecy may be in the process of being fulfilled, it has not yet been fully realized. Christians, like the first readers of Jeremiah, anticipate that time when God’s law will be written on our hearts and there will be no gap between God’s speaking and our hearing.

Sovereign in Judgment and Redemption

This striking assertion in Jeremiah 31:31−34 is underwritten by the claims of Jeremiah 31:35−37. These claims are founded on the LORD, who sustains all of creation. The abiding continuity of creation and its unfathomable greatness are themselves testimony to the abiding nature of God’s promises to Israel. The chapter concludes with a brief prophetic word about the expansion and rebuilding of Jerusalem that will happen when God brings the people back from exile (Jeremiah 31:38−40).

The words of consolation written in Jeremiah 30−31 are followed by a prophetic act of hope in chapter 32. This act is a single real-estate transaction. In itself it is not very significant, but context is everything.

When chapter 32 begins, we learn that Jerusalem is under siege by the Babylonians, and Jeremiah is under arrest. Zedekiah has arrested him because of his persistent prophetic words that Jerusalem will fall and that Zedekiah will be taken into exile. Things look bleak for the city and for Jeremiah personally. In this situation, Jeremiah is invited by his cousin Hanamel to buy a field in Anathoth, outside Jerusalem. At the LORD’s instruction, Jeremiah goes through an elaborate public process of buying this land. This is to show that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (Jeremiah 32:15). This is a symbolic act that confirms God’s intention for Judah to flourish after exile, and it is an opportunity for Jeremiah to materially commit himself to that outcome. He is putting his money where his mouth is.

We then read an account of a prayer Jeremiah offers to God (Jeremiah 32:16−25). The prayer recounts the LORD’s character as one who extends steadfast love and mercy and also righteously judges Judah’s infidelity. Jeremiah notes that the current situation of imminent disaster is just what the LORD promised in the light of Judah’s sin. Jeremiah is confident that destruction will be comprehensive and the Babylonians will win out. Finally, at verse 25, Jeremiah expresses his confusion over why God would want him to buy this field.

This prayer allows the LORD to reaffirm the plan that, because of her idolatries, Jerusalem will be handed over to the Babylonians. The city will be destroyed. In addition, however, the LORD reaffirms a plan to restore and renew Jerusalem and Judah. God will bring disaster and then prosperity (Jeremiah 32:26−44).

This theme continues into chapter 33. The first 13 verses of this chapter reprise the dual promises of judgment and healing that are part of chapter 32. Much of the language of restoration and renewal has focused on Judah’s commercial life (e.g., land, trade, farming), social life (e.g., sounds of weddings), and worship life (e.g., restoration of worship in Temple). In Jeremiah 33:14−22, the LORD announces the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. This passage builds on a similar promise in Jeremiah 23:5−6. Again, this is a promise for a united kingdom. There will be one king who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” This is presented as an ironclad commitment on God’s part (verses 19−22) despite the reality of impending exile. In fact, as the chapter comes to a close, it appears that God’s own integrity would be in question if this commitment to David was not renewed and sustained.

This closes the sustained pattern of consolation that starts with chapter 30. There are two persistent themes here. First, exile is God’s choice. Despite the fact that it would appear to any seasoned political observer that the Babylonians are in control of events, the LORD is using them as instruments of judgment upon Judah. The second theme is that of God’s steadfast love for Judah, a love that is connected to God’s covenantal promises to Israel. These two themes are connected. Only a God who is truly sovereign over all things can both direct and oversee Judah’s judgment and exile while at the same time making firm promises of restoration. Only a God whose first and last words to Judah are words of love has the capacity to both tear down and build up. An angry, vengeful God can tear down if that God is powerful enough. That God, however, has no reason to build up, restore, or redeem. Only the LORD — bound to Judah in love — can be relied upon to build up and restore.

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. The Lectio says that, “only a God who is truly sovereign over all things can both direct and oversee Judah’s judgment and exile while at the same time making firm promises of restoration.” How do you see this dual-pronged plan at work in the reading from Jeremiah for this week? How does this statement challenge or affirm your understanding of who God is?
  2. Jeremiah buys a plot of land (Jeremiah 32) as a “prophetic act of hope.” Why is this land purchase so important? What is the context? What might be a prophetic act of hope in your context?

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