08. Reflections on Old Testament Prophets (Jeremiah, 1)

A nation doomed (Jeremiah 7:11-15; 2 Kings 23:36-37)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (July 9, 2007)

The ministry of the prophet Jeremiah encompassed amazing highs and lows.  His words speak both of challenge and critique and of comfort.

Jeremiah was from Anathoth in northern Judah (Jer. 1:1).  He was a descendant of Abiathar, one of King David’s high priests.  Abiathar, who was loyal to Israel’s roots in the law of Moses, had been deposed and exiled to Anathoth by King Solomon.  The lineage of Abiathar represents the strand of Mosaic and prophetic faith that consistently raised voices of critique toward the policies of Israel’s kings and religious leaders.

Jeremiah came onto the scene about the time that King Josiah began his reforms (Jer. 1:2), trying to undo the corruption of kings such as his grandfather Manasseh.  Josiah’s reforms gained impetus from the rediscovery of the book of the law (II Kings 22:8-13).  Jeremiah surely supported this effort to reinstate Mosaic faith at the heart of the Hebrew nation.

Josiah’s reforms ended following his early death at the age of 39 on the battlefield–ironically killed by the Egyptian Pharaoh (II Kings 23:29).

God grieves for disobedient Judah

Our short text from 2 Kings 23 tells us what follows after Josiah’s death: Josiah’s son, King Jehoiakim “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as all his ancestors had done” (23:37).  The nation state of Judah is doomed.

The first half of the long book of Jeremiah gives the prophet’s take on Judah’s troubles.  Jeremiah’s prophecies offer sharp critique, but also powerfully portray God’s grief.  The point of the critiques is not playing the blame game but that God shares the sufferings of the people.

The Hebrews’ trauma, as portrayed by Jeremiah, is not evidence of God’s absence but of God’s presence.  God grieves, but God also allows Judah to reap the consequences of disregarding the core message of Torah.  God’s law is vindicated.

By showing both that Judah’s trauma stems from the long disobedience and that God remains present amidst this trauma, Jeremiah helps prepare the people for continued life.  The ultimate focus of Jeremiah’s message is that the Israelites, just as in the time of Moses, are called to live with God as revealed in Torah at their center, not a nation-state or a centralized temple.

Chapter seven underscores the failure of the temple to direct people to God’s word.  Echoing earlier prophets, especially Amos, God here condemns the people for practicing injustice and idolatry while at the same time they “come and stand before me in this house [the Temple], and say ‘We are safe!’–only to go on doing all these abominations” (7:9-10).

“Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers?” (7:11).  The answer is yes, and the consequences are now certain.  “Because you have done all these things, says the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called, you did not answer,” your end as a nation state is at hand (7:13).

Prophet’s challenge for today

The tragedy of ancient Judah may be seen in the response of the people and their leaders to the crises that came crashing down on them.  Rather than turning to God and to the heart of God’s message to the people through Torah, they turned to power politics and continued to flock to the Temple to “worship” God while sustaining their injustices and idolatries.  The prophets called for changed lives, not intensified justice-less piety and political scheming.

This challenge remains alive for people of faith today.  As our North American societies descend into deeper anxiety and uncertainty, impending crises with our militarism, our economy and our physical environment, where will we turn?  To Torah’s call to justice and to trust in God alone (a call repeated powerfully by Jesus)?  Or to the very kinds of things that brought ancient Judah to ruin?

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