Jeremiah: Promises of Punishment and Preservation

West Side Moravian Church
April 29, 2012

Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah

Jeremiah lived and worked during the last years of the southern Kingdom of Judah, at the time when the Babylonian Empire was sweeping west and south across the middle east. His message was not to trust in foreign alliances, not to trust in favorable external events (such as the collapse of the Assyrian Empire), not to trust in superficial religious reform, but to be obedient to the core of God's teaching.

Throughout his ministry, Jeremiah warned of the approaching defeat of Judah and the subsequent Exile in Babylon. Jeremiah's beautiful descriptions of God's love and of what God wants from us also laid a foundation for surviving that Exile.

The Book of Jeremiah can be confusing if you sit down to read it straight through. John Bright, author of the Anchor Bible's volume on Jeremiah, warns us that no part of the Jeremiah book is arranged in chronological order. There is no narrative … to follow, nor … any logical progression. Instead, we have a collection of anthologies of Jeremiah's poems, sermons, and personal reflections, with some added sections describing the historical context.


1: 1

There were a lot of Jeremiahs back in the middle 600s B.C.E. More, probably, than the Jeremiahs and Jeremys of the middle 1980s A.D. It seemed like every third brother-in-law was named Jeremiah. Most of them we don't care a lot about; the Jeremiah we care most about is Jeremiah Cohen, the son of Hilkiah Cohen of Anathoth. Which is a little bit strange, I guess, because this Jeremiah wasn't a particular success by most measures. Of course, it was hard for anybody to be much of a success at the time.

Hilkiah's boy, though, was rather notoriously unsuccessful in most ways. He didn't stay in Anathoth when he came of age; he moved to the big city. At first it seemed that Jeremiah would take up duties in the temple – that was the family business, in a way – but soon he was spending his time making speeches like a politician. Not that he seemed to want a political appointment. And not that anyone would have given him one if he had wanted it; Jeremiah was just too unpredictable. In fact, there seemed to be something not quite right about him.

Well, you know, he said he heard God talking to him. I suppose hearing the voice of God would do something to a man.

But let me tell you the story and you can judge for yourselves. To begin, let me remind you what was going on in Judah at the time. We talked some about this before, in the history of the kings, but memory fades after 2600 years or so.

Assyrian Wars

It was about 100 years after the founding of the Assyrian Empire when Jeremiah began to speak the words of God.

You remember the Assyrians. They were the first truly regional power. The Assyrians turned all of their neighbors into what they euphemistically called friends. The word friend in the parlance of geopolitics refers to a vassal state. In this case, any country which turns its taxes over to Assyria and does whatever Assyria commands is considered (by Assyria) to be Assyria's friend. So back in the time of Isaiah, in 735 B.C.E., King Ahaz of Israel had become Assyria's friend. So to speak.

As you can imagine, these friends were not any more friendly than they absolutely had to be. Israel and the other vassal states would assert their independence. Assyria would destroy them. They would protest. Their best people would be deported. And so it went.

All the while, Assyria continued its relentless march to the south. By 722 (in our modern calendar's countdown to the time of Jesus) Assyria had totally crushed the northern kingdom of Israel. By 701 Assyria had crushed the southern kingdom of Judah. By 663 Assyria had conquered Egypt.

Who rules the world? Assyria rules the world!

Independence and Reform

Except – well, look around you. Where is Assyria today? Gone, gone, gone. Ten years after being conquered, Egypt seceded from the Assyrian Empire. About 626 B.C.E., the city of Babylon to the east also declared independence. The Babylonians' neighbors, the Medes, began foraging in Assyrian fields. The Assyrian Empire was imploding.

As Assyria collapsed, Judah revived. We had a new king, King Josiah, who was both independent and religiously minded. King Josiah reestablished Judah as a nation and had even begun to annex the northern provinces, leading to hope for a unified nation for the first time since King Solomon. At the same time, King Josiah was leading a religious reform, purging idols from the temple and closing the hill shrines. The was real hope for the future.

Jeremiah Speaks


And yet, it was this moment when God sent us the prophet Jeremiah. How strange that seems, even now, even looking back and knowing that everything Jeremiah said was true. A young man comes out of Anathoth and tells us that God had made him an overseer of nations and kingdoms and had given him authority to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant. We thought Jeremiah's call was another piece of the edifice. Assyria was pulled down; Judah was planted. The great ogre was overthrown; God's own nation was being rebuilt. Or so we thought.

We did listen to Jeremiah. Sometimes we didn't hear what he was saying, but we listened, even if only for entertainment. Jeremiah was a poet and a performance artist. And he was good. His poems are melodious and his performances were interesting to watch. Here, listen to a few verses from his early works.

2: 2-3
I remember how faithful you were when you were young, how you loved me when we were first married;
you followed me through the desert, through a land that had not been planted.
Israel, you belonged to me alone; you were my sacred possession.
2: 12-13
And so I command the sky to shake with horror, to be amazed and astonished,
for my people have committed two sins:
they have turned away from me, the spring of fresh water,
and they have dug cisterns, cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all.

The imagery of God's wife and lover was cribbed from Hosea, it's true, but how expressively Jeremiah recasts the old phrases! How clearly he puts forth the justification for the punishment of Israel's apostasy! But why these verses were recited in Jerusalem at the downfall of the Assyrian Empire was something not as clear to any of us. They seemed to belong to another time and place, to the Samaria of a century before.


We thought perhaps such poems were meant as a prelude to the celebration, a reminder of the bitter past that makes the restored kingdom that much sweeter. But just when a beautiful image captures your imagination, Jeremiah's poems take an ugly turn. What would you make of this verse from a poem telling of God's sorrow over us?

12: 9
My chosen people are like a bird attacked from all side by hawks.
Call the wild animals to come and join the feast!

Is it any wonder that many people began to turn against this seer of disasters? And it was not only in Jeremiah's poetry that we found this same negativity. Let me share with you one of his most famous performance pieces. I'm not editorializing; I tell you this this in Jeremiah's own words.

13: 1-11

The Lord told me to go and buy myself a pair of linen shorts and to put them on; but he told me not to put them in water. So I bought them and put them on. Then the Lord spoke to me again and said, Go to the Euphrates River and hide the shorts in a hole in the rocks. So I went and hid them near the Euphrates.

Some time later the Lord told me to go back and get the shorts. So I went back, and when I found the place where I had hidden them, I saw that they were ruined and were no longer any good.

Then the Lord spoke to me again. He said, This is how I will destroy the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. These evil people have refused to obey me. They have been as wicked and stubborn as ever, and have worshipped and served other gods. So then, they will become like these shorts that are no longer any good. …

What a striking bit of performance that was! Yet how appalling the interpretation! For he said the Euphrates, the river of Babylon – not the Tigris River of Asshur and Nineveh; not the troubles of the past that were over and done but new troubles which hadn't yet taken place. What was Jeremiah saying about our alliances with the enemies of our enemy? What was he saying about our hope for the future, about our pride in regaining national independence, and about the great religious reform? We didn't want to believe that everything we had accomplished was as worthless as a pair of shorts forgotten outside over the winter.

As the years went on, our pride was severely challenged – by events, and not only by the prophet. After King Josiah died, the religious reforms ended. In 609 B.C.E. Judah became a friend of Egypt as Egypt swept toward the north. In 605, the Babylonians warred against the Egyptians and by 603 Judah was a friend of Babylon instead. Naturally, our leaders would assert our independence. Babylon destroyed them. We would protest. Our best people were deported, this time to Babylon. The negativity of our friend Jeremiah began to seem altogether too realistic.

19: 1-2, 10-11, 3, 9

Let me tell you about another performance piece. At God's instruction, Jeremiah bought a clay jar and invited some of the elders of the people and some of the older priests to go with him out of the city through the Potsherd Gate. What an elegant touch, to use Potsherd Gate! They went out, Jeremiah declared God's word, and then smashed the jar into shards, right there in front of them. And the word that God had spoken? It was, I will break this people and this city, and it will be like this broken clay jar that cannot be put together again. God said, I am going to bring such a disaster on this place that everyone who hears about it will be stunned. I will give their corpses to the birds and the wild animals as food.

And why? Why would God do this to us?

19: 4-5
I am going to do this because the people have abandoned me and defiled this place by offering sacrifices to other gods … They have filled this place with the blood of innocent people and they have built altars to Baal in order to burn their children in the fire as sacrifices. I never commanded them to do this; it never even entered my mind.
19: 10-11, 17-19;
20: 1-2

Looking back, I suppose most people would agree that child sacrifice was enough to set God against us, even if that had been all the evil there was in Jerusalem. But speaking like this, with the Babylonian armies sweeping down upon us, this was tantamount to speaking treason. (If it weren't for the example of the prophet Micah in the time of King Hezekiah, the government would probably have executed Jeremiah.) As it was, the overseer of the temple grounds detained Jeremiah, this one whom God had made overseer of nations and kingdoms. The temple overseer, whose name was Pashur, had Jeremiah beaten and held in chains overnight. And such things happened to him again and again.

Why did Jeremiah do it? No one believed him, no one wanted to believe him. By now the country was battling for its life. The government was against him. Citizens thought it patriotic to inform on him. Many of his friends turned against him. Why not throw up his hands and walk away? Jeremiah wrote poems about how hard it was to be the prophet of God. Let me quote part of one of his best.

20: 1-9
Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived.
You are stronger than I am, and you have overpowered me.
Everyone makes fun of me; they laugh at me all day long.
Whenever I speak, I have to cry out and shout, Violence! Destruction!
Lord, I am ridiculed and scorned all the time because I proclaim your message.
But when I say, I will forget the Lord and no longer speak in his name,
then your message is like a fire burning deep within me.
I try my best to hold it in, but can no longer keep it back.

Jeremiah did not keep it back. He let us know unequivocally that Babylon's armies would conquer Jerusalem after a terrible seige. We did not want to hear it. We did not want this to be true. But it was true.


32: 1-15

Yet Jeremiah exaggerated a little in his lament. It was not quite every time he spoke that he had to shout destruction. There was a measure of hope in his message, too. One time, right in the middle of the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem itself, Jeremiah bought some property in his hometown of Anathoth; he paid for it and registered the deed even as the army bore down on Jerusalem. And he told us, The Lord … has said that houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought and sold in this land.

In his poems, too, Jeremiah told of God's salvation. When this would be, he did not say, but the promise was so certain that Jeremiah quoted God as if the work was already completed.

31: 10-13
Nations, listen to me and proclaim my words on the far-off shores.
I scattered my people, but I will gather them and guard them as a shepherd guards his flock. …
They will be like a well-watered garden; they will have everything they need.
Then the girls will dance and be happy, and men, young and old, will rejoice.
42: 15-16

At the very end, after Jerusalem had been taken, the temple dismantled, the people deported, and the last of the militias scattered, some of us decided to seek safety in Egypt. We asked Jeremiah what God said about this. He told us, If you are determined to go and live in Egypt, then the war that you fear will overtake you, and the hunger you dread will follow you, and you will die there in Egypt. And so we shall. And so will Jeremiah, because even though we could not believe him, we could not leave him, either. We took Jeremiah with us, and now all of us watch as Babylon strikes Egypt down.

46: 17

Jeremiah says, Give the king of Egypt a new name – Noisy Braggart Who Missed His Chance.

So we who trusted in Egypt are doomed ourselves. But our people, God's people, will still survive. For God has told Jeremiah this, and now I believe it:

30: 10
46: 27-28
My people, do not be afraid; my people Israel, do not be terrified.
I will rescue you from the faraway land, from the land where you are prisoners.
You will come back home and live in peace; you will be secure and no one will make you afraid.

Scripture quotations taken from Good News Bible, American Bible Society, 1976.
I am also indebted to John Bright, Jeremiah: A new translation with introduction and commentary; volume 21 of the Anchor Bible; Doubleday & Company, 1965.

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