When we feel the world unraveling around us, the Old Testament book of Jeremiah is a particularly relevant book for us to go and listen to God. The book of Jeremiah shows us what God is like when everything around us seems to be falling apart. For this reason, it’s a perfect place for shaping our imagination for God’s mission in the world.
Jeremiah is a sobering read. It’s a tragic story. The events that make up the backdrop of this material can be read in 2 Kings 22–25 and 2 Chronicles 34–36. Jeremiah reminds us what sin is. Jeremiah reminds us that their are consequences for unfaithfulness to God. Saying “no” to God over and over and over again isn’t without tragic results.
Abraham Heschel writes, “A prophet’s true greatness is his ability to hold God and man is a single thought.” It’s a common misconception that prophecy in the Bible is about predicting the future. This isn’t the case at all. Prophecy is about telling the truth. I like to think of the prophets as the “Deuteronomy police.”
The book of Deuteronomy was the covenant—the official agreement defining the relationship between God and Israel. Deuteronomy concludes with a list of what good things that happen as a result of keeping all the terms of the covenant, and a list of what bad things happen when the terms are violated. And this is what the prophets do. They’re like the alarm bells going off, announcing to the nation that the terms of the covenant have been broken and consequences are coming.
Books like 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings give a straight forward account of Israel’s history. The books that make up the prophets shows us how God feels about these events. They are largely poetic and the words grab us by the emotions and shake us.
Jeremiah can be a difficult read largely because it isn’t structured like a 21st century story. Chapters 1–25 are a collection of prophetic pronouncements against Judah organized topically rather than chronologically. Chapters 26–36 are stories that provide the background for those pronouncements. For instance, chapter 26 tells the story behind chapter 7. Chapters 37–45 tell the story of the fall of Jerusalem. Finally, chapters 46–51 are a collection of prophetic pronouncements against the surrounding pagan nations.
Jeremiah in the story of Israel
The prophet Jeremiah witnessed the end of the world it—at least that’s how the people of Judah probably would have described it. But it wasn’t always terrible. As a young priest, Jeremiah would have had a front row seat to the religious revival under King Josiah. The spiritual renewal that happened as a result had no precedent in Judah or Israel.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. King Josiah was killed in battle and what follows would rival a George R.R. Martin plot. To Judah’s east, the nation of Babylon was overtaking Assyria as the dominant political force, and for the next generation, Judah would swap its allegiance back and forth between Babylon and Egypt for its very survival. Like it or not, politics are front and center throughout the book of Jeremiah.
In 598 Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem, taking Judah’s best and brightest (such as Ezekiel and Daniel) across the Fertile Crescent into exile. Twelve years later, Babylon would return, this time razing the city, burning the temple, and marching the remaining survivors to Babylon. A small remnant of Jews, holding Jeremiah as a political dissident because he advocated surrender to Babylon, escape to Egypt. For the Jewish people, this was the end of the world. It’s why the book of Lamentations functions as an appendix to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah in the story of Jesus and the Church
The prophet’s legacy stretches into the New Testament. When Jesus asks his disciples who the crowds say he is, one response is Jeremiah. And it’s no wonder. When he’s not directly quoting the Old Testament prophet (“You’ve turned [my Temple] into a den of thieves!”), he’s riffing on his sayings (“You’ll find rest for your souls”).
In fact, that “den of thieves” line in the gospels comes when Jesus famously cleanses the Temple. For the first century Jews witnessing this guerrilla theater of Jesus, their minds would have immediately called to mind the scene in Jeremiah 7. This is Jeremiah’s famous Temple sermon. Though a priest himself, Jeremiah calls out the rot and hollow hypocrisy of the religious establishment. More than any other Old Testament character, Jeremiah is the sharpest critic of the religious establishment. Jesus isn’t acting impulsively, losing his temper. He’s standing in an ancient tradition of calling out corrupt leadership. Israel’s leaders, just as in Jeremiah’s day, are on notice.
Add to this, when Paul talks about boasting in the Lord to the church at Corinth, he’s quoting from Jeremiah. The book of Hebrews makes a critical argument about a new covenant made in Jesus that the writer builds from words in Jeremiah. The fingerprints of this prophet are all over our New Testament story.
Jeremiah as a guide in the contemplative life
One major theme throughout the book is that things are not what they appear. It’s what’s inside that matters most. Just because the Temple (God’s dwelling place) is found in Jerusalem doesn’t make it safe. Just because the people have the Law, doesn’t excuse them from not keeping it. The state of one’s heart before God matters. God promises to provide a new heart. God promises to change us from the inside out.
“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Isarel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
In addition, Jeremiah provides a model for the spiritual practice of lament. The prophet mourns and weeps over the state of his community. He takes on the posture of lament and intercession before God on behalf of the corrupt and broken people around him. He holds this sorrow before God. Lament, the acknowledgment before God that things are not okay, is a much needed spiritual practice today.
Jeremiah as a guide in the mission life
An important passage related to missional theology is found in Jeremiah. The prophet sends a letter from Jerusalem (before its fall) to the first wave of exiles living in Babylon. Apparently, there was a contingency that believed this was a temporary situation, and they would return any day.
But Jeremiah tells them to plant themselves where they are, in the pagan land, surrounded by pagans: “Work for the peace and prosperity [in Hebrew, shalom] of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare [shalom] will determine your [shalom]” (Jeremiah 29:7). In fact, the prophet continues with the popular, though most often quoted out of context, statement, “I know the pans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good [shalom] and not for disaster, to give you a hope and a future.” And then Jeremiah says they are to stay for 70 years.
The idea of shalom is all over this passage. It shows us that shalom is God’s vision, not only for the exiles, but also for the people of Babylon. Shalom, the creation work of Genesis 1 where everything is in its right place, is the goal of God’s mission. Our invitation is to something bigger than growing our churches or committing ourselves to discipleship. It is to work for the shalom of our neighborhoods.
Even when the world feels like it’s unraveling all around us, the book of Jeremiah reminds us that God is ever-present. God doesn’t abandon us. Though our circumstances are dire and make no sense, we are not alone. In that, we have hope.
If you want to go deeper:
Jeremiah for Everyone by John Goldingay
A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming by Walter Brueggemann
Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best by Eugene Peterson
The Prophets by Abraham Heschel
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