Lesson 41: Jeremiah and the Weight of Prophecy #BCCSundaySchool2018

Was he really a bullfrog? Hard to tell–we know so little about the private lives of Old Testament figures. But we can be sure that Jeremiah never sang “Joy to the Word”–or to anything else for that matter. Not to the boys and girls. Not to the fishes in the deep blue sea. Not to anyone. Joy, in Jeremiah’s life was not a thing.

But Jeremiah was both a great prophet and a great poet–and his life and ministry can help us understand a lot about how both prophecy and poetry work in the Old Testament.

The Lord first appeared to Jeremiah and called him to prophesy during the 13th year of King Josiah’s reign (1:2), or around 627 BCE. He remained in that calling through the Babylonian captivity in 587, a period of about 40 years–the same amount of time that Moses lead the Children of Israel in the wilderness.

I suspect that this is not a coincidence. Typologically, Jeremiah functions as a sort of inverse Moses. Just as Moses lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt, Jeremiah leads the Judahites back into captivity in Babylon. At great peril to himself, Jeremiah advocates submission to Babylon, and he prepares the people–both physically and spiritually–for the captivity they are about to experience. If Moses was  the midwife to the Nation of Israel, Jeremiah was the physician who attended its demise.

From the very beginning of his prophetic call, Jeremiah knew that the captivity was coming. Now, anybody paying attention should not have been surprised by the Babylonian captivity. During the 7th century BCE, Judah was positioned precariously between the two most powerful empires in the world: Egypt and Babylon. And though they were technically a Babylonian vassal state, their kings, for years, played a dangerous game of chicken in which they refused to pay their required tributes and courted Egypt to protect them from Babylon’s wrath.

Jeremiah saw it all from the start:

And the Lord said to me:
From the north shall disaster break loose
Upon all the inhabitants of the land!

For I am summoning all the peoples
of the kingdoms of the north
—declares the Lord.
They shall come, and shall each set up a throne
Before the gates of Jerusalem,
Against its walls roundabout,
And against all the towns of Judah.

And I will argue My case against them
For all their wickedness:
They have forsaken Me
And sacrificed to other gods
And worshiped the works of their hands.

So you, gird up your loins,
Arise and speak to them
All that I command you.
Do not break down before them,
Lest I break you before them.
(Jeremiah 1:14-17–Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Version).

Jeremiah has the unenviable prophetic duty to speak truth to powerlessness–to tell the people that Jerusalem is going to be destroyed. The Lord does not tell him this conditionally, the way that he tells Jonah that Nineveh will be destroyed unless the people repent. It doesn’t matter whether or not the people repent. Jeremiah is not called to preach repentence. He is called to convey a fact: The Lord is mad at you and He is going to destroy Jerusalem. And there is nothing that any of us can do to change His mind. And God tells him this as clearly as it can be told:

The Lord said to me, “Even if Moses and Samuel were to intercede with Me, I would not be won over to that people. Dismiss them from My presence, and let them go forth!

And if they ask you, ‘To what shall we go forth?’ answer them, ‘Thus said the Lord:
Those destined for the plague, to the plague;
Those destined for the sword, to the sword;
Those destined for famine, to famine;
Those destined for captivity, to captivity.

And I will appoint over them four kinds [of punishment]—declares the Lord—the sword to slay, the dogs to drag, the birds of the sky, and the beasts of the earth to devour and destroy. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, on account of King Manasseh son of Hezekiah of Judah, and of what he did in Jerusalem.’” (Jeremiah 15:1-4)

And here’s the thing: Jeremiah was actually a pretty nice guy. He loves his people. He wants them to be happy, and he wishes that he could give them hope. At the same time, he knows what is going to happen to them, and to the nation that he cherishes. He wants to be able to comfort his people. He wants to give them hope. But this is not the message that the Lord has called him to give

Increasingly, the texts moves us from Jeremiah directing God’s anger at the people if Israel, to Jeremiah directing his own anger towards God for the position that he has been put in. This is when the Book of Jeremiah becomes great poetry, and much of it echoes the poetry of the Bible’s other great poem, the Book of Job:

You enticed me, O Lord, and I was enticed;
You overpowered me and You prevailed.
I have become a constant laughingstock,
Everyone jeers at me.

For every time I speak, I must cry out,
Must shout, “Lawlessness and rapine!”
For the word of the Lord causes me
Constant disgrace and contempt.

I thought, “I will not mention Him,
No more will I speak in His name”—
But [His word] was like a raging fire in my heart,
Shut up in my bones;
I could not hold it in, I was helpless.
……………..

Accursed be the day
That I was born!
Let not the day be blessed
When my mother bore me!

Accursed be the man
Who brought my father the news
And said, “A boy
Is born to you,”
And gave him such joy!

Let that man become like the cities
Which the Lord overthrew without relenting!
Let him hear shrieks in the morning
And battle shouts at noontide—

Because he did not kill me before birth
So that my mother might be my grave,
And her womb big [with me] for all time.

Why did I ever issue from the womb,
To see misery and woe,
To spend all my days in shame! (Jeremiah 20: 7-9; 14-18)

It doesn’t get any Jobbier than this. Unlike Job, though, Jeremiah has not been personally injured by God. But he has been called to bear a message of anger and hopelessness, and this causes him grief that is (quite intentionally, I suspect) cast in the same anguished language that we find in the ancient world’s greatest poem about suffering.

But is Jeremiah’s message entirely without hope? This is where the text becomes theologically interesting. (And there is very little chronological progression in Jeremiah, so it looks like we are going backwards, but we are really moving forward in the progression of the prophet’s theological understanding).

Jeremiah knows that Jerusalem will be destroyed and the Jews forced into captivity, but this is not the the point of his prophetic call. Predicting that Israel would be destroyed was easy; Jeremiah’s great prophecy was the knowledge that the Jews could survive with their culture, their language, and their religion intact. This is a crucial insight. No culture had ever done such a thing before; having their capital destroyed and their people hauled into captivity was usually the last thing that happened to an ancient culture. But Jeremiah knew (or, at least, he came to understand) that the Babylonian captivity would be survivable, and that he would have to prepare the people to survive it. We get a glimpse of this in Chapter 15:

The Lord said:
Surely, a mere remnant of you
Will I spare for a better fate! (Jeremiah 15:11)

This is the essence of the “remnant theology” so prominent in Isaiah and 2 Nephi. But it is in the section known as “Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation” (Chapters 30-31) that this becomes a prominent theme, and the source of the consolation that Jeremiah fights so hard with the Lord to be able to give:

But you,
Have no fear, My servant Jacob
—declares the Lord—
Be not dismayed, O Israel!
I will deliver you from far away,
Your folk from their land of captivity.
And Jacob shall again have calm
And quiet with none to trouble him;

For I am with you to deliver you
—declares the Lord.
I will make an end of all the nations
Among which I have dispersed you;
But I will not make an end of you!
I will not leave you unpunished,
But will chastise you in measure.

For thus said the Lord:
Your injury is incurable,
Your wound severe;

No one pleads for the healing of your sickness,
There is no remedy, no recovery for you.

All your lovers have forgotten you,
They do not seek you out;
For I have struck you as an enemy strikes,
With cruel chastisement,
Because your iniquity was so great
And your sins so many.

Why cry out over your injury,
That your wound is incurable?
I did these things to you
Because your iniquity was so great
And your sins so many.

Assuredly,
All who wanted to devour you shall be devoured,
And every one of your foes shall go into captivity;
Those who despoiled you shall be despoiled,
And all who pillaged you I will give up to pillage.

But I will bring healing to you
And cure you of your wounds
—declares the Lord.
Though they called you “Outcast,
That Zion whom no one seeks out,”

Thus said the Lord:
I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents
And have compassion upon his dwellings.
The city shall be rebuilt on its mound,
And the fortress in its proper place.

From them shall issue thanksgiving
And the sound of dancers.
I will multiply them,
And they shall not be few;
I will make them honored,
And they shall not be humbled.

His children shall be as of old,
And his community shall be established by My grace;
And I will deal with all his oppressors. (Jeremiah 30:9-20)

So, perhaps I was wrong in the introduction. Jeremiah does sing “Joy to the World”–a very distant world, with a small remnant of people who survive the Babylonian captivity. But there will be (or, at least, there can be) joy. The destruction of Jerusalem is imminent. The captivity will happen. But Israel can survive these things–and they need to know that they will survive these things before the captivity begins. The awesome weight that Jeremiah has to bear is necessary, not for Israel to avoid the captivity in Babylon, but for it to endure it and emerge, once again, as a Chosen People.

Comments

  1. Thank you. Your post has enriched my life.

  2. Thanks Michael, this is wonderful.

    “This is the essence of the “remnant theology” so prominent in Isaiah and 2 Nephi.”

    Given that Isaiah is such an important prophet to LDS and given that, as you say, remnant theology is a prominent feature of Isaiah’s prophecy and in turn Nephi’s, do you have any thoughts on what remnant theology means for the modern church? Basically, why is this theology such a feature of our central book of scripture?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Why can’t our curriculum writers do something like this? Framing, context, actually quoting the text to illustrate the points being made. Great lesson, and what we have to work with in our manuals feels all the poorer for the contrast with the above.

  4. Thank you for writing this. It is excellent.

  5. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    gomez, I’ve been wondering that same thing as I am reading through that portion of the Book of Mormon currently and see Nephi and Jacob returning again and again to that line of thinking.

    I think I’ve had an insight as I read Jacob’s long two-day discourse in 2Nephi 6-10. In Chapter 6, on assignment from his older brother (Nephi), Jacob initially quotes a scattering/gathering passage from Isaiah 49 (which was already quoted by Nephi in 1Nephi 21). These brothers are really digging that passage. Jacob then goes on to reinforce the destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent scattering of the chosen people, before moving into Isaiah’s passages regarding their eventual recovery. Again, echoing the visions that Nephi shared in 1Nephi 12-14.

    However, those quoted chapters regarding scattering/gathering are simply the springboard to the deep and profound discussion on the Atonement that Jacob provides in 2Nephi 9-10. This is some of the clearest teachings available on the necessity and mechanics of Christ’s atonement in resolving physical and spiritual death — and the goodness of God in doing so. Things that are separated, scattered and broken can be restored to wholeness through Christ. The process that they are experiencing as a people is a parallel for personal salvation.

    I think 2 Nephi 9:53 is particularly insightful:
    “And behold how great the covenants of the Lord, and how great his condescensions unto the children of men; and because of his greatness, and his grace and mercy, he has promised unto us that our seed shall not utterly be destroyed, according to the flesh, but that he would preserve them; and in future generations they shall become a righteous branch unto the house of Israel.”

    I think the inclusion of covenants, grace, mercy and righteousness convey a deeper meaning than simply the return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity.

    We really don’t get much of this imagery from later prophets in the Book of Mormon who were not part of the founding group. I think they simply had different lenses and context a few hundred years later, but for Nephi and Jacob, this is a powerful theme that resonates with their gospel understanding and messaging.

  6. Leonard R says:

    Beautiful. Fantastic. Just sad that I was (five months after being called to the High Council) released from teaching Gospel Doctrine. I’ve loved having these blog posts as fuel for my own lesson preps.

  7. I nominate Michael Austin to write all the church’s Sunday School curriculum!

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