Jeremiah the Passionate Prophet

19 August 2010 10:47:50

Philip Greenslade reveals the prophet of judgement and hope Jeremiah, who prophesied between 626BC and 584BC, wielded the classic two-edged sword of the biblical prophets: judgement and hope.

This dual role is perfectly summed up in the call-narrative in which Jeremiah is appointed by the Lord to 'uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow to build, and to plant' (1:10).

His lengthy and wide-ranging ministry is without parallel in the Old Testament, not least for the loneliness he experienced and the hostility he faced.

'His wide spiritual vision combined the fearlessness of Amos, the loving concern of Hosea and the stern grandeur of Isaiah …' writes R.H. Harrison.

Jeremiah – a man of God's heart In his call and commission, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah (1:5, 7, 10, 17–19) and became the driving force in his turbulent life.

He has been described as 'a man to whom God's persistent, inescapable, and overriding Word has been delivered.

His life consists of coming to terms with that Word, finding ways to articulate it to his contemporaries, and living with the hazardous consequence of that reality.' (Walter Brueggemann.)

Jeremiah's relationship with God was deep but painful. The God who had promised to be with him and for him seems at times to be absent and against him.

This tension of transcendence – God being holy and awesome – and immanence – God being intimate and unthreatening – had to be kept unresolved if his prophetic edge was to be maintained (Jer 23:23).

Jeremiah's sensitivity is that of a man who feels deeply, who wears his heart on his sleeve. He is passionate and free in expressing his emotions, not least directly to God in complaint and lament – a burningly honest way of relating to God, reflected in the psalms.


These outbursts of outrage are, not surprisingly, termed Jeremiah's 'lamentations': he feels himself dragged along 'like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter' (11:18–23).

God doesn't overflow with sympathy: 'If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?'(12:5) Not exactly words of comfort!

The agonised self-confession of chapter 15 (10–21) sees Jeremiah bemoan his own birth (v.10), complaining that his pain is 'unending' and his wound 'incurable' (v.18) and then accusing God of being 'a deceptive brook' (v.18b).

Then Jeremiah acknowledges that the heart is 'deceitful above all things' (17:9) and pleads for healing (v.12–18), but still waxes indignant that the Lord allows him to suffer so much (18:19–23).

He even accuses God of so abusing him as to have 'raped' him (20:7).

This is extreme language but shows us a man totally involved in the prophetic role and whose nerve endings are at full stretch in the service of this strange but compelling God.

God's word is the cause of Jeremiah's trouble but he can't escape it: it rages in him as an unquenchable and uncontainable fire (20:9).

Yet God is not only the antagonist but his protagonist, who will be like a 'mighty warrior' to him and to whom he 'has committed his cause' (20:11–12).

In our day we might consider Jeremiah a suitable candidate for inner healing.

The truly prophetic

But, like Hosea before him, Jeremiah shows us that a true prophet is not a mechanical conduit for God's word to pass through, but a person in whom God's word takes up residence.

So Israel's truest prophets prefigured that an even greater and final embodiment of God's Word would drive His message home not by inflicting suffering on others but by enduring suffering Himself.

What Jeremiah is experiencing is in fact the rawness of God which he seeks to articulate.

He feels and expresses what the great rabbinical teacher Abraham Heschel called 'the pathos of God'.

When Jeremiah condemns the false prophets who use their position to exploit and manipulate in self-serving ways, he admits that his 'heart is broken … I am like a drunken man … because of the Lord and his holy words' (23:9).

He is feeling what God is feeling at this misuse of His word and name.

'His condition was a state of suffering in sympathy with the divine pathos' (Heschel).

Hated by those in power and disowned even by his own townspeople, Jeremiah had few friends apart from his loyal secretary, Baruch (36:4–32, 45) who in the end went with the prophet into exile in Egypt (43:6–7).

Jeremiah – a lonely voice for God in the hostile public sphere of power politics.

Divine sovereignty

Living at one of the great turning points of the Ancient Near Eastern world, Jeremiah's ministry spanned the fall and rise of Empire.

From the fall of Assyria, with the destruction of Nineveh in 612BC, through the desperate attempts of Egypt and Assyria to hold on to cruel power, to the rise of the mighty, ruthless Babylonians who crushed the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605BC, Jeremiah dared to see beneath the surface of things the sovereign hand of Yahweh (1:10).

He knew Judah was doomed – because he was privy to God's sovereignty and His plans to judge His people.

He brought down trouble on his head for his relentless indictment of the nation's leaders, whether kings, rulers or officials (22:1–9), comparing Jehoahaz unfavourably with his godly father, Josiah (22:15–16).

He pronounced prophetic woes of judgement on the nation's leaders, offering instead a vision of a future 'righteous Branch' of David who would 'reign wisely' and bring justice to the land (23:1–8).

False prophets were vigorously denounced (23:9–40), and he clashed especially with the servile Hananiah (27–28).

Jehoiakim was hostile to him and Jeremiah found himself more often than not in prison in an attempt to shut him up (20:1–2; 26:8–9; 32:2–3).

Jeremiah hardly made himself more popular by communicating God's direct indictment of the city itself –'I am against you, Jerusalem.' (21:13.) But it was his mocking attack on the Temple which roused most ire, as Jeremiah taunted the presumptuous sense of inviolability that had grown up around it as the dwelling place of God.

Chapter 7 encapsulates this brilliant and brave assault on the those who used the Temple to escape from the reality of God into phoney religion.

Above all, he answered the hotly-debated question of what Judah's response should be to the Babylonian threat by advocating surrender! The pro-Egyptian party wanted to rely on alliance with Egypt (44:11–14) while others, seemingly more pious, said simply trust Yahweh.

But Jeremiah recommends submitting to the Babylonians and is branded a traitor.

Divine paradox

Yet such are God's mysterious ways, because, somewhat paradoxically, God's sovereign will is to hand His people over judicially to the Babylonians.

This will ultimately become His way of salvation for them (20:4; 21:7 etc).

The Imperial Babylonian overlord, Nebuchanezzar, is to be seen – if this is any consolation – merely as God's servant (25:9; 27:6).

We may imagine that conflict and hostility are Jeremiah's lot (1:18–19) .'Against' is almost his middle name – extending down to the level of even his own family (11:21).

Jeremiah announces judgment on unfaithful Israel Jeremiah is, in Brueggemann's words, a 'prophet who speaks with poetic passion and stunning imagination' of judgment and hope that paints an alternative scenario to the status quo and destruction.

He is called to shatter old worlds, to reshape people's perceptions of reality, and, to do this, he uses powerful imagery to subvert current ideas and ideology – exposing lies ( 9:3–6) and all who are deceitful as Jacob (v.4).

• He re-assesses Judah's life against the Mosaic Covenant (11:1–5), proclaiming judgment, like Hosea, in the vivid metaphor of marriage and adultery (2:1ff.; 3:1–13; 31:32).

• He describes the shocking effects of God's judgment through war and invasion in the dramatic language of de-creation – as if the 'Undo' button on creation has been clicked and all created things revert to chaos (4:19–31).

• He denounces Judah's rationalisations, exposing five false assumptions: 'How can you say …?' (2:20, 23, 25–27).

• He portrays Israel's plight as severe wounding which needs healing but wonders whether healing is to be found – 'Is there no balm in Gilead?' (8:22; 30:12–17).


Jeremiah offers hope for the future What seemed a disproportionately minor part of his call to be a prophet – that of 'building up and planting' – eventually surfaces as the long crisis draws to its close (18:7–10; 24:4–7; 42:9–12).

This occurs most notably in the so-called Book of Comfort or Consolation in chapters 30–33 which offers promises of restoration after disciplinary, but not terminal, judgment (30:3, 11, 17).

Spurred by his covenant-lovingkindness, God pledges a remarkable and revolutionary renewal of the covenant relationship (31:3, 31–34).

God promises to create a people beyond the 'death' of exile who will be changed from the inside out. He will write His law in their hearts, giving them inner direction to do His will.

He will re-establish the covenant bond between Him and His people and extend the personal knowledge of Himself across all levels of society.

And all of this involves a radical forgiveness of His people's sins – unprecedented in its scope and seemingly independent of the old sacrificial system.

A further seven oracles of promise flow from this (chapter 33).

Then the prophet makes his contribution to the picture, beginning to be painted by the other exilic prophets, of a new kingship – both Davidic and priestly – which would fulfil the age-old covenant promise made to Abraham (33:14–22 – compare with 4:2 and Genesis 12:3).

Jeremiah's identification with Israel

• He identifies with Israel in her affliction and anguish (8:18 – 9:1).

• He identifies with Israel in her affliction by praying for intercession (14:7–9, 19–22).

• He identifies with Israel by embodying her vocation in a remnant of one – demonstrating extraordinary covenant obedience and courage. 'His vocation was to incarnate the response to God which all Israel was supposed to make. He had to be willing to be a minority of one' (John Goldingay).

Jeremiah's identification with God

• Jeremiah is overwhelmingly God's man, highlighting that God's truth is not our self-generated viewpoint but God's word (23:16–22).

• Jeremiah speaks with poetic passion and stunning imagination, giving God's truth not in prose but in poetry, thus allowing for God's freedom.

• Jeremiah is profoundly engaged in public events, showing us that God's truth is not a private, domestic or devotional matter but impacts public events and political power structures.

• Jeremiah is a man of passionate indignation and conflict. This teaches us that God's truth is not without dispute in a world unwilling to be disturbed by too much reality and unable, therefore, to embrace either true joy or deep grief.

Walter Brueggemann summarises superbly the powerful blend of darkness and light, judgment and grace in Jeremiah's message and ministry when he writes, 'Jeremiah's word spoken and envisioned in Israel covered the end of the known world.

That world is presided over by the kings and priests of this age, who imagine themselves secure, stable and safe.

Jeremiah asserts that the world which is organised against God's covenantal faithfulness will and must end by the hand of Babylon.

If this judgement seems 'too hard' or 'impossible' for Yahweh, He will do it!' (32:27.)

• At the same time, Jeremiah's word among Judah's exiles is about the beginning of a new world wrought only by the mercy and freedom of God.

This is a new possibility, judged by hopeless former rulers to be impossible. They believed there can be no new thing.

Such a world with a new David (23:5–6), a new covenant (31:31–34) and a new healing (30:17) is always thought to be too hard or impossible for Yahweh – but Yahweh can do it (32:17). Life begins again when Yahweh is known to be the giver of newness.

• Jeremiah, as the person who suffers and hopes most in ancient Israel, continues as a powerful presence in the New Testament. The suffering of Jeremiah and the end of Israel which he embodies, the hope of Judah and the new Israel which he articulates, have become models for understanding Jesus, the one who can be destroyed and raised up.

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