As Israel comes forward to be given his rest,
the LORD appears to him from afar:
With age-old love I have loved you;
so I have kept my mercy toward you.
The Old Testament prophets can be strong medicine and Jeremiah, in particular, can be a bitter pill to swallow. The English word jeremiad recalls his excessively dire and violent warnings. A similar English expression is "fire and brimstone," a sermon which threatens the congregation with all the bitterness of hell. The Jewish religion of Jeremiah's time didn't entertain the doctrine of life after death; there was only this world in which to experience the wrath of God.
A Veteran recently told me he finds the Bible far less terrifying since he quit drinking. This fellow has been given to pretty wild interpretations and occasional hallucinations. Sober, he maintains his interest in the scripture. I wondered if his experience might shed light on our reading of Jeremiah.
I think the negativity of the Hebrew prophets is born of their deep frustration and dismay when they saw injustice and poverty. Jerusalem should have been God's holy city where the poor found food and shelter and medical care, where wages were just and prices, reasonable. There should have been no wide disparity between haves and have-nots. The God who brought the Hebrews out of Egypt blessed all the people. There was enough for everyone and no one had too much. There was no excuse for greed or avarice.
Seeing corruption in the city, the prophets worried that God must surely intervene and set things right; and very soon! The prerogatives of wealth, rank and status will be destroyed along with those who cling to such baubles. When your treasures are dumped in the furnace you had best let them go! Or perish with them.
When the catastrophe actually fell on Jerusalem, the prophet's jeremiads seemed to be fulfilled. But we should not suppose Jeremiah found any vindication in the the rape of Jerusalem. He was as shocked as everyone when enemy soldiers prowled the streets, burning, looting and killing. He had feared it all along but hoped he was wrong.
My sobering Veteran friend, reading the Bible without the aid of whatever he was taking, is not hearing fire and brimstone. He hears a word of comfort, reassurance and direction. A soldier, he hears commands and is glad to hear them. There are few sounds more assuring than "Do this!' when you don't know what to do.
Reading Jeremiah today, when that pagan deity, "The Economy," is relatively prosperous and stable, we should hear the prophet's alarm. The danger is real. If we don't see it, it's because we choose not to. The disparity of wealth between rich and poor is untenable. The world's largest military cannot protect us from the corruption within. The Voice of God in the prophet's shrill cry is filled not with anger but with concern. He says to us,