Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-18
Last week on Christ the King Sunday, we heard about the reforms of the great King Josiah. King Josiah was one of the most celebrated rulers of Judah’s history.
Today we hear the story of the prophet Jeremiah, who was born in Josiah’s time, but went on the prophesy during the darkest times of Judah’s history.
Israel sat on a trade route between two massive empires, Egypt and Babylon/Assyria (roughly modern-day Iraq). Consequently, it was in constant danger of being conquered, subjected, even destroyed. And that’s exactly what happened. After centuries of idolatry and oppressive practices of Judean kings and elite, God withdrew the divine protective power, and the unrelenting armies of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem.
For over a year the Babylonians besieged the city. Ultimately, it fell, and its king and elites were exiled to Babylon. But until its fall, the citizens of Jerusalem were trapped, suffocating in a city that was rapidly running out of food and water and even more rapidly acquiring sickness and disease. In our text for today, Jeremiah is languishing in a prison attached to the palace of the besieged king (Jeremiah 32:1-3). Imprisoned for angering the king by speaking God’s truth to royal power (Jeremiah 32:3-5), Jeremiah has been lamenting to the Lord that the city will fall, and that God will do nothing to help. God responds to this lament with a promise of redemption and healing for Israel (Jeremiah 33:6-18).
Jeremiah 33:14-15 record God’s promises for the future restoration of the community. But careful listeners will hear that when God promises to raise up a true ruler, the ultimate actions of this king are justice and righteousness for the whole land, not just the people. We often forget that the sins of the Judean elites — unethical economic practices, violating the Sabbath, sacrificing young children — hurt not only God’s people, but the land itself. Some texts describe it as polluting God’s land (see Numbers 35) or even being the very reason for the exile, that the land might recover and heal (see also Ezekiel 36). In this chapter in Jeremiah, the stunning reversal of fortune that God promises is not only for Israel’s benefit, but for the land itself. How might you broaden your sermon about redemptive hope to include all of Creation, and not just humanity?
Jeremiah 33:15-16 contain a beautiful promise, but also a twofold danger for Christian pastors. The first danger is reading the New Testament into the Old Testament in a way nullifies or negates the original text. Much like the standard Children’s Sermon answer, where do our minds immediately go when we read about the true branch of David who shall enact justice and righteousness in the land? (Spoiler Alert: It’s always Jesus.) This is not in and of itself bad: we are Christian preachers, after all. The danger is when such readings lead us to discard the Old Testament as irrelevant after Christ, and with it the people of faith who still claim it as ultimate testimony: namely, the Jews. The recent rise in acts of anti-Semitism in the United States make this a danger we must take seriously. We occupy a uniquely powerful position to speak out against such acts, and it must begin with the way we preach from the Old Testament.
At the same time, one must also be honest about one’s reality and faithfulness as a Christian preacher. We claim the Old Testament as well as the New as our Holy Scripture. To that end, our congregants benefit from finding links between the two, to see the completeness of the story which the original New Testament authors saw themselves. It may be helpful here to pause over the verse 16 word “saved” for a moment. The Hebrew word for saved is “yasha’ .” Five hundred years after God saved the Judeans from their Babylonian exile, a child would be born, and his parents would name him “Yeshua,” or “Jesus,” meaning “God saves.”
This is one of the ways we as Christians make sense of verse 17 with its promise that “Never shall there be an end to [the line of] David, a man sitting upon the throne of the house of Israel.” The discrepancy between the recorded promises of God in Jeremiah’s time and the lack of an Israelite king in Jesus’ time is perhaps one of the reasons why Luke and Matthew took such pains to record the parentage of Jesus through King David. Jesus himself presses his followers for this very connection in our optional Gospel reading for today, Mark 8:27-29. The prophetic word from God was realized in the person of Jesus Christ, the person that the disciples, the apostles, and the early Christian authors believed was the Davidic king who would sit on the throne of Israel — nay, the throne of heaven! — forever: Yeshua, Jesus, God saves.
And yet, our Jewish sisters and brothers have wrestled and reckoned with this verse in their own tradition, and have come to different answers. But instead of pitting the traditions against each other, perhaps there is a kinship-rope knotting us together in the final two verses of this text: the first (Jeremiah 33:17) a promise for a king of the line of David, the second (verse 18) a promise that “there shall also be no end to the line of Levitical priests before [God].” While we might claim the Messiah in our tradition, we can never lay claim to the Levitical birthright or Priestly office that this verse lifts up. And if we accept one (verse 17) as fulfilled prophecy, should we not also accept the other (verse 18)? Leaving this verse out of your sermon could run the risk of leaving your people with the mistaken impression that God privileges the Christian tradition over the Jewish one. But taken together, the verses tip us toward a sense of kinship, a promise of God which is fulfilled in multiple ways and which includes ever more than we could possibly imagine.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of the promised Messiah, as we wait for the fulfillment of your promise, we watch, we listen, and we open our hearts for your Word. Show us signs of your presence: a light in the darkness, a voice in the silence, and a stirring deep within us. Amen.
If you but trust in God to guide you ELW 769, H82 635, GG 816, NCH 410, UMH 142
O come, o come, Emmanuel ELW 257, H82 56, GG 88, NCH 116, UMH 211
Blessed be the God of Israel ELW 250
Stir up your power, O Lord, and come, Carl Schalk
December 1, 2019