Commentary on Jeremiah 23:23-29
If there is any doubt that the preacher’s job is a difficult one, one need not look further than the book of Jeremiah.
While scripture tells us almost nothing about the lives of the prophets, this book gives the reader a vivid picture not only of the prophet’s message, but of his life as well. The book’s narratives portray imprisonment, death threats, violent beatings, abandonment in a cistern, confinement in stocks, internment in a dungeon, persecution by family members, and confrontation by a false prophet.1 Forbidden by God to marry, have children, or even socialize, Jeremiah lived a lonely life. Coupled with the dismal content of his message that destruction by Babylon was imminent, his was a disconsolate life indeed. Difficulties in Jeremiah’s life call to mind adversity in the lives of many, including Peter, Paul, and Jesus.
Generally, biblical prophets are classified as prophesying before, during, or after national disaster. Jeremiah, however, is the “bridge” prophet who prophesied in all three seasons. He anticipates, witnesses, and lives through the destruction of Jerusalem. Given the times in which he lived, is it any wonder he is known as the “weeping” prophet?2
The world, ancient nor contemporary, is never ready for a truth-telling message that calls its wrongdoing to task. Just as Jesus would make plain centuries later, the world prefers to walk in the darkness of untruth than the light of truth. The list of unwelcome heralds is endless.
Jeremiah was an unwelcome herald. Much like people today who only want to hear “feel good” sermons, people of his day preferred false hopes presented by false prophets dreaming about a short road to peace. While even in the worst of circumstances God’s word includes a word of hope and restoration, the word spoken by these “dreamers” was no word from God. God does sometimes communicate through dreams, but this is not one of those times. No more than wishful thinking, these pipedreams gave people false hopes and an unrealistic view of what lay ahead.
The situation was dire. Urgency demanded something more than a feel good sermon. Urgency required boldness and courage, the kind of fortitude that God promised Jeremiah at his commissioning. His dramatic sermons and poignant metaphors left no room for doubt. Disaster, though avoidable, was inevitable. The word of the false prophets and Jeremiah’s word were diametrically opposed, as different as lifeless straw and life-giving grain, respectively.
Jeremiah’s dissent disquieted the status quo when he prophesied that the intervening years would be seventy, not two. Though previous generations had forgotten God, God was determined that Baal would be forgotten and God would be remembered, not the other way around. Jeremiah, one man against an entire community, but that is how it had to be.
Like two sides of the same coin, both immanence and transcendence of God are on display when Jeremiah writes of a God who is both near and far away. The majesty of God is on display when the prophet writes of a God who encompasses heaven and earth, and by implication all that has been, is, or will be. Through these contrasting images Jeremiah intimates a God beyond time and space from whom it is impossible to hide.
To say that God is unhappy with Israel, especially its leaders, is an understatement. Preaching out of their own hearts the leaders set Israel up for another trip around the same proverbial mountain. This would be the last trip for a very long time. Although the trip would culminate in a return made possible by Persian King Cyrus, the return, in effect, a second Exodus, was a long way off. Unlike prior years when God’s mercy took the form of delay, (for example as in the life of Ahab, 1 Kings 21:29; as in the life of the nation, Isaiah 48:9; as in the life of Noah reflected in 1 Peter 3:20) for now, there would be none. Destruction is fast approaching. Even now, God would send warning. Even if people would not listen. Even now, God would send Jeremiah.
This was not an easy message to deliver. Fire is the word that God uses to describe the message that Jeremiah is to convey. This is the same word, “a fire shut up in my bones,” that Jeremiah himself used in 20:9 to describe that message and the overwhelming tension within that it caused. God compares the word that Jeremiah is to bring to a hammer that breaks rock into pieces. This would have to be a hard word in order to be sufficient to the difficulties that lay ahead. This would be a word that people would not want to hear. God and Jeremiah knew the difficulty, hence the struggle in Jeremiah’s soul, and in God.
The good news is that Jeremiah’s difficult words are spoken from God’s perspective. God’s perspective is that of the “big picture,” encompassing not only heaven and earth, but also that which is simultaneously near and far. God’s perspective, even when unspoken or undefined, inherently includes healing and restoration of any and all brokenness. The good news is that since brokenness is not hidden from God, brokenness carries within it hope, possibility, and potential for healing and restoration.
Words of hope are essential to life, as essential as the air and water. Without hope, life dwindles and fades away in despair. Without hope, the issues, problems, and challenges of life, individual and communal, can be overwhelming. Without hope one may wonder “Why even try?” Praise God that Jeremiah understood and shared his understanding of endless hope in God with his community, and with us.
1 Marvin A. Sweeney, “The Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel” in The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues, eds. Steven L McKenzie and M. Patrick Graham (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 1998), 87.
2 John Ortberg, Kevin Harney, Sherry Harney, Teaching the Heart of the Old Testament: Communicating Life-Changing Truths from Genesis to Malachi (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 481.