Commentary on Jeremiah 2:4-13
This reading is the second of six consecutive weeks of lectionary readings from the book of Jeremiah.
- Jeremiah 1 God commissions Jeremiah
- Jeremiah 2 God entreats the people
- Jeremiah 18 God the potter
- Jeremiah 4 Desolation of creation
- Jeremiah 8 A balm in Gilead
- Jeremiah 32 Jeremiah buys land
What an incredible opportunity for an Ordinary Time sermon series!
Taken together these passages provide the opportunity to discuss some of the main themes of Jeremiah, particularly his oracles of judgment against God’s people, and God’s desire for repentance. One could also explore some of the more hopeful elements of Jeremiah’s preaching (for example, Jeremiah 30 and 31) to balance the lectionary’s focus here on prophetic judgment.
Last Sunday, in Jeremiah 1, we heard Jeremiah’s divine call to be a prophet and his ministerial task both to uproot and to build. The exilic backdrop of this calling requires Jeremiah to undergo the difficult theological and pastoral work of understanding the destruction of Temple and city by Babylon in light of God’s faithfulness and covenant. His calling as a prophet is not merely to preach hope, but also to reflect on how the people find themselves in such a terrible political situation.
Jeremiah 2 as lawsuit
This Sunday in Jeremiah 2 we hear fiery prophetic judgment. The words seem too negative and, well, judgmental, for our Christian worship services. It will be tempting as a preacher to run back to the Gospel reading. This week’s reading — Luke 14 — contains Jesus’s parable about a wedding banquet. Surely a parable is more appropriate doxological content for the worship of God than an oracle of judgment!
However, we may need to hear God’s plea and indictment as an important and tough word for us today. God’s appeal to the people demonstrates great concern and care for them. These words help us check our tendencies to engage only the positive and uplifting portions of the biblical story.
Imagine behind the words of Jeremiah 2 a court scene, a legal context of prosecution, defense, judge, and jury. The harsh words of accusation and judgment of this chapter come to us in the literary form of a lawsuit in which God takes the people to trial and accuses them of wrongdoing. It is an established prophetic genre used by the biblical prophets to provide reasons for judgment as well as consequences. Micah 6 is a clear and compelling example of this genre. God pleads God’s case against the people, and the mountains serve as the witnesses and jury.
God has some questions
Jeremiah 2:4-8 addresses Israel as a whole but uses the examples of two other groups in order to make the overall point more indirectly: their ancestors and their leaders.
First, the people’s ancestors are mentioned as illustrations of disobedience. They went after “The Nothing” and became nothing.1 Their striving for matters of little consequence, perhaps idols, resulting in their becoming of little consequence. The word for nothing here is the same Hebrew word used in Ecclesiastes 1:2 for “vanity.”
Second, the priests, rulers, and prophets are also condemned for their poor leadership and transgression. Even the ones who study God’s teachings did not follow God! The prophets did not prophesy in the name of God but the name of Baal, the Canaanite deity.
It is relational
The immediate literary context is helpful in order to understand this “lawsuit” and its claims. Jeremiah 2:1-3 begins this oracle with a remembrance of God and the people’s time in the wilderness together. God remembers the love of the people and their faithfulness. The mention of Israel as a bride (in verse 2) indicates that the overarching metaphor here is one of relationship, even of marital relationship. We may call the time in the wilderness the honeymoon phase! During this period, Israel was holy to the Holy One.
The oracle makes a turn in verse 9: from the past and concern for ancestors and leaders to the present and concern for “my people.” God accuses the people directly of idolatry and mocks their claim that other gods are worthy. God calls the heavens to be a horrified witness to this desolation.
The preacher will be challenged to help her audience to think about ancient idolatry as relevant to our contemporary, religiously pluralistic times. It is not as simple as chastising people for converting to other religions or denominations. Our idols are wholly different.
- What gets in our way of living into God’s dreams for creation?
- Where have we as a nation or a church exchanged our Living God for No-God?
- Where have we turned our backs on God’s long-standing faithfulness?
These divine accusations are not averred in order to send the people into an emotional land of guilt and shame. Instead, it is meant to change their behavior.
The people of God are called to repent and to turn back to The Living God.
- Jack R. Lundbom, Jeremiah 1-20 (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1999), 259, translates the Hebrew word, hevel, as “nothing.”
September 1, 2019