Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Many preachers avoid topics like divine judgment.

September 12, 2010

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Many preachers avoid topics like divine judgment.

One can understand why. The stereotypical “doom and gloom” rant has done much to harm peoples’ perception of God’s nature and character in relation to humankind. Moreover, the underlying assumption behind this type of sermon provides an unbalanced view of our nature–that it is primarily sinful and always bent on evil. Such predispositions against divine judgment make it difficult for us to hear the profound truth that lies within these often difficult texts. Today’s reading continues the lectionary’s path through the book of Jeremiah. The images of impending doom that fill this passage point to the intimate connection between the people’s disobedience and the cosmic and natural order. Patrick Miller’s comment on this passage is fitting: “Covenant and creation are so connected that the dissolution of the one threatens the other.”1

Jeremiah 4 is situated within a larger section of the book (4:5–6:30) that addresses the sins of Judah and Jerusalem and announces the LORD’s judgment on the people. While there are historical markers surrounding this lectionary reading, the references are too vague to tie the passage to specific events. Just preceding today’s selection, the LORD announces the approach of “evil from the north, and a great destruction” (4:6). Scholars disagree on the identity of this enemy, but within the final form of the book, it is clear that the reference later came to be understood as Babylon, who besieges Judah in 587 B.C.E.

Verses 11–12 introduce the oracle of judgment that follows in verses 13–18. Verse 11 begins with the opening prophetic formula, “At that time it will be said…” The prophet announces the impending judgment through the metaphor of a hot wind. This wind will not simply purify the people, but it will bring utter destruction as an enemy besieges Jerusalem, an impending disaster that is described in detail in verses 13–18. Even in this apparently desperate situation, however, the prophet pleads with the people to turn from their ways in the hope that the people might be saved (verses 14). In many cases, pronouncements of divine judgment serve as a warning for God’s people to turn from their ways before it is too late.

In verse 22, Jeremiah identifies the people’s failure to know the LORD as the primary reason for the coming judgment. The knowledge of God is a prominent theme in the prophetic literature and is tied to the doing of justice (cf. Isaiah 1:3–4; Hosea 4:1–2). To know God is to do what is good and right with others. Hosea 4 provides a compelling parallel to Jeremiah 4:22–28. In both of these passages, the knowledge of God, in this case the people’s failure to know the LORD, is equated with their inability to do what is good. The consequences of this breakdown affect the entire created order (cf. Hosea 4:3 and Jeremiah 4:23–25).

Following his lament on account of people’s lack of knowledge, the prophet provides a vivid description of how this breach between God and God’s people has disastrous consequences on creation. In Jeremiah 4:23–26, the prophet describes the chaos through a four-fold repetition of the phrase, “I looked…and lo…”

Verses 23–25 allude to the traditions that comprise the Priestly (Genesis 1) and Yahwist (Genesis 2 ff.) creation stories. In verse 23, Jeremiah announces that the earth is “waste and void” and the heavens have “no light.” This is a clear echo to Genesis 1:2, which describes the chaotic state of the world prior to God’s ordering of creation. In verse 25, the prophet declares that no human beings are left, and “all the birds of the air had fled.” The phrase, “there was no one at all,” uses the Hebrew word, hā’ādām (“human being”), which alludes to the LORD’s creation of the first human in Genesis 2. Thus, the imagery in this passage is of a de-created, pre-adamic/human world. Judgment is not simply God’s punishment of the people’s sins; it puts in motion a reversal of God’s intended created order. As with the Noahic flood, judgment returns the world to its primordial chaotic state.

Today’s reading concludes in verses 27–28 with the certainty that destruction will come to pass, even if it will not be complete (“I will not make a full end,” verse 27). Once again, the prophet describes this devastation through language that connects God’s judgment with the natural order. The effects of this judgment leave the land in “desolation” (verse 27) with the result that the earth will “mourn” and the heavens “grow black” (verse 28).

Jeremiah 4 provides us with much to ponder on the nature of divine judgment. First, God’s judgment causes us to take a sobering look at the consequences of our failures as human beings, speaking the plain truth about the outcomes of our shortsightedness. Second, judgment pushes us to take responsibility for these failings, to turn from our destructive ways and make right what we have made wrong. Repentance is simultaneously turning from evil and turning toward good. Finally, God’s judgment makes us aware of the fact that human sinfulness is not simply about individual morality. Obedience to God’s covenant is intimately connected to our relationship with others and to the created order.

When things are not right among humans, the whole earth groans. We are answerable not just to ourselves as individuals, but we are accountable to all our fellow human beings and to the earth from which we came. When we inflict violence on each other, we hurt the earth. When we abuse God’s good creation, we damage ourselves. Knowing God, by the prophetic definition, means that we act justly with each other and live responsibly in relationship to all of God’s creation.

1Patrick D. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 6 (ed. Leander E. Keck; Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 614.