Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
This reading is the fourth 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
In Jeremiah 1, God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet, a task that requires both uprooting and building. In Jeremiah 2, God takes the people to trial and accuses them of wrongdoing. In Jeremiah 18, God uses the metaphor of a potter shaping clay to persuade the people to turn from their bad behavior.
Our lectionary reading for this Sunday includes nine selected verses from Jeremiah 4. They are chosen from two different sections of this long chapter and at first, seem to be unrelated. However, the literary context of the entire chapter is essential to consider when reading these verses together. Jeremiah 4 continues God’s judgment against Judah by announcing the impending doom brought by the enemy of the north. The entire chapter then contains oracles of judgment. God through the prophet, Jeremiah, commands the people to change their behavior and return to God. Otherwise, the people will need to put on sackcloth to mourn the destruction of daughter Jerusalem by the lion that is Babylon (see also Hosea 5:14-15). This harsh, poetic rhetoric continues in Jeremiah 5-6.
The mood of this chapter is one of an immediate threat. The possibility of repentance is still open to Israel, but the rhetoric makes clear that time is running out rapidly. Plans for death and mourning are already laid.
An invasion is imminent. The people seem doomed.
A hot wind
The first two verses in our focal passage (verses 11-12) speak of a hot, strong wind. It is not a refreshing wind that cools the body and spirit. It is an overwhelming display of strength and force—a whirlwind. Moreover, the origin of the wind is God. God will be in the judgment and destruction. God will be active in the desolation of Judah.
For many, this is a disturbing understanding of God’s involvement in evil and punishment. Jeremiah sees God as an active participant (leader!) in using Babylon to punish Israel for its wrongdoings. To connect God so closely with destruction and chastisement makes modern readers uncomfortable. We do not want to associate the Holy One with natural phenomena such as a strong wind or tornado. And we do not want to associate those types of events with punishment for sin.
How might we reframe Jeremiah’s understanding of God’s activity here? This passage certainly takes up into the difficult questions of God’s relationship to evil. Israel was experiencing a life-changing political disaster. Are there alternative ways to understand this devastation, ways that do not involve God’s punishment or even God’s presence?
A desolate land
The second selection of verses from Jeremiah 4 (verses 23-28) expands the imagery of judgment to include the earth and heavens, the mountains and hills. It is creation run amok.
The passage is structured by four “I looked” sentences.
First, this watcher sees the earth turn back to “waste and void,” an apparent reference to creation in Genesis 1:2. This was the characteristic of the world at its beginning when watery chaos covered the earth. This world had no light because God had not spoken it into existence. The earth is undone and returns to this disordered state as God’s judgment
Second, the watcher sees quaking mountains and rocking hills. Solid terrain becomes unstable.
Third, both people and birds have left because of the earth’s transformation. They flee because of the earth’s devastating transformation.
Fourth, the land that produced fruit and food transforms into an unproductive desert, while the cities are laid to ruin. Arable land becomes barren. Magnificent city structures are torn down.
Creation suffers because of people’s actions. The judgment against the people has a profound effect on the natural world and all of its creatures.
The link between the judgment of the people and the desolation of creation is an essential reminder to us that our actions affect more than just ourselves. They affect more than just other people. The whole world is interrelated.
Yet I will not make a full end
Verse 27 provides a fascinating conclusion to this passage. After all the talk of judgment and the undoing of creation, God notes plainly that the end of the world is not yet. This will not be the destruction of Israel and creation, even if it feels that way. This small promise amid judgment holds out hope for the exilic community. Those who come after this time of judgment will feel the effect of the desolation, but there will be survivors.