Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Older millennials and people from other generations living in the United States associate September 11th with the tragic loss of over two thousand lives in New York City at the turn of the century. The trauma of the day itself easily evolved into several other national traumas of war and the aftermath of war. The national rituals of the day try to fix this single day as a superlative memory that determines matters of security, defense, immigration, and even economic policy. As chapter 4 of Jeremiah so aptly points out, “disaster overtakes disaster” (Jeremiah 4:20), and the competition for “the worst day” makes little sense within the course of human existence. Each generation doesn’t simply get the chance to revel in its own trauma. Traumas become more complex and more frequent, crossing generations like songs that defy neat genre categorization.
Readers may feel confused when reading Jeremiah. They will never miss, though, the evident pain in the book. This lection, though, omits some of the pain on display in the chapter (see Jeremiah 4:19-21). Nonetheless, the selected verses are full of anguish, though not the searing personal touches present in other verses (Jeremiah 4:19). The remembrances of national trauma provide a context within which to read these verses from Jeremiah. Kathleen O’Connor’s Jeremiah: Pain and Promise1 explores how national pain shapes the book of Jeremiah and the challenge to interpret its traumatic experiences in meaningful ways.
Preachers need to contend with the verse selection for this lection. Whether a discernable logic can be detected should not be a central focus. Instead, preachers should aim to bring their own meaning-making to the forced association of these two sections of the chapter. Recalling that the book of Jeremiah itself makes unexpected turns that bring together strange passages through an unclear logic will help preachers deal with what is before them rather than trying to uncover an “intention.”
The first section of the lection, verses 11-12, predict destruction from a hot dry wind with the capacity to create dust storms of strong intensity. Presumably, the second part of verse 12 indicates that the wind represents divine judgment. The second portion of the lection sustains the focus on nature through a series of unfolding acts of uncreating. Desolation and emptiness take the place of what was a full creation. Among the verses skipped over in the chapter are those that predict destruction at the hand of human actors in the form of enemy armies (Jeremiah 4:13-18). Leaving out these verses can sharpen the false divide between natural disasters and those caused by human actions. The notion of a natural disaster misunderstands how nature functions. Storms, earthquakes, winds, rains, et cetera, ensure earth’s equilibrium and sustain its continued creativity. Quite often, these occurrences result in the loss of human life and physical structures when human civilization pays no attention to nature and its natural processes. These verses put humans in the middle of the convulsions of nature. Whether causal agents or not, humans will be harmed when the earth is threatened.
The generation born in the 21st century in the U.S. concentrates more on the precarity of human life on the planet caused by human action. For them the tragedy of 9/11 seems like history that bears little connection to the more pressing ecological threats. Preachers can avoid the bias towards older people which marks much of US politics and awards more financial benefits to older people that it does to the young. The concerns of the young for a liveable planet can easily be the guiding voice in the passage that gives the reader the upfront view of the undoing of creation (Jeremiah 4: 23-26).
The lection turns on a verse that has nothing to do with nature and everything to do with humans. The comment on the abject state of human nature appears out of nowhere in this chopped up passage. In the whole passage the verse makes better sense as a conclusion after verse 18. In that position, it concludes the indictment that the people are responsible for the attack upon them. Read after verse 21, then it serves as a pathos filled outburst for a hapless people who could only run into error. In this lection, verse 22 performs a connecting function that places a reflection upon humanity in the midst of nature gone wild. The verse either blames humans for the things that go wrong or serves as an epitaph on humanity’s demise. This ambiguity invites interpretation that makes a connection between humans and nature.
Jeremiah 4:22 in content and form describes the binds that trap humanity. Ignorant and reckless, immature and prone to wickedness, humans simply cannot help themselves, much less save the world from destruction. In the Hebrew, stupidity takes pride of place as the first major word of the sentence. This sets up a mirrored relationship within the verse that gives it the definite feel of Hebrew poetry. If stupidity opens the verse, then its parallel opposite is “children,” strengthened by the word’s invocations of the recklessness of youth. The inclusion of the word “know” and its quick negation emphasizes the absence of the required cognitive development and skills to make correct choices. No sooner has the term for intellectual reasoning been introduced (“understanding” nᵉḇônim), then its negation quickly snatches back its positive parallel “wisdom” (ḥᵃḵāmim) with the declaration that these superlative wise skills amount only to wickedness. The final phrase of the verse shuts the door with the repetition of the lack of knowledge to do good. The deeply pessimistic view of the verse within this chapter casts doubt upon whether the punitive judgments on the scale imagined will ever achieve any improvements.
The book of Jeremiah gives voice to aspects of divine frustration with humanity without resolving the inherent contradictions in these sentiments. Interpreters of the lection, left without some of the supporting props in the chapter, must fill in these gaps with thoughtful reflections. No doubt, theologies of human nature may easily fill the space. Preachers should resist these, especially the ones that provide overly simplistic understanding of the complexities of human nature. This verse leaves readers struggling with the idea of whether humans can change or not. That struggle may be worth it, if only to reduce the preening overconfidence in human ingenuity in a technological age. Assurances of good intention should invite the type of skepticism that slows down quick fixes.
From the deep pessimism of verse 22, the reader is invited to witness the undoing of creation. The invitation to the front row seat can seem as bewildering as watching images of deep space from the James Webb telescope. The view is fascinating, the scenes are spectacular but the full implications of the images are yet to be revealed. The poetry of verses 23-26 resembles the creation story of Genesis 1. This form of mimicry produces mockery and menace instead of flattery. The verses follow the systematic pattern of looking and having the gaze rewarded (“look” hinnē̂) with an unpleasant experience. In verse 23 the sight is of the chaos from which creation emerged: “waste and void” (ṯōhû wāḇōhû). Then the removal of the sources of light plunges creation into darkness. While in verse 24 the earth as a landmass remains, though subject to violent convulsions, living creatures—humans and birds—are nowhere to be found. With no humans to tend to the fields or sustain the markers of human civilization, cultivated land and built cities become ruins in verse 25. At the end of this dystopian road tour, the prophet credits God with uncreation. Make no mistake that the God who creates also uncreates, as Genesis 6 indicates.
Preaching in times of precarity of human life on earth requires a robust theology. This theology appropriately names human failure, the greed still bent on extraction, the political inaction that stymies change, as well as the evident solutions to the pressing problems that face the world. That theology does not allow for humans to save the world. The uncomfortable theology of this chapter, presents the God whose anger leads to withdrawing the elements that hold creation together. In this picture we see the God who brings creation to the edge without a full destruction (Jeremiah 4:27).
To sort through contradictions of vengeance and grace in this theology takes more time than is needed to remind hearers that God holds creation as much as God requires change from humans in the way they move through creation. All the knots of ancient theology may not be unraveled sufficiently in a sermon. The central element that holds the tangled mass of rope together lies in the God whose actions result in the pain and promise of creation. That the thread exists provides meaning in times of trauma. Preaching in the midst of the traumas of past and pending national tragedy requires a sophisticated weaving of a God powerful enough to demand change and soft enough to weep alongside those who suffer.
- O’Connor, Kathleen. Jeremiah: Pain and Promise. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011.