Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The book of Jeremiah is filled with tears.

September 23, 2012

First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Jeremiah 11:18-20

The book of Jeremiah is filled with tears.

The devastating events relating to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE are the fundamental backdrop of this weeping and mourning.

Jeremiah 11-20 consists basically of a series of interwoven laments on the part of God, prophet, and people. God voices laments (12:7-13; 13:15-17, 20-27; 14:2-6, 17-18; 15:5-9; 18:13-17) as do the people (14:7-9, 19-22). Jeremiah’s laments fit into this lament-filled context. His first lament is 11:18-20, to which God responds in 11:21-23 (see also 12:1-4; 15:10, 15-18; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13, 14-18). These laments are voiced in response to threats to Jeremiah’s life from those opposed to his ministry. Though conventionally called “confessions,” they are neither confessions of sin nor confessions of faith. Their content and form is similar to many lament psalms and they are best interpreted in terms of that genre.

Announcements of judgment are woven within and around these laments. This linkage of laments and judgment oracles strongly suggests how the latter are to be interpreted. Whatever readers might think of the harsh indictments and judgments in Jeremiah, the text calls us into a context filled with weeping and mourning on the part of all involved, including God. In their common lamenting, God and prophet join together in one grand “liturgy” of mourning.

These laments are likely grounded in the personal prayers of the prophet and they reflect Jeremiah’s calling to be the spokesman of God to a people antagonistic to such a word.  Jeremiah feels squeezed between an insistent God and a resistant people. As such, these prayers are blunt, intense, and uncompromising in their voicing of complaints to God regarding this calling from which he is not able to escape (see Jeremiah 20:7-18).

This text consists of a lament by the prophet (verses 18-20) and a response by God (verses 21-23). Verse 18 is difficult to translate, but its basic sense is this: Jeremiah recognizes that God (“you”) had revealed threats against his life. He considers himself to be like a “gentle lamb led to the slaughter,” that is, innocent of these plans to take his life, perhaps too trusting of his antagonists. This metaphor can be linked to other texts that speak of a sacrificial lamb (see Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29, 36); yet, Jeremiah claims no vicarious import for his suffering.

The plots against Jeremiah — a theme in chapters that follow (e.g., 18; 26; 36-38) — are made especially vivid through a quotation from the schemers plotting to kill Jeremiah. They will destroy the tree that is Jeremiah, not just diminish his life by removing the fruit which serves as his food. In so doing, they will erase his name from memory. Given that resurrection was not a belief at this point in Israel’s life, they are attempting to obliterate any memory of him in the community.

In response to this threat, Jeremiah pleads that God exercise proper justice against his pursuers (verse 20; a theme in Jeremiah’s laments, as in the lament psalms, e.g., Psalm 3:7; 6:10). Notably, Jeremiah himself does not take action against his enemies, or contemplate such activity. He hands the matter over to God. For God to bring “retribution” is for God to see to the moral order so that evildoers suffer the consequences of their actions (see 5:9, 29; 9:9). 

God directly responds to Jeremiah’s lament (verses 21-23). This response identifies that Jeremiah’s antagonists are the people of Anathoth — his own family and neighbors! Their basic concern is to stop him from preaching judgment in the name of Yahweh. God pronounces judgments on those who have threatened to kill Jeremiah. God will “visit” (NRSV, “punish”) their own deeds upon their heads; verse 23 returns to the theme of “visitation” (NRSV, “punishment”). What goes around comes around!

A key question: of what value are these laments for an exilic audience? This exilic community has literally been through hell in the recent past. Their wounds are deep, the questions fierce, and their guilt and shame are openly displayed. What would be the best way to speak the word of God into such a situation?

The word of God for such a community needed to bring together both realism and honesty, but at the same time give voice to the pain and sorrow that God and prophet had suffered. Only through such an open expression of grief, combined with a word of hope, might there be a way through the gloom of great loss. These laments thus serve to confront readers with their own past and the profoundly negative effects their words and deeds have had on God and prophet.

These laments of Jeremiah reveal that the prophet is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Jeremiah lives in a pressure cooker. On the one hand, he has been called to speak the word of God, a strong word of indictment and an even harsher word of judgment. But he is never comfortable in doing so. He is despondent and despairing over the harsh message he is called to bring — even though it comes from God. Jeremiah feels the unending pressure from God to be true to his calling. He retains a capacity to react sharply to this extraordinarily difficult calling and his laments pour forth. Increasingly, he senses that he stands alone with God against his audience.

At the same time, Jeremiah is confronted with the opposition of the people at every turn. However much the word he speaks is like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:29), that word could be resisted and usually was. They not only resist the word of God, they resist the one who speaks that word. They not only reject the God whose word was being spoken, they bear down on the prophet himself. They apparently make no distinction between the word and the person. Jeremiah is rejected as much as is God. But, in every such case, Jeremiah provides a model in showing that no bearer of such a word can do so with integrity without deep personal discomfort and sorrow.