Commentary on Jeremiah 11:18-20
According to tradition, Jeremiah is “the weeping prophet.”
It is an apt nickname for this figure whose preaching is always filled with emotion. In an oracle that appears two chapters before this passage, the prophet, speaking for God, says, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jeremiah 9:1). The prophet’s weeping continues in a series of laments found throughout chapter 11-20. This passage, Jeremiah 11:18-20, is the first of these and shows how the prophet earned his nickname over and over.
Jeremiah’s laments, which include 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; and 20:7-13, reflect both the personal and public catastrophes that the prophet endured and the deep sorrow occasioned these catastrophes.1 As Babylonian power encroached on Judah in the years following 605 BCE, Jeremiah witnessed the complete and utter disintegration of his society. Indeed, Jeremiah seems to have understood, more clearly than most, Judah’s predicament. In order to prevent a dire future, he urged complete acquiescence to Babylonian dominance. Jeremiah’s message of judgment was validated by the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, but not before he was imprisoned, accused of treason, and nearly executed.2
The Book of Jeremiah has a complicated history of composition and editing, and the laments (or the confessions as they are sometimes called) may not be original to Jeremiah himself. Even so, this does not change their effect on the reader. Whether spoken by Jeremiah or placed on the prophet’s lips by a later writer, they show the reader the anguished inner-workings of God’s servant. The confessions reveal a prophet who is faithful to his calling even as he is wracked by distress because of that calling.
Jeremiah sings the blues
Readers might expect such emotional expressions to be free-flowing, unpredictable, and unique, but in fact many artistic presentations of sorrow and sadness have a set pattern or structure. In this respect, the lament is a poetic form that one may compare to contemporary songs. Take, for example, the rhythm and blues genre, a contemporary style of music that artists use to express dismay and difficulty. Rhythm and Blues music often follows a song pattern called AAB in which the first two verses are similar to each other, both musically and lyrically. These verses often express hardship or pose a question. With the third verse, however, there is a transition to a response that provides musical and thematic resolution.3
Jeremiah’s laments are not unlike the blues song. They follow an artistic pattern that involves repeated expressions of hardship leading to a poetic transition in which the prophet expresses trust that God will vindicate him in some way. The prophet’s speech is followed by God’s response in vv. 21-23 (which is not part of the lectionary reading). By the end of the passage, there is a sense of emotional resolution for Jeremiah, even if only temporary. Although Jeremiah’s poetic expression is not exactly the same as singing the blues as we know it, this pattern is well-established in biblical literature. Jeremiah’s confessions are very similar to the laments found in the Psalms (see Psalms 3-7).4
Cause for complaint
Jeremiah has good reason to complain. In this passage, he begins by declaring the disturbing news, which the Lord had revealed to him, of the plot to assassinate him because of his apparent lack of patriotism (see also 18:18). Jeremiah’s sorrow, and perhaps anger, is directed toward his fellow residents of Anathoth (v.21), but also toward God. It was God who called him into service, placing him in harm’s way, and such a calling is irresistible (see 20:7-9). Jeremiah declares that he bears no culpability for this catastrophe. Like the sacrificial lamb, sacrificed because it is pure and faultless, Jeremiah’s life has been forfeited because of his undiluted faithfulness to God’s purposes (v. 19). Indeed, the image suggests that Jeremiah’s life might be required in order to turn the people of Judah back toward God.
Jeremiah indicates that he has been unaware of both God’s plans and the men’s schemes; both have been hidden from him (v. 19).5 Indeed, the prophet often comments on God’s plans and God’s knowledge as being something elusive, something that he himself cannot discern with his limited knowledge. Like so many people who live in the midst of personal and public catastrophe, Jeremiah perceives that his world doesn’t really make sense anymore — nothing happens according to the way it should. When Jeremiah reports the hidden speech of the men of Anathoth, men who should be his neighbors rather than his enemies, he hints at this incongruity and cognitive dissonance. The men say about Jeremiah, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit … ” (11:19). The curious image of Jeremiah as a tree may be an ironic reference to Psalm 1 and its assertions of traditional Israelite piety: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked … They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit its season.” According to Psalm 1, Jeremiah might expect his faithfulness to God to yield a life of blessing instead of being the cause of his undoing, but he lives in a world that no longer operates according to those traditional expectations.
Moving from complaint to trust
Part of what makes the lament such a powerful artistic medium is that it can give expression and structure to chaotic and overwhelming experiences. The work of mourning over catastrophe and loss is hard work, emotionally speaking, especially when others refuse to recognize the loss and the validity of the sorrow. There is the danger, however, that the experience of such intense personal and public catastrophe can trap a person in debilitating and inescapable sorrow. The structure of the lament works to name the sorrow without ensnaring the individual in unrelenting grief. Thus, the lament moves from grief toward some kind of resolution. In the case of Jeremiah, the lament transitions to an expression of trust. Jeremiah asserts with confidence that God knows what is hidden from others and will judge evil deeds with righteousness (v. 20). God will set the world to rights.
As welcome as this turnaround may be for preachers and congregants, a note of caution is in order. Jeremiah’s expression of trust is accompanied by a call for retribution and vengeance, and God’s response in vv. 21-23 promises that this retribution will, indeed, take place. Much of Jeremiah’s confession can model an honest and intimate anger with God that can be restorative to those who have been faithful in bearing heavy burdens. Jeremiah’s desire for retribution, however, should probably not be affirmed as a model to follow. The preacher may want to dialogue further with the text at this point and re-direct Jeremiah’s assertion of trust in a more constructive direction.
Jeremiah’s confessions can sound harsh and doleful to contemporary ears especially in Christian contexts that insist on always being optimistic or in contexts that place a high value on unquestioning submission to God. But the one who is willing to sit with and listen to the prophet’s pain may find rich resources for faithful living.
1 Philip Johnston, “’Now You See Me, Now You Don’t!’ Jeremiah and God,” in Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar (ed. John Day; London: T&T Clark, 2010), 290-308.
2 For further reading on the importance of Jeremiah’s and God’s weeping, see L. Juliana M. Claassens, Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 18-40.
3 John Moxey, “A Guide to Song Forms—AAB Song Form,” Songstuff.com. Web. N.P. Accessed 5/2015.
4 R.E. Clements, Jeremiah (Interpretation; Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), 79-83.
5 Johnston, “’Now You See Me, Now You Don’t!’ Jeremiah and God,” 297.