Commentary on Jeremiah 11:18-20
While the use of a lectionary cycle provides preachers and pastors with prescribed scripture passages that adhere (to some degree) thematically to one another, and offers congregants each week a “sampling” of both Old and New Testament texts, there are some particular drawbacks to the lectionary cycle. Among them is the preference for thematic cohesion over literary or theological context. This is particularly evident with Jeremiah 11:18-20. Paying close attention to the context(s) of this brief text is a vitally important step for any preacher or pastor who chooses it for proclamation or as a complement to other texts in liturgical worship.
First, historical context. The general ethos surrounding the entire book of Jeremiah is exile, both the period leading up to it and its immediate aftermath. The early decades of the 6th century BCE mark a pivotal period in Israel’s history. The invasion of the Babylonians into southern Judah (reminiscent of the invasion of northern Israel only 150 years earlier), the ransacking of the temple, the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, and the exile of many of its (elite) inhabitants, left the people not only worried for their own survival, but also questioning their relationship with God—God’s providence and the status of God’s covenant with them. Understanding and acknowledging this context gives the reader a sense of the emotional and theological weight of the text.
Second, literary context. Any preacher should give pause before preaching such a short selection of text. Indeed, there are concentric circles of literary context within which Jeremiah 11:18-20 should be interpreted.
Verses 18-20 relate most directly to verses 21-23. Jeremiah 11:18-23 is the first of Jeremiah’s “laments” (11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18). (As an aside, “confessions” is most certainly not an adequate description of these sections of text for there is neither confession of sin nor confession of faith apparent in them.) In verses 18-20, the prophet laments the knowledge of a plot to kill him and commits his case to God, seeking God’s help through vengeance. These verses are followed immediately by God’s response (verses 21-23), pronouncing specific judgments on those who have threatened to kill Jeremiah.
Expanding to the next contextual circle (11:18-20:18), we see this pattern of prophetic lament and divine response, coupled with the people’s and God’s own laments, repeated. Indeed, in this author’s opinion, it is within this larger context that the more immediate lectionary text has the most meaning.
Generally speaking, lament appears in biblical material as a way of giving voice to trauma, suffering, and loss. Lament is more than mere complaint, though. In biblical literature, lament is hope, or at least a grasping toward hope. Lament marks not an end to a relationship, but a striving for its continuance. Lament calls out, seeks out, and reaches out—to community and to God.
The laments gathered together in this larger section of Jeremiah (11:18-20:18) give voice to a covenant community—prophet, people, and God—who are reeling from events (see historical context described above) that evoked feelings of confusion, loss, suffering, and betrayal. Jeremiah’s status as prophet means that the laments can be read as a particular word from God—a word of God—for the people. The fact that the individual lament is coupled with the community’s and with God’s own lament provides a literary reminder that the covenant relationship remains intact, if damaged. Each party is working through their own grief. Jeremiah is survival literature—written by the survivors, and written for the survival of the covenant.
As the first within this section, then, 11:18-23 demonstrates the “working through” of lament. The prophet is pained, and yet conveys a continued trust in God as one who can help and provide justice. At the same time, Jeremiah does not shy away from admitting the wrongdoings of the people of God (for example, their rejection of God’s prophet). God’s response also reveals real and honest reflections of grief. On the one hand, God’s response reiterates for Jeremiah and for the reader that the covenant is not completely smashed and that God’s presence remains. Continuing into 12:1-17, on the other hand, the reader should note the pain evoked in God’s own lament.
Expanding the literary context one circle more, these laments in 11:18-20:18 make up much of the first half of the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah can be divided roughly into two parts: 1-25 rehearse the breakdown of Judah’s land and people through destruction and exile; 26-51 begin to build Judah back up (for example, 31:4–5). The overall shape of the book of Jeremiah, then, has the reader first moving through lament before turning toward hope.
Finally—and in addition to the historical and literary context, considering the lectionary context is beneficial for preachers and pastors. Alongside the other readings—particularly Psalm 54 and Mark 9:30–37 for this cycle—the focus in Jeremiah 11:18-20 may tend toward the individual suffering of the prophet. In other words, a message of “righteous suffering” rises most predominantly. Such a reading reduces the full message of the laments in the larger literary context of Jeremiah, however.
Through the laments in Jeremiah, we can see that working through trauma requires honesty on all sides. The people’s lament is coupled with God’s own lament—a recognition that the covenant is two-sided, and that the damage done to the covenant is two-sided. For true transformation, then, we cannot and must not ignore our own pitfalls and unfaithfulness, nor can we pretend that the community is healthy and without fault.
In this time of social and historical reckoning, the laments of Jeremiah can model for us a “working through” grief, that takes into account all sides of the trauma, and does not shy away from necessary truths.