Commentary on Jeremiah 8:18—9:1
Self-righteous judgment among humans, while all too common in today’s religious landscape, is inconsistent with biblical thinking for at least two reasons.
First, final judgment in the Bible is always reserved for God. Second, God’s response in judgment is not simply justified anger or divine satisfaction for being in the right; but Israel’s God experiences sorrow and grief, even as words of judgment are being proclaimed against the people. One of the most astonishing aspects of the book of Jeremiah is found at the intersection between the prophet and God, between the human and the divine.
In today’s lectionary passage, Jeremiah’s words and the words of the LORD mingle and merge, conveying dismay over the people’s current status and the impending doom that awaits Judah and Jerusalem. The prophet’s overwhelming sadness is hard to distinguish from the LORD’s grief. Thus, today’s passage gives us a glimpse into the inner-workings of Jeremiah, the prophet, and the God whose word destines the people for catastrophic judgment.
Jeremiah 8:18–9:1 contains similar themes to last week’s reading from the Hebrew Bible. In that passage from Jeremiah 4, the prophet declares judgment on the people through the image of an enemy coming from the north. In the verses preceding today’s selection the snorting of horses is heard coming from Dan, a tribe to the north of Judah (18:16). The LORD declares that the land and all who live in it will face certain destruction.
Immediately following this pronouncement, verse 18 begins with first-person speech, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” While Jeremiah is a likely candidate for these words, the identity of the speaker is not clear. Verse 17 ended with God speaking, made clear through the expression, “says the LORD.” In Hebrew, this is a technical phrase that announces a prophetic oracle. The reader should leave open the possibility that the speaker is Jeremiah, the LORD, or both. In the topsy-turvy world of impending judgment, the thin line between the prophet and God, between the divine and the human, often becomes blurry.
Verses 18–21 provide symmetry to Jeremiah’s prophetic words. The structure is:
A Expressions of grief from the prophet/God (verse 18)
B The lament of the people (verse 19a, b)
C God’s question of indictment (verse 19c)
B’ The lament of the people (verse 20)
A’ Expressions of grief from the prophet/God (verse 21)
God’s judgment is at the center (C), focusing on the LORD’s anger at the people’s infidelity: “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” (verse 19c). The people cry out (B/B’), drawing from themes within Zion theology. In this tradition, which is prominent in other prophetic books such as First Isaiah (Isaiah 1–39), Jerusalem’s security rests in the LORD’s protection of the city, the temple, and the people. The double election of king and city is a prominent theme. Thus, the people lament, “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her king not in her?” (verse 19a, b). Though the people wait, divine protection has not arrived: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (verse 20). Expressions of grief from either the prophet or God (A/A’) frame both the people’s lament and the central divine judgment. The passage closes in 8:22–9:1 with a summary of human/divine grief and sorrow. Jeremiah (and/or the LORD) answers the people’s cries with his own series of well-known questions of lament: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (9:1). The grief-stricken tone in this passage resembles the lament psalms in content but not in structure.
In this passage, form and content coalesce. Divine judgment is inevitable and is at the heart of the matter (quite literally at the center of this text in verse 19c). The people’s hope remains fixed in a theological tradition that cannot explain the destruction that will soon come (verse 19a, b and verse 20). Their crying out is in vain. Rather than resulting in divine satisfaction, the LORD’s judgment and the people’s lack of understanding result in an overwhelming sense of grief for both the prophet and God (verse 18 and verse 21). This sorrow frames the entire scenario. The LORD’s judgment is certain, and the people’s fate is sealed. The only response that can arise from such a horrible outcome is one of grief: “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!” (9:1).
Self-righteous judgment–whether liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, embodied in an individual or in a community–does not reflect God’s way of being. The smug satisfaction of being correct at the expense of others may be common in our increasingly contentious religious terrain. However, from a Christian and biblical point of view, these sentiments have no place. God and prophet are broken-hearted and despairing at the fate of the people. The proper response to catastrophic judgment is not a theologically justifying “I told you so” or “You got what you deserved.” It is grief, sorrow, and lament: “Is there no balm in Gilead?” (verse 22a).
There is a latent hope, however, in the divine/human questions of verse 22. As long as there is balm in Gilead, and as long as there are physicians who can restore health, the human community has the ability to receive God’s healing and transformation. Even in the rubble of traditions that no longer help us to explain our current dilemma, there remains the hope that a people could turn/return to God. This spirit of transformation can be found in the great spiritual that takes the lamenting question in verse 22 and turns into a declaration of hope: “There IS a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.”