Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

In 2003, cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan published a cartoon in The New Yorker that depicts God standing on a cloud, saying to a man standing in front of him, “I am big. It’s the questions that got smaller.”

October 24, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

In 2003, cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan published a cartoon in The New Yorker that depicts God standing on a cloud, saying to a man standing in front of him, “I am big. It’s the questions that got smaller.”

That single frame in many ways captures the book of Jeremiah as a whole and how it might relate to Christians today; the book of Jeremiah portrays a big God who cannot be minimized. God is the one who plants and plucks up, who exiles and restores, who wounds and heals. And Jeremiah himself does not hold back from asking big questions of God (cf. Jeremiah 12:1, 20:18).

This lectionary text also depicts a big God, and people who are not afraid of asking big questions of God. In fact, by removing some of the verses in the middle of the chapter, the lectionary has turned it into a dialogue that moves back and forth between the people and God. Part one belongs to the people: they start with a lament (verses 7-9). Their words include a confession of sin, a complaint, and a plea for help, all three categories which are typically found in a lament. In the second part of this dialogue, God responds to their plea not with the expected word of deliverance, however, but with a strong statement of more judgment (verse 10). Third, the people respond to God’s judgment with another lament (verses 19-22). The final lament ends abruptly, with a plaintive plea and no definite response from God. Still, their words are filled with a grand hope which is linked to a grand theology. And though the people of Judah in the book of Jeremiah are hardly exemplars of faithfulness, their prayers to God can, in fact, provide today’s listeners and readers with a model for powerful ways of relating to God.

The people’s acknowledgment of their sins, which begins their dialogue in 14:7, seems perfunctory at first because it moves so quickly into the petition to God to act. Yet, following the request that the Lord will “act according to his name’s sake” the confession gets picked up again; “for our acts of faithlessness are many, against you we have sinned.” Thus, they are not just rushing through a token confession before the request can be made: they return to confess yet again. Additionally, the motivation they give for the Lord to act is precisely because the faithlessness is so abundant, something that is missed in the NRSV of 14:7 when it does not translate the Hebrew participle, kiy, or “for.”

In verses 8-9, the people lodge their complaint in the form of rhetorical questions to which the expected answer should be resoundingly in the negative. Why should God be like a stranger in the land (14:8)? God should not! Why should God be like a traveler turning aside for the night (14:8)? God should not! Why should God be like someone bewildered, or like a mighty warrior who is not able to save (14:9)? God should not!

After these questions are asked, it is asserted that God is in the midst of his people, who are called by his name, but even in the questions assertions are being made: God is not a stranger. God is not simply a passing traveler. God is not one bewildered, and because God is a mighty warrior, God is able to save. The first part of the people’s dialogue ends with a plea: “Do not forsake us!” (14:9)

God responds briefly, but powerfully. God gives an overall description of the people’s instability: “they love to wander and have not restrained their feet” (14:10). The specifics of their wandering have been spelled out in detail in the previous chapters of Jeremiah. The dire consequence of what they have done is that God will punish their sins rather than forgive them. In fact, God declares that now God will remember those sins – the very sins that the people acknowledged in verse 7. (Of course in Jeremiah 31:34, when God describes the New Covenant God promises the opposite, “I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sin no more.” Cf. Isaiah 43:25, Hebrews 8:12, and 10:17.)

The gravity and starkness of God’s judgment does not silence the people, and the lectionary’s movement to verse 19 makes their response swift. They begin with questions, “Have you completely rejected Judah? Does your heart loathe Zion?” The expected response to these questions is, once again, negative.

They continue, “Why have you struck us so that there is no healing?” Then, the people move from questions to statements of three types. First, they make a statement of complaint, “We hope for peace, but there is no good; for a time of healing, but there is only terror” (verse 19). Second, they make a statement of confession in verse 20, once again acknowledging their wickedness and sins. Third, they make a statement of request in verse 21: “Do not despise us for the sake of your name, do not dishonor your glorious throne, remember and do not break your covenant with us.” Their language circles back to what was said before, illustrating the integrity of this dialogue. God spoke about remembering their sins (verse 10), but they call God to remember the covenant. Indeed, the mention once again of God’s name (verse 21) is an appeal to God’s reputation (verse 7) and is tied to their own identity as covenant people who bear God’s name (verse 9).

After these statements in 14:21-22, they move back to questioning in verse 22, asking, “Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O LORD our God?” The NIV turns this final question into a definite assertion when it translates, “No, it is you, O LORD our God.”

However, the final statement in the Hebrew text is the most important. Verse 22 ends with the people pronouncing, “Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this.” The Hebrew also uses the emphatic second person independent pronoun to underscore their grand theology: the LORD, referred to as “you“, is the one who does all these things. God brings rain and showers, God strikes down and punishes, God makes covenants and remembers them. Again, the people in Jeremiah overall are more examples of what not to do than examples to imitate, but they get this point absolutely correct: hope cannot be separated from the one in whom the people hope. And their hope – and ours – is in a big God.