Second Sunday of Christmas

Is God a lion or a shepherd?

tent under starry sky
Photo by Valery Sysoev on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 2, 2022

First Reading
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Commentary on Jeremiah 31:7-14

Jeremiah 31:7-14 is a complex theological text, which prompts the question: Is God a lion or a shepherd? Within this passage there are five “r-words” that, when taken together, give us a sense of the depth of the theological picture Jeremiah is drawing, and drawing from.

NOTE: While we are going to make a lot out of these five words that begin with “r” it is important to remember that Jeremiah was written in Hebrew, and these five words would not have been related in so simple or mnemonic a sense; still, it might prove a helpful tool.

The five words are:

  • Remnant   
  • Return
  • Ransomed
  • Redeemed; and
  • Rejoice

The progression through the reading from one “r-word” to the next can help us see and remember just what kind of song and dance we are being invited to join in.

First, then, is remnant.

We are called to “raise shouts,” to “proclaim, and give praise,” and by doing so, to call upon God to save the “remnant” of the people of Israel. The time has come, in Jeremiah, for the people to be called home, for the exile to be over. God is to be praised for having preserved the people even amidst the destruction of the nation, and of the temple. God is to be praised for keeping the covenant promise even during the peoples’ darkest times. Where there is a remnant, there is a way.

Second, is return.

The reason for shouts (which are joyous, as the word for shouts, wǝṣahălû, is in parallel with “gladness,” śimḥā, joy), and praise and proclamation, is that God is going to bring the scattered people home. The remnant is to return. All of it … them:

from the land of the north,
    and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
    those with child and those in labor, together;
    a great company, they shall return here

The return of the remnant is complicated. Though returning, they are a remnant. And so as they are lead back by their God,

“With weeping they shall come,
    and with consolations”

This is a remarkable and spiritually important both/and, a simul (if you will). The weeping of the people is at once sorrowful and filled with joy because there is still loss that is felt, and at the same time there is hope for what is coming to pass. This duality of emotion is, no doubt, familiar to anyone who has even a little bit more emotional range than a teaspoon; but it is no less profound for being familiar.

What is more, this simul of both sorrow and joy salting the tears being shed may also point to the theological innovation or, better, break-through that Israel was able to make in the midst of one of their darkest hours as God’s people. Defeated, their nation torn asunder and the temple destroyed, still the biblical witness in general, and Jeremiah specifically here, maintains that it is God the Lord who is in control. 

This was not the case among most (if not all) of Israel’s neighbors in the ancient near east. Political and religious thought at the time was that human conflict was a mirror image of divine conflict. War on earth mirrored war in the heavens. The nation whose “god” was victorious against a neighboring god gave victory to their human followers. Until Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures stubbornly maintained that even in defeat, it was the one true God who was in control. And so we get the tipping point of this particular reading, which is a double image of sorts:

Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
    and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
    and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”

What the people shout, proclaim, and praise, is that the Lord God both scatters and keeps. This can be hard for modern believers to wrap their heads around, the idea that God would be both wrathful and merciful, that God would both scatter God’s people and then gather them back. And I, for one, would not be too quick to apply this theology to a cancer diagnosis, an accident, or a flood. At least not in a simplistic one-to-one sort of way However, it is the clear theological claim of the prophet that the one who preserved the remnant of Israel is the same one who caused it. Once again what is more, the one who preserves the remnant promises a return to that one’s presence.

Which brings us to words three and four: ransomed and redeemed. It is God who does this for God’s people, saving them from “hands too strong for” them. What hands are those? Here again is another simul: they are the hands of Israel’s enemies, and the hands of God. And God ransoms and redeems from both—surrogate power and divine. God is merciful.

Which brings us back, then, to the question we began with, and the final “r-word”: rejoice.

Is God a lion, or a shepherd? The answer is yes. And this double image bears within itself another example of the reversal of (mis)fortune that the God of judgment and mercy promises. The returned remnant, ransomed and redeemed by God, may rejoice, for,

I will turn their mourning into joy,
    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

This is Israel’s religious and theological epiphany—that the one who, out of divine love may see us into a time of mourning, will see us through it to a time of joy; where there is sadness, there  gladness may be found as well.

Is God the lion, or the shepherd? It seems that the answer is, “Yes.” Either way, we are the sheep; thanks be to God.