This morning I want to look at our first reading, from the Book of Jeremiah. We don’t often have readings from Jeremiah, and most of us probably don’t know a great deal about him. So, this morning I want to talk about Jeremiah.
Although we’re not sure when he was born, we do know that he was born two miles outside of Jerusalem. We also know – because he tells us – that God “called him up” in 626 BC, at a very young age.
Now, before I go any further, I need to talk about “prophets.” Old Testament theology says that for a specific period of time in the history of the Hebrew People, God spoke to them through “prophets.” These were special people who God selected. God would “tell them what to say”, and their job was to “speak for God.” Their job was also to interpret events of the day, to show how God’s hand was moving in those events. So, they had two tasks: speak for God, and interpret God’s actions for the people. This made them very special “holy people”, and we really need to remember this, especially when we deal with Jeremiah, the great “Prophet of Doom.” A prophet is not speaking for himself. He has been chosen by God and is speaking for God. And because of that, he is entitled to respect, even if one dislikes that he’s saying – as in Jeremiah’s case.
Well, how did they know if someone was really a prophet, or just a crackpot? That was easy. If the prophecy came true, then the prophet was a “good prophet.” If the prophecy did not come true, then he was a “false prophet.”
Well, let’s look at Jeremiah. His years of activity were from 626 BC to 580 BC, or about 46 years. But it was 46 years of total upheaval, war, and political revolution in that part of the world – just like today. The “Glory Days” of Israel and Judah had peaked. The two kingdoms had been unified by King David, and had enjoyed awesome prominence as a world power. But now they were in rapid decline. And Jeremiah’s prophecy foretold this decline, and the eventual fall of Judah, and even the exile to Babylon.
So, the concept of “The Age of Prophecy” says that God was using Jeremiah to warn the Hebrew People of what was happening, and try to help them avoid it. Jeremiah was interpreting the events of the world, and those events were not pretty.
So, what did happen? Well, it’s going to sound very much like today’s world over there. In 614 the City of Asshur fell to the Medes, and this started a domino effect. Two years later, the great City of Nineveh – which we know from Jonah – fell to the Chaldeans. Then the Medes and the Chaldeans formed an alliance, and they began moving through the Middle East, capturing city after city.
From another direction, the Assyrians and the Egyptians were capturing city after city. Two years after Nineveh fell, Harren fell. The next year, Josiah, King of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was put to death. The Assyrians installed Manasseh as King of Judah, and it remained under Assyria for the next 55 years. Eleven years later, in 598, we get the first deportation of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah to Babylon, and the Great Babylonian Exile begins. And Jeremiah was right there for all of this.
Well, what did Jeremiah say that got everyone so upset? For the first five years of his prophesy, he spoke out against religious corruption and “nature cults.” He also kept talking about an invasion that would be coming from the North. And he tells the nation to return to God if they want to avoid destruction. He talks about Judah, the Southern Kingdom, as a “harlot”, which was once “God’s bride”, but now has turned to other gods for satisfaction. That wasn’t very popular.
But in 621 there was sort of a “reformation.” The nation and the temple did sort of “get back on track”, and nothing was heard from Jeremiah for twelve years. But then, in 609, Jeremiah went to the temple, at the command of God, and delivered a sermon. The theme was that just coming to the temple would not save the nation. Rather, it was the lives each person led that would be the salvation, or destruction, of the nation. The temple priests didn’t like that at all, and ordered Jeremiah killed. But the idea of killing a prophet really scared the public. The people feared and respected prophets. So, there were some public demonstrations, and the temple priests relented and didn’t execute Jeremiah.
But that started a series of confrontations for Jeremiah. He kept calling his country to obedience, repentance, and a change of heart. But that was not what the public wanted to hear, and it wasn’t long before the public turned on him, too. Finally, Jeremiah attacked the king in a public address. He ended the address by saying, “With the burial of an ass, he shall be buried.” That turned the king against him. Then he entered the temple courtyard and proclaimed doom on Jerusalem. For that one, the High Priest had him beaten and put in stocks. So, in retaliation, Jeremiah repeated his “oracle of doom”, but added the High Priest.
By 605 the kingdom was really falling apart. Cities all over were falling to foreign armies, and in seven years the Exile would begin. And Jeremiah began a whole new series of writings, known as his “confessions”, from which this morning’s reading is taken. They are writings of despair, and he accuses God of deceiving him. This is the Jeremiah who Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and is on the front of your bulletin – an older Jeremiah, in despair. I think Michelangelo captured him beautifully.
Well, in 598 the Exile begins. Jerusalem is sacked and the king is taken to Babylon in chains. Everything that Jeremiah foretold has now happened, and Jeremiah now offers no hope. He tells then that the line of David will never return to the throne of Judah.
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, placed Zedekiah on the throne. Zedekiah liked Jeremiah and even called on him for advice. Then Jeremiah proclaimed Nebuchadnezzar to be an “instrument of God”, and ordered the people of Judah to subject themselves to Babylon. He wrote letters to the exiles in Babylon, telling them to give up hope. He began going naked and wearing only yokes of wood and iron.
Finally, Nebuchadnezzar and his army attacked Jerusalem. Jeremiah did everything he could to foil any attempt at resistance. He stood in the town square, throwing rocks at the army, as they marched out to defend the city. They kept throwing him into prison and beating him, but as soon as he got out, he started all over.
In 587 the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar had heard of Jeremiah and ordered that he be given special consideration. He was released from prison and invited to live as he liked, either in Judah or Babylon. He chose to spend the rest of his life in the Wilderness of Judah, from which 600 years later, John the Baptist emerges.
Well, that’s Jeremiah. So maybe this helps us understand what he’s saying in today’s reading:
“O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.”
That is Jeremiah, the “Prophet of Doom.”
August 28, 2019