The series on Great Characters of the Bible continues. Archbishop Mark describes Jeremiah as an influential figure for gospel writers and perhaps the best-known of all the prophets.
Episode 4 – Jeremiah – is available here:
- Episode 4: Jeremiah - Transcript
Episode 4: Jeremiah - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
Welcome back to this fourth of our podcasts, exploring the blood, sweat and tears of human beings throughout the Bible. Keeping in mind that the Bible is not only a story about God. It is a story about God and human beings. And it is a very intensely human story full of these vivid characters who are coming to meet us in these podcasts as we come to meet them.
The other thing about meeting these characters that strikes me is that in exploring more of them, we explore more of what it means for each of us to be a human being before God. In that sense, these characters are you and me. And as I say to my students, or have said for many years, waving the Bible in front of them, this is your life.
So that these vivid characters, who fills the biblical story, they do become theological symbols or archetypes. But they aren’t just theological ciphers, they are intensely themselves and yet they say something that is true about humanity in any time and any place. So, they have a capacity to reach beyond their own time and place and to speak to a depth of humanity in a way that is very distinctive of the Bible.
In this podcast, I want to explore with you the endlessly fascinating figure of Jeremiah the Prophet. Perhaps he’s the best known of all the prophets. Now, first of all, a word about the prophets in ancient Israel. All the cultures of the ancient Near East, that world that gave us the Bible. Had prophets of one kind or another.
But in ancient Israel, and therefore in the Bible, the Prophet has a quite distinctive function. Now the prophets first appear in ancient Israel, and Elijah is the first of them. They appear at the same time as the monarchy. So as the kings appear, the prophets appear. Now the emergence of the monarchy, the kings in ancient Israel was very controversial.
And it was controversial because ancient Israel regarded itself as different from other peoples because they only had one king and that was God. Now, in cultures like Egypt, the king was the God. But in ancient Israel, no, no, no, no, no, there was God alone was God. And if there was a king, that king was just one of his brothers and sisters. Different kind of king.
But there was a tendency in the history of ancient Israel for the king to look more and more and more like the kings of Egypt or of Mesopotamia. To claim a kind of quasi divine status which undermined the authority and the sovereignty of God, so it was claimed. At that point, the prophets appear in order to defend the God given identity of ancient Israel as a community of slaves set free. And a community, a counter-society of God in the world that had its only king was God.
Everyone else was just a brother or sister. No one was raised up above the community of slaves set free. So, the law came not from the King, but from God. And through Moses, who wasn’t a king and so on. So, the prophets were often at loggerheads with the king, pointing the finger at the king and saying, you are betraying the God given identity of ancient Israel, God’s people.
So, they’re defenders, the prophets, for all their differences. They are the God inspired defenders of the God given identity of the counter-society of God. Slaves set free in a world that says once a slave, always a slave. Abandon hope all you who enter here, as Dante has written over the Gate of Hell in the Divine Comedy.
So, Jeremiah fits within that pattern. He appears at a very particular time in the history of ancient Israel, as we shall see. In order to speak the Word of God, yes, but not just in some vague general sense, to speak the word of God in a way that defends the God given identity of ancient Israel at a time when that was under threat.
So that’s the first more general introductory comment that needs to be made about the prophets in ancient Israel. Elijah was the first, as I have said, but he doesn’t write anything. There are stories about Elijah, but we have none of the oracles of Elijah recorded. Jeremiah, of course, has a very long book or scroll recording his oracles. As does Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel and the 12 so-called minor prophets, some of whom are quite major, in fact, in terms of influence.
So, you have the writing prophets and then the earlier prophets who didn’t write or whose oracles were not recorded in the Scripture. Now, Jeremiah is absolutely one of the writing prophets. One of the extraordinary things about the figure of Jeremiah is just what a sense of the individual you get from the book of Jeremiah. This is so untypical of the ancient world. Where they didn’t have and I’ve said this in an earlier podcast, they didn’t have the sense of the individual that we certainly in the West tend to take for granted.
But that having been said, there is this extraordinary sense of individuality about the Prophet Jeremiah. We know so much about him. And you can almost sense his personality. And that is a most unusual thing in the ancient world. But one of the things that you see in this is that his life becomes a word spoken by God into the world of his time.
For instance, he doesn’t marry. Which again, was a most extraordinary thing in that culture that time. For a man not to marry. Why doesn’t the prophet marry? To speak about the barrenness of a people who will not listen to the Word of God. So, his life, his biography, as it were, itself, becomes a word of God.
This is not unlike the Prophet Hosea who influences Jeremiah in the most profound way. It’s not just the words they speak, it’s the life they lead that becomes a word or a communication from God to the people at a particular time. Now we know that Jeremiah was born in a little place, still exists, a place that was called in his time Anathoth.
It’s now called, I think, in Arabic Anata. It’s the same name, it’s just undergone the shifts of time. It’s about I think it’s about four or five kilometres from Jerusalem. So, it’s not far at all, probably now, although I’m not sure of this. It’s almost a suburb of Jerusalem. I once met a little Armenian boy called Zachariah, and he came from the same town as Jeremiah.
So, I said to him, well, you’ll certainly be a prophet. This little kid who was about seven or eight there he was from Anata, Anathoth. So that’s where he comes from Jeremiah. And he comes from a priestly family. In other words, those families that offered various people for men for service in the temple and they were a priestly family.
Another extraordinary thing about him in terms of his biography is we know when the year in which he was born. Because we’re told that he was born in the 13th year of King Josiah. And if we calculate that, it means that Jeremiah is born in 626 B.C. So, he’s born into a tumultuous time, the seventh century B.C. Now why tumultuous?
Well, way back in 721, the Assyrian army was on the march and Assyria had an armed force, the like of which for efficiency and brutality the ancient world had never seen. And one of the things they do is they storm into the northern kingdom. By this time, the ten tribes of the north had gone their own way at the death of Solomon, that the leaders of the ten tribes of the North come and say, if you are not different, they say to Solomon’s son, if you are not different from your father, we are out of this. We don’t want to be part of the union.
Solomon’s son tells them to go and jump in the lake. And they say, if that’s your attitude, we are out of the union. So, the ten tribes in about 920 B.C., the ten tribes of the north go their own way and become the northern kingdom, which is known as Israel. Leaving just the two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, as the southern kingdom, which is known as Judah.
So, the capital of the southern kingdom remains with its two tribes, remains Jerusalem. And the capital of the northern kingdom, much larger, much wealthier, more culturally sophisticated. The capital of the north was Samaria, Šōmrōn. So, you’ve got the two kingdoms by now and have had for about 200 years by the time Assyria descends upon the northern kingdom and you have the fall of the North in 721. And the capital is laid, is flattened and the northern kingdom goes into the black hole of history, never to appear again.
However, what happens at the time is that a whole bunch of refugees flee. The only place they could flee is flee south into the Kingdom of Judah, the southern kingdom. And they bring with them their holy books and their traditions. For instance, they had quite different theologies. The Northern Kingdom looked more to Moses and the law. The Southern kingdom tended to look more to Abraham and the promise because Abraham was associated with the South.
So, their theologies were different. One was Mosaic, the other Abrahamic. They even had different words for Prophet. Prophet, which means spokesperson was the word used in the northern kingdom, in the southern kingdom, with its two tribes, the word used for a prophet was Jose, which means seer. So, in the north, the emphasis was upon hearing the Word of God and speaking it. In the south, the emphasis was upon the Prophet, seeing a vision and communicating what he or she had seen.
So those differences of language and theology were very real. Now, I’ve mentioned already the prophet Hosea, who was absolutely typical of northern theological and prophetic traditions. But his prophecies come south. And they become a very fertile seed because Jeremiah, in many ways is the true and greatest heir of the prophet Hosea. Who is called, Hosea is called a minor prophet, but in fact he is major in terms of influence, largely because of his influence upon Jeremiah.
Now, at this point, therefore, you begin a process of fusing the traditions of north and south. And that’s what you find in the Bible as we have it, a fusion of the theological traditions and the theological vocabulary of north and south. The southern kingdom that remains with its refugees, understood that it could well be next in the firing line because Assyria was still on the march big time.
So, the question was how can we defend ourselves against the Assyrian threat?
Some people said, well, we have to make the right kind of alliances, military alliances with Egypt or whoever. But the prophets said, no, no, no, no, no. The only way you can defend yourself against the Assyrian threat is by a more radical obedience to the law of God. That’s your only true security. Anything else, and this is one of Jeremiah’s marvellous images, is plastering over the cracks in the walls of Jerusalem.
It’s false. It’s no defence at all. It’s cosmetic. So, the voice of the prophets prevails. And there is launched in the southern kingdom at this point, a massive reform movement to save what remains of the people of God from the Assyrian threat. First of all they handpick someone to be the king. At a very young age Josiah was chosen and he was trained very carefully in the ways of the law.
So, he was absolutely groomed to be the kind of king who would be subject to God’s law and would lead the reform. And that’s exactly what Josiah turns out to be. They also, rather conveniently at this time, in about 621, they discover in the temple this new scroll, in fact, they claim it’s old. That becomes the book of Deuteronomy.
And what that is, it’s a text which provides the charter of reform not just theological reform, but political reform, reform at every level. So, you’ve got the king, you’ve got the charter in the book of Deuteronomy. Just by the way, Deuteronomy is a Greek word or it’s got a Greek background and it means the second law.
So, a new beginning is what the book of Deuteronomy and this reform movement was all about.
Now, Assyria then is defeated by Babylon at a huge battle at a place called Carchemish in 605. So, Assyria then move off the scene and the dominant imperial presence and the dominant military threat now to the southern kingdom is Babylon. And they, like Assyria, were unmatched for military efficiency and brutality. So, the imperial power changes, but the threat does not.
So here in the midst of all of this, you’ve got Jeremiah saying, all your military planning, all your seeking of alliances with other powers, it’s a waste of time or worse. Your only hope is to put your trust in God and to obey the law of God as it’s set forth in this book of Deuteronomy.
Well, you can imagine how well that was received by the powers that be. Josiah totally agreed with Jeremiah. But Josiah is then killed in battle, and the Kings who succeed Josiah absolutely have Jeremiah in the gun. So, he is persecuted, he’s thrown into empty wells. All kinds of attacks on his life. Because as Jeremiah himself says, every time I have to speak the word of God, I have to howl violence and ruin. And then he says, I became so sick of this, I said, I will not speak in God’s name anymore. I’m sick of this business of being a prophet, having to howl violence and ruin. And then he goes on to say in that same passage, but it was as if there was a fire contained in my bones.
The effort to constrain it wearied me, and I could not. But in his darker moments, he accuses God of seducing him. You have seduced me, and I have let myself be seduced. So here was Jeremiah saying exactly what the king and the other leaders, especially the military leaders, did not want to hear.
And they said, nonsense, this is not the word of God. Throw him in the ditch. Get rid of him. And the false prophets, by contrast, they were running all over the place in Jerusalem, particularly saying, shalom, shalom, shalom, everything’s lovely. Don’t worry, you’ll be right. God will keep you safe. Just carry on as you are.
And of course, Jeremiah points the finger at the false prophets, too, and says, you’re false, you’re speaking lies and claiming that these lies are the Word of God. And then the false prophets reply that Jeremiah is a false prophet because mutual accusation was rampant. So, the whole experience of being a prophet was excruciating for Jeremiah. There is the famous story of his call when he says, but I am too young. We don’t know exactly what age he was, but he must have been a young age by his own reckoning.
He says, I’m too young and this fits a pattern with so many cool stories in the Bible. The person called doesn’t feel equipped or ready. So, for Jeremiah, it was his youth. I’m too young to do what you’re asking me to do. And that might have been another reason why he was disregarded and rejected. And God says, then, yes, I know you’re young and all that, but I will equip you, you don’t have to be equipped yourself, I will equip you. I will be with you.
But you see a lot of people at the time said, ah, all this persecution and rejection and threats upon his life that Jeremiah copped this was a sign that God wasn’t with him. But it wasn’t quite like that, as we shall see. Eventually, all these efforts to reform lead to political and military disaster. Because Babylon, after its victory over Assyria in 605, decides to come to Jerusalem and deal with the trouble there.
So, Babylon takes the southern kingdom in 605, and you have then the first deportation of the leadership group and the highly educated classes from the southern kingdom, principally Jerusalem, into other parts of the Babylonian empire. Now, this was a standard tactic in the ancient world. You would take a conquered people and move them from their place to another part of the empire, and you’d bring other conquered peoples from another part of the empire and plant them in that part of the empire.
In other words, to undermine local loyalties and create a new kind of a unity. That’s what happens in 605. And it was regarded as a catastrophe. So that’s the first deportation. Now, you would have thought that that would have been shock enough to, as it were, force what remained of the southern kingdom to pull their head in, no longer provoke the Babylonians and take more seriously what Jeremiah and others had been saying throughout this reform process.
But in fact, that’s not what happens, there’s almost a kind of a death wish that works itself out, a suicidal tendency, because after 605, they continue to rebel against Babylon. So that eventually in 587 you have what the Babylonians would have seen as the final solution. They come back to the southern kingdom, into Jerusalem, and they absolutely flatten the capital.
And there is a second deportation of anyone who looked like a leader to another part of the Babylonian empire. And this then becomes the exile as it’s known. And it is the great catastrophe that brings the Bible, the Old Testament as we know it to birth. The Bible is born of catastrophe, because the question is, where is God in the midst of all of this?
Why has this happened? And again, the answer that Jeremiah and the other prophets give is this happened because you disobeyed the law, the liberating law of God. So, the exile was the monumental and decisive event that represented the matrix of the whole of Scripture in many ways. At this time of catastrophe Jeremiah was well treated by the Babylonians, and that didn’t endear him to some of his own people.
He was well treated because of the prophetic word he had spoken, saying, don’t resist the Babylonians. And so on. He seemed to speak a word that was favourable to Babylon. So, they even offered him the choice of going to Babylon in exile or staying in Judah. Now, Jeremiah, I guess, not surprisingly, decides to stay in Judah.
Eventually, and this is where his story begins to be lost in the mists of time. Eventually, he is taken to Egypt by those who resented him and rejected his prophetic ministry. Once he’s taken to Egypt, he disappears into the sands of time. We don’t know anything about, it’s amazing how much we know about Jeremiah, but it’s also amazing, therefore, that we know so little about his end, where he dies, where he’s buried, and so on.
But he remains monumentally in the texts which form the book of Jeremiah. So, we may not have a tomb or anything that resembles it, but he is monumentally present to every time and place in the book or the scroll that bears his name. Now, it’s really Jeremiah who answers the question once and for all What does it mean to be a true prophet?
This was a crucial question for ancient Israel, and it’s the question in a different way for our own time. Because suffering and rejection, what sense do you make of them? Does it mean that God has abandoned the prophet? What ancient Israel came to see and what Christianity came to see, too, is no suffering and rejection, far from being a sign of the false prophet, are signs of the true prophet.
So, if you want to know what a true prophet looks like as against the false prophet, look at Jeremiah. Because he is the quintessential definition of the true prophet. Now, this becomes important in the New Testament. And I find this fascinating, personally. I think Saint Paul turned to Jeremiah as a key interpreter of his own experience of suffering and rejection. Because that was Paul’s story, too. From go to woe, from the moment he was called, knocked off his donkey or whatever it was on the road to Damascus until he had his head chopped off in Rome.
Suffering and rejection marked his journey, long journey. And I think he turned to Jeremiah because he’s about his opponents and he had plenty were saying, look, if God was with you, you wouldn’t be rejected and suffering in this way. Exactly the same story as with Jeremiah. And I think Paul was drawn to Jeremiah temperamentally. I mean, Jeremiah is the most terrible and the most tender of the prophets.
Paul’s a bit like that, too temperamental. He can be terrible, but he can be incredibly tender. So, I think Paul was drawn to Jeremiah temperamentally, but it was more that experience of suffering and rejection and what it really meant that I think drew Paul to Jeremiah in order to understand and interpret his own experience of suffering and rejection in his apostolic or prophetic ministry.
Interestingly, when he talks about his own call in the letter to the Galatians, Paul actually echoes Jeremiah, which I think supports what I’ve just said. And I’ll read you the words that he dictates in the first chapter of Galatians, when God, who had set me apart before I was born, this is the language of Jeremiah, had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his son in me in order that I might preach among the Gentiles.
See his son in me, Paul actually becomes the revelation. His life also becomes a living word of God to the nations. So, Paul there actually echoes the language of the prophet Jeremiah, which suggests that Jeremiah was a key for Paul in understanding the true meaning, the deeper meaning of his own apostolic ministry.
If you look at Jesus in the Gospels, too, he is presented as a kind of prophetic figure. He’s presented as more than that, but at least that. And like Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. He is the suffering prophet like Jeremiah. So, I think the gospel writers again tended to turn to Jeremiah in order to interpret more deeply the infinite mystery of the figure of Jesus. Jeremiah is said to have written the Book of Lamentations. I’m not sure that’s true, but I can understand why it’s claimed.
And in English we use the term occasionally a Jeremiad for someone standing up, and condemning, howling violence and ruin. So, all of that can make Jeremiah sound very lachrymose and the most sorrowful of the prophets. But if he is the most terrible, he’s also the most tender. And if he is the most sorrowful of the prophets, he’s also the most joyful. The boy from Anathoth.