|Jeremiah, Theology of |
To state the theology of a book is to offer a synthesis of the material from a theological rather than historical angle of vision. A theology of Jeremiah is derived by observing the structure of the book, its genres (e.g., judgment oracles, laments), the traditions on which it draws (e.g., covenant), its vocabulary (e.g., turn, sub), its "characters" (God, Israel, nations, the prophet), and the religious/social agenda of the time (i.e., a threat on Judah from the northern foe and subsequent siege). To determine a theology of the book one asks in essence, "What convictions drive this book?"
The structure of the Book of Jeremiah, much debated, may be sketched in envelope fashion by chapters as follows:
|A. ||God's Personal Message to Jeremiah (1) |
|B. ||Speeches Warning of Disaster (2-10) |
|C. ||Stories of Prophet Wrestling with People and God (11-20) |
|D. ||Disputation with Kings and Prophets (21-29) |
|E. ||The Book of Comfort (30-33) |
|D1. ||Disputation with Kings (34-38) |
|C1. ||Stories of a Sacked City and the Aftermath (39-45) |
|B1. ||Oracles against Nations (46-51) |
|A1. ||Appendix: Historical Documentation (52) |
A fresh approach to the theology of Jeremiah is by means of a two-directional grid: (1) the book's chiastic structure and (2) the "characters" within the book. Our discussion proceeds via the chiastic couplets.
The Dynamic of a History of Salvation (chaps. 2-10 = B; 46-51 = B1). The first major section, leaving aside chapter 1, contains speeches and is matched by the oracles against nations. The theological rubric in which the sermons and the oracles are cast is the history of both salvation and judgment. The section begins in a review mode: "I remember
[how] you loved me and followed me through the desert" (2:2). The recital, alternately of God's actions and Israel's response, is capsulized in 2:21: "I had planted you like a choice vine
How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?" God's salvific actions include the "exodus" (2:6; 7:22) and Israel's "entry into a fertile land" (2:7; 3:19; 7:7). God's judgment on the "corrupt, wild vine" will include disintegration and dislocation.
The indisputable lordship of God over history is poignantly made through the repeated designation (more than eighty times) of God as "the Lord of hosts" (NIV "God Almighty"). This title, associated closely with verdicts of judgment (thirty times), is liberally sprinkled in the oracles against the nations. World history, as well as redemptive history, proceeds under the eye of the cosmic commander-in-chief.
God: Benevolent, Angry, and Pained. Yahweh, the God of Israel is magnanimous but just. God is solicitous. "How gladly would I treat you like sons and give you a desirable land" (3:19). Despite Judah's gross evils, the Holy One of Israel will not forsake his people (51:5). A succinct characterization of God is given in 9:24: God delights in steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.
Because of the people's sin, however, and the departure from the "ancient paths" (6:16), God is about to act with anger and fury (7:20). Warnings and exhortations are cast in graphic pictures of coming devastation of Judah by enemy forces, primarily the foe from the north (5:15-17; 6:22-26; 7:32-8:3; 8:13-14, 17; 9:20-22; 10:18) and also in scenarios of cosmic catyclism not unlike the prospects of atomic destruction (4:23-26). God is also angry with nations (50:21; 51:25). These scenes of judgment are driven by God's anger, which "burns like a fire" (4:4, 8). One of several terms for anger, ap, is found twenty-four times in Jeremiahmore often than in any other biblical book. Forty-two different passages in Jeremiah speak of God's anger. The tradition of God's anger against evil reaches far back (cf. Exod 32:10). This anger is not wrath on a rampage but a holy anger, for the nexus between sin and punishment is unambiguous (4:18; 51:6).
It would be totally wrong, however, to conclude that Jeremiah's God is nothing but harsh. It is especially in chapters 2-3 that the pain of God surfaces, and in the context of rejection, as of a spouse in a marriage: "Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number" (2:32). The tradition of God's pain over a people's sin reaches back to the flood, if not earlier (Gen 6:6). Expressive of his own pain and God's, the prophet sobs over the waywardness of the people (8:21-9:2). The pathos is echoed by Jeremiah: "O my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain" (4:19).
The People of God: Violating the First Commandment and More! The Temple Sermon pinpoints Judah's sin. Other speeches cite her ungrateful response to a gracious God. She has rebelled (2:8, 29). Most repugnant of all is her sin of idolatry (7:9), the exchange of other "gods" for the true God (2:11). This monstrous evil, described classically in chapter 10, is contrary to the first commandment. Descriptions of God as great, "the true God, " "the living God, the eternal King, " "the Maker of all things, " "the Portion of Jacob, " and the "Lord of hosts" ("Lord Almighty" NIV; vv. 6-7, 10, 12-13, 16) alternate with the sarcastic description of senseless, worthless, perishable idols (vv. 8-9, 11, 14-15). Further, God charges his people with deceit and insensitivity to injustice (5:23-29). A poll of the citizenry shows that there is no one with integrity (5:1-9; cf. 9:3-6). Back of the indictments of adultery (lusty stallions, each neighing for another man's wife, 5:8; 3:2-3; 7:9), stealing, and murder (7:9), lie the Ten Commandments. A sinful people is characterized as two sisters, "ever-turning" Israel and apostate Judah ("faithless Israel" and "unfaithful Judah, 3:11). Urgings toward repentance, a concept that is deepened, are many. Sub ("turn" or "return" in the sense of repent) is a verbal trademark of the book.
Nations Destined for Judgment and Salvation. The oracles against the nations do not so much present the case for punishment as they do the certainty and nature of God's judgment. Significantly, Egypt, with a history of oppression, heads this roll call of nations. She will flee like a hissing serpent (46:22), and Moab, because of pride (48:29), will be emptied like jars (48:12). A sword will come against Babylon (50:35-38) for her wrongdoing to Israel (51:24). Surprisingly, there are also bald, unconditional announcements of restoration for Egypt (46:26b), Moab (48:47), Ammon (49:6), and Elam (49:39).
The Dynamic of Covenant (chaps. 11-20 = C; 39-45 = C1). The next block of material, together with its complementary section in the latter half of the book, moves to stories about Jeremiah personally, especially his "inner life" (chaps. 11-20 = C) and national events (chaps. 39-45 = C1). The theological matrix for this block is primarily covenant, a subject introduced at the outset: "Cursed is the man who does not obey the terms of this covenant" (11:3).
A fundamental understanding beginning with Moses and continuing in Jeremiah was that covenant differed from contract. Covenant was a matter of divine initiative, not mutual negotiation. In covenant, loyalty to a person was the critical factor; in a contract performance of set stipulations was central. Failure in a covenant relationship was a failure in interpersonal relationships, and not alone failure in adhering to a set of requirements. Moses warned against breaking the covenant (Deut 28:15-68). For Jeremiah a broken covenant was a reality; covenant curses such as loss of land were imminent. The nexus between wrongdoing and retribution was clear: "I am going to bring
because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to my words" (19:15; cf. 15:4; 40:3).
The Prophetic Ministry: Pathos and Conflict. Jeremiah, in contrast to Moses, an earlier covenant mediator, was involved more in the dissolution of the covenant than in its institution (1:10; but cf. 24:6). A perspective on the pain of this task is given in the seven laments (1:18-23; 12:1-6 ; 15:10-12, 15-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-13). Like prophets before him, Jeremiah's personal life was far from untouched by his role. He was not to marry (16:1). An intercessory role in behalf of his people was forbidden him (11:14; 14:11). The task of uprooting and tearing down institutions and misguided theologies (1:10; 7:1-15) brought tears, misery, and depression (9:1-2a; 15:15-18). Like Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Jeremiah would rather die than continue (20:14-18).
Jeremiah, like other servants of God, was divinely called (1:4-10; cf. Moses, Exod 3:1-14; Isa 6). Like others, his call put in him conflict-filled situations. In Jeremiah's self-disclosing laments, quite unparalleled in prophetic literature, one glimpses the discomfort that prophetic role brought him. Confused, he asks about justice (12:1c). Pained, beset with hostility, he blurts, "Remember me and care for me" (15:15; cf. Baruch, 45:3). Angry and frustrated, he protests, "O Lord, you deceived me, " for his role set him in tension even with God (20:7-13).
Israel and Judah: Disloyal Covenant Partners. Loyalty in covenant is demonstrated in obedience. God's people have been disobedient. "Obey" (sama ) is a key word in these sections and throughout the book. More than thirty times, especially in chapters 7, 11, 26, 35, and 42, the word is found in the charge, "You (they) have not obeyed (listened)." Worse than disobedience is a deliberate commitment to waywardness: "We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart" (18:12; cf. 44:16; 17:9, 23). In brief, Israel and Judah have "broken the covenant" (11:10). Consequences will follow. A trio of disasterssword, famine, and plagueto which is added exile, surfaces frequently, in whole or in part (14:12, 16, 18; 15:2; 16:4; 44:12-13, 27).
A God of Persistence, Integrity, and Freedom. God is depicted not as an umpire who upon determining that the covenant is broken heartlessly announces the punishment. On the contrary, God coaxes his fickle covenant partner to keep the covenant intact. Symbolic actions are a marked feature in chapters 11-20. Two of these, one about a belt and another about a jar, symbolize an evil portent of ruin (13:9; 19:11; cf. 43:8-13). God employs every meansverbal appeals (11:4), warnings (15:7), and sign-actsto mend a covenant that is breaking.
These two narrative sections (chaps. 11-20, 39-45) underscore a fundamental conviction: that which God announces, he fulfills. The frequent threats in chapters 10-20 are reported as fulfilled in the narrative of Babylon's siege of Jerusalem and deportation of her citizenry (esp. 39:1-9). Nebuzaradan, a Babylonian commander, articulates the theology of God's integrity succinctly: "The Lord your God decreed this disaster for this place. And now the Lord has brought it about; he has done just as he said he would" (40:2-3; cf. 44:29).
Yet God was not bound, as another sign-act makes clear, even with a covenant virtually shattered, to proceed with implementing the covenant consequences (18:1-12). Prophecy about the future is conditional; it is not the announcement of a fated destiny. The declaration in Section E is that God is free to initiate a new covenant (31:31-34). God is and remains free.
The Dynamics of an Agenda for Justice (chaps. 21-29 = D; 34-38 = D1). The overriding theological concern in the disputations of Sections D and D1 is justice: "Administer justice every morning" (21:11). The biblical concept of justice involves much more than fairness. It includes compassion for those marginalized and powerless, such as victims of oppression, aliens, widows, and orphans (21:12; 22:3). Justice, the fundamental requirement for political life, is a topic that surfaces sharply in the royal roll call (22:10-23:6). In building an ostentatious palace at the expense of the poor and needy, Jehoiakim failed to do justice (22:13-17). In the section's counterpart (chaps. 34-38 = D1), the same concern for justice appears in the story of Zedekiah's freeing and then reenslaving the slaves (34:1-22). A fundamental conviction is that God is tenacious about justice.
Integrity, part of the justice agenda, is the forefront issue in the indictment against another leadership group, the prophets. A key word in this section is seqer , "deceit." It occurs thirty-seven times in the book, more often than in any other biblical book. The prophets are charged with telling lies and living a lie (23:14). Hananiah is a case in point (chap. 28; cf. 23:16, 25-40; 27:16). Prophets lack integrity; they commit adultery. Ahab and Zedekiah are examples (29:23; cf. 23:14). Any misuse of power, whether by kings or prophets, is altogether counter to "justice, " a matter of "doing the right."
The Prophetic Role: Confrontation. The episodes in these sections are mostly about encounters of confrontation and disputation with leaders. Already clear in the exchanges of Samuel and Saul centuries earlier is the understanding that the call to be a prophet includes confronting public leaders. Standing over the king, given Israel's hierarchy, is the prophet who in the name of God calls the king to account (1:10). In the two sections, evil has faces: Jehoiachim (22:13-19; 36:1-33), Zedekiah (34:8-22), Hananiah (28:1- 17), Ahab and Zedekiah (29:20-23), Shemaiah (29:24-32). The prophet names the evil in the lives of these "dignitaries, " and calls down the consequent punishment. One of the functions of prophets is to identify the shape of evil in a society irrespective of consequences (26:11, 20-23; 37:16; 38:4, 6-9).
People: Free to Choose, but Responsible. An anthropology that holds to the individual's freedom of moral choice is basic to the book, but is highlighted in this section. Early in the section Zedekiah is presented with options: "See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death" (21:8). This theme of choice for both Israel and other nations is made visual in the symbolic action of Jeremiah's wearing the yoke (27:1-15). The theme of choice, accompanied by persuasion (even threats) to choose the good (22:4-5; 25:5-6), surfaces climactically in the final meeting of Jeremiah with Zedekiah (38:20-21). As always, the nexus between choice and destiny is forthrightly stated: to choose the way of disobedience is to be doomed to destruction (21:8-9; 25:8-9; 27:4-6; 38:17-18); to obey is to live (26:13; 35:15).
God: Not Infinitely Patient but Nevertheless Gracious. God pleads for the people not to listen to counterfeit messages (27:16; 29:8-9). Patiently God has dispatched prophets "again and again" (25:4). But God's patience has a limit, which is reached when people and especially leaders reject his communication. Jehoiakim burns the written word (chap. 36). Zedekiah silences the oral word by incarcerating Jeremiah (37:16-38:9). God's patience is exhausted (36:31). A key word, "burn, " in chapters 37-38 recurs in the historical record (39:8).
Beyond judgment lies hope. God's intention is not destruction. His plans for his people are to give them "a hope and a future" (29:11). God remains accessible (29:13). He will watch over the exiles, give them a heart to know him (24:7), and return them from exile to their land (24:6; cf. 23:5-6).
The Dynamics of Hope (chaps. 30-33 = E). The Book of Comfort (chaps. 30-33) occupies a strategic place in the larger book in two ways. The book's chiastic structure puts these four chapters in a pivotal position. Seen as introductory to the second half of the book, these chapters may be compared with the speeches that introduce the first half of the book. The pivotal section takes up, as might be expected, all the threads of the book, but onehopedominates. The motivation for words of hope, unlike the judgment speeches, is without rationale other than God's willing: "I have loved you with an everlasting love" (31:3; 33:11; cf. Deut 7:7-8).
The Saving God. Saving history (cf. Jer. 2-10) meets us here. Echoes of the judgment, even allusion to God's anger, have not disappeared (30:23-24; 31:2; 32:28-29), but the promised salvation lies beyond the exile. God will create a new thing on the earth: his people will be enamored of God (31:22, a likely interpretation of a difficult text). The theme of the little "book, " announced in the opening verses, is restoration: a people spiritually restored to God, a people physically restored to the land (30:3, 3a is better rendered "bring about the restoration of my people Israel"). A spiritually restored people will be intent on the worship of Yahweh instead of idols (30:9, 17; 31:6). Geographically a deported people will be returned from exile to their own land (30:10; 31:8-9, 16). The message is exhilarating: "There is hope for your future" (31:17).
Israel: A Covenant People. Just as other sections (chaps. 11-20, 39-51) turned on covenant, especially covenant curses, so that theme is featured here. Echoes of sin and the fracturing of the earlier covenant remain (30:14; cf. 32:30-35). The concentration of the covenant formula, variously worded, points to a new reality: "I will be your God; you shall be my people" (30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38). The remarkable announcement of a new covenant moves beyond the broken covenant (31:31-34). By his initiative God sets in place a covenant both like and unlike the earlier Sinai covenant. The goal of bondedness remains; the means for achieving that bondedness between people and God is forgiveness and the placing of God's law in people's hearts. It is as though with renewed energy God commits himself to covenant (31:35-37; 33:19-21).
Justice for All. The subject of justice, highlighted in surrounding chapters (21-29, 34-38), also brackets the enlarged Book of Comfort (30:11; 33:15). God will do right by his people (30:11). God's intention is unchanged: he will "rejoice in doing them [Israel] good, and will assuredly plant them in this land" (32:41). If doing justice means to pay attention to the oppressed, then God, fully committed to justice, has swung into action because Israel had become known as "an outcast
for whom no one cares" (30:17). God will do right by Israel's enemies, too. Those who oppress and plunder will be exiled (30:16, 20). In the future time God will establish the righteous Branch (Messiah) who will do "what is just and right in the land"; so the banner over the land will read, "The Lord Our Righteousness" (33:15-16).
The central chapters (30-33) gather up the theology of the book. They offer a synoptic view of God, of Israel (past and future), of nations, and of the prophet, who, caught in the mystification of purchasing land when Jerusalem is besieged, is given and then gives a word of ultimate hope.
Elmer A. Martens
See also Israel; Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy
Bibliography. A. R. Diamond, The Confessions of Jeremiah in Context: Scenes of Prophetic Drama; R. B. Chisholm, Jr., A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 341-59; J. P. Hyatt, IB, pp. 784-87; G. McConville, Judgment and Promise: The Message of Jeremiah; R. E. Manahan, Grace ThJ, 1 (1980): 77-96; E. A. Martens, Reflection and Projection, pp. 83-97; T. W. Overholt, The Threat of Falsehood: A Study in the Theology of the Book of Jeremiah; T. M. Raitt, A Theology of Exile: Judgment and Deliverance in Jeremiah and Ezekiel; C. R. Seitz, Theology in Conflict: Reactions to the Exile in the Book of Jeremiah; J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah; J. Unterman, From Repentance to Redemption: Jeremiah's Thought in Transition; W. A. VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word; G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology.