Lesson 5 of5
In Progress

Theological Themes in Jeremiah

The anger of God

God’s wrath is a strong feature in the book of Jeremiah. In a basic sense, the theme of wrath reveals that God is affected by what people do and responds to what they have said and done from within the relationship. It is important to understand that the divine wrath is contingent and not an essential characteristic or attribute of God. God’s anger is “provoked” (see 8:19; 11:17; 25:6-7; 32:29-32; 44:3, 8). If there were no sin, there would be no divine wrath. Indeed, Israel itself is to blame for the sufferings it has had to experience, not God. Moreover, God’s tears always accompany divine anger (see, for example, 8:18-9:1); the harsh words that are conveyed are not accompanied by an inner harshness. God’s wrathful response to Israel’s unfaithfulness is, finally, in the service of the best possible future for Israel; through judgment they are refined and renewed in their relationship with God. God’s promises will prevail through every disaster.

Creation

Creation in Jeremiah is most fundamentally the activity of God in bringing the cosmos into being and includes both originating and continuing creative activity. Such an understanding grounds God’s call to Jeremiah as “a prophet to the nations” (1:5, 10) as well as the variety of ways in which the nations become the subject of various oracles (25; 46-51). Creation also includes the activity of creatures (human and nonhuman) in and through which God works to create in ever new ways, even among the exiles in a foreign land (29:5-14).

Divine freedom

Certainly God is free to enter into judgment against God’s own people (and others). At the same time, God’s freedom cannot be maintained in an unqualified way for Jeremiah. The immense agony of God over what has happened with the people demonstrates that God is not truly free of God’s relationship with Israel. If God were truly free of Israel, God would just get up and leave. But God has made significant commitments to this people, and God is bound to be faithful to promises made. Such promises limit the divine options. God is truly limited by promises made, for God will be faithful to them.

Divine presence

For Jeremiah, God is not a God who is aloof and distant, but one who is near at hand, present and active in the lives of peoples and nations. That God “fills heaven and earth” (23:24) is a claim that God’s relationship with the world is comprehensive in scope, present not only to Israel, but to all peoples. Other Old Testament texts will fill out what it means for the world to be filled with God; the world is also full of the steadfast love of God (Psalm 33:5; 119:64) and the glory of God (Isaiah 6:3). God is a part of the map of reality and is always relational, indeed lovingly relational to all that is not God. Wherever there is world, there is God. To say that the world is filled with the love of God means that God’s presence is not static or passive or indifferent. God is not simply here and there; God is always lovingly at work in every nook and cranny of the universe.

Eating the word of God

Because Jeremiah is called by God from the womb, being a prophet defines his person from the very beginning of his life; it is the very essence of his being. He is called not only to be a certain kind of speaker, but a certain kind of person. Hence, he no longer has a private life he can call his own (see 16:1-9). This point is reinforced by God’s placing the word directly into Jeremiah’s mouth (1:9-10; 15:17); the word is transferred directly into his bodily self (comparably, Ezekiel 2:8-3:3). Jeremiah thus ingests the word of God; the word of God is thereby enfleshed in the very being of the prophet. You are what you eat! Jeremiah is embodied word of God.

False prophecy

Conflict among prophets, often mentioned in Jeremiah, was a common phenomenon in Israel, especially in the decades leading up to the fall of Jerusalem. Various criteria were apparently used to distinguish true prophets from false prophets. Examples include: their worship of false gods, including Baal; false claims to have received a word from God; to have had visions and dreams; immorality; absence from the council of the Lord (see especially 23:9-40; 27-28). Yet, these are not sure-fire criteria, not least because they cannot be publicly demonstrated. Even so, issues of discernment regarding the truth or falsehood of a word from God remain important. The community of faith is called to be vigilant and always to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).

The future and divine foreknowledge

Jeremiah contains several texts with an “either-or” form of address. Jeremiah 22:1-5 may be used as an example (see also 21:8-10; 38:17-18; 42:9-17). Two specific possibilities are open to the king and the people, depending upon the justice of their activities, according to the command of the Lord (22:3). For each of these options to have integrity, God cannot know for sure what will in fact happen–at least at the time this oracle was delivered. If God knows for certain that the negative future will occur, then for God to offer the positive future would be a deception. The latter is a possibility, but in the absence of some indication that this is the case, it seems unlikely; all of God’s words regarding the future would then be potentially untrustworthy. The options offered to people and king are genuine, and it seems that God moves into a future that is somewhat unknown. The future depends to some extent on what the people do regarding issues of justice (in modern terms, think in terms of the care of the environment).

God

God is the primary character in the book of Jeremiah. Virtually every characteristic of God that is found in the Old Testament is found here. God is seen to be present and active, among both chosen and nonchosen peoples, from the beginning of the book and throughout. God’s activity is often depicted in terms of wrath and judgment. Yet, God’s work is always seen as purposive, directed toward objectives that are in the best interests of individuals and peoples involved, indeed the entire creation. God’s promises are spoken in the very midst of judgment and assure God’s people that they have a future.

God’s use of human agents

A characteristic theological feature of Jeremiah is God’s action in Israel’s history in and through agents, especially human agents. Babylon is the most prominent agent used by God, especially in the judgment of Israel. Indeed, Nebuchadnezzar is called God’s servant (25:9; 27:6; 43:10)! The coalescence of God’s actions and those of Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar is common throughout the book. Indeed, God and Babylon will often be the subject of the same verbs, even violent verbs. For example, God will not pity or spare or have compassion (13:14), language that is also used to describe Babylon (21:7). Language regarding divine activity is thus conformed to the language of God’s agents. This use of language makes clear that God is not the only effective agent in the judgment of Israel. Moreover, God will not micromanage the activities of the agents; they can and do exceed the divine mandate (25:12-14).

Heschel on the wrath of God

For the prophets, according to Abraham Heschel, “the wrath of God is a lamentation. All prophecy is one great exclamation; God is not indifferent to evil! He is always concerned. He is personally affected by what man does to man [sic!]. He is a God of pathos. This is one of the meanings of the anger of God: the end of indifference! The message of wrath is frightful indeed. But for those who have been driven to the brink of despair by the sight of what malice and ruthlessness can do, comfort will be found in the thought that evil is not the end….Man’s sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey. Is it a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed?” (The Prophets [New York: Harper & Row, 1962] 284-285).

Jeremiah’s use of sexual/marital imagery

Sexual/marital imagery is used in Jeremiah in troubling ways (3:1-5; 13:20-27; see also Hosea 1-3, probably a source for Jeremiah). In terms of the marital metaphor, Yahweh is the husband of Israel who has been betrayed by his wife, with all of the negative effects that that produces in the lives of those involved, including the life of God. Readers are invited to compare feelings they would have if their spouse proved unfaithful–anger, distress, frustration, and hurt–and think of a comparable effect that Israel’s infidelity had on God.

Judgment as circumstantial will of God

Passages such as Jeremiah 26:3 and 36:3 make clear that two understandings of the will of God are present in these texts, one of which takes priority over the other. God does “intend” that the people experience the consequences of their wickedness. This mediation of sin’s consequences might be termed the circumstantial will of God; it is God’s will for them only in view of the specific circumstances that have developed. Judgment is not the primary will of God for the people: God desires the people’s repentance so that God can change God’s mind regarding the judgment. God prefers Israel’s life to Israel’s death, salvation instead of judgment. That this is God’s absolute will comes into play again when God’s promises are announced to those who have experienced judgment. God’s primary will for life and salvation persists through the fires of judgment.

New covenant and old covenant

What are the differences between the new covenant and the Sinai covenant? The new covenant is grounded in a newly constitutive, salvific event, namely, the return from exile (see 16:14-15; 23:7-8). Moreover, the new covenant cannot be broken by either people or God; it is everlasting. Also, the new covenant has a unilateral character; the new covenant is sheer promise; it is not agreed to by the people. God alone assumes obligations to remain forever committed to this people, with attendant blessings, come what may. In addition, everyone in the community, from the least to the greatest, will know the Lord. Sin (and death, 31:30; see also Isaiah 65:20) will continue to be characteristic of their lives, but they will not have an “evil will” ever again, for God’s forgiveness (independent of repentance?) will regularly take hold in their lives, and the past shall not be remembered.

A new heart that will never turn from God

God promises Israel that they will receive the gift of “one heart and one way” so that “they may not turn from me” (32:37-41). Indeed, God will do this “with all my heart and all my soul”! The accompanying promise regarding land assures that a disembodied spirituality is not in view (32:41-44). This new heart is sharply different from the old heart in that the people will not turn from God again, indeed they cannot turn from God. They will fear God “for all time” and will not “turn from me.” This new creation differs from the old creation, wherein human beings were able to sin (and did). The new creation seems to yield human beings who will “not be able to sin” (also characteristic of Christian eschatology). Or, at least, in view of 31:30, sin in the sense of an evil will; perhaps sin as act is distinguished from sin as condition. It is clear that this text has not yet been fulfilled.

The pathos of God

The relational God of Jeremiah is not an aloof God, somehow present but detached. God is a God of great passion (pathos). The range of emotions shown by God in the book of Jeremiah is unparalleled in biblical literature: sorrow, lament, weeping, wailing, grief, pain, anguish, regret, heartache, anger, disappointment, and frustration are all evident. This anthropopathic language is truly revealing of the divine life, though God’s emotions are unlike human emotions in many respects. For example, God is never out of control or embittered or immobilized or forgetful of divine commitments. Yet, this God is in a genuine relationship with the people of Israel, engages in genuine interaction with them, and is affected deeply by what happens in this engagement.

Relationality

God is a relational God, present and active in the world, who enters into a relationship with the prophet, the people, and an interrelated world. The world is envisaged as a giant spider web in which the movement of any entity affects the entire web, with human beings having the greatest potential effect. The relationship between God and world is a living and dynamic reality (more comprehensive than covenant), within which both parties are affected by the realities of genuine interrelatedness over time.

Sin and judgment

Sin and judgment are remarkably common themes in the book. The relationship between them is conceived in intrinsic rather than forensic terms. As such, judgment may be defined as the divinely mediated consequences of sin. This understanding may be observed in formulations such as “the fruit of their schemes” (6:19; see 14:16; 17:10; 32:19). Like fruit, the consequences grow out of the deed itself; they are not imposed by God from without (as, for example, a penalty). It is thus wise not to refer to such judgments as punishments (for which there is no Hebrew word, in any case); rather, judgment refers to the natural consequences of sin that are integral to God’s creational moral order, an order which God continues to mediate.

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