Breaking through the din of judgment, prophecies of doom, and cries of lament that mark chapter 9 of the book of Jeremiah are these words:
Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the LORD.” (RSV, emphasis added)
Jeremiah is a prophet who lived in a time of great geopolitical turmoil. Assyria controlled much of the fertile crescent in which Jerusalem is a part. Egypt had aspirations to move northward with the help of Assyria, while the Babylonians enjoyed great military success in conquering kingdoms as they moved southward. Jerusalem is caught between these military powers.
Much of Jeremiah’s prophecy puts these geopolitical movements into the hands of God. The impending doom which will destroy the temple and send many of the leaders of Jerusalem away is seen as God’s way of punishing the unfaithfulness of God’s own people who turned to idols and mistreated the poor. In the first chapters it is suggested that if the inhabitants of Jerusalem would just repent, then all the trouble would go away.
They do, at the end of chapter 3: “let us lie down in our shame, and let our dishonor cover us; for we have sinned against the LORD our God… (3:25).”
Despite their confession, the trouble remains–the foreign armies continue their plans for battle.
A few weeks ago, I complained about the judgmental stories that mark the first season of Star Trek, the Next Generation. As the series continues on there is more to like. I share a quote spoken by Captain Picard: “You can make no mistakes and still lose. That is life.”
You can repent, you can turn back to God, and still the powers of this world continue to rise. You can turn to God, you can trust God, and still not have the life you seek. You will not find a prosperity gospel in Jeremiah, the idea if you do good things, good things will happen to you. But you may find a soul who understands Picard’s words all too well.
For what did God do wrong that the people stopped listening? What did God do wrong that made people travel their own paths? What did God do that allowed people to treat the aliens and widows among them without concern?
What did God do wrong that made you stop listening? How long do you expect to punish God?
The genius of Jeremiah is that even as Jeremiah allows the voice of God’s judgment to speak, so too does the voice of God’s sorrow. As Patrick D. Miller, commentator for the New Interpreter’s Bible, writes, “The anguish of the prophet over the heedlessness of the people overlaps with the anguish of God (563).”
“Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the
daughter of my people
not been restored?
O that my head were waters,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
that I might weep day and night
for the slain of the daughter of
my people! (Jeremiah 8: 22 – 9: 1)
While Jeremiah refuses to let go of the idea that God is punishing the people–moving nations against them, because of their idolatry–so too Jeremiah refuses to let go of the idea that God loves enough; no–feels powerless enough, to cry out: Why?
Why? It is a question we share with God. Why do you turn away from me?
The question has many answers and no answers at all. What is most clear from the heartfelt plea we share with our God is we long for one another.
Is there no balm in Gilead? How can we “understand and know” this God? Is there no physician there who would fix the broken relationship of God’s people to God? Is there a way to move forward again together?
For us, Jesus leads the way.
We, like Jesus did long ago, can choose to travel with the Holy One despite the powers that operate against that alliance. There will always be those things that distract and cause us to fear. But, if we choose to hear our scripture, there will always be another choice…to walk with God believing that our journey to enter into the unknown together will create new possibilities, even new life.
“the LORD is the true God;
he is the living God and the
everlasting King (Jeremiah 10: 10).”