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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

The Message of Jeremiah

Jeremiah's outlook is far reaching, extending even to the nations as one might expect from his commission, “before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you” ( 1, 5 ). He is concerned with a world view that finds expression in story, symbol, and action. The worldview is not static or fixed, however, for it is profoundly shaped by events, the movement of history, which the prophets believe is directed by the Lord. To the prophets is revealed the significance of that history for Israel. To Jeremiah in particular was revealed the significance for Israel of the decline of the Assyrian Empire and the rise of the Babylonian, as well as the significance of the inability of the people and their leaders to reform their lives and respond to the Lord. Many prophets, like Hananiah (28), assured the people that the hostile empires were a passing phase, and that God would rescue them or bring them back from Babylon after a very short stay. No change in the attitude of the people was called for. Jeremiah knew better. Rejecting such false comfort, he was convinced that the people had to go through a terrible process of judgment before there could be any restoration. He believed the false prophets had dreamed up their soothing message. He asked them the crucial question: “Who has stood in the council of the Lord, to see him and to hear his word? Who has heeded his word, so as to announce it?” ( 23, 18 ). The answer: only Jeremiah. Why would he invent a message that cost him such suffering?

Jeremiah's message cannot be separated from the traditions that he chooses to retell and interpret. The Exodus in all its breadth was the tradition that most captivated the prophet's imagination and shaped his message. He viewed it not as a wonder of the past but as a divine deed that was still powerful. He had a tremendous trust in the Exodus as the founding event of Israel. In the Exodus, God established the community by freeing them from Egyptian tyranny and forming them into a new people. This dual action, liberation and formation, showed the Lord's love and invited in turn an affectionate and exclusive response from the people. Once upon a time, in the early days of Josiah, Jeremiah expected the king's reform to purify hearts and engender the love and devotion of the original Exodus. Events taught Jeremiah something else: first there must be divine judgment, a process that will punish and, he hoped, purify the people so that God and people could enter into that relationship afresh. Judgment would be accomplished within history, by Babylon (here he was taught by Isaiah's view of Assyria), and only after purgation could restoration take place. Meanwhile, the prophet must make the people understand that the enemy from the north is inevitable; it is the Lord's instrument. The people must accept the Babylonian incursion from the Lord's hand, and not deceive themselves by entering into anti‐Babylonian alliances or by credulous acceptance of prophets who proclaimed “Peace! Peace!” Jeremiah's own struggle with this hard divine decision could serve as a model for the people as they face this bitter process.

Characteristic of Jeremiah is his fidelity to the Exodus of which the covenant is an essential component. Despite the bitterness of his message about the immediate prospects of the people, his view of the future is positive because it is based upon the Exodus as an enduring event done by the Lord.

The New Covenant

Though a few modern scholars separate the Exodus from Egypt from the giving of the law at Sinai, Jeremiah regarded them as constituting one great event. When he spoke about the covenant, he implied that God had first initiated the relationship in the liberation from Egyptian bondage. The new covenant spoken of in the Book of Consolation (chapters 30 and 31 ) is shorthand for the entire Exodus. As already suggested, the chapters seem to have been originally addressed to people of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel and was adapted to the inhabitants of Jerusalem within the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The covenant had been annulled by the people's apostasy ( 11, 1–17 ; cf. 2 Kgs 17, 1–24; 22, 10–15 ). Jeremiah knew, however, that the Mosaic covenant, immediately after being mediated by Moses at Mount Sinai, had been broken when the people worshipped the golden calf (Ex 32 ). Yet God forgave even that apostasy after Moses' strenuous intercession: “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company.… ‘Here, then,’ said the Lord ‘is the covenant I will make. Before the eyes of all your people I will work such marvels as have never been wrought in any nation anywhere on earth, so that this people among whom you live may see how awe‐inspiring are the deeds which I, the Lord, will do at your side’‐” (Ex 34, 9–10 ).

This forgiveness of the people in the Sinai wilderness can be considered a renewed or “new” covenant, and it served as a precedent for Jeremiah's new covenant. Aware that in his own day the people had again rejected the covenant, Jeremiah proclaimed that the people could keep it only if God changed their hearts. In the Bible, the heart is the organ of memory and decision rather than the organ of affections. The new heart is a metaphor for a fresh initiative by God to strengthen the will of the people. In mentioning the heart, Jeremiah was not eliminating teachers and preachers; otherwise, he himself would have no right to preach! But he was emphasizing God's role in helping human beings to respond to the divine word.

It is important to remember two things about the new covenant. First, the new covenant does not replace the old. Old does not mean worn out and ready to be discarded; it means venerable yet capable of being renewed, like the Sinai covenant after the apostasy of the golden calf (Ex 32–34 ). Second, the exiled people of Judah were included in Jeremiah's new covenant, for they returned to the land and observed once again their ancient covenant with the Lord. One need not hold that the new covenant of the New Testament invalidates the old covenant in the Old Testament. In his first epistle John paradoxically plays with the idea of the old and the new:

Beloved, I am writing no new commandment to you but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. And yet I do write a new commandment to you, which holds true in him and among you, for the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. (1 Jn 2, 7–8 )

The old became new in a distinctive way within the “coming days” through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 1, 1–4; 1 Cor 15, 12–28 ). This new covenant is commemorated in each Eucharist (Lk 22, 20; 1 Cor 11, 25 ). The “newness” of the new covenant appears ever more clearly in one of the final New Testament compositions, Hebrews 11, 7–13 . Finally, Vatican II's document on the Church turned to this passage as a biblical foundation for rediscovering a communitarian model of the Church as the “people of God” (Lumen Gentium, n. 9).

Sin and Atonement

The prophet declares realistically that sin inevitably brings its own punishment. If the people “went after empty idols, [then they] became empty themselves” (Jer 2, 5 ), and again in the same chapter: “Your own wickedness chastises you” ( 2, 19 ). One is transformed for good or bad into that which one desires.

Another aspect of Jeremiah's theology of sin and atonement becomes clear through the Hebrew verb for “chastise”: yasar. It stresses the purifying and strengthening results of punishment as well as God's compassion:

I hear, I hear Ephraim pleading: You chastised me, and I am chastened;… If you allow me, I will return, … Is Ephraim not.… the child in whom I delight?… My heart stirs for him, I must show him mercy, says the LORD (31, 18.20).

This sequence of sin‐suffering‐repentance‐forgiveness‐new life is also found in the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy to 2 Kings); Judges 2, 10–23 is a particularly good example. Jeremiah develops the tradition. In the movement from sin to suffering, Jeremiah was never far removed from the agony of the people Israel ( 3, 19–25 ). In this way he understood his call to celibacy ( 16, 1–4 ). Yet, as another passage points out, hope is always stirring within the barren earth ( 17, 5–8 ).

Faith and Prayer

Jeremiah is continually laying bare the anguish of his heart. Nowhere, however, does he wrestle with God so fiercely as in his confessions: 12, 1–5; 15, 10–21; 17, 12–18; 18, 18–23; 20, 7–18. Here Jeremiah confronts God with defiant questions, yet stands on the solid rock of faith in God's fidelity and concern. In 12, 1 Jeremiah begins with faith but immediately proceeds to question that faith. Translated literally, verse 1 sternly speaks its message:

You [are] just, LORD! Yet I must argue my case publicly against you. Why does the way of the godless prosper?

God never answers Jeremiah's question but rather expects his faith to become even sturdier. A literal translation of 12, 5 reads:

If running against human beings wearies you, how will you race against horses? if you are secure only in a land of peace, what will you do in the thickets of the Jordan?

Symbolically Jeremiah is admitting that things must get worse before they can get better. He will in any case plunge ahead.

True and False Prophecy

Jeremiah defies the conventional expectations of an authentic prophet. First of all, he seldom if ever claims this title; editors or biographers bestow it upon him. Another proof for an authentic prophet's mission from the Lord was to be found in the fulfillment of prophecy (Dt 18, 21–22; Jer 28 ). Jeremiah's prediction about the return of the northern tribes in 31, 1–20 seems never to have come true in the literal sense initially intended by the prophet, but only in its extended form as applied to all the Babylonian exiles. Another kind of fulfillment of the same passage was Matthew 2, 16–23 , which applies Jeremiah's words to the return of Jesus to Palestine after the tyrant no longer threatens the child.

In chapter 23 , Jeremiah stressed moral integrity as a sign of true prophecy. He lashed out angrily:

Concerning the prophets: My heart within me is broken, my bones all tremble… Because of the Lord, because of his holy words. With adulterers the land is filled… Both prophet and priest are godless! In my very house I find their wickedness, says the LORD. ( 23, 9–11 )

In calling the priests and temple prophets adulterers, Jeremiah is speaking metaphorically; in their ministry they have betrayed the supreme and intimate love of God. To justify their own halfhearted and wicked ways, they failed to warn the people, who were guilty of injustices and sensuality.

Yet personal faultlessness is a difficult criterion of true prophecy. Few if any prophets were without faults. For instance, someone might use against Jeremiah and Amos their own bitter, revengeful language (Am 4, 1; Jer 18, 19–23; 22, 18f ).

Some may think that prophets are genuine if they carry within themselves a strong conviction of their divine call. Against this credential is Jeremiah's own indecisiveness, waiting “some time” ( 28, 12 ) or “ten days” ( 42, 7 ) before replying. His confessions reveal still more trepidation and uncertainty. Still another credential, advanced for true prophecy, comes from community acceptance. Against this condition we think at once of Jesus' remark: “no prophet is accepted in his own native place” (Lk 4, 24 ). Jeremiah is the classic example of the rejected prophet.

Judgment and Restoration

One of the enduring contributions of Jeremiah is his conviction that Israel must undergo a kind of death before it can be given new life by God. Evidently he once thought that royal reforms could remake the people, but after viewing the warlike Babylonians, the cowardly kings after Josiah, and the moral failings of his people, he came to the conclusion that destruction was inevitable. Believing in the Lord's control of God of history, his justice, and his love for Israel, Jeremiah concluded that the divine judgment about to fall, however horrible, would in fact bring about divine justice. The people Israel had nothing ultimately to fear from their Lord who even in judgment was liberating and forming them, as in the Exodus of old. Their “death,” accepted with trust, would lead to their “resurrection.” Just as Jeremiah continued to believe in the Lord who plunged him into a furnace of suffering in the hope he would rescue him from it, so the people must trust in their just and loving Lord. Judgment was a process that involved more than punishment; it brought restoration of a purified people and made possible a new covenant.

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