Make Option 02: Read these passages from Jeremiah: 1:1-19; 2:1-13; 4:23-28; 5:1-5; 7:1-34; 8:18–9:3; 18:1-12; 20:7-13; 23:9-32; 31; 32:1-15. Which of these texts sound to you like prophecies of “doom”? Which, by contrast, of “hope”? What make the differences? Do you find it credible that these types of utterance could both come from the same prophet? To what of Judah’s political circumstances might each be appropriate during Jeremiah’s career? If you are someone who preaches, do you preach both “doom” and “hope”? Under what circumstances, and what makes the difference?
First, a brief background. This background is summarized from my reading of Christopher Stanley’s The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet in 627 B.C.E. (according to Jeremiah 1:1-3). He took up this vocation at a young age and, through visions and direct speech, proclaimed the judgment God intended to bring upon the people of Israel as a consequence of their rebellious actions. The rebellion involved social injustices and worship of other gods. Jeremiah worked as a prophet in the years leading up to the Babylonian invasion and the years immediately following.
Jeremiah 1:1-19 (Hope/Doom)
“See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10) The notes in the Harper-Collins Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version) identify this verse as a motif that summarizes the alternating messages of doom/hope throughout the book of Jeremiah. According to these notes, the message of destruction (destroy and overthrow, pluck up and pull down) points to the oracles in chapters 2-25, and the message of hope (build and plant) points to the messages of salvation in chapters 30-31. Therefore, this message of Jeremiah’s calling seems to hold both doom and hope, with an overarching message of Yahweh’s intended protection over the work Jeremiah is being called to do.
Jeremiah 2:1-13 (Doom)
This is a message of doom, though it seems to be equal parts mourning (of the people abandoning Yahweh) and doom (the punishment that shall not escape the people of Israel). Jeremiah 2:8 communicates a metaphor of God as a husband to the people of Israel, a narrative that plays out in the mournful image of a bride leaving her husband. This passage portrays doom in the expansive nature of the sinful behavior and the resulting punishments. Those who abandoned Yahweh are identified as priests, rulers, and prophets (2:8), a large segment of the population. The resulting punishment is even more expansive, with Yahweh accusing even their children’s children (2:9), naming Israel as a worthless people (2:5), and proclaiming that the people have forsaken God and are unable to save themselves (2:13).
Jeremiah 4:23-28 (Doom)
Except for 4:27, which the Harper Collins notes name as a later prose insertion meant to promise that destruction would not be total, this passage contains an overarching message of doom. Jeremiah uses language that calls the earth “waste and void” (4:23), entirely “laid in ruins” (4:26), containing no life, human or otherwise. This state of devastation is a vision of the outcome of Yahweh’s anger (4:26). The vivid descriptions of the entirety of destruction, and the eerie vision of a world completely void of life, frame the message as one of hopeless doom.
Jeremiah 5:1-5 (Doom)
This passage also contains a message of doom, particularly in the context of the expanse of people who “act justly” (5:1). The ultimate message of doom here is “But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds” (5:5). This paints a picture of a land where absolutely no one keeps Yahweh’s commandments.
Jeremiah 7:1-34 (Doom)
While this passage begins with a suggestion of hope (“[If you amend your ways] I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever” (7:7)), the mood quickly shifts to one of doom, portrayed in the reality of the situation and the expectation that the people will not amend their ways. One of the messages of doom is that Yahweh is refusing to listen to the people and forbidding Jeremiah from interceding for the people (7:16). The words of Yahweh relate Yahweh’s intended silence to the manner in which the people have consistently ignored the warnings of the prophets. This paints a sort of “eye for an eye” picture of Yahweh’s punishment, which adds to the hopeless message of the text. The punishment here is graphic: “The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth” (7:33), naming the place the valley of Slaughter. The refusal of Yahweh to listen to the people, and the graphic depictions of punishment without relent, make the message here one of overwhelming doom.
Jeremiah 8:18-9:3 (Doom)
This message contains no hope. Jeremiah is offering a lament (much like the lament psalms and the lament we find in Job 3) for the destruction of the people of Israel. The hopeless message is beautifully written, but extremely sorrowful. An example of the tone of the passage is: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20). Sad. Poetic. Honest.
Jeremiah 18:1-12 (Doom)
Here God offers a way out of destruction for Israel. Yahweh describes himself as a potter, carefully devising plans that are malleable based on the actions of the people. God offers a plan for repentance and a promise of changing God’s mind about the intended disaster if the people amend their evil ways (18:8). But the people speak “We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will” (18:12). Therefore, what was meant to be hopeful is, again, a message of doom. This passage is particularly sad because the message of hope is almost dangled like a carrot, but then taken away again because the people will not repent. (The carrot metaphor doesn’t quite work, because God is not taunting the people in that way, but rather the people’s own foolishness is reaping due consequence.)
Jeremiah 20:7-13 (Hope/Doom)
This is a disturbing passage. Dr. Brooke Lester refers to this passage in his Lecture Part B, discussing scholarly opinions that the passage can be read as suggesting the image of God as a rapist, seducing and overpowering Jeremiah (20:7). Even in the midst of this difficult imagery, Jeremiah seems to paint a more hopeful picture of God, even commanding praises to the Lord for “delivering the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” (20:13). Here Jeremiah seems to offer a hopeful, if not honest and disturbing, message of God’s ultimate protection from enemies. Though one has to wonder, in this context, what protects from the violence of God??
Jeremiah 23:9-32 (Doom)
Much of this passage involves an oracle against false prophets (23:9-15), putting God in opposition to those who “speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (23:16). The message from the prophet Jeremiah seems to be not one of comfort, but one of punishment and doom, stemming from the honest examination of the actions and consequences for the people of Israel. The key idea is that “God will “bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment” (23:12).
Jeremiah 31 (Hope)
This passage is hopeful, conveyed in a tone that is altogether different from the preceding passages we have examined. The message is that “there is hope for your future” (31:17), and that God will “turn mourning into joy, comfort, and give gladness for sorrow” (31:13). The tone is so unlike the other passages that it seems to be coming from a voice other than Jeremiah. From a voice other than the Yahweh who spoke doom in the other passages. More on this in a bit…
Jeremiah 32:1-15 (Hope)
This passage outlines a purchase of a field during the time of Babylonian conquest and threatened exile, an act that shows great hope in the midst of unrest. The act of buying land is one of trust in God’s faithfulness and hope for a future where Israelites will be free in the land promised to them. Here God says, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15), offering hope for future restoration.
The mixture of hope and doom in Jeremiah is somewhat perplexing. The tone of hope versus doom is so vastly different that it does sound like a different voice making the proclamations. The historical situation in Judah provides one possible reason for the contrasting messages. When there is an obvious impending Babylonian invasion the tone shifts to one of hope, providing the people of Israel with a vision to sustain them throughout the years of exile. This situation makes it plausible that the prophet might change his tone in order to offer hope to a people in a dire situation.
In Dr. Lester’s Lecture Part B, he discusses the 2-part message that is involved in preaching the gospel: the message of God’s call (invitation) to all people, shaped by love and comfort, and the message of God’s claim, the demands or expectations that come with the call. The context of the congregation at any given time informs whether the message needs to be centered more on call or claim. My preaching experience is still somewhat limited, but when I have preached I’ve tended to try to gently weave together call and claim in the message. I think that typically both call and claim are there to balance one another, and to help congregations move safely in the direction in which God is calling them. That said, I also think there are times when one message must be the sole focus, and must be proclaimed boldly as Jeremiah did. For instance, in times of stagnation congregations need to step up to God’s demands for justice. In times of grief, congregations need to hear messages of comfort. This is perhaps what Jeremiah was trying to do with the people he ministered to, the people over whom he lamented in a very pastoral way.