Week Forty Three: Jeremiah 30–33; 36; Lamentations 1; 3
In the first chapters of Jeremiah, the eponymous prophet implores Israel to recognize they have left the true God to wander after false idols. Even now, reading those passages, one hopes Israel will retrench and turn back from the wicked ways that have so alienated them from God and God from them. But soon the Lord makes it clear that these wayward souls have dug themselves in so deep and are so disinclined to repent, that there will be no way around the troubles to come but to go through them.
By chapter 30, Jeremiah has a new message to share with the sons and daughters of Israel who now are clearly condemned to a life of exile. The book begins with this declaration:
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying,
Thus speaketh the Lord God of Israel, saying, Write thee all the words that I have spoken unto thee in a book.
For, lo, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah, saith the Lord: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it.”(Jeremiah 30:1-4)
This announcement introduces an entirely separate section of Jeremiah’s prophecies which has been designated by some as “The Book of Restoration” (Footnote #3 in Chapter 30 of Jeremiah in The Hebrew Bible, Prophets, translated by Robert Alter, pg. 958).
No sooner is the promise of restoration extended, than the prophet poetically clarifies that great sorrow and anguish will precede any restoration. The warning is almost bizarre in its characterization of the misery that will overcome the men of Israel and Judah:
A voice of terror we have heard,
Fear and not peace.
Ask, pray and see,
If a male is giving birth.
Why do I see every man
His hands in his loins like a woman in labor
And every face turned sickly green?
Woe, for great is that day,
There is nothing like it,
And a time of distress for Jacob,
But from it he shall be rescued. (Jeremiah 5-7, The Hebrew Bible)
This portrayal of the suffering of Israel’s men is gruesome. I say that with the authority of a mom who has gone through 11 labors without an epidural. But I also find it a little funny. Jeremiah uses this painful, but normal, physical passage for women as a metaphor for super extreme anguish for men. The King James Version of 30:5-7 reads: “We have heard a voice of trembling, of fear and not of peace. Ask ye now, and see whether a man doth travail with child? Wherefore do I see every man with his hands on his loins,as a woman in travail, and all faces are turned into paleness? Alas for that day is great, so that none is like it; it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble;
But here we are able to appreciate the poetic power of this metaphor. Though the men of Israel will suffer deeply at the humiliation and torment of the defeats that will inevitably follow their faithlessness; their suffering, like the suffering of a woman in the course of childbirth, will not have been in vain – if it moves them to humility and repentance. Verse 7 ends, “but he shall be saved out of it.”
Verse 8 goes on to declare,” For it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord of hosts, that I will break his yoke from off thy neck, and will burst thy bonds, and strangers shall no more serve themselves of him: But they shall serve the Lord their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up unto them.”
The vision Jeremiah puts forth is multi-layered. Those that oppress the Lord’s chosen people shall find themselves oppressed. But the cruel wounds suffered by God’s people have been, in this particular situation, the consequences of their own bad choices. In 30:11 we read, ” For I am with thee, saith the Lord, to save thee: though I make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee, yet I will not make a full end of thee: but I will correct thee in measure, and will not leave thee altogether unpunished.”
Like the unmitigated pains of labor, which, though agonizing, yield the wonder of a newborn baby, the pains of Israel will ultimately be fruitful. Their extreme discomfort will precede the birth of a new era, one which will see the liberation of Israel from foreign rule and usher in the reign of a wise, enlightened and benevolent leader from the line of King David.
Re-reading these prophecies, it is a little easier to understand the spiritual confusion that engulfed Judea in the time of Christ. Centuries after their time as slaves in Egypt, centuries after their vassal status to Assyria, and centuries after the Babylonian captivity of Jeremiah’s time, the Jews in Israel were still ruled by foreign overlords. Those who read the holy writings of prophets like Jeremiah were anticipating a Savior who would literally restore the rule of a descendant of their beloved King David. They did not understand the important spiritual awakening that would have to precede this messianic kingdom.
I imagine the Jewish remnant who regrouped in the land of Israel after World War ll also dreamed that David Ben Gurion would represent a new era of peace and restoration for Israel. Then as now, the Lord will not overrule the choices we make. The final verses of Jeremiah 30 offer us a stern hope:
Behold the whirlwind of the Lord goeth forth with fury, a continuing whirlwind: it shall fall with pain upon the head of the wicked.
The fierce anger of the Lord shall not return, until he have done it, and until he have performed the intents of his heart: in the latter days he shall consider it.
The Lord still promises his children on earth an ultimate victory over evil, over darkness, over violence and over death itself. But as Jeremiah warned the proud and too cool for God during his times, we too must heed his warnings and those of Latter day prophets who understand and reiterate the requirement that we repent,and humbly live in harmony with His will so we are ready when the Lord saith, And ye shall be my people and I will be your God.” Jeremiah 30:22