Jeremiah 22-23, selected verses
Jeremiah is a stern prophet. There are no easy answers, no quick fixes on offer. The heart of Jeremiah’s prophecy is that the nation is going to collapse and there’s nothing anybody can do about it, because is the one responsible for it. In Jeremiah’s time a new king had just come to the throne and the new king was disastrous—stoking battles with enemies abroad and hostile to the needs of the nation’s neediest. The new king did not like criticism and so surrounded himself with those advisors and prophets who would say: it shall be well with you, no calamity will come. Look around—peace! Peace!” But there was no peace.
Far sooner than anyone expected, the nation was going to collapse, the capital would be destroyed, the people sent into exile. There would be no way to recover from that, the nation would be forever changed, what would be lost is irreplaceable. It was just around the corner and no one knew it. Well almost no one. Jeremiah saw it clearly. Saw what was going to happen and knew why it was going to happen, too. Jeremiah saw the destruction of the nation coming from a mile away, because of who he was, where he was from. Jeremiah could see the truth because he was a priest in a long line of priests from the town Anathoth. It made all the difference that he was a priest of Anathoth.
340 years earlier, 340 years before Jeremiah was born, King David was on the throne. He had built the nation into what it was, but now he was old, and sick, and dying. A power struggle erupted among his sons over who would succeed him on the throne. The nation divided itself up into two camps. Some of the generals in the army went to this camp, some generals went to that camp. Some priests went to this camp, some priests went to that camp. The nation was divided between these two sons of David. One side would be the winner, one side would be the loser. Jeremiah’s ancestors had been priests, priests who joined sides with the loser.
Because of this they were banished from the capital, banished from the temple, banished to a nowhere town called Anathoth. There they were to toil away on the margins of the nation, there they were to suffer and to find their suffering didn’t matter to those in power, there they were to raise criticisms of the direction of the nation and find their words meant nothing. They hadn’t understood that the nation had an underside, until they found themselves there.
For 340 years, the priests of Anathoth, Jeremiah’s ancestors, suffered on the underside of the nation. But over the years, more and more people joined them on the underside. First it had been the enemies of the king. Then it was the foreigners too, those living in abroad as refugees, poor and counted as interlopers, who were denied the rights afforded them by the laws of Moses. Then it was the widows too, the most vulnerable women when women were all vulnerable, they were denied protection and care they were entitled to under the laws of Moses. Then it was children, even, orphaned children helplessly beyond the protection of family, the most vulnerable children when all children were vulnerable, who were denied care, care that was commanded in the law of Moses. They priests of Anathoth protested at every turn for those in power to change course, but their voices hadn’t mattered in a long time.
At any rate, that’s why Jeremiah could understand that the nation was headed toward calamity. Because he and his community had been suffering the worst of their nation for 340 years. But by the time Jeremiah became a priest of Anathoth, the underside of the nation was getting crowded.
Jeremiah is a stern prophet. There are no easy answers, no quick fixes on offer. The heart of Jeremiah’s prophecy is that the nation is going to collapse and that God will be the one responsible when it does. Because God had warned the nation, from Sinai and the law of Moses through prophets and priests, even carved in stone God had warned the nation. If the nation oppresses the foreigners in its midst, and pushes women past the limits of endurance, and ignores the cries of innocent children who are suffering, if a nation forgets what it means to be human, then the hand of God will tear that nation down. God will tear the nation down because it does not deserve to stand. This is the warning given to Israel, to Judah, to the children of David, none are exempt, every nation ought fear God’s zealous love for the vulnerable.
This is a moral law of history, enforced by the mighty providence of God, as invisible as it is irresistible, its movements as mysterious as its reasons are obvious. The mechanism of God’s providence might be a surprise but the reasons would be obvious, clear from a mile away. Jeremiah looked can’t you see, the nation is full of suffering, full of cruelty, full of voices crying out to heard, hearts overflowing with anger that comes from being willfully ignored. Because he was from a community acquainted with suffering and injustice, Jeremiah could see that the nation would collapse. But Just so, just so is Jeremiah able too to articulate grounds for hope. Grounds for hope that could withstand the withering light of the reality of the nation.
Jeremiah declares that there will finally, at long last, after 340 years of waiting—there will at last be a legitimate heir to the throne of David. Someone who would execute justice and righteousness in the land. Jeremiah—prophet that he is—he even knows the name of the one who will inherit the throne of David. We read it earlier, you heard it with your own ears. The name of the one who is coming, the name of the one who bears deliverance, the name of the one will upend the underside and restore the broken and honor the dishonored and dispossessed, their name will be: Our righteousness. The nation will be saved and the people dwell in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘our righteousness.’ Jeremiah 23 verse 6.
It won’t be a king at all who saves the nation. It will have to be the people rebuilding the nation from its heart out. The nation cannot be saved by a king or a warrior or a general or a senator or a prosecutor or a judge or a journalist or a priest or a prophet or a banker or a ballot or a bullet. It will be the people. It will be our righteousness that will save the nation, if it will be saved.
For the nation to have a future then the people, the ordinary people, the living on the underside people, the ones who have long suffered under the worst of the nation, they have to change the nation themselves. Led by the lost, built for the least, a nation where the people cannot stand to wait any more. This is what the nation will be like. For the first time the nation will live up to its promise, will become itself for the first time. It will be a nation that shall care for children’s lives, a nation where women aren’t afraid, a nation where the foreigner can find their settled rest. They shall be fruitful and multiply, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, thus says the Lord. For the first time, it will be glorious
If that sounds like a tall order, like too much for the actions of ordinary people to hope to accomplish, believe it or not, there is a moral law to history, enforced by the providence of God, as invisible as it is irresistible. If the nation protects the foreigners in its midst, and upholds the women straining at the limits of endurance, and comforts children who are suffering, then the hand of God will sustain that nation. God will sustain that nation because it is a blessing to God’s children. This is the Law of God, this is what God has said that God would do, and tyrants ought to tremble and the suffering ought take heart.
What has been lost, it is irreplaceable. The nation needs more than different leaders. Though it needs new leaders. The nation needs the righteousness of the people. One life lived in service here, one life with justice at is heart there, one community dedicated to caring for each other here, one community raising children to know mercy there. It will have to be the people, may God strengthen us.