Jeremiah probably should be our patron prophet these days. His 45-year career as a spokesman for God is the longest of our biblical prophets, and the circumstances of his service reflect striking parallels to our time.
The first half of his ministry was during the reign and reform efforts of King Josiah, one of only three of the 20 kings of Judah to receive a passing grade from Judah’s own historians. That was largely because of Josiah’s work to correct the damaging effects of a long-standing alliance between a corrupt politico-economic system and superficial religion.
Jeremiah strongly supported Josiah’s reform movement, echoing the indictments of his predecessors (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah) against the economic injustice and religious idolatry that had transformed the covenant faith into a travesty that favored the few at the expense of the many.
In his person and in his message, he reflected the anguish of a God who grieves over the unfaithfulness of his people. We see in him a kind of “pre-incarnation” of a God who bears the burden of a suffering love in the face of rampant unfaithfulness.
We don’t know exactly how the people of Josiah’s day responded to his reform efforts. We can imagine that those who benefitted most from the existing system would be less than eager to relinquish their privilege, even for the restoration of a covenant they claimed to embrace.
We do know that when Josiah died, the throne passed after a brief interim to his son, Jehoiakim, who allowed the reform movement to collapse by embracing the policies and practices of the previous generation.
Jeremiah continued as a spokesman for reform, warning Judah of the consequences of abandoning their calling as a covenant people in favor of alliances with other powers that promised more immediate political and economic gain. He also condemned the embrace of pagan deities who represented the values of cultural success more than covenant faithfulness.
There is almost a “Repent! The end is near!” tone to his prophetic word in the final days of Judah. He proclaims that the coming disaster will be used by God as a refiner’s fire to burn away the impurities that have so distorted the covenant community that nothing short of destruction can lead to its repair.
When the catastrophe does come, when the Babylonians invade, destroy the temple and the city, and deport most of the citizens to exile, all seems lost. The people lament in one of their hymns: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps… How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137)
But Jeremiah changes his tone after the loss of city and temple, shifting the focus of his prophecy from judgment to hope.
There is no sugar-coating of the damage, no justification of mistakes made, no denial of the reality of the loss. People can be foolish and shortsighted, choosing ways of living and governing themselves that can have devastating consequences because they abandon the truest vision of who they are as a people in favor of a counterfeit vision that has more immediate appeal. The damage of those consequences is real and painful.
But here is the heart of his new message: A people’s bad choices and their resulting damage do not negate God’s ability and intention to use them to forge a new and refined understanding of the covenant: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah …. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33).
As bad as the exile was, it made possible Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant of the heart, which becomes a lens for later viewing of God’s work of redemption.
Exile is an awful thing in any age and in any of its forms. Sometimes, choices are such that there is no avoiding it.
Jeremiah’s word of hope is that exile may be the next word for our personal and collective journeys, but it is not the last word. The God who promised to be with us still is. And this God can use the messes of our bad choices to help us understand more clearly who we are as God’s children and how we can live out the calling that has been ours all along.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.