When the call of God is a tale of woe: Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Baruch

This post is in the series Rite Reading

A story circulates about St Teresa of Avila in several versions. The most common is that she is making her way back to her convent in a storm when her horse slips, and deposits her in the mud. In indignant prayer she admonishes God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you’ve got so few of them.”

Jeremiah would have agreed with the sentiment. He seems to be the prophet who both finds his calling most irresistible, and most uncomfortable and unwanted. He is therefore often miserable about his life trapped between the rock of his vocation, and the hard place of the people who reject it.

Michelangelo’s portrayal of weeping Jeremiah

Whereas there was no real need for the Revised Common Lectionary to include an alternative continuous track from Isaiah since there are so many related readings, it goes to town on Jeremiah. When reading through the prophets in Year C, it tried Isaiah for two brief Sundays before passing quickly to Jeremiah, where (with one addition of a reading from Lamentations) it provides semi-continuous readings for nine Sundays, Propers 16-24. There are a reasonable number of readings in the related track, again too many to deal with each one individually, although nowhere near as many as from Isaiah.

Jeremiah, the book, like most of the prophets, is an edited collection of poems and stories which occurred at different times in the prophet’s working life. Unusually with Jeremiah there is a significant degree of biography as well. In particular Jeremiah sets up a contrast between true prophets (Jeremiah) and false (pretty much everybody else).

Jeremiah’s work has some clear affinities with Deuteronomy, and the religious reform linked to the book of Deuteronomy that was initiated under King Josiah. This placed heavy stress on the worship of YHWH as the one true God, and a renewed call to obey the law given by God. In particular, Jeremiah sees the growing power and aggression of Babylon as an instrument God will use to punish Judah and Jerusalem, as Josiah’s successors fail to live up to his reform, and fall back into polytheistic ways.

This leads to Jeremiah being characterised as a defeatist and a traitor by the court prophets. These royally approved prophets carry on a rather carefully selective version of Isaiah’s belief that God will defend Jerusalem because his temple stands there (Jeremiah 7:1-7). Unfortunately for them, and for the nation, God is trying to say something different to their age through Jeremiah. Having the Jerusalem temple will be no defence for people who worship Baal and Astarte (Ishtar) alongside YHWH. It is there as a promise of an exclusive covenant.

Jeremiah comes to see that a new covenant will be needed, and he particularly stresses the inward aspect of that covenant, and of obedience to God in the heart (Jer 31:23-34).

Perhaps because Jeremiah is too well connected as a member of a priestly family, he is not executed for treason, only imprisoned for his loyalty to God. The powers that be, however, interpret his message, his faithfulness to YHWH, as treason to the nation. He lives and works in turbulent times, where the truth or falsehood of a prophecy can be a capital offence, or the military defeat of a nation. Again and again in the prophets, religion is politics carried out in a divine frame of reference.

When this national drama is overlaid on the psyche of a young man who feels things very deeply, as Jeremiah clearly does, we as readers are drawn into his internal drama, the intense depression into which his calling leads him. He is clearly tempted to despair at times, and only kept going by the overwhelming conviction of his calling, and the company of his friends, and his friend and scribe Baruch.

There is something of a Jeremiah tradition marked by continuing editing until quite a late stage. The book exists in two editions, a long Hebrew Bible version, and a somewhat shorter and differently arranged Greek Bible text.1 This existence of different versions of Jeremiah adds to the sense that, apart from the broad historical context outlined above, the readings selected in the lectionary will be understood as much in relation to the gospel as to their original setting.

The Jeremiah tradition is continued in the book of Lamentations. Because so much of Jeremiah’s prophecy is expressed as lament, it seemed natural to attribute these anonymous poems to Jeremiah, not least because they reflect the destruction of Jerusalem he lived through. Perhaps they should be better known in a world where so many end up fleeing destroyed homes and cities because of the violence of others. Unfortunately, the only widely used verse is quoted as an affirmation without the context of desolation and adversity.2

This is part of the same tendency to suppress lamentation in the modern church’s use of the Old Testament that we also saw with the Psalms. Nonetheless, some of the language of Lamentations does colour the Holy Week liturgy, and there is some sparing use of it in the alternative continuous lectionary.

Finally, we arrive at the apocryphal or deuterocanonical book of Baruch. This represents a fairly late development of the Jeremiah tradition, probably from the last century before the Christian era. It comprises both a book attributed to Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, particularly focussed on Jerusalem and its restoration, and a different version of the letter Jeremiah wrote to the exiles.3 The focus on the renewal of Jerusalem means Baruch provides a reading for Advent, a passage that echoes Third Isaiah rather more than Jeremiah,4 and inspired the Advent carol, “People Look East”. It also provides one of the prophetic readings for the Easter Vigil.


Notes

  1. Both versions have been found in Hebrew among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  2. These are the verses that have inspired more than one hymn or song from Lamentations 3:22-23 “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
  3. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles is at Jeremiah 29:4-28. The longer letter included as Baruch 6 is completely different and focussed on living among a people who worship idols. In some editions of the Apocrypha, this chapter (still numbered 6) is printed as a separate book, the Letter of Jeremiah.
  4. Advent 2, Year C.