I have been reading through the book of Jeremiah recently and thought, for lack of anything better to blog about, that I would share some of my observations with you all. Chapter one took two posts to get through (see part 1 and part 2) and I concentrated mainly on what we can learn by looking at the original Hebrew. You can breathe a sigh of relief now because this time I am not going to refer to the Hebrew as much.
What struck me reading the second chapter of Jeremiah was how many ties there were to other parts of the Bible. Actually, this should not come as a surprise to us since we are told that Jeremiah was from a priestly family (Jer. 1:1). In a time before printing presses, this meant he, more than most of his contemporaries, would have a deep familiarity with God’s Word (which of course would only have consisted of some parts of the Old Testament).
Jeremiah’s familiarity with priestly things comes out early in chapter two. In verse three we read:
“Israel was holy to the Lord” (Jer. 2:3a; ESV)
Actually, the import of this statement is a bit obscured here in the ESV. I would punctuate it:
“Israel was ‘Holy to the LORD'”
You see, ‘holy to the LORD’ was what was written on the high priest’s turban which he wore when ministering before the Lord (cf. Exod. 28:36-37). (In a brief glance through I don’t see any English translations which make this point obvious.)
Jeremiah goes on to use a lot of common metaphors for Israel. She is the bride of God (Jer. 2:2, cf. v. 32, the whole book of Hosea, Isa. 62:5; Matt. 25; Eph. 6:24-25). She is the first fruits (v. 3; cf. Deut. 21:17; Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:20; 2 Thess. 2:13; Jam. 1:18; Ps. 78:51; 105:36). God is the living water, but Israel has become as a broken cistern (v. 13; cf. John 4; 7:37-38; Prov. 5:15-16; 9:16-18). Israel has been acted like a slave, the implication being that he should have been a son (v. 14, cf. v. 20; Rom. 6:15-22; 8:15; Luke 15:11-32). Israel is the choice vine which has gone wild (v. 21; cf. Isa. 5:1-10; John 15:1-5; Rom. 11:16-24). Personally, I hate reading things with long lists of references. I don’t want to stop my reading to go look at them all and figure out why the author put them there. My point in giving you these cross-references is not that you need to go look them up right now but to show you that these are recurring images for Israel. If you really want to pursue one theme or doubt what I say, you can take time later to read each of them.
Of all these images, I think the key one for Jeremiah, living at the time he is, is that of the son who chooses instead to live as a slave. This seems like a crazy thing to do. Why be a slave when you could be a son? And yet in Jeremiah’s time, that is exactly what God’s people seem to be doing. You see, at this point, the northern kingdom of Israel has been wiped out by the Assyrians. All that is left is little Judah. And now they too are being threatened by the Babylonians. Babylon is north of Israel and in response many of the people are urging flight the other direction. What’s in the south? Egypt. Do you understand the implications of this? Israel (what is left of it) is choosing to flee back into Egypt. This is the reverse of the exodus and God has not authorized it. In Moses’ time, God led His people out of slavery in Egypt (Exod. 20:2). When they choose not to flee back there, it is as if they are choosing slavery again over being God’s people.
Why is God bringing this destruction on Judah? There could be a number of answers but the big one for Jeremiah is idolatry. They have worshipped the baals (local deities). While worship of false gods was always a bigger problem in the northern kingdom, by this point even Judah has succumbed and given itself over to false religion. The good news for those of us who know the end of the story is that the destruction and disruption brought by the Babylonian exile do actually accomplish their purpose. When they come back from exile, idolatry is never a problem for God’s people as it was before. Which is not to say there is no more false worship. The Greeks and Romans liked to have people bow down to their gods (and emperors). But this sort of whole-scale idolatry is gone.
Which brings me to a point I got reading through Jeremiah which I have never quite gotten before. Oddly enough, it is a point about the book of Daniel. When we read through Kings and Chronicles and most of the prophets, we are looking at God’s people as a whole. We are hearing the story of a people. But then comes the book of Daniel, which is set in Babylon during the exile, and all of a sudden we are concerned with just four young men, Daniel and his friends. There has been all this chaos. Sin has increased and spiraled out of control and destruction has come, and then it’s like the narrative breaks and slows down for a bit and we can focus. And the picture we see as the smoke clears is of this handful of boys who are faced with a big challenge: worship the Babylonian gods or face death. And they meet the challenge. The Babylonian exile only lasted about 70 years. Whaat came before can’t be very far in these boys’ memories. If they did not experience the idolatry which brought the exile upon their people then their parents and grandparents did. And yet when they are faced with the direct temptation to worship false gods, they refuse. Despite the imminent threat of death, they do what they know is right. And they choose the right worship of the Lord. They stand here for all their people. These four youths represent the whole people and they make the right choice. I can almost feel the world breathing a sigh of relief. They have chosen rightly. The trial of the exile has done what it was supposed to and God’s people are no longer consumed by idolatry as they were before. This is the purifying fire which tries men’s souls. Daniel’s three friends passed through it quite literally and came out on the other side refined like gold. And through the experiences of these four boys, the whole nation (what is left of it) is ready to start over, to return to their land and to rebuild.
It’s kind of incredible when you think of it, isn’t it?