[This is part of a continuing series I am doing on the book of Jeremiah. See the previous posts here.]
The fourth chapter of Jeremiah begins with a call to repentance followed by the further threat of destruction for God’s people if they do not return to Him. There are three things I’d like to point out in this chapter: the emphasis on Jerusalem, the prophet’s own position, and the characterization of the coming destruction.
As I have mentioned in earlier posts, Jeremiah is from a priestly family affiliated with the Jerusalem temple. His main concern is for the southern kingdom, known as Judah.The northern kingdom, called Israel, has already been wiped out by the Assyrians and the remaining branch of God’s people now also face destruction for their sins. Given his background, it should not surprise us too much here that Jeremiah expresses concern for Jerusalem. While he has previously mentioned Judah quite a bit, I believe this chapter is the first in which he mentions Jerusalem specifically. And he does so a number of times — seven times in the 31 verses that comprise the chapter. Some of these read very awkwardly as if they were references added by a later editor, however others are more natural and it is hard to imagine their verses without them. The way my Hebrew Bible is laid out, a couple of the references to Jerusalem, those in verses 4 and 10, have Jerusalem on its own line. Now this is an editorial decision on the part of the publishers of my version, but it does highlight the fact that these are very long lines and one can well imagine them ending without the mention of Jerusalem since in both instances it is a doublet for another term, “Judah” in v.4 and “this people” in v.10. In the latter, in particular, “Jerusalem” seems awkward as it is not really a good parallel for “this people.”
Why do I bother pointing all this out? While I don’t think the added references to Jerusalem change the meaning of the text much in this chapter (and as mentioned some of the other references to it do seem integral to the passage), the whole question of the editing of the text raises some interesting questions. The fact is that modern critical scholars of the Old Testament are always pointing to things in the text and saying that they are not original or that there is evidence of more than one author. This can be a stumbling block for those of us who view it all as The Word of God. For my own part, I have no problem with saying that the Holy Spirit inspired multiple authors for many of the biblical books. I would like to say that at some point each book was complete and someone, somewhere, some time, had the Word of God, at least for each book of the Bible. But I don’t think that we can say we have today the right version of any biblical book in its pristine form. The fact is we just don’t have one official version of the Bible, no matter what the King James Only crowd would like us to believe. We have the Hebrew, yes; in fact we have a number of different manuscripts of it which while they may not have huge differences also do not all agree on every jot and tittle (ane remember the Bible itself tells us those jots and tittles are important). We also have ancient versions in other languages like Greek and Syriac which may also at time preserve for us the oldest or most authentic readings. All of which is to say that while I do think each biblical book at some point had a final, perfectly inspired form, we cannot say for any of them now that here it is or there it is. There may be a right reading preserved in my Hebrew text here but your Greek one may have the better reading a few verses later.
Should this bother us, not actually having the definitive biblical text? I don’t think it need do so. I kind of like actually that there is not just one version of the Bible out there. It keeps us from exalting the Word to divine status. We must remember that though the Bible is God’s Word, it is not God Himself. It could be very tempting for us “people of the book” to go a step too far on that account. I think it also shows us something about how God Himself works. While I do think there is an absolute truth, we are not always privy to it. We get bits and pieces here and there. And we need to learn to go with the flow where God is concerned. Like Jonah and his shade tree, we can’t hold on to tightly to any one thing. My final thought on the topic is this: God preserves His Word. We don’t need to do it for Him and we don’t need to get ourselves all worked up over this. We do need to trust Him that He has given us what we need, what He wants us to have.
I find that I have gone on longer on this topic than I anticipated so you will have to wait for the next post for my further observations on Jeremiah 4.