The first line of John Mason Neale's once-popular hymn is emphatically not the right title for the little drama with which we begin. True, it is about a 'band of pilgrims', but as these people are nearing their goal, the first distant glimpse of the holy place to which they are travelling will warn them that they will scarcely recognize it: the very skyline has changed. In a sombre mood they make their way towards the devastated suburbs of the city. Even if the great temple at its heart is now a blackened ruin, they can at least pay their respects there to the God whose house it used to be.
They never reach it. A marauding gang of ex-soldiers which has survived the war sets upon them, and soon another heap of carcases is left for the crows to pick, dumped in a pit at Mizpah.
The incident was recorded centuries ago, in the Book of Jeremiah. But the image of die tote Stadt, the dead city, is as real today as ever it was. The elegant streets of Melbourne, intact, but empty of every living thing, at the end of the 1959 movie On the Beach. New York, in the imagination of later film-makers flooded (Deep Impact) or frozen (The Day After Tomorrow). The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945: that actually happened. So did the burning of Moscow, 1812. These images haunt the world's dreams, as did the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and that of Rome a thousand years before. Babylon fell, too, a thousand years earlier still, though its final destruction is even today a vision yet to be fulfilled.But the sack of Jerusalem in 586 b.c., the background to the massacre just described, has a significance greater than them all.
It is the theme of five songs, written at the time or soon after, which appear in our Bibles as the Book of Lamentations, and will be for us a way in to Jeremiah's book. They are as much about Jerusalem dying as about Jerusalem dead: the siege as well as the sack of the city, a tale of suffering, starvation and despair, till finally the walls are breached, the survivors deported, the goods looted and the city torched.
Traditionally these songs have been thought of as Jeremiah's work. More recently, differences between them and the bigger book (and indeed between them themselves) have been thought to indicate one or more anonymous authors, though there is no reason why Jeremiah should not have written in different styles and from different viewpoints at different times. At all events, the 'voices' vary in the course of the five poems, so that the speaker is at one point the city of Jerusalem, at another a particular person involved in its suffering, and at yet others an observer describing these events.
Every part of the Bible, not least its poetry, repays the effort of working out how it is put together. 'Structural analysis' is the name of the game. Looked at in this way, the most obvious feature of these songs is the number of verses in each: either 22 or a multiple of 22. Since the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, we may not be surprised to learn that Lamentations 1 is an acrostic, like several of the psalms (most notably Psalm 119); that is to say, the first letter of the first word of the first verse of the first song is aleph, while beth begins verse 2, gimel verse 3, and so on, the equivalent of our ABC. So what we have in an acrostic is something akin to rhyme, except that it is the sounds at the beginning of lines, not those at the end of them, that follow a pattern.
This song has another, more complicated, kind of 'rhyming' as well. Every verse contains an idea, usually an actual word or phrase, which reappears elsewhere, in a curious but regular fashion: the first verse is linked in this way with the last verse, the second with the next to last, and so forth. That is, the acrostic is also a palindrome, like the words 'civic' and 'redder', or the sentences 'Madam, I'm Adam' and 'Rise to vote, sir'. At the midpoint, therefore, these 'rhymes' come together: 'See and observe,' says verse 11, 'observe and see,' says verse 12; and those words are in fact the keynote of the chapter, a view of the recent turmoils in Jerusalem, as they appear to an onlooker (call him the Writer) in the first half, and as they are experienced by the City herself in the second half. The Writer, and his 'rhymes', work up to verse 11, where he asks Yahweh too to look at these facts. The City, and her 'rhymes', begin from verse 12, there asking the passers-by, other nations, that is, uninvolved in the conflict, to look at what has happened.
First, then, the Writer's observations. They can be followed through in the text, a verse to each word or phrase. 'This place', he says, 'was once the home of many people; / now that it needs comforters there are only enemies, / there is deep distress, / the priests suffering, / the young taken captive - / such is the fate of Zion, / abandoned, / rejected; / where is God?' So the first nine verses, a panorama ending in verse 10 with an ominous hand stretched out to steal or destroy everything of value in Jerusalem. After the 'hinge' at verses 11-12, a parallel sequence of word-pictures will appear in reverse order in verses 13-22, beginning with a stretched-out net. But first, as the Writer has been 'seeing and observing' the facts of the case, he has put briefly into the mouth of the City (verses 9b, 11b) a plea that Yahweh will do the same.
Is there in this world of ours a lamentable state of affairs that corresponds to that one? Of course, we have to make all sorts of adjustments in order to see today the equivalent of what our Writer was seeing when the kingdom of Judah fell in ruins before his eyes. For one thing, that single image occupied all his attention, whereas innumerable tragedies from across the globe compete for ours. For another, to him everything seemed dark, whereas we are gratefully aware of light as well as darkness, the light both of the saving gospel and of common grace. For yet another, that gospel had not appeared in its fullness to him, whereas we know Christ the Lord of glory, the multi-national Israel of God, and the heavenly Jerusalem of which all His people are citizens: Old Testament buds that have now burst into New Testament bloom.
Bearing these differences in mind, we have to say that if Jeremiah's Jerusalem has a modern equivalent, it is the church of Jesus Christ, which in our New Testament era is no longer tied to a particular place in the Middle East, though it is not yet sinless as it will be in the world to come. And we have to ask whether three basic facts about that Jerusalem and its relation to its God are true of the church today. All have been touched on already in the Writer's half of this song, and all are now confessed by the City herself in verses 12-22. 'Observe and see' is now her plea, as it was his, and now it is addressed to those 'who pass by'.
First and most obvious is the fact that she is in dire trouble. This is the background to the song (and indeed the book) as a whole. It is possible of course to react to the 'sufferings of Jerusalem' emotionally and unthinkingly. We must not automatically assume that for us that phrase simply means troubles that beset Christians (or indeed Jews) in today's world. Reports of the present persecution of Christian believers in many Asian and African countries may horrify us and stir us to action, for the trials of God's people anywhere should be the concern of God's people everywhere; 'if one member suffers, all suffer together.' But they should not surprise us, for it is only 'through many tribulations' that Christ's people 'enter the kingdom of God,' and we ourselves are not likely to be exempt. Persecution, however, is what Peter's first letter calls 'suffering unjustly'. He would put the City's distress in quite a different category, and tell her frankly, 'You sin and are beaten for it.' This is the second fact: that her suffering is her own fault. The Writer has simply said 'Jerusalem sinned' (v. 8), but the City is past pretending, and now admits repeatedly how she has rebelled and transgressed (vv. 14, 18, 20, 22).
The third fact is the hardest for the modern mind to accept. But significantly it is the City herself, not the Writer, who recognizes it and spells it out unambiguously. Her sufferings are, she says, 'my sorrow... which the Lord inflicted' (v. 12), and that is the first of a score of verbs that tell us God's part in these events. All that has happened to her is her fault, and His doing. Not only is she prepared to say so, but she wants all the nations to hear it too (v. 18). In her half of the song He is almost as often Adonai (Lord), the Sovereign, the Master of all peoples, as He is Yahweh (Lord), Israel's own covenant God. To these two names we shall return.
Three facts, then: the City is in trouble, she has deserved it, God has inflicted it. To take the last of them first, it was Yahweh who brought about the destruction of Jerusalem, and the purpose of that was twofold. In His scheme of things, His people had been for 450 years a nation-state ruled by kings of the line of David, but the 'shape' of Israel was about to change, just as it would change again even more radically six centuries later. In 586 b.c. He was putting an end not to Israel the nation, but only to Israel the Davidic monarchy, for there were different lessons yet to be learned about what it means to be the people of God. All the events of that time, bad as well as good, were part of His comprehensive educational plan; and now as then His people find that that plan is often puzzling, sometimes shocking, and always far bigger (and eventually better) than they ever imagined.
And you cannot have education without discipline. This other aspect of His purpose for His people takes us back at once to the second of the facts, the cause of Jerusalem's downfall. The nation had to learn that privileges bring responsibilities, and sins have consequences. Even today, when deterrence and rehabilitation seem to be the chief aims of our penal system, there is still such a thing as punishment.Some of our misfortunes are the penalty for our misdeeds. So in Lamentations 1 the City admits that what God has been doing, she has richly merited. And we might conceivably come under the same condemnation. No Christians, and no Christian communities, can ever truthfully say they have no sins to confess, and (as the hymn puts it) 'they who fain would serve Thee best are conscious most of wrong within.' It is a community called by God's name that is here deservedly going through the mill.
However, the divine justice is scrupulously fair. There are sins and sins, and the experience of the City's fall, the first of the three facts, was a consequence - terrible, but just - of the deep-seated, unrepentant, deliberate, continuous and far-reaching sins of the wicked Jehoiakim and the weak Zedekiah, the royal brothers whose follies the Book of Jeremiah will expose, and of others like them. There is no denying that such suffering may come also to those who practise daily repentance, faith and obedience, but for them it will be the 'fiery trial' of 1 Peter 4:12, not a punishment but a solemn privilege. Jeremiah himself was just such a one.
It was with the plight of the City that the first song began; but soon, and then often thereafter, she had to confess that this was a punishment for her sin from the hand of her God. That, we shall find, is the theme of the second song from start to finish. Being as regular an acrostic-cum-palindrome as the first was, it both begins and ends with a God who 'in the day of his anger' (vv. 1 and 22) shows no pity (vv. 2 and 21), brings about a dreadful devouring in verse 3 and a worse one in verse 20, and so continues, in a strict poetic sequence that nevertheless trembles with mortification and horror.
Who says what in the course of the song? Commentators differ over headings and sub-headings for it. The simpler the better, in my view, given the genius that can express so much emotion with so much discipline. There is, as before, a hinge at the centre of the palindrome: 'bile poured out/ faint in the streets' (v. 11), 'faint in the streets/life poured out' (v. 12). Moving towards it are ten verses in which the Writer describes objectively what God has been doing to the City. Then all at once, in the two 'hinge' verses, he becomes one with its citizens, and 'sits where they sit'. He has thus far been speaking about them; now for the remaining ten verses he speaks to them, with an inspired blend of deep fellow-feeling and prophetic ruthlessness. True, verses 20-22 are addressed to the Lord, but they need not form a separate section; they are still the Writer's words, in which he is giving the City a form of prayer that he and she together can use in these extreme circumstances.
If readers new to the Bible happened to open it at this chapter, they might wonder why (in most English translations) it refers to God sometimes as 'the Lord' and sometimes as 'the Lord' - in fact seven times each. The difference, which we noticed in chapter 1, gives us a line on why Jerusalem is suffering the miseries described here.
Jerusalem was an Israelite city, the capital of an Israelite kingdom, only because God had long before called Israel to be His own people, rescuing them from slavery in Egypt and making with them a covenant that detailed His promises to them and their obligations to Him. All of that was wrapped up in His covenant name Yahweh, the Lord. In consequence, they had been blessed with the leadership of Moses the lawgiver, Joshua his successor, and a line first of judges and then of kings, together with a series of priests and prophets; all this in a land flowing with milk and honey, in due course centred on a city which was the joy of the whole earth, with at its heart a temple for God's name.
Since that name is 'the Lord', why do the opening verses of Lamentations 2 repeatedly call him 'the Lord'? Why Adonai first, and only later (and sporadically) Yahweh?
Alongside the rosy picture of Israel's history just outlined, we have to be aware of a much more negative one. Not every judge lived up to his calling, many a king led the nation astray, the priests were often corrupt, the prophets self-serving. In consequence, God's people had again and again reneged on their covenant obligations, while expecting Yahweh nonetheless to keep His side of the bargain. Repeatedly He had warned them against such an attitude, and repeatedly they had ignored the warnings. Every sin made the next one easier, and restoration harder.
Now they are having to learn that their faithlessness in its turn has consequences. It is as Adonai, the Master, the Sovereign Lord of all nations, that God now comes to Jerusalem (vv. 1-5). No more Mr Nice Guy; no more privilege. It seems Israel must face His fury on the same footing as the most wicked and godless of her heathen neighbours. He is even prepared to destroy the throne and the temple which represent His presence on Mount Zion - they, of course, bear His name Yahweh, and there He is indeed Yahweh as well as Adonai (vv. 6, 8). From Yahweh too had come the original word that had warned this could happen one day (v. 17). But the suffering City feels she has lost the old relationship and can only cry out to Adonai (vv. 18-19).
The words which the Writer puts into the City's mouth in verses 20-22 do remind her that this is still in fact Yahweh as well as Adonai with whom she must plead. The consequences of His original covenant will in the end override the consequences of her sin.
Like the first two songs, this third one has a three-line stanza for each letter of the alphabet; it differs from them in that it numbers every line, not every third line (hence 66 verses instead of 22), and begins all three lines of each stanza, not just its first line, with the letter in question.
There is another difference. While this chapter is an acrostic, it is not a palindrome. For one thing, there is no noticeable link between stanzas 1 and 22, stanzas 2 and 21, and so forth. For another, its midpoint, between the eleventh (kaph, vv. 31-33) and the twelfth (lamed, vv. 34-36), is in no way the kind of hinge that we have found in each of the two previous songs, drawing attention to something of central importance. Attempts are generally made, therefore, to find in this song a structure which has more to do with a train of thought and a development of theme than with the pattern of the poetry.
It does seem curious, though, that with such an accomplished use of both the acrostic and the palindromic forms in the first two songs, the Writer should here extend the one but abandon the other. In fact he creates something which is in a way even more elaborate, yet makes very good sense. If we regard the chapter's midpoint not as a hinge, but simply as a division into two halves, each half turns out to have a central hinge. Five stanzas (vv. 1-15), then the sixth (waw, vv. 16-18), then five more (vv. 19-33); and again, five stanzas (vv. 34-48), then a sixth (the ayin, vv. 49-51), then five more (vv. 52-66). We might think that such a preoccupation with poetic form would clog the flow of the Writer's passionate words; in fact, it channels it.
Unrelieved 'affliction' (v. 1) is the burden of the first five stanzas. They are a catalogue of sufferings - darkness, injury, imprisonment, chains, obstruction, wild beasts, arrows, ridicule, some literal, some metaphorical, and in no sort of order. And something else catches the eye. The Writer introduces himself in a way almost unique in Bible poetry: 'I am the man who...'. The words are so personal, yet so tantalizing - he both does, and does not, tell us who he is! We ask, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:34, 'Does the prophet say this about himself, or about someone else?' And in the same breath, and in the same way, his antagonist too is introduced but not identified: simply 'he'.
What do this anonymous 'I' and 'he' have to do with the modern reader? At the time of writing, 'I the man' could have meant Jerusalem, or (since the City is regularly feminine) some representative citizen of it, or Judah the kingdom or Israel the nation (God's firstborn son). The 'he' who has assailed him would then be the Babylonian invaders in 589-586 b.c. Or 'I' could have been Jeremiah, complaining about his enemies, fellow Israelites, at the court of King Zedekiah. Thus far, the modern parallel to 3:1-15 could be the reaction of any sufferer to any tormentor.
But the hinge stanza (vv. 16-18) reveals who the tormentor is. And lo and behold, it is Yahweh himself. These afflictions are 'the rod of his wrath'. The world of this song could be our world, with believers and unbelievers alike blaming God for the woes that afflict us.
The Writer hurries on, however, by way of the hinge, to the remaining five stanzas of this half (vv. 19-33), and at once the mood changes. Here is to be found the most (indeed for many readers the only!) memorable passage in the book, and from verse 23 come the opening words of not one but two of our classic English hymns, John Keble's 'New every morning' and Thomas Chisholm's 'Great is thy faithfulness.' It is not that the Writer's affliction has been erased from his mind; another of our hymns speaks of 'sinners whose love can ne'er forget the wormwood and the gall.' But the four-times-repeated name, Yahweh, brings hope and confidence and peace of heart: 'Though he cause grief, he will have compassion... He does not willingly afflict,' as in ways that we may find puzzling and painful He carries forward plans that are more complex and more far-reaching, and (as I suggested earlier) not only bigger but better, than we can for the present understand.
From this point the second half of the song unfolds. Here, the first five stanzas survey the evil in our world, not now as we see it but as God sees it. Injustice is cited as an example of the bad things of which men are guilty and God disapproves (vv. 34-36). Punishment too is a 'bad thing', that is, a painful one; but in this case they deserve it and God inflicts it (vv. 37-39). In these stanzas, lamed and samech, he is Adonai, the Sovereign Lord of all nations. Then the Writer becomes a spokesman for the City; God is now Yahweh, the City's God, and in the next three stanzas the evil in view is first the City's sin, far less excusable than that of the world at large (nun), then God's anger against that sin (the samech), and finally the destruction of the City (pe).
Like the first half of the song, this one hinges on a cry to Yahweh. Again the Writer testifies that there is no one else to whom he can turn in his distress. When he cried out like this in the waw stanza (v. 18), he was given a sight of the loving purposes of God that will infallibly come to pass in spite of all the temporary triumphs of evil. Should not God's answer to the cry of the ayin stanza (v. 50) be even more reassuring? Will it not show him again, in the words of William Cowper, 'the blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord'?
The answer, apparently, is no. The last five stanzas of Lamentations 3 seem very far from the 'soul-refreshing view' that both the English poet and the Hebrew poet are hoping for. As the psalmists find, the ups and downs of spiritual experience often come in that order, and similarly the author of these songs, uplifted by the reassurances of verses 19-33, is well and truly cast down again in verses 52-66.
Yet stand back from the song, look at it as a whole, compare verses 52-66 now with verses 1-15, and you will realize that there is after all something palindromic about it, a correspondence between its end and its beginning; for each is about the afflictions that beset the Writer. There is, however, a profound difference. Stanzas 1-5 move towards the Yahweh of their hinge stanza (vv. 16-18) without ever calling Him by that name; nonetheless it is 'He', it is this God, who by 'the rod of his wrath' is causing all 'my' sufferings. In contrast, as stanzas 18-22 move on from the Yahweh of their hinge stanza (vv. 49-51) the name is repeatedly appealed to; it is not He who is the enemy here.
Could the Writer be Jeremiah? The prophet's book does not specifically mention the stone or the waters of verses 53-54, but such words could certainly stand for the kinds of persecution that he did suffer in the last days of Jerusalem. He would in that case be speaking in the opening verses on behalf of the City, weeping with those who weep, in distress as the Babylonians punish her; and then speaking on his own account in the closing verses, in distress as the Israelite establishment torments him. She is being punished for her sins, he is being tormented for his faithfulness. Yahweh is both causing the first and allowing the second. But the 'soul-refreshing view' which actually is there, beyond all this affliction, the future and the hope that we shall find in due course at the heart of the prophet's book, is for Jeremiah in his pit, not for Zedekiah in his palace.
The Writer of the fourth song may or may not have written the first three, for though we have here another acrostic on the same subject, this one is much simpler. Each verse has only two lines, each letter of the alphabet begins only one of them, and there is little sign of anything palindromic, unless we are meant to see it in the naming of the City, which (almost) brackets each half of the song: verses 2 and 11, verses 12 and 22. That seems to be the limit of its sophistication; except that when so divided, the two halves do give a stereoscopic view, as it were, of the downfall of the City. The first half pictures the misery of the citizens, and the second half the failure of their leaders. And the events to which they refer seem to be those of one particular day, or at most one particular week; for King Zedekiah has been captured trying to escape as the City falls to her besiegers (vv. 19-20), but no aid has yet come to the children starving in her streets (v. 4).
The children 'beg for food', and beg in vain, in the City that once 'feasted on delicacies' (v. 5). Verses 1-11 are all about that kind of sharp decline from prosperity to penury. Where once there was feasting, now there is begging; once gold, now earthenware; once finery, now ashes; once beauty, now disfigurement. This is more than simply a catastrophic downturn in the kingdom's fortunes. This is Yahweh depriving it of precisely the gifts that went with the land He had promised to His people if they would believe and obey Him. They have not done so, and now they have to learn that sin has consequences. The City deserves to die. Death in the sudden overthrow of Sodom (v. 6) or by an enemy's sword in battle (v. 9) would have been a great deal easier and quicker than this protracted agony, but a great deal less educational. It was the privileges of Yahweh's chosen people that were being taken away, and they must ask themselves why.
This lesson should have been painfully obvious. But something else lay beyond it, which emerges in the second half of the song. Everyone, even 'the kings of the earth' (v. 12), knew of Yahweh's guarantee to preserve Jerusalem against all comers; why then had He broken His word? Undoubtedly the primary reason was that the City, representing the nation of Israel, had broken her side of the agreement, as we have just seen. But against this accusation she now makes a defence of sorts. Even if she cannot shift the blame entirely, she aims at least to share it. Her prophets and priests have been greatly at fault, failing her in their duty of leadership, and she repudiates them (vv. 13-16). Her friends in Egypt are berated because they did not come as she hoped they would (v. 17), her enemies from Babylon are berated because they did come, as she hoped they would not (v. 18), and I think it is still she who finally rounds on her neighbours and kinsmen in Edom (v. 21): 'You may laugh' (she is angry at Edom's gloating over the fall of Jerusalem, which is the theme of the book of Obadiah), 'but before long you will be suffering as we are now.'
Such a tirade, reeking of impudence, is no doubt very reprehensible (though also very understandable). But though as the Writer presents her she may be trying to justify herself by blaming everybody else, what she says is nothing but the truth, and top of her hit list are the self-seeking religious leaders of verse 13. The people of Israel had long enjoyed the privilege of living in security in a land of plenty, 'a good land... flowing with milk and honey,' and that had now been taken from them; but so had the greater privilege of being watched over and guided by leaders through whom the ever-relevant word of Yahweh their God was regularly made known to them. Of all these, prophet, priest, and king, they had now been deprived. The people's indignation with their leaders, cursing them like lepers ('Away! Unclean!', v. 15), rings hollow; the pot is calling the kettle black. The leaders have misled the people, but the people have been more than willing to be misled.
If much of this second half of the song is a bitter and anguished cry put into the mouth of the City, the 'daughter of Zion', its final verse takes us back behind the scenes, where the Writer foresees an end to her suffering, and a brighter future than she either imagines or deserves.
For most who have survived both the siege and the sack of Jerusalem, however, the future seems far from bright. The last chapter of Lamentations belongs to them, and to the days and months that follow those terrible events. Again there are 22 verses of poetry, but that is practically the only similarity between this song and its predecessors. Here we have no acrostic, no palindrome, shorter verses, fewer metaphors; no frills. It is as though the Writers of these songs have led us along a series of gloomy but ornate thoroughfares, to bring us finally into a dreary, unlovely street, unadorned by any poetic tricks, that stretches ahead into even deeper gloom.
For all its artlessness, this fifth song may, however inexactly, fall of its own accord into the now-familiar palindromic pattern, and in doing so it points the way towards the hope of which we caught a glimpse in 4:22. Notice the pronouns strung out along these twenty-two verses. A paragraph at its midpoint (vv. 11-14) is about 'them', that is, the remnant left 'in the cities of Judah', disrespected and abused by the invaders and their allies. Before that (vv. 2-10) and after it (vv. 15-18), it is 'we' who are equally the objects of this oppression. And the song begins (v. 1) and ends (vv. 19-22) with 'you', namely Yahweh. You, we, they, we, you.
There is no denying that this is the bleakest chapter of a bleak little book. It may recall the frame of mind in which 'the words of Job are ended', before Yahweh finally responds to the prolonged and bitter complaints of His suffering servant. Among the Psalms we may be reminded, not so much of Psalm 22 ('My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'), since that ends with praise, as of Psalm 88, which literally ends in darkness.
However, the Writer of the fourth song took up the mention of Edom in 4:21 to comfort the City with the promise of 4:22: there was a punishment still in store for Edom, because of her hatred of Zion, but Zion's punishment had, for that time at any rate, been 'accomplished'. Its effects would rumble on, certainly; but a new chapter was opening in the story of God's people. They should bear that in mind, says Lamentations, as the limited view of the fifth song can see only their present afflictions. For Yahweh is there, and they know it; there in its first and last verses, hemming them in behind and before, says Psalm 139:5, the Alpha and the Omega, says Revelation 1:8. And they do at any rate believe in him sufficiently to talk to Him, even if His answers are a long time coming. Out of this present death will come a resurrection. The Book of Jeremiah is about to take us in painful detail through the necessary process of dying, to help us understand and appreciate something of the promise of new life.
However eager the Christian convert might be to explore the holy book of his new-found faith, he would be unlikely to find the various individual books within it to be uniformly engaging. All Scripture is profitable, certainly (that conviction increases with experience), but one still has one's preferences; I personally feel more at home with Scriptures that have a plot-line, like the Gospels, or a poetic shape, like the Psalms, than with a 'miscellaneous' book like Proverbs, where plot and shape are not to be expected.
It is I think for this reason that only now, after a good many years in the preaching ministry, am I at last getting to grips with Jeremiah. The man, of course, is hugely impressive; and you could say the same about his book, except that though you may be lost in admiration as you approach this massive edifice, you find yourself lost in a more obvious sense when you get into it and start trying to find your way around. The trouble is, there is just so much of it: not only in quantity, but also in variety and complexity. There are chapters about Jeremiah, and chapters by Jeremiah; prophecies sometimes spoken, sometimes written; warnings before the event, laments during it, reflections after it; prose and poetry, biography and history; and all in a very peculiar sort of order. Not surprisingly, the book has given rise to years of debate about plot and shape - who wrote what, and when, and why it was put together as it was, and how (as some think) it might with advantage be rearranged.
My hope is that in approaching these fifty-two chapters as they lie before us in their present form, I and readers like me, for whom they are to some extent 'fresh woods and pastures new', may grasp something of their geography, not just of their flora and fauna. I notice, for example, the very first statement from the mouth of God about what Jeremiah is to be: a prophet to the nations (1:5). Imagine you have already worked your way through the whole book, and are now starting again; you will be aware that in the middle of it, in chapter 25, that verse is taken up and amplified, and that at the end of it, no fewer than six chapters (46-51) are given over to the same theme, Jeremiah as a prophet to the nations. Might these be three hooks on which the whole vast tapestry hangs? I hope you are as eager as I am to see how such possibilities work out.
The Book of Lamentations, and the horrors that will give rise to it, are still forty years in the future when the Book of Jeremiah opens. It is not they that dismay the young man here at the outset, since he has no notion that they are on their way; it is the alarming call that has come to him in the days of King Josiah, 'in the thirteenth year of his reign,' 627 b.c. - this word from God, that he is to be 'a prophet to the nations'.
Everyone in that ancient world knows what a prophet is. Every nation has its gods, and every god has his prophets, human voices that speak on his behalf. Josiah's people are no exception. They look back to the towering figure of Moses, through whom 800 years ago the tribes of Israel were forged into a nation, and more recently to the scarcely less imposing figure of Samuel, through whom the nation became a kingdom. Each was a mouthpiece for Yahweh, the God of Israel, and so have been their successors, a line of prophets throughout the kingdom years whose words have been Yahweh's words, guiding or rebuking or encouraging the line of kings who have ruled Israel in His name from His city Jerusalem.
Jeremiah is well aware how the role of Yahweh's prophets has expanded over the years. When the kingdom split in two in 930 b.c., its northern half abandoned the rulers of Yahweh's choice and the worship of Yahweh's temple, but could not escape the words of Yahweh's prophets. There have always been regular prophetic messages for the royal line of David in the south, but also, since the partition, Amos has been sent with his message from the south to the north, and Hosea actually belongs in the north, as do Elijah and Elisha. Obadiah's message will be for Edom, which is outside both the Israelite kingdoms, Jonah's has been for the capital city of Assyria, Daniel's will be for the kings of Babylon. But God intends to speak to a wider audience yet, for Jeremiah is to prophesy not to this or that particular nation, but to 'nations' in the plural (1:5), indeed to 'all the nations' (25:15).
The challenge becomes all the more daunting when you consider where, and to whom, it is being presented - the place and the person. Anathoth is an insignificant village, an hour's walk over the hills northwards from Jerusalem, hardly mentioned in the Bible except in connection with Jeremiah. What another prophet, Micah, has said about another village, Bethlehem, not far beyond the city on its opposite side, applies here too: that one 'little... among the clans of Judah,' this one little among the clans of Benjamin. Yet 'from you', says God to that other little place, 'shall come . one who is to be ruler in Israel.' Such is His regular practice: He chooses 'the lowly things of this world and the despised things . so that no one may boast before him.'
And the same applies also, of course, to His choice of person. Others before Jeremiah have reacted to a similar call in a similar way, with dismay, if not horror. Here is Gideon: 'What, me? The most unimportant person in the weakest clan in the tribe?' Here is Moses: 'No, no, Lord - please send somebody else.' So now Jeremiah: 'I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth' (1:6). The word for 'youth' is not at all specific - it need mean nothing more than a younger man rather than an older one - but clearly Jeremiah, at eighteen or thereabouts, feels he lacks the maturity, or the experience, or the standing in the community, that must surely be required for such a task. Again, not so. The more unpromising the human tool, the more we admire the divine Workman. God will give this diffident youngster the words to speak: he has simply to speak them.
My friend David leads a dedicated team of 'prophets', who having received the Word of God now proclaim it to the nations. They don't have to travel in order to do so (though David has in fact travelled widely, following up their ministry), because they are the staff of a Christian radio station, and modern technology reaches the parts that Jeremiah's preaching could not possibly have reached in the seventh century b.c. For much of his ministry it must have seemed that a message intended for 'all nations' was being heard by only one nation, and indeed by only half of that: the people of Israel as represented now by the kingdom of Judah, during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (1:1-3).
If, as is likely, he was born in the last days of King Manasseh (who died in 642 b.c.), his life actually spanned the reigns of seven kings, not three - more, so far as we know, than that of any other prophet. Manasseh's long reign of wickedness had sealed the fate of the kingdom. A royal change of heart towards the end of it could not mend matters, and must have alienated Amon, his son and heir, who had seen eye to eye with the old unregenerate Manasseh, and who as soon as he had the chance set Judah on the downward slope again. Fortunately, after only two years Amon's reign was brought to a sudden end by an assassin, and his little son Josiah found himself on the throne at the age of eight. Arguably the best and the greatest of all David's successors, Josiah would share the ideals of Jeremiah, who was only a few years his junior; though each ploughed his own furrow in pursuing those ideals, as we shall see.
His death in battle in 609 marks the point at which Judah was finally and fatally ensnared in the power politics of the Middle East. Assyria, which had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel a hundred years before, was now in decline, and was threatened by Babylon, the 'new kid on the block'; an Egyptian army went to Assyria's aid; Josiah, keen to see the power of the Assyrians broken, tried to stop it, and perished in the attempt. Jehoahaz, one of his sons, was enthroned in his place. But as Judah had interfered with the Egyptian pharaoh's march north, the pharaoh had good reason to interfere in Judah's affairs on his way home; he removed Jehoahaz, taking him into exile in Egypt, and replaced him by his more pro-Egyptian brother Jehoiakim. After an eleven-year reign the latter died, and the crown passed to his young son Jehoiachin. By now the Babylonians were in the ascendant, and it was their turn to interfere. Led by their king Nebuchadnezzar, they invaded Judah, capturing Jerusalem, taking young Jehoiachin into exile, and replacing him with his uncle, Josiah's remaining son Zedekiah. This last king of the line of David made the ill-advised decision, a few years later, to change sides and throw in his lot with Egypt again, which brought Nebuchadnezzar back from Babylon to deal with the troublesome little kingdom once and for all.
This brief overview of a sequence of seven kings serves a double purpose. First, it provides us with an outline 'map' of those sixty years, and some notion of who was who and what happened when. Beyond that, much more importantly, it helps us to see what it meant for Jeremiah to be a prophet in those times, and what we can learn from him in our own times. For we have to get right away from the idea that he (or any other of Yahweh's prophets) was a kind of astrologer producing horoscopes for a regular column in the Jerusalem Times, for readers eager to know what was going to happen in the week to come. Certainly he foretold the future; but he did not do it to order, or in detail, or with much concern for the how or the when of the events that lay ahead. His prophecies were many and frequent, but even so there would have been times when the prophetic voice was silent. Sometimes I travel in my brother-in-law's car along a route known to me but not to him. He has no need for a running commentary on what we shall see round every next bend; my navigating should consist of little more than 'Carry on to the next roundabout, then take the third exit,' or even simply 'Follow this road until I say otherwise.' Apart from that sort of guidance, all that Judah needed to know were the rules of the road and the lie of the land - how to drive, and where to aim for - and Yahweh's prophets had been telling His people those things ever since the days of Moses.
So we may picture Jeremiah - feeling so inadequate (1:6), but the word, when it came, was a fire in his bones that he could not hold in (20:9) - constrained to speak on a variety of occasions, but particularly in 627, in the middle of Josiah's reign; in the winter of 604, to Jehoiakim; and in the countdown to the final disaster of 586, to the wretched Zedekiah. These were the three kings of 1:1-3, leaders of the nation to which the prophet's message would come first, on its way to the nations, all the nations, that lay beyond their frontiers. Good King Josiah, who had already been on the throne for thirteen years when the prophet began his ministry, had eighteen more to go; it was not he, but his people, who needed the message, for without their heartfelt repentance all his zealous reforms would count for nothing. Bad King Jehoiakim, through eleven years of misrule, cared not at all for his father's principles, or for Yahweh, or Yahweh's word, or Yahweh's people, and loathed Jeremiah and all he stood for. Weak King Zedekiah could never quite bring himself to do what he knew was right, and was pulled in different directions by advisers more strong-minded than he was, through another eleven years that brought the kingdom finally to ruin. Jeremiah was a prophet of warning for Josiah (or rather for Josiah's people - the king knew very well what the score was); a prophet of doom for Jehoiakim, who would heed no warnings; and, perhaps surprisingly, a prophet of hope for Zedekiah, except that it was a forlorn hope, because Zedekiah could not make up his mind to close with the offer. So, it seemed, the dream of an everlasting Davidic kingdom centred on Zion, the eternal city of the Great King, was after all only a dream, and on August 17 in year 586 b.c., as Jerusalem went up in flames, it died.
All that, however, we know from hindsight. During those forty years, Jeremiah, like everyone else, had to live a day at a time, and we have to learn to live, as he did, holding in tension what we know of the overall plan of God, the big picture, and what we experience in the actual events of everyday life, where His methods and His timing are so often different from what we expect.
Almond trees would have been a familiar sight around Anathoth, and perhaps Yahweh drew young Jeremiah's attention to a particular almond branch, as a picture of one aspect of the message he was to pass on first to Israel and then to 'all the nations'; and perhaps Yahweh in the same way caused the young man to notice something else equally unremarkable, a cooking pot bubbling over a fire, and invested that too with prophetic meaning. On the other hand, He was just as likely to have given Jeremiah the kind of visions with which Zechariah's prophecy abounds, or the kind of dreams which Daniel was called to interpret. How the newly appointed prophet 'saw' the two signs is neither here nor there. They were imprinted on his mind, together with the meanings that Yahweh gave them; for a God-given sign will always have a God-given word to explain it.
Unlike Peter Bell in the poem ('A primrose by a river's brim A yellow primrose was to him, And it was nothing more'),every Israelite knew that the almond was more than a nut tree; in Hebrew it was called a 'wake-tree', because its blossoms were the first to awaken after the winter's sleep. And a boiling pot beginning to tip, as the fire on which it is perched begins to settle, obviously threatens danger.
Whether or not the two visions came to Jeremiah in quick succession, they are together here at the beginning of the book, and together they set the tone for all that follows. Here in chapter 1 Yahweh explains their immediate meaning for the prophet. First the almond: if Manasseh's sins had sealed Judah's fate, why was the kingdom not only surviving, but even being blessed by the rule of the godly Josiah? Or conversely, if it had after all been reprieved, why the threat of the boiling pot? Does God really know what He's doing? Yes, says Yahweh; I am awake, and aware, and overseeing all these events, bad and good, to bring about my own purposes. And secondly, the pot: before very long it would tip, and tip from the north, to flood the land with its scalding contents. Egyptian armies had occasionally attacked the Israelites from the south, but the days when Egypt was their first great enemy were long gone; their nation had since become a kingdom, and the kingdom's last enemy would come from the north, Babylonians completing what Assyrians and Arameans (and even Philistines, going the long way round and swooping southwards to destroy King Saul) had begun.
But the 'blossoming twig and the boiling caldron' will be a picture of Jeremiah's entire ministry and of its ongoing relevance. In the words of George Adam Smith a century ago, it was, and is, 'all blossom and storm, beauty and terror, tender yearning and thunders of doom... While the caldron of the North never ceased boiling out over his world... he never, for himself or for Israel, lost the clear note of his first Vision, that all was watched and controlled... Be the times dark and confused as they may, and the world's movements ruthless, ruinous and inevitable, God yet watches and rules all to the fulfilment of His Will - though how, we see not.'
It is the pot whose meaning is spelt out at once (vv. 13-16). Jerusalem in particular is threatened by it, besieged and assaulted more than once in the past but never yet conquered, let alone destroyed. Jeremiah has only to walk up the road from his village to come within sight of the city's skyline, still intact, still a heart-stirring spectacle. But now his eyes are opened to the unthinkable prospect of holy Zion becoming a smoking ruin. When the pot pours out its contents, that will be the view from the hill above Anathoth. The village itself will surely have no more chance of survival than a sandcastle in a tsunami. Yahweh's words hammer home the totality, the finality, of the coming destruction: all the kingdoms, all the kings, in an assault on all Jerusalem's walls, all Judah's towns, all the land's inhabitants (vv. 14-15). Make no mistake, this is His doing; and the cause is not far to seek - the people He made his own by a covenant of love and mercy and power have broken that covenant, and forsaken Him for other gods (v. 16).
Before and after the prophecy of the boiling pot, this mind-stretching first chapter of Jeremiah's book makes two other predictions of tremendous moment. Already the young man has been appointed 'a prophet to the nations', with a commission that shows clearly how Yahweh is just as much in control of peoples who are not in covenant relationship with Him, and of their rise and fall, as He is in control of His own people Israel (vv. 5, 9-10). In our modern world, we may be sure that He calls the tune not only in the so-called 'Christian West' but also in the Moslem world of the '10-40 window', and in lands where other religions and ideologies seem to dominate; and closer to home, not only in the increasingly beleaguered Christian community of our own country, but throughout our increasingly secular society. As a rank outsider came to recognize, two centuries before the time of Jeremiah, 'there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.' The man who confessed that truth was Naaman the Syrian, healed by one in whom he used not to believe, and the God was He who is now known, not only in Israel but all over the world, as the triune God of the Christian faith, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Finally, as the nations move against Judah and Jerusalem, and as Yahweh then moves against the nations, so in verses 17-19 Judah moves against Jeremiah. But unlike the others, this last is a move that will not succeed. Can the diffident young man grasp what he is hearing? Does his heart sink, or will he catch the vision? 'I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.'