Jeremiah Week 12
Professor of Theology, Loyola University Maryland
Read this week’s Scripture: Jeremiah 46:1–52:34
It has been a long trek through Jeremiah. Throughout the book, central characters (including Jeremiah sometimes) were certain they knew what God wanted and what God was up to. Time and time again, the LORD disrupts things. If things are constantly destabilized, it is very hard to live faithfully. Nevertheless, in particular times and places, God needs to shake things up. Sending prophets is one of the ways God does this. Here at the end of the book, the LORD disrupts the nations, directing judgment against them, particularly Babylon. The surrounding nations may have been God’s instrument of judgment against Judah, but they themselves will not escape God’s judgment either.
Oracles Against the Nations
Chapters 46−51 form a clear and discrete section of the book of Jeremiah. They are called the “oracles against the nations.” In the book’s conclusion, we finally see the fulfillment of Jeremiah 1:10 where Jeremiah is commissioned to speak to the nations, to announce their imminent judgment at the hand of the LORD. The nations and peoples addressed here are: Egypt, the Philistines, Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, Elam, and finally, Babylon. Each of the oracles announce disaster on these places. At the same time, they each are distinctive in their own right.
Oracle Against Egypt
The oracle against Egypt is in two parts: Jeremiah 46:2−12 and 13−26. The first oracle is taken to be a reference to the battle of Carchemish (605 BCE). In this battle, Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians, opening the way for Babylonian expansion into what had previously been the Egyptian sphere of influence. As with some of the earlier announcements, the significant element here is the LORD’s role as the one who oversees Babylon’s victory and Egypt’s defeat.
In Jeremiah 46:10, we even read that this is the LORD’s day of retribution against Egypt for her past misdeeds. Perhaps this is a reference back to Exodus, but we cannot be certain. The imagery, however, is pretty clear. Egypt is seen as the LORD’s enemy, and Babylon is simply God’s chosen instrument against an enemy of the LORD.
Jeremiah’s prophecy against Egypt continues in 46:13. In this discussion, great Egyptian cities fall, Egyptian gods like Apis and Amon are crushed, and Pharaoh is reduced to ineffectual bluster. All of the pieces that undergird Egyptian might are overwhelmed by Babylon, God’s instrument. The result is calamity for Egypt and her people.
In the middle of the oracle detailing the clash of two world powers, God offers comfort to Israel in Jeremiah 46:27−28. Unlike God’s dealings with the nations, God’s dealings with Israel are not retributive. Rather, they are designed to correct and reform her, preparing her for restoration. “I will make an end of all the nations … but I will not make an end of you” (Jeremiah 46:28). God will ultimately end Israel’s exile and return her to her land.
Oracles Against the Philistines and Moab
The oracle against the Philistines addresses a nation that had once been Israel’s enemy, but whose power was now vastly diminished. They, too, will fall to the Babylonians. Again, however, this is presented as God’s work, not simply the outworking of geopolitical processes.
In contrast to the relatively short oracle against the Philistines, the oracle against Moab is longer even than the oracle against Egypt. The oracle begins with an announcement of doom against various Moabite cities in Jeremiah 48:1−5. The underlying issue here seems to be Moab’s indolence and complacency. In this respect, the prophetic critique resembles Amos 6:1−8 against those who are “at ease” in Zion. The point in each case is not to advocate a life of constant busyness. Rather, it is to address indolent leisure that is acquired at the expense of the oppression of others. Such prosperity breeds complacency in the face of injustice and insolent pride with regard to one’s relationship to God. All of these claims are part of the oracle against Moab.
Finally, after an exhausting litany of disasters that will befall Moab and her people, there is the curious verse in Jeremiah 48:47: “Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the latter days, says the LORD.” No reason is given; it seems simply to flow from God’s mercy.
Oracles Against the Ammonites, Edomites, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, and Elam
We then turn to the Ammonites in Jeremiah 49. This oracle is quite brief. The Ammonites had joined the Babylonian assault on Judah. Later, they rebelled against Babylon and hosted Ishmael, the one who murdered Gedaliah (Jeremiah 41). As with the others, their cities and their gods are ruined. As with the Moabites, the Ammonites also receive a promise of restoration.
The Edomites were the archenemies of Israel. Descended from Jacob’s twin brother, Esau, they rejoiced when Jerusalem fell (Psalm 137:7). The LORD compares their coming punishment with the work of grape gatherers who would at least leave gleanings, and thieves who would only take what they wanted (Jeremiah 49:9). In contrast, the LORD will strip Edom bare. This event cannot be confused with simple military defeat from which the victor takes spoils. Instead, this is a comprehensive retributive defeat for Edom’s opposition to Israel. Despite this, the LORD recognizes that a calamity such as this will produce orphans and widows. The LORD will care for these vulnerable ones. God will be faithful toward them (Jeremiah 49:10−11).
Chapter 49 concludes with three brief oracles. The first concerns Damascus. This great and “joyful” city will be destroyed. Kedar and Hazor seem to refer to Bedouin tribes to the east who do not have cities. Nevertheless, they, too, will fall to Babylon. Elam, to the northeast, is the final target in chapter 49. Unlike the other oracles, this one contains no poetry. Instead, one finds a set of prose verbs signaling comprehensive destruction.
Chapters 50 and 51 close out the oracles against the nations. These two chapters, the longest of the oracles, are directed against Babylon. The nation that had been the servant and instrument of the LORD now comes under God’s judgment. As we saw in the oracles against Egypt and Moab, the oracle against Babylon contains explicit judgment of the gods of the Babylonians (Jeremiah 50:2; 51:17, 44, 47, 52). To the extent that these verses grant some measure of existence to these gods, they are portrayed as powerless by the fact of the LORD’s vengeance on Babylon. The attack on images and their makers in Jeremiah 51:17, however, indicates that despite the faith that people may put in these gods, they are nothing more than figments of the imagination. Regardless of how one answers the questions about the existence of other gods in the Old Testament, these verses, along with the Old Testament in general, make it clear that there is only one God worthy of anyone’s love and attention.
The destruction that Jeremiah prophesies for Babylon is comprehensive and complete. In terms of the imagery used, there is little here that is new. All of these images seem to have already been deployed in anticipation of the LORD’s judgment of Judah. The dramatic point here is that these images are now directed at Babylon, the instrument of God. It becomes stunningly clear that although God has used Babylon, no one should infer that this is due to any inherent righteousness in Babylon. Babylon does not cooperate with the LORD; she is merely the LORD’s chosen instrument. Babylon is arrogant and idolatrous. She has served a particular purpose in God’s ongoing drama with Judah, but nothing more. Moreover, it appears that because Babylon has lifted its hand against Judah and Jerusalem, she falls under special judgment (Jeremiah 51:28, 49). Even though it is true of each oracle against the nations, this particular oracle against Babylon is founded on the LORD’s absolute sovereignty over all creation.
Throughout the oracle against Babylon, there are several passages of redemption and renewal directed at Israel (Jeremiah 50:4−5, 17−20, 33−34; 51:5). Israel and Judah together shall return to Zion, seeking the LORD. The everlasting covenant that God initially made with Abraham in Genesis 17:7 shall be renewed. Israel in particular receives promises of redemption, renewal, and forgiveness in Jeremiah 50:17−20. Indeed, each of these promises of redemption are addressed to Israel and Judah. This serves to remind readers that God never desired a divided people of God. Moreover, renewal must involve renewal of the remnants of both Israel and Judah. In verses 33−34, the LORD recognizes that Israel and Judah are both oppressed and held captive illicitly. The LORD will argue their cause and liberate them so that the LORD may “give rest to the land.” There is a fruitful ambiguity here in this phrase “give rest to the land.” On one hand, it may refer to the Promised Land. On the other hand, it may refer to the earth as a whole. If one takes it as a reference to the Promised Land, then it reminds us that the covenant with Israel includes people and land together. The geographical space without the people is a restless place. By liberating and returning the people, the LORD gives rest to the land. If we think of land as the earth more generally, the point is that the renewal of the people of God brings rest to the entire earth in a manner anticipated in passages such as Isaiah 2:1−4. The redemption of the people of God is part of that process of redemption in which all the nations are drawn to God.
The Fall of Jerusalem
Chapter 52 re-narrates the fall of Jerusalem in more detail than in chapter 39. It seems to incorporate materials from 2 Kings 24−25. Having been installed by Nebuchadnezzar, Zedekiah rebelled against him. A siege ensued, accompanied by famine and all the other horrors associated with a siege. Eventually, the city walls were breached. Zedekiah tried to escape, was captured, and saw his family slaughtered before his eyes. He was then blinded so that the vision of his children dying would be the last thing he ever saw. He was taken to Babylon in chains, where he remained until his death. What follows in Jeremiah 52:12−30 is a fairly detailed accounting of the burning of the Temple and great buildings of Jerusalem, the destruction of the walls, and a listing of the most valuable spoils that were taken back to Babylon, along with the notation that 3,023 people were taken into exile in the seventh year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (598 BCE); 832 in the 18th year (587 BCE) and 745 in the 23rd year (582 BCE).
The book of Jeremiah closes with the brief note that after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, his successor released Jehoiachin, the former Judean king (exiled in 598 B.C.), from prison and showed him great favor (Jeremiah 52:31–34; cf. 2 Kings 25:27–30).
This is not simply the end of the book of Jeremiah. This chapter brings to an end one of the most significant episodes in the life of the people of God. In some respects, the fall and destruction of Jerusalem for Jews parallels the significance of the crucifixion for Christians. It seems to be a time of total darkness. As Jeremiah has presented it, this calamity is both justified and expected. Nevertheless, one can also understand the deep grief and horror felt by the people. Perhaps this final paragraph about Jehoiachin is meant to provide a spark of hope. Perhaps it is meant to indicate that as those in exile pursued the shalom of the place where God had sent them, they were also able to find a measure of shalom for themselves.
Finding Hope During Exile and Judgment
This reminder in Jeremiah 29:7 points to one of the most striking elements of the book of Jeremiah as a whole. The idolatry and injustice of the people of God, the call to repent and the promise of God’s imminent judgment, even the promise of restoration and redemption at some future point, are all themes that appear in other prophetic books. In this respect, the fact that Jeremiah contains such material is not surprising. What is striking about Jeremiah is that it contains a great deal of material about how the people of God are to live in the light of judgment and exile. Jeremiah announces God’s judgment in typical prophetic style. He also, however, offers insight into how the people of God are to behave during exile and judgment. Those in Babylon are to seek the shalom of that city. Those who remain in the land are to stay and serve the Babylonians. Each group is to carry on with the mundane details of daily life. They are to begin to figure out how to walk faithfully with the LORD in these new circumstances, circumstances that nobody would have wanted, even though nobody seemed interested in the sort of repentance that might have led to different circumstances.
Christians are relatively comfortable thinking of themselves as living in apostolic missionary situations, contexts in which they eagerly move with hope and purpose, doing work that God has sent them to do. Even if we don’t always do this work well, even when we don’t inhabit these contexts faithfully, we retain a strong sense of how we ought to carry on. Hope in these situations is a pretty straightforward matter, a disposition whose energy comes from the faithfulness of the God who sends believers out into the world to make disciples of all nations.
Jeremiah stands apart from this. He addressed a people who had lost their way, whose national and religious activities had become corrupted and oppressive, and who had become self-deceived and blind about their standing before God. In the light of the judgment that comes on these people, Jeremiah offers God’s word about how to pick up the pieces, how to carry on, and where one might find glimmers of hope.
I do not want to conclude this study by claiming that Christians in the U.S. are much closer to Jeremiah’s audience than we might think. That is, I do not want to conclude by launching into a rant, noting some of the strong parallels between Judah in Jeremiah’s time and the churches in our own day. Nevertheless, it may be worth noting that attending to Jeremiah carefully in the present may have the requisite capacity to chasten our confidence in our standing before God. Such chastening may lead to creative acts of repentance. Whether or not these defer some impending judgment is not for me to say. Such repentance, however, can only enhance our prospects of loving God and our neighbor more deeply and defer the need for a prophet like Jeremiah.
Questions for Further Discussion
- What parallels do you see between the oracles against the nations in chapters 46–51 and the judgments against Judah foretold earlier in Jeremiah? What differences do you notice? Why are these similarities and differences important?
- The Lectio notes that Jeremiah’s most striking feature is that “it contains a great deal of material about how the people of God are to live in the light of judgment and exile.” Why is this a significant contribution to the canon of God’s Word? Where else does Scripture talk about how God’s people are to live as exiles? How might living faithfully in the context of exile give hope to the community of God?
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