Jeremiah: The Desolation
Dr. Randy L. Hyde
Of all the prophets in the Old Testament, I think I would have liked Jeremiah the best. But I also think I would have wanted to be around him the least. Does that make any sense? I’ll try to explain…
This is what I like about Jeremiah… He lets us in on his feelings in a way the other prophets do not. Jeremiah not only tells us his personal experiences, he shares his innermost feelings as well. He is not simply a detached observer of what is happening to his people. He is physically, emotionally, and spiritually involved in everything that happens to them; perhaps in a way the other prophets are not.
I have no doubt that Isaiah is the most famous of all the prophets. Maybe that is because his is the first of the books of prophecy found in the Old Testament. Or it could be that so much of what he had to say has found its way into our celebration of the birth of Christ. So we associate him with the warmth and joy of the Christmas season. After all, the name Immanuel, “God With Us,” is found in Isaiah’s prophecy. His suffering servant imagery in the fifty-third chapter could have something to do with it as well. Whether he intended it to describe the coming messiah, we can’t be sure, but we who believe in Christ as the fulfillment of God’s purpose have taken it to mean just that.
Yet, we have to admit, Isaiah doesn’t let us in emotionally, doesn’t share the deepest feelings of his heart. At least not the way Jeremiah does.
Ezekiel, in many ways, is not all that likable. I would dare say that apart from his image of the valley of dry bones we remember little of his life and prophecy… or his feelings about the destruction of Israel. Is it because he’s third in the lineup of major prophets? Or is it because there seems to be a bitterness in his heart that doesn’t exactly convey to us an endearing personality?
Even Hosea, whose personal story we know so well, gives little to us in terms of his inner thoughts. I will remind you he is the prophet who, under God’s direction, takes to himself an unfaithful wife; seemingly, for the sole purpose of illustrating the unfaithfulness of Israel. He is required to give his children some unfortunate names as well, names that depict the estrangement of God from his children Israel. Yet, we aren’t told how Hosea himself feels about all this. We get the picture of a guy who gets dumped on by God and just takes it. Sort of a wimp, if you know what I mean.
And Amos seems more than willing to announce judgment upon his people without any shred of personal remorse whatsoever.
But Jeremiah is different. We feel his pain because he experiences so intensely and personally the pain of his people. When they hurt, he hurts. When they are devastated, he is devastated. And he brings us in on every thought, every feeling, he endures. Jeremiah is called “the weeping prophet” because he has a lot to weep about. But I think it is also because he is so willing to reveal his innermost thoughts. And he does it in such a way that sometimes it is difficult to determine if his thoughts are truly his or if they belong to God.
That’s true of our passage today. We see in it, not only Jeremiah’s deepest thoughts, but those of God as well. And I think that’s the point. We don’t know where the words of Jeremiah become the words of God, and that’s the way the prophet wants it.
My joy is gone, says Jeremiah,
grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Whatever God decides to do to Judah, in terms of retribution for their sins, it is done to Jeremiah. He takes it all very personally, which is why I don’t think I would have wanted to spend much time with him. There’s just too much pain and hurt involved. God’s pain is Jeremiah’s pain, and if we spend too much time in his company, it becomes our pain as well.
Some biblical scholars believe this wasn’t the case at all…. that Jeremiah simply writes all this stuff as material to be used later in worship. In other words, Jeremiah is less a prophet than he is a priest. The problems of Israel simply provide liturgical literature that has now been passed down in what we call the Old Testament. I don’t know about you, but I think some people – even smart people like biblical scholars – have too much time on their hands.
I think Jeremiah was right there in the trenches with his people. Despite the fact that they did not listen to his warnings, he will suffer right along with them. It will take a great physical and emotional toll, but he knew from the outset that this whole enterprise of prophecy was not exactly going to be a cakewalk. He would stand among them to the bitter end.
I hope you don’t mind my using myself as an example. But then again, Jeremiah didn’t hesitate to do that, did he?
When someone in our church dies, just about everything else, by the very nature of the situation, has to take a back seat. Responding to the situation, appropriately, takes over my mind and heart. I involve myself in my other duties. I have to. Things don’t get done just by my sitting around and brooding about them. But, when someone in our church dies, that becomes my number one priority. The family is to be visited. Preparations have to be made. Thoughts about the deceased have to be put together and the service planned. However long it takes, and whatever it takes, that is what I do.
I figure that this person who has died has lived only one life, at least on this side of the kingdom. The least he or she deserves is to have appropriate words said at their departure from this life. So I throw everything I’ve got into the situation, and plan for it as best I can. Many of you know what I mean. We’ve been through it together, haven’t we?
Very often, when it is all over – when the funeral or memorial service has been completed, the burial service has taken place, the last goodbye has been shared with the family – the only thing left is… exhaustion.
It is both physical and emotional. I tell you this not for sympathy, but after it’s all over I’m pretty well spent. I have officiated at a lot of funerals over the years. Yet, every time – every time – when it is over, I am surprised at how draining the whole process has been. I don’t realize it until it is over… which, I believe, is a blessing from God. It’s like not recognizing the gas tank is empty until the orange warning light comes on in the dashboard.
I don’t know how else to do it, but to become involved emotionally with the family and other loved ones. I cannot do what I do as a completely detached observer. I have to try and feel their pain, and in most cases it doesn’t take much trying. My main task is to be a messenger of faith, and of hope in the life to come as a promise for their loved one who has died. In the context of grief, it is not an easy thing to do.
So, if anyone is tempted to think that Jeremiah was just an unattached observer to all that is going on with his people, well, like I said, they just have too much time on their hands. He feels their pain intensely. What the people of Israel suffer, Jeremiah suffers. What they experience, he experiences. What they feel, Jeremiah feels. He is one of them.
The prophet says it himself…
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
It is the picture of a man who has wept all his tears and is now drained of all emotion. He can think no thoughts, feel nothing at all. He is completely spent and has nothing left but the sorrow of an empty heart. Many of you have been there. You know how he feels.
Except that Jeremiah’s anguish is not over the death of a loved one. It is over the death of the relationship between God and his chosen people.
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The prophet chooses to illustrate this estrangement with the analogy of the farming season. The people of Israel, for the most part, are farming folk. At the least, their economy is driven by the agrarian life. We here in Arkansas ought to be able to understand that.
I read recently that this year’s cotton crop should be quite good. I always notice things like that because I have friends whose livelihoods are dependent on it. Your welfare and mine depends on their well-being, let me tell you. We had a relatively mild summer with early rains, and are now experiencing the beginnings of a dry fall season. That’s perfect for cotton. Probably won’t hurt the soybeans either. And, we’ve been fortunate in evading the ravages of the hurricane season, unlike our friends and neighbors to the south.
Consider the Israelites. Their summers were generally quite dry, followed by the harvest season. The grapes, olives, and other fruit were to be gleaned by late September or October, and the Festival of Booths and the observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, would follow. Then the rains would come just in time for the newly-sown cereal crops to be harvested in the spring.
It was the usual year-round cycle of things for the people of Judah. But this year things have gone wrong. “The harvest is past,” Jeremiah says, “the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
and dismay has taken hold of me.
Wait a minute. You mean the prophet is this torn up over a lost crop? Come on… Most farmers know that the only other profession as uncertain as theirs is that of a gambler. In fact, that’s just another word for farmer… gambler. You win some, you lose some. No need to get all that torn up about losing a crop. You have to know that some seasons are not going to be so good. You plan for it and move on.
But there’s more to it than that. Jeremiah is using the drought as a metaphor for the emptiness of his people when it comes to their devotion to God. Not only have they sinned against God, but generally when people come to realize they have done wrong, they turn and repent and things are made right again. Instead, Jeremiah’s people have stiffened their already stiff necks and, to use a good old southern expression, have “gotten their backs up” even more. They will not say they are sorry, they will not go back to the Lord. They will be defiant until the day of desolation comes.
The fall harvest season is to be a time of great joy and celebration. All the hard work has come to fruition, and the barns are full from the bounty the land provides. But there will be no harvest this season. The only thing that will come to the ground of Israel is the thundering of the enemy’s armies. The only result of this season will be death and destruction. That is Jeremiah’s message.
Except for one other thing that is quite important. Regardless of what happens to the people of Israel, Jeremiah will be there with them. Whatever comes their way, it will come to Jeremiah as well. He will be in the trenches with his people, even when the trenches are filled with blood.
Like I said, I think I would have liked Jeremiah, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to spend much time with him.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
This is the way I picture it. Jeremiah looks around and all he sees is desolation. There is no hope in the land, no thought of redemption. Yet God is listening intently for any sign that the children of Israel will turn back to him. Any sign at all.
As I considered the plight of Jeremiah, I thought of my late mother-in-law. She was an avid baseball fan. Back in the 60’s, when her other son-in-law played for the Chicago Cubs, there was no such thing as cable television. No ESPN. I know, for you young ones that’s hard to believe. But it’s true. They had an old radio, the console type, that was just as much a piece of furniture as it was a radio (in fact, though it no longer works we have it in our dining room now). She would tune it to WGN in Chicago and sit in front of it for hours with her ear pressed to the speaker… through the static trying to hear bits and pieces of the broadcast… trying to hear how her beloved Cubs and her son-in-law were doing… keeping score as best she could.
I wonder if that isn’t something like God. God has his ear tuned to the voices of his people Israel… patiently waiting, listening, hoping. Through the static of their sin God waits and listens for just a word of remorse, of repentance… just the slightest hint that his people are willing, once again, to turn back toward their God.
And I wonder if it isn’t just as true today. Do you think that maybe – just maybe – God has his ear tuned to what we are doing this morning, to what is being said, being thought, being done… waiting, listening, hoping to find someone in this place who is willing to say, “Here am I, Lord. Heal me. Save me. Call me to be yours and yours alone”?
This is the message of hope… that in the static of our lives, so filled with uncertainty, that no situation is so desolate God is not willing to redeem it. There is no circumstance so dark that God is not willing to share his light. There is no life so worthless that God is not willing to save it.
The landscape of your life may seem as bleak as that of Jeremiah’s. But God stands with you. Do you believe that? If so, you will indeed find a balm in Gilead, you will find a physician there. His name is Jesus, and he stands ready and willing to show you the way home.
Indeed, O Lord, show us the way home. When we hurt, stand with us, and when we need redemption, come to us in the mercy and grace that only can be found in Jesus our Lord. It is in his name we pray, Amen
— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.