Tag Archives: Bible study

The tears of the world

Biblical scholar Kathleen O’Connor (Lamentations and the Tears of the World, 2002) sees the poetry of Lamentations as simultaneously an act of truth, of hope, of justice, of resistance and of wholeness. The people speak the truth of their situation to God and hold out hope that God still hears them. They come to terms with their despair, losses, and anger so that they can regain full humanity, release their energies for doing good, and live in community with others.

Their tears allow for healing. They expose wounds and painful memories, but therein lies the possibility of change.

“Expression of pain is essential to prayer,” O’Connor says. “It is that simple and that difficult. By telling the truth of its world to God, Lamentations becomes a school for prayer.”

The last verse, is fearsome, “a nightmare of abandonment, like a child’s terror that the only ones who can protect her and give her a home have rejected her forever.”

 For now you have indeed rejected us, and in full measure turned your wrath against us. (5:22)

Speaking truth to God, O’Connor says, “can seem unthinkable, because God already knows, or because God may not care, or because God appears to be the cause of the trouble in the first place.

“But as in any relationship, not speaking truth to God causes a dwindling of mutuality and an expansion of anger, resentment, and alienation. Pray anyway.”


Divine anger in Lamentations

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem

My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
They say to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers’ arms. (Lam 2:11-12)

No one was spared at the destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy City. God vent his anger on Judah. Blame lay with the princes, priests, and false prophets, who had encouraged pagan practices and rejection of the one God. But all suffered, even women, infants, and the elderly.

All her people groan as they search for bread …(1:11)
Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets …(2:20)

In this short book of five personal and communal laments, we have anonymous  eyewitness accounts of defeat by the Babylonians, deportation, and desolation. We come away certain of their truth. And we realize that the Old Testament comprises real stories of real people. God was at work in the events of that time, and he is at work in the events of our time.

Lamentations reveals how a devastated people worked through their painful reality, remained faithful to Yahweh, and sought some meaning of the suffering. God did not rejoice in their affliction. He had forgiven his people before. There was hope that he would do so again.

Tradition once held that Jeremiah authored Lamentations, but later scholars determined it was written over several decades. While passionate in tone, expressing chaos and suffering, loneliness, fear, shame, sickness, and grief, these laments were highly structured. Three are acrostics, with each verse beginning with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. They differ in style and rhythm. It is possible they were sung in liturgical setting; it is certain they were later used in annual rituals to remember the destruction of Jerusalem.

“Out of the controlled literary form,” writes scholar James A. Fischer, “comes a theological insight. God can be faced and prayed to in all the divine anger and stony silence. Grief and bitterness can be surmounted to arrive at repentance and acceptance. When history has become unendurable, faith still endures.” (Collegeville Commentary, 804).

Christians associate Lamentations with the passion of Christ and read from the book during Holy Week’s Liturgy of the Hours.

Readings from the book of Jeremiah

Stiftskirche Stuttgart, Prophetenstatue aus de...

The Roman Lectionary uses passages from Jeremiah on nine Sundays during the three-year cycle of readings.

As we take our leave of Jeremiah, let us take note of some of the passages most familiar to us. (Boldface mine)

 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” (1:5)

 “You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. 8 Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. 9 But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (20:7-9)

The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (31:31, 33)


Jeremiah’s role in the New Testament

The prophet Jeremiah. Woodcut from the Nurembe...The great prophet is quoted directly by gospel writers and also referred to indirectly. LeClerc offers as examples of indirect influence:

  • Jesus’ cursing the fig trees that bore no figs (Matthew 21:19, Luke 13:6, Jeremiah 8:13).
  • Saint Paul’s likening God to a potter (Romans 9:20-21, Jeremiah 18:6)

Also, Jeremiah’s sufferings as a persecuted prophet set the stage for the suffering of Jesus and the persecutions of the apostles recounted in Acts. However, the apostles suffered gladly, while Jeremiah poured out his sorrow and distress in great lamentations. (Introduction to the Prophets, 270)

Direct references include:

  • Matthew, in recounting the slaughter of the innocents, quoting from Jeremiah how Rachel wept over the loss of her children. (Matthew 2:18, Jeremiah 31:15)
  • Jesus quoting Jeremiah 7:11 as he drives out the money changers of the temple. (Mark 11:17, Matthew 21:13, Luke 19:46)

The most significant influence is Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant. It figures prominently in two accounts of the Last Supper (Luke 22:20 and 1 Cor 11:25). Jesus takes the cup with the wine and says, “This cup … is the new covenant in my blood.”

But this is not the same new covenant. As LeClerc explains, there are two significant differences: Jeremiah is speaking of a renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. For Christians, the new covenant includes Gentiles as well as Jews. And it is sealed not with the blood of animals, but with the blood of Christ.

The prophet and traditions of Israel

Just as Jeremiah drew on the rich traditions of his people, so too did later writers of the Old Testament draw on the prophet.

Jeremiah, notes LeClerc, made frequent reference to the Genesis creation stories, to the exodus, and to wandering in the wilderness. He called on the memory of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Jeremiah is an extraordinary conservator of the religious traditions of his people and a skilled divine spokesman who can use those traditions to make known in familiar ways God’s word to the people of the covenant.” (Introduction to the Prophets, 269)

The later books Ezra, 2 Chronicles, and Daniel speak of Jeremiah, but he is most richly remembered in the Deuterocanonical and apocryphal literature. There he is associated with the end times and the day of restoration. Second Maccabees remembers Jeremiah as a prophet who prayed for and defended his people. It also preserves the tradition that Jeremiah protected the most sacred objects of worship. Before the Babylonian invasion, he ordered removal from the temple of the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Altar of Incense. They were to be hidden in a secret cave. “The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy.” (2 Mac 2:7).

A new covenant, written upon the heart

Photo of Exhibit at the Diaspora Museum, Tel A...

Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv: Everyday life in Babylon

Ultimately, Jeremiah’s message to his crushed and broken people was one of hope.

Babylon—acting, in the prophet’s view, as an agent of God’s wrath—had crushed Judah in 587-586 B.C. The Temple was looted and destroyed, the city of Jerusalem burned and torn down. Leading citizens were executed or carried off into exile with those who had been deported 10 years before. Of the people who remained, many fled to Egypt. And yet, Jeremiah insisted, a remnant of the people would survive and the covenant would be renewed. But that remnant lived not in Judah, but in Babylon.

This was the prophet’s central insight, breaking ground for Ezekiel, Second Isaiah and other prophets of the exile. The covenant remained because the covenant partners remained: Yahweh and his people.

God would bring them back from captivity. Their enemies would be punished, Israel restored, Jerusalem rebuilt. Judah and Israel would flourish again, build and plant. God would forgive their sins and write a new covenant on their hearts. Joy and gladness would return to the towns of Judah. A Davidic king would rule in right and justice.

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah … I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people…. their sin I will remember no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33-34)

Until the remnant was restored to its own land, Jeremiah counseled the exiles to make a life for themselves in Babylon.

Baruch and the legacy of Jeremiah

Without Baruch, would he have the Book of Jeremiah?

Baruch Writes Jeremiah's Prophecies (Jer. 36:4...

Baruch Writes Jeremiah's Prophecies

Certainly we would have fewer of the prophet’s words and know little if anything about his life. Chapters 26-45 are narratives attributed to Jeremiah’s friend, confidant, disciple, and scribe—not just a secretary but a skilled professional training in writing.

Baruch enabled Jeremiah to fulfill God’s direction:

Take a scroll and write on it all the words I have spoken to you against Israel, Judah, and all the nations, from the day I first spoke to you, in the days of Josiah, until today. Perhaps, when the house of Judah hears all the evil I have in mind to do to them, they will turn back each from his evil way, so that I may forgive their wickedness and their sin.    (Jeremiah 36:2-3)

Baruch recorded the words on a scroll and took the scroll to the temple. Jeremiah had been banned from entering the sacred space—possibly because of his temple sermon. Through the window of an upper room, he read Jeremiah’s words to a crowd gathered for a feast day. He later read the scroll again to court officials, who kept the scroll but urged Baruch and Jeremiah to go into hiding. One official read the scroll to princes and King Jehoiakim, who cut it off in strips and burned it even as the official continued reading, then ordered the arrest of the prophet and scribe.

In hiding, Jeremiah again dictated to Baruch all the words on the first scroll “and many others of the same kind in addition.” They both witnessed the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, 87-586 B.C. Historians and Bible scholars debate what happened

next. Conflicting traditions maintain that he went into exile with Jeremiah to Egypt, where he died, or that he later lived and wrote in Babylon. The Book of Baruch, accepted as canonical by Catholics, is attributed to the scribe.

Baruch 3:9-15 is the sixth reading of the Easter vigil:

Hear, Israel, the commandments of life:
listen, and know prudence!
How is it, Israel,
that you are in the land of your foes,
grown old in a foreign land,
Defiled with the dead,
counted among those destined for Hades?
You have forsaken the fountain of wisdom!
Had you walked in the way of God,
you would have dwelt in enduring peace.
Learn where prudence is,
where strength, where understanding;
That you may know also
where are length of days, and life,
where light of the eyes, and peace.
Who has found the place of wisdom?
Who has entered into her treasuries?