The prophet Jeremiah

Today, aside from being the Solemnity of our holy patron S. Joseph as Workman, is also the memorial day of the prophet Jeremiah. Here is his entry from the martyrology:

“Commemoration of Saint Jeremiah the prophet, who, in the time of the kings Joachim and Sedecias [aka. Zedekiah] of Juda, while warning about the approaching destruction of the Holy City and the deportation of her people, suffered many persecutions, on account of which Holy Church holds him up as a prefigurement of the patient Christ. [Jeremiah] predicted the new and eternal testament consummated by the same Jesus Christ, by which the all-powerful Father wrote His Law upon the inmost heart of the children of Israel, that He would be Himself to them God and they to Him a people.”

Roman martyrology, May the first

That wonderful summary reveals to us a devastated man, who knew what would happen to his nation and people, but try as he might he could not get them to change their ways. The rest of this post is my summary of the Prophecy of Jeremiah. Jeremias was a priest, and so of the family of Aaron brother of Moses, and he came from a town called Anathoth in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, a levitical city as given by Josue, 21: 18. And he was called very early on to his work as a prophet of the eternal God, as given from this famous extract from the first chapter of the book, that is often read out at priestly ordinations today:

“The word of the Lord came to me, and His message was: ‘I claimed thee for My own before ever I fashioned thee in thy mother’s womb; before ever thou camest to the birth, I set thee apart for Myself; I have a prophet’s errand for thee among the nations.’ ‘Alas, alas, Lord God (said I), I am but a child that has never learned to speak.’ ‘A child, sayest thou?’ the Lord answered. ‘Nay, I have a mission for thee to undertake, a message to entrust to thee. Have no human fears; am I not at thy side, to protect thee from harm?’ the Lord says. And with that, the Lord put out his hand, and touched me on the mouth; ‘See,’ he told me, ‘I have inspired thy lips with utterance. Here and now I give thee authority over nations and kingdoms everywhere; with a word thou shalt root them up and pull them down, overthrow and lay them in ruins; with a word thou shalt build them up and plant them anew.” – Jeremias, 1: 4-10

The men God chooses are not always the most eloquent, as we know from the whole history of the Bible, and they make the same protest, Lord, I am not worthy. And that is probably the response that the Holy One is looking for, because these men are eventually able to part seas, bring water from rocks, slay thousands of villains with the jawbone of an ass, and stand fearlessly before immoral princes and wicked men. Jeremias was destined to do the second, delivering unwanted messages from heaven to the several of the kings and the nobles in the last decades of the kingdom of Juda, before that kingdom was utterly ruined and its people dispersed among the vast territories of the neo-Babylonian empire. Jeremias’ message was not unlike that of the other prophets: return to the whole-hearted worship of the Lord God, end all other religious cults around the country (of which there seem to have been many), and follow the instructions of the prophets, not seeking diplomatic support from other world powers. Basically, prophets like Jeremias could see that it would be better for the survival of the nation if the king of Juda accepted the overlordship of the Babylonians; when he was ignored and the king sought to defy Babylon, hoping in the ancient support of God, he learnt to his ruin that that ancient support had fled him. The great problem, as had been recorded in the Torah, was that the Chosen people occupying the Holy Land would be corrupted by the native religious cults, there. And so they were.

“Then the Lord’s word came to me: ‘Go and cry out so that all Jerusalem may hear, with this message from the Lord: What memories I have of thee, gracious memories of thy youth, of the love that plighted troth between us, when I led thee through the desert; alone in the barren wastes, thou and I! Israel was set apart for the Lord, first-fruits vowed to be his revenue; he lay under a ban that plucked them, and must rue his rashness, the Lord says. Listen, then, to the Lord’s word, men of Jacob; listen, every clan that bears the name of Israel, to the Lord’s message: What fault did they find in Me, those fathers of yours, that they should keep their distance from Me, and court false gods, false as themselves? And never a thought to ask where I, the Lord, was, that rescued them from Egypt, and led them on their way through the desert, wild and solitary, parched and dead, far from haunt of traveller and the homes of men! Into a land of plenty I brought you, to enjoy the fruits and the blessings of it; and you had no sooner entered it than you must needs defile it, My own land, turn my chosen home into a place abominable.” – Jeremias, 2: 1-7

Here we see the marital language (‘that plighted troth between us‘) of the covenant between God and the people in the desert, a covenant of fidelity which God had kept and the people had by now so repeatedly broken (‘and court false gods‘) that they were about to suffer the fury of a jilted Husband. Jeremias’ ministry had begun in the reign of the good King Josias, who had begun a religious reform, but had been cut down in his prime when he challenged an Egyptian army passing through the Holy Land to challenge the Chaldeans. Despite his attempt at reforming the people therefore, the wickedness of Josias’ grandfather, King Manasses, would result in a quick return to the former behaviour of the people, and prophets like Jeremias would be summarily ignored. If Jeremias said that God was about to bring ruin on Juda, an army of yes-man prophets (see chapter twenty-three) and Temple priests would challenge him and pronounce prosperity and health for the king and people. Apparently, they continued with multiple religions (‘stock of wood and block of stone they hailed‘), but when trouble came rushed back to the Temple of God to ask for His help. 

“‘Thief caught in the act has less cause to blush than the men of Israel, king and prince, priest and prophet, with the rest. Stock of wood and block of stone they hailed as the father that had begotten them; on Me they turned their backs, and gave Me never a glance. And now, in their distress, it is Up, Lord, and bring us rescue! Where are those other gods thou madest for thyself? Bid them rise up and aid thee in the hour of peril; gods thou hadst a many; no city of thine, Juda, but must have its own! And would you still implead Me? Nay, says the Lord, you have forsaken Me, one and all.'” – Jeremias, 2: 26-29

Chapter three continues with the marriage-and-infidelity imagery, and God declares His famous mercy as He says that the people need only acknowledge their fault in deserting Him for other religions and gods. And then there are echoes of the Messianic age:

“Wandering hearts, the Lord bids you come back to Him, and renew your troth; by ones and twos, from this city or that, from this clan or that, He will claim you for His own and bring you back to Sion; and you shall have shepherds of His own choice to guide you well and prudently. After that, the Lord says, when all is growth and fertility, no longer shall you have the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant for your rallying-cry; from thought and memory it will have passed away, nor any care shall be bestowed on the fashioning of it. It is Jerusalem men will speak of as the Lord’s throne; there at Jerusalem all the nations of the world will meet in the Lord’s Name, the false aims of their perverse hearts forgotten. When that time comes, Juda and Israel will be united; together they will come back from the north country to the land I gave your fathers for their home.” – Jeremias, 3: 14-18

That the Ark of the Covenant is to be removed speaks of the time when the law of God will be written on the hearts of the people, rather than stored up in a particular place. And all the nations will meet in God’s name, in total dedication to Him. But first, the people are to be rededicated to God (circumcised afresh, as in chapter four, verse 4) and, as we shall eventually discover, punishment by exile and banishment must first be endured. And much of the book is doom and gloom, as the growing threat of the pitiless Chaldean army becomes evident, news coming of a vast army descending from north Syria. But we find the strange self-confidence of the people: the God Who saved their ancestors from Egypt would surely save them now, also?

“Obstinately they have defied Me, the Lord says, Israel and Juda both; they disown Me; Nay, they tell one another, this is none of His doing, harm shall never befall us, we shall have neither slaughter nor famine here; the prophets did but waste breath, no word of revelation made to them; on their own heads be it! Vain words; but not vainly the Lord, the God of hosts, has spoken; flaming words of His He has entrusted to my lips, and fuel this people shall be for their devouring.” – Jeremias, 5: 11-14

Christians may find that language familiar, for Christ denounced the religious authorities of His own time for slaying the prophets He had sent in the past. Jeremias had to challenge this false confidence, this false security in the sacredness of the Holy City and of the great Temple of Solomon, which the people had apparently defiled to the extent of installing pagan items in the courts of the Temple itself:

“A message came from the Lord to Jeremias, bidding him take his stand at the Temple gate, and there proclaim aloud: Listen to this word of the Lord, men of Juda, that make your way in through these gates to worship Him. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Amend your lives and your likings, if you would have me dwell here among you. Trust never in the false assurances that proclaim this place The Lord’s temple, The Lord’s temple, The Lord’s temple. Will you but amend your lives and your likings, giving one man redress against another, not oppressing the alien, the orphan, the widow, nor in these precincts putting innocent men to death, nor courting, to your ruin, the gods of other nations, then indeed I will make my dwelling here among you, in the land which was my gift to your fathers from the beginning to the end of time. You put your trust in flattering hopes, which can nothing avail you; theft, murder, adultery, the false oath, libations to Baal, the courting of alien gods that are no gods of yours, nothing comes amiss, if only you can come and stand in my presence, here in this house, the shrine of my name, and tell yourselves you have made amends for all these your detestable doings! What, does this house, the shrine of such a name, count for no more than a den of thieves, in eyes like yours? Think you, the Lord says, that eternal God has no eyes to see it?” – Jeremias, 7: 1-11

It does seem as if the abandonment of the Law of God leads automatically to the destruction in morals (see also chapter twenty-two), as we know from our times also. Please amend your lives, cries the Most High, and I will continue to dwell among you. And that, of course, means that the indwelling of God in the Jerusalem Temple was never meant to be permanent, rather (like the possession of the Holy Land) it hinged upon the faithfulness of the people. And notice that those last few lines point directly at Christ’s famous cleansing of the Temple – not only was Christ condemning the merchant-work in the Temple court but, referring back to Jeremias, we can see that he was once more accusing the Pharisees and generally the people of a superficial religion – they come to the Temple to offer sacrifice or sin and hope to make amends, but do not reform their lives, thus making the Temple a den of thieves! Those were also the words used by Christ. Offering money for grace, a mockery of religion, and God may not be mocked. The chapter begins the final sentence on Jerusalem of banishment and rejection. And, then, there was the treatment of the prophets, which is the treatment given to the Saints even in our own time: the people of Anathoth, Jeremias’ own fellows, came after him. 

“Thou, Lord, didst make it all known to me past doubt, warning me beforehand of their devices. Hitherto, I had been unsuspecting as a cade lamb that is led off to the slaughter-house; I knew nothing of the plots they were hatching against me, as they whispered, Let us give him a taste of the gallows-tree; let us rid the world of him, so that his very name will be forgotten! But thou, Lord of hosts, true Judge that canst read the inmost thoughts of man’s heart, let me live to see thee punish them; to thee I have made my plea known. And now the Lord has a word for yonder men of Anathoth, who conspired to kill me, and would have stopped me prophesying in the Lord’s name, on pain of my life.” – Jeremias, 11: 18-21

I needn’t go through the whole of the rest of the book in detail. The themes are now common and we only find Jeremias’ adventures around Jerusalem and between Jerusalem and his home country, around Anathoth in Benjamin. There are the tales of the rotted girdle (chapter thirteen) and the breaking and refashioning of clay (chapter eighteen and chapter nineteen) which demonstrate the fate of the nation and how the people will be refashioned and remade after their punishment. There is also the tale of the scroll of prophecies that Jeremias twice made out with the assistance of the prophet Baruch son of Nerias, who was also a scribe (chapter thirty-six); twice because the king himself burnt the first one. These proclamations of doom once more brought upon Jeremias’ the wrath of the people, similar to the later hatred that brought Christ to the Cross. There is more serious matter in chapter twenty-six, and we should wonder at the courage of the prophet.

“Hereupon they summoned a conclave to plot against me, Jeremias; ‘What,’ they said, ‘would he have us believe we need no more priests to expound the law, no more wise men to counsel us, no more prophets to say their word?’ They thought to compass my death by their clamour; to all my warnings would pay heed no longer. Lord, give me audience; listen to these pratings of my enemies. Must they make such a return for my good will, laying a snare to take my life? Bethink Thee, how I ever stood up before Thee to plead for them, to avert Thy anger from them.” – Jeremias, 18: 18-20

Jeremias was a priest, of course, and his intercession for the people, like the intercession of Abraham and Moses of old, was powerful before God. But here, he had received only evil for his good intentions. Jeremias survived the first deportation of the people from Jerusalem in 598 BC and the second deportation and the destruction of the City in 587 BC. After the first deportation, King Jechonias (aka. Joachin) of Juda had been carried away into imprisonment in Babylon and his uncle Sedecias held the City for the next ten to eleven years. Much of Jeremias’ work is addressed to Joachim father of Jechonias and to Sedecias (who was reasonably friendly to him) before the final destruction, but in chapter twenty-nine, we find that he addressed a letter to the exiles of the first deportation, to tell them to remain calm and build their families in exile, awaiting a certain return.

“A message from the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to the men of Jerusalem he has sent into exile at Babylon! I would have you build yourselves houses of your own to dwell in, plant yourselves gardens of your own to support you, wive and gender, and of your sons and daughters wed man with maid, maid with man, to breed sons and daughters in their turn; grow numerous, that are now so few, there in your land of exile. A new home I have given you; for the welfare of that realm be ever concerned, ever solicit the divine favour; its welfare is yours.” – Jeremias, 29: 4-7

He warned them to not try to return to Jerusalem or to listen to false prophets who predicted a quick return, for he knew that the City would soon be destroyed and a further deportation made and at least seventy years were to pass before the City could be rebuilt (see chapter thirty), and he wished to protect them. In describing that second deportation and the following destruction, Jeremias uses the famous words that Saint Matthew (Gospel of S. Matthew, 2: 18) uses to describe the killing of the innocent children by King Herod, in his attempt to kill the Christ Child:

Now, the Lord says, a voice is heard in Rama, of lamentation and bitter mourning; it is Rachel weeping for her children, and she will not be comforted, because none is left. But thus he reassures thee: Sad voice, lament, sad eyes, weep no more; I, the Lord, give thee promise of a reward for thy working-days, a return from the enemy’s country.” – Jeremias, 31: 15-16

Chapters thirty-seven onwards descend into a historic narration, as we discover the plight of the kingdom of Juda under King Sedecias son of Josias, with Babylonians threatening from the east, Chaldeans from the north, Egyptians from the west. Jeremias, on a chance visit to his home at Anathoth, was arrested as a deserter to the Chaldeans and imprisoned. He remained imprisoned at Jerusalem until the City was destroyed in AD 587, continuing to counsel the people to surrender to the Babylonians/Chaldeans to avoid the destruction of the City and the collossal loss of life and the death of the nation. The invaders then established a regional governor called Godolias to rule the remnants of the people (who had not been carried away to Babylon), and Jeremias remained with this group at Maspha (chapter forty). Strife continued as a prince of the royal house of Judah contrived to assassinate this foreign-appointed governor and massacre the Judaites who had rallied to Godolias (chapter forty-one). Ignoring the counsel of Jeremias, who knew that Egypt herself would fall under the advancing Babylonians, the remaining captains of the people decided to carry the remaining Judaites into flight and exile in Egypt (chapters forty-two and forty-three). Sadly, finding new safety in Egypt, the Judaites returned to their old ways, to the chagrin of the prophet, who had been forced into Egypt with them.

“This, too, Jeremias said to the crowd about him, and to their women-folk besides: ‘Jews of Egypt, listen to the message He sends you, He, the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel. So you will be as good as your word; sacrifice and libation you have vowed to the queen of heaven, and must pay it; all is accomplished, will has turned into act! Then listen, Jews of Egypt, to the doom which the Lord pronounces: By the honour of My own Name I have sworn it, the Lord says, never Jew shall be heard more taking his oath by the living God, in all this land of Egypt! For woe, not for weal, these eyes of Mine shall watch over them, till sword and famine have done their work, and Jew in Egypt is none.” – Jeremias, 44: 24-27

Without knowing anything about it, I would suppose that the queen of heaven here was some Egyptian deity, for the people had an old habit of picking up the religion of the lands they lived in. We shouldn’t mock them for it; we often do the same thing. There now follow messages of doom and gloom for all the neighbouring nations to Juda in the Holy Land, who would in turn fall into the clutches of the Chaldeans, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Edomites, the Ammonites. And last of all, in chapter fifty and chapter fifty-one, we hear that the cause of all this woe, the mighty empire of Babylon itself, newly established by the Chaldean power coming from the north, would itself be destroyed and suffer the plight it had inflicted upon so many others. The end of the book of Jeremias is practically a copy-and-paste of the end of the fourth book of Kings, with the looting and destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, the second deportation of the people, and the final liberation (forty or so years after his imprisonment) of King Jechonias (aka. Joachin) of Juda by a new Babylonian king. One day, one of his successors would return to Jerusalem to rebuild.