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 the daughter of my people! O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors. They bend their tongues like bows; they have grown strong in the land for falsehood and not for truth, for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, says the Lord.
Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin, for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer. They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent. Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit! They refuse to know me, says the Lord.
Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: I will now refine and test them, for what else can I do with the daughter of my people? Their tongue is a deadly arrow; it speaks deceit through the mouth. They all speak friendly words to their neighbors but inwardly are planning to lay an ambush. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?
Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness, because they are laid waste so that no one passes through, and the lowing of cattle is not heard; both the birds of the air and the animals have fled and are gone. I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals, and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant.
We are on our third week of talking about Prophets and what they bring to God’s people. We began with Moses, and how the Prophetic Voice reveals who God is to us. We turned to Elijah and saw the prophet steering us away from false gods, and toward our true God. Now, we take up the call of Jeremiah, the prophet closest to my heart, as he cries out the agony that God feels on behalf of the people of God. We know that God has heard the cries of the needy, but it is in Jeremiah that we see just what hearing us suffering does to God’s emotional state – not a static, unfeeling position, but a tumult of pain and deep sorrow.
Jeremiah begins his ministry at the end of Judah’s existence as even a vassal-state of any other power. Being called to testify to the evil of his own people, Jeremiah is often reluctant to take up the sword of prophecy. Yet, without fail his hesitation is turned into zealotry as God’s judgment is shown to be true in his own life. God warns him that people are laying plots against him, and then soon the trap is set and sprung. God tells Jeremiah that there is scarcely any good left in the city, and Jeremiah’s optimism is destroyed as he, like Diogenes, searches the city for a single honest person and finds no one.
Jeremiah is faced with all his preconceived notions of how the world should be and has each aspect of life systematically ripped apart. He thinks for a moment that the poor are more prone to evil, and then is shown the trickle down economy of evil that begins in the rich and sees its fulfillment among their oppressed. He hopes that the temple would be a bastion against the evils of the world, but finds himself called to preach on its steps against those who enter it. He becomes the great pessimist, decrying optimism itself as he stands in ruins, and suffers in mud-pits, and even is made to move to Egypt as guardian of the refugees that fled there. Jeremiah is perpetually spinning round, an inverted figure looking for truth in an upside down world.
The most striking aspect of the book of Jeremiah is how God speaks through the prophet. In other prophetic literature the prophet is usually clear in separating their speech from God’s. The mark of the prophet is their use of the term, “Thus says the Lord,” (כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה). Usually, this occurs at the beginning of a prophetic statement. Frequently in Jeremiah it does. Yet, as this passage we just read shows, the separation between the speech of a prophet and their prophetic speech is not always clear. From verse 1 to verse 5 we see someone begging that they had springs in place of tear ducts, that they could weep without running out of tears. Our first thought is that Jeremiah is weeping because he is thinking of his people and the suffering they are and will go through, but it is equally possible the person speaking is God.
Jeremiah shows such a synchronicity with God that the voices of the two often overlap. One moment Jeremiah will begin a sentence, and then seemingly God steps in to end it. We hear about the desire to weep for the fate of God’s people, we read about a strong and dry wind blowing across the world and making it a wasteland – a wind that both comes from God and toward God. Jeremiah at one point looks out to see the world completely unmade, as if God had never organized it in the primordial sea of creation. God’s burning words are like a fire in the prophet’s stomach, but the smoke and tears and anger and sorrow are not unique to Jeremiah – God feels every emotion he is rushing into the vessel that is his prophet.
The prophets serve an important role by personifying God. I don’t want to say humanizing here, because while we can get into some complicated discussion of Jesus as equally God and human, here I want to keep some distance between the two for clarity’s sake. When we pray to God, when we share our pain and our suffering, when we see the news stories spread out and shake us to our core – God is not unmoved by any of these things. Jesus wept in the garden because he was human, but the divine can weep just as powerfully, God is not a static being.
I am someone who is adamant about keeping the Old and New Testaments close to one another. We cannot understand the New Testament without the Old, and to understand why we have access to the Old we need the New. It is common that the differences between the two are put up as integral to the nature of God. In this framing, one day God woke up and decided to speak Greek and be a lot more about love and inclusion than back in the day when he spoke Hebrew. That is a bad way to see God and scripture, it suggests we worship two Gods instead of one, something we already established is not good. Yet, as with many misunderstandings, it begins not with a falsehood, but a misapplication of truth.
The context of the Hebrew Bible and its writings was very different from the Greek Bible. In its earliest days, the Hebrew Bible was written alongside stories of gods that were very human in their nature. They got Jealous, the fought, the had political aspirations and alliances. The language of the Hebrew Bible, then, is much more fixated on the discussion of God as a person, actively engaged with the world and expressing emotion and feeling and preferences even. The language shaped the character of God, as did the context of the people writing it.
The New Testament, being in Greek, was more philosophical in its approach. While constantly rooted in the humanity of Jesus, we see the New Testament arguing philosophically about the nature of God. When those texts were handed off to the first generation of theologians, they went further than Paul or John ever did and completely melded Greek Philosophy and Christianity – for good and for ill. The result was an emphasis on the unchanging, static, God-as-Prime-Mover, and a downplaying of the personal divinity that felt and fought and raged and wept. Jesus the Human might weep, but God the Divine Trinity was unmoved as something that was before and above all things.
We imagine God as a blank slate, perpetually looking out at us with the eyes of a Warner Sallman painting – unmoving, mildly positive, and still capable of stoic and unfeeling wrath. That is not the God of scripture, not the God revealed in the life of Christ or the prophets. The God we worship feels deeply, the God we worship weeps at the injustices of the world. The God we worship is sitting beside us in our darkest moments, and feeling what we might feel. This does not make God a reflection of our emotion, but it does mean that the closer to God we become, the more alike our emotional state will be.
Bob Pierce, founder of Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision, once said, “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” That understanding of God’s emotional state is something we should all strive for. Not to make God into an echo chamber that affirms and denies everything in the same way we do, but to truly understand the nature and desires of God. When we can tie ourselves closely to the work of God in the world, when we can become compassionate toward all people we meet, then we begin to know what it is like to inhabit a prophetic role. When we become a vessel for the emotions of God, the love that pours out like rivers of tears, then we know what it is to bring the Word of God to the People of God.
So, our challenge in light of God’s prophetic message to us all, is to be transformed into emotional creatures. To give up stoicism in the face of adversity and care deeply for the hurt, the lost, those in every kind of need. We come to our God and we behold so many wonderful things, but I think most wonderful of all are the precious tears that are shed by the God of this universe on our behalf. Be cheered today, and mourn tomorrow, that we too can feel as deeply as God does. – Amen.