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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Can Iron Break Iron from the North and Bronze?

I have, for the past couple of years, been preaching from the texts of the standard lectionary. However, after last week’s reading from Jeremiah 11, I’ve decided to take a break from the lectionary, at least for a few weeks, to focus on the “confessional” passages within the book of Jeremiah.

So for the next couple of weeks we’ll be immersing ourselves in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, in the world of 7th century BCE, a time of political and religious turmoil. It will be helpful for us to have some understanding of the situation: The Assyrian Empire had been the dominant force in the area for many years. It ruled with an iron fist, conquering territories and nations. But now the Assyrian Empire was beginning to crumble, weakening from the inside. And the leadership of the kingdom of Judah tried to take advantage of that decline. A nationalistic, pro-independence movement gathered strength in the courts of the kingdom of Judah. During the rule of Josiah, this growing nationalism was expressed in a state theology, the worship of Yahweh.

In the 18th year of King Josiah’s reign (622 BCE) – when he was 26 – the king ordered that the temple in Jerusalem be renovated. And it was during the restoration work that Hilkiah, the priest, found “the book of the law” and brought it to the king’s attention (2 Kings 22:8 – 10 / 2 Chronicles 34: 14 – 18).

We don’t know specifically what this “book of the law” was. Some have suggested that it was the Torah, the Pentateuch – that is, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Others suggest that it was just the single book of Deuteronomy. It seems likely to many biblical scholars that the “book of the law” was an early version of part the book Deuteronomy, which would eventually be completed during the years of Babylonian exile, along with the rest of the Torah. Others of a more suspicious nature suggest that the ‘discovery’ of this book was a convenient way for Josiah’s administration to introduce their political and religious reforms (and in that time and place, the two were nearly indistinguishable) in a way that validated them in the minds of the people.

Whatever this “book of the law” was, it certainly motivated King Josiah to a vigorous religious reform program in his kingdom (and even a bit outside of his own borders). The altars of Ba’al were torn down, incense altars were smashed, Asherah poles (sacred trees or poles set up near Canaanite religious sites, dedicated to the worship of the fertility goddess, Asherah , the consort of Ba’al (or sometimes, Yahweh...)) were pulled down. Idols were shattered, ground them to powder. His agents toppled the high places dedicated to the child sacrifices for Molech, and destroyed the places of worship of Ashtoreth and Chemosh that had been built by King Solomon. The priests who served at these religious sites were killed and their bones were burned in those places in order to defile and desecrate them. (2 Kings 23: 1 – 24 / 2 Chronicles 34: 1 – 33. Chronicles describes Josiah’s purification program as beginning before the discovery of the book of the law, but continuing and increasing afterwards…)

While we have no specific archaeological evidence of King Josiah reforms, seals and seal impressions found from that period show a transition from pictures relating to the astral cult - stars and the moon -  to names and dates – which may be evidence of Josiah’s reform away from polytheism to monotheism (Finklestein 288).

A side note here: If we are honest with ourselves and our reading of these passages we might have to admit that this religious / political reform program sounds very much like that of ISIS / ISIL. If we condemn the radical Islamic sect of our time, we may have to be willing to condemn Josiah and his administration. If we justify Josiah and his violent reformation, we may have to reconsider our denunciations of the violence perpetrated by ISIS.

Jeremiah was a young man when he was first called to prophecy, indeed he first objected, “I am only a boy,” (Jeremiah 1: 6) – though the Hebrew word “boy” here is somewhat more fluid than the English word. It can mean a young man of marriageable age, or old enough to serve as a soldier. Solomon referred to himself with the same word after he became king and was married (1 Kings 3:7). Jeremiah was probably about 13 years old when he was called to be the prophet of Yahweh (Lundbom 233).

The young prophet would then have been about 17 years old when “the book of the law” was discovered in the Temple and King Josiah launched his religious and political reforms. And while Josiah and his administration and the rest of the country celebrated the discovery of this book with an elaborate Passover festival, young Jeremiah found that he could not join with the rest of the revelers.

“Your words were found and I ate them,” said the prophet, referring (probably) to the discovery of the “book of the law.” “I ate them and your word was to me for joy.” I imagine that Jeremiah felt energized and lifted up by the discovery. The words of that book seemed to confirm his calling to “uproot and to break down, and to destroy and to overthrow, and to build up and to plant… “(Jeremiah 1:10) but even with that joy, he knew he couldn’t join in with Josiah and the other celebrants. Even though Josiah’s reforms and Jeremiah’s message overlapped somewhat, Jeremiah could not join in country’s enthusiastic celebrations.

“I sat not in the happy crowd and acted jolly
because of your hand, all alone I sat
for with indignation you filled me.” (Jeremiah 15:17 – Anchor Bible)

“I have not sat in the company of revelers
and made merry!
I have sat lonely because of Your hand upon me,
for You have filled me with gloom.”  (JPS)

And Jeremiah’s reluctance to join the celebration seems, in historical hindsight, a wise and cautious approach. Josiah’s religious and political reforms were enthusiastic and vigorously violent, but they were short lived. In the year 609 BCE, 13 years after the discovery of the “book of the law” during the Temple renovations, King Josiah went out to the battlefield at Megiddo to confront the army of Pharaoh Necho of Egypt, who was rising as a potential power against Assyria. And there, in a confrontation that historians and biblical scholars don’t fully understand, Josiah was killed, shot by Pharaoh Necho’s archers.

2 Chronicles tells us that: “Jeremiah composed laments for Josiah which all the singers, male and female, recited in their laments, as is done to this day; they became customary in Israel and were incorporated into the laments” (2 Chronicles 35: 25 – JPS).

Josiah was succeeded by his son Jehoaz, who was immediately deposed and exiled by Egypt and replaced by his brother, Jehoiakim. The political and religious reforms that Josiah launched were undone. The idols returned; the high places were rebuilt. Josiah’s work was overturned, and the prophet Jeremiah, who continued to speak his message in the name of Yahweh, became a persona non grata within the kingdom of Judah.

He begins this confessional passage with a pronunciation of woe for himself and his mother: “Woe to me, my mother, because you have bore me, a man of contention and a man of dispute for the whole earth “(15: 10 – Anchor Bible). Perhaps the prophet felt the weight of proverbial judgment weighing on him. “A shifty man stirs up strife, And a querulous one alienates his friends” (Proverbs 16:28 JPS). And he certainly felt alienated. He was aloof. He was cut off. His friends and family plotted to kill him. His co-workers among the priesthood beat him and had him arrested. He was a “man of contention,” causing trouble and stirring up resentment. He was a “man of sorrows.” Jeremiah complains that he is cut off from everyone.

It is helpful at this point to remember that Judaism marks things as holy by separating them; to be holy is to be different, to be separated from others. The Sabbath day is marked as a holy day by separating it from the rest of the week (Gerwitz). And in this same way Jeremiah was separated from the rest of the people.

“Yahweh said;
Have I not set you free for good?” (Jeremiah 15: 11 – Anchor Bible)

“Surely I will deliver you for a good purpose.” (NIV)

Jeremiah had been set apart– yes – cut off from the rest of the community. He had a work to do. He had a holy mission to accomplish. But this prophetic mission set him against the rest of the world, made him a man of contention. He was alone. Always alone. And though it can be helpful and restorative to be alone for a period of time, to get away from the noise and demands of social interaction, prolonged social isolation is a dangerous thing –physically and mentally. “Chronically lonely people have higher blood pressure, are more vulnerable to infection, and are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Loneliness also interferes with a whole range of everyday functioning, such as sleep patterns, attention and logical and verbal reasoning” (Bond). Prisoners held in prolonged isolation begin to experience hallucinations and suffer mental breakdowns.

­­It is this isolated Jeremiah who calls upon God to remember and to take account of him and his suffering. There’s no one else he can turn to.

“You, you know, Yahweh,
remember me and take account of me
and take vengeance for me on my pursuers.
Do not, in your slowness to anger, take me away.
Know that on your account I bear reproach.” (Jeremiah 15: 15 – Anchor Bible)

“Why has my pain become continual
and my blow desperate,
refusing to be healed?” (Jeremiah 15:18a – Anchor Bible)

Jeremiah may have begun his work in joy, saying: “Your words were found and I ate them, and your word was to me for joy,”– the words of God were sweet, yes sweeter than honey (Psalm 119: 103), but those sweet words soon turned bitter in his belly (Revelation 10: 9 – 10).

Jeremiah’s book is the longest book of the prophets, indeed, the longest book in the Bible (if we’re keeping the separation of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles into two volumes each). It is 21,835 words (Lundbom 57). Jeremiah was a prophet for 40 long years, during the reign of five successive kings – and yet, this is the only time, the only point in the entire book, that Jeremiah speaks of having any joy in his service. And even here, that joy is muted by the “indignation,” and “bitterness (LXX)” that fills his soul because of the heavy hand of God that presses down on him. In the Salvation Army we like to sing, “Joy! Joy! Joy! There is joy in the Salvation Army!” (Pearson) Perhaps Jeremiah would be like those irreverent ones among us who follow that line with “Try and find it…” because it just doesn’t seem to be there for him.

All his work, all his teaching, all his prophecy was done without a sense of accomplishment, without a sense of joy. There was no sense of fulfillment. No joy. He made few converts. He preached repentance but saw little. He argued for change, but saw none. If we were judging the prophet by quantifiable, identifiable, statistical measurements, we would have to say that he was, from start to finish, a failure.  

I recently had a meeting with our Divisional Commander (something like a bishop in other denominations), and it wasn’t exactly a pleasant meeting. Accusations were made. It was hostile. It was confrontational, painful. In the course of that meeting the DC asked if I could identify any high points of my 17 years as an officer in The Salvation Army, if I could point to anything like a success in my work. Like Jeremiah, I had to confess that there have been very few. It has been, for me, a long painful time, and there are few ‘successes’ that I can identify to justify my work. I sometimes (often times) feel like I understand that man of contention.

If I may interrupt the prophet’s confession to make one of my own: it is disappointing and frustrating to preach and not see the church grow. It is tiring to plan programs and events, and not have much of anything to show on the statistical reports. And it is distressing, painful to have one’s commitment and effort questioned because of one line of statistics. Whatever accomplishments I’ve had are reduced to a single line on the monthly reports and they disappear. My faith and my commitment to the Army are questioned because of this failure. I feel beaten down.

I’ve never doubted my calling to be an officer in The Salvation Army (though I’ve had plenty of others who have doubted it for me…) but like the prophet, I sometimes distrust God because of it. Jeremiah said to God:

“Will you really be for me a deceptive stream,
waters that are not sure?” (Jeremiah 15: 18b – Anchor Bible)

Jeremiah compares God to either a mirage in the desert (waters that disappear when you need them most) or a dry desert riverbed, one of the wadis of the Palestinian landscape that flow with cool, refreshing water one day and are dust dry the next. Jeremiah, pushed to the edge by his isolation, by his suffering, by his failure begins to wonder if God can actually be trusted. “God is good,” the preacher says, and the people respond “all the time!” But Jeremiah isn’t convinced.

Jeremiah’s confession here, begins in a joyful recollection but moves toward bitter complaint. But as we begin now to track Yahweh’s response to the prophet that emotional movement is reversed. God begins his response to the discouraged prophet with a strongly worded (angry, even…) rebuke, but moves into assurance and a reaffirmation of his promises to Jeremiah.

“Assuredly, thus says the LORD:
If you turn back, I shall take you back” (Jeremiah 15: 19 – JPS)

The message that Jeremiah preached to Judah is now turned back upon him: You need to repent.  You need to turn back. Biblical scholars are divided as to what it was that Jeremiah needed to repent of, but the suggestion that “they, they will return to you, but you, you will not turn to them…” (Jeremiah 19 – Anchor Bible) is taken by some to suggest that perhaps Jeremiah had gone soft – had softened his message and acquiesced to the people (Lundbom 750).

The suggestion is that after years and years of fruitless teaching and strongly worded messages, and after his prolonged isolation from the rest of the community, Jeremiah had tried to find his way back into acceptance among the people by softening the edges of his message. That he had “turned to them…”

Other interpreters suggest that Jeremiah needed to repent for suggesting that God could not be trusted, calling him “deceptive waters” was a cheap shot, and that the prophet should have known better. Whatever it was, Yahweh bluntly tells Jeremiah that he needs to stop, to turn and start again.

“If you turn back, I shall take you back
And you shall stand before Me;
If you produce what is noble
Out of the worthless,
You shall be My spokesman.” (Jeremiah 15: 19 – JPS)
If the prophet wanted comfort, if the prophet wanted affirmation for work well done – he found none. Only rebuke. If the prophet wanted warm-fuzzies and a sense of fulfillment, he got none. He received his own message turned against him. But God moves quickly from this cold rebuke to assurance and reaffirmation of the promises that he gave to the prophet at the beginning of his call:

“I will make you to this people
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you
but will not overcome you,
for I am with you,
to save and rescue you,
                -oracle of Yahweh -
Yes I will rescue you from the hand of evildoers
and I will redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” (Jeremiah 15: 20 – 21 – Anchor Bible)

Earlier in this confessional passage there is an obscure and difficult to translate line that, in one rendering says, “Can iron break iron from the north and bronze?”  (Jeremiah 15: 12) It seems to be a rhetorical question addressed to the distressed prophet: Can iron-clad enemies break an even stronger iron and bronze Jeremiah?” (Lundbom 734).

But the question isn’t answered by Yahweh; it’s left to the prophet to find the answer.

Will you be beaten down by their repeated blows? Will you be broken? Will you fall? Or will you find the strength that God has given you? Will you be a fortified wall of bronze, not overcome by those enemies throwing themselves against you?

So you, gird up your loins,
Arise and speak to them
all that I command you.
Do not break down before them,
lest I break you before them.
I make you this day
a fortified city,
and an iron pillar,
and bronze walls,
against the whole land …
they will attack you,
but they shall not overcome you;
For I am with you – declares the LORD -
to save you.” (Jeremiah 1: 17 – 19 – JPS)

Bond, Michael. How Extreme Isolation Warps the Mind. BBC website. 2014 

Finkelstein, Israel; Silberman, Neil Asher. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts Simon and Schuster. 2001.

Gerwitz, Matthew D. Simple in Definition;Complex in Action. 2013. 

JPS Hebrew – English Tanakh. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society,

Lundbom, Jack R. Jeremiah 1 – 20: Anchor Bible Vol. 21A. New York, NY. Doubleday. 1999.

Person, William James. “Joy in the Salvation ArmyThe Salvation Army Songbook, The Salvation Army, London.

And I’m a long, long way from your Hill of Calvary
And I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be
If there is a light you can’t always see
And there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a kiss I stole from your mouth
And there is a light, don’t let it go out.
“A Song for Someone” – U2

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