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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Over-Persuaded and Overwhelmed by the Word

In the past several weeks we have been working our way through the ‘confessional’ passages within the book of Jeremiah. These passages rarely become sermon material. Some of the confessions are not even included in the lectionary readings, some are shortened to exclude some of the more difficult material. The confessions, as we have seen, are progressively dark, increasingly angry, filled with hurt and betrayal and despair. In these intimate passages Jeremiah pours out his frustration and rage, the bitterness he felt for his enemies and the bitterness he felt for God. Yes. Even for God.

During the rule of five successive kings, Jeremiah doggedly proclaimed the message that God had put into his mouth when he was young. He endured the scorn and mockery of his brothers, of his kinsmen, and the powerful elite among the courts of power. He was whipped and beaten, arrested, locked in stocks and thrown into prison. His writings were burned. (Jeremiah 36) He was cut off from his community. His message was ignored. His warnings were mocked. He made few converts and achieved little that looked like success.

He felt that his life was wasted. He was a failure. And, reflecting back upon his life, he began to wonder how things could have gone so wrong. It all went back to the very beginning. He thought back to when he was a young man, to when God first called him to be a prophet.

…the word of Yahweh came to me:
Before I formed you in the belly I knew you
and before you came forth from the womb I declared you holy,
a prophet to the nations I made you.
But I said, ‘Ah, Lord Yahweh, Look, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’
And Yahweh said to me: Do not say ‘I am only a boy.’
For on all that I send you you shall go
and all that I command you you shall speak.
You must not be afraid because of them
for I am with you to rescue you…
(Jeremiah 1: 4 – 7 Anchor Bible)

And what could the boy do? The man, Israel-who was Jacob-may have wrestled the angel-that was God-through the long hours of the night, wrestled him to a draw at dawn (Genesis 32), wrestled with God and overcome, but the boy, Jeremiah, was young, inexperienced, was weak. How could he resist? How could he fight back against the Almighty? Young Jeremiah offered up a small measure of resistance saying in a weak and trembling voice, “I am only a boy…” but Yahweh thundered back at him, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy.’” Jeremiah’s protestation was ignored; his dissent was shunted aside.

The LORD put out his hand and “hit upon” Jeremiah’s mouth (Jeremiah 1: 9 Anchor Bible), struck him with the words that he would be compelled to speak, the words that he would be forced to say. “Look,” said God, “I have put my words in your mouth.”

What could the young prophet say? His demur was brushed aside. His objection was ignored and the word of God was put into his mouth. Should we, perhaps say that they were shoved down his throat? Maybe that seems like too much. Maybe…

But hear what the prophet said in his confession – in his complaint – to God:

The New English Translation (NET) says, “LORD, you coerced me into being a prophet…” but that translation, while accurate (as far as it goes) seems a little weak. And the American Standard Version (ASV) seems even weaker: “thou has persuaded me…” These translations seem unwilling to approach the unmistakable implications of Jeremiah's words. Other translations are more direct saying, “You deceived me…” (NIV, ESV, KJV) And this is somewhat better – or should we say somewhat worse? How can we say that God ‘deceived’ Jeremiah? How could we say that God made Jeremiah his dupe? God is not a human that he should lie (Numbers 23:19)… right? How could Jeremiah say that he was deceived by God? [i]

But other translations go a bit further. Two Hebrew words come into play in this question. The first is pth, which in some parts of the bible has a distinct sexual implication – as in “to seduce” a virgin in Exodus 22: 16. The second is hzq “to be [physically] strong” (Lundbom 854) – and which, in some verses, means “to rape”- Deuteronomy 22:25, and 2 Samuel 13:11, 14. The combination of these two words in Jeremiah’s complaint leads some to believe that, as horrifying as it may sound, the prophet is actually accusing Yahweh God of raping his will. But few published translations are willing to go this far. The farthest they seem to be willing to is to say “You enticed me,” (JPS) or “You seduced me,” (Anchor Bible, NJB).

But even if we are unwilling to go so far toward blasphemy as to accuse God of this violence, Jeremiah’s complaint is certainly unnerving.

“You enticed me, Yahweh, and I was enticed
you laid hold of me, and you overcome.”
(Jeremiah 20: 7a Anchor Bible)

“You have seduced me, Yahweh, and I have let myself be seduced;
you have overpowered me: you were the stronger.”
(Jeremiah 20:7a NJB)

Does it still seem too much to say that the word of God was shoved down Jeremiah’s throat? Maybe not…

Jeremiah has already, in one of the earlier confessional passages, accused God of being dangerously deceptive, like a “deceptive stream, waters that are not sure…” (Jeremiah 15: 18b Anchor Bible). He has also suggested that the LORD has acted as a source of terror (Jeremiah 17:17). But the prophet ratchets up the hyperbole in this complaint. Here God is not merely difficult to comprehend and dangerous in potential; God-in this complaint-is actively and purposefully deceptive (if not physically overpowering) to the prophet.

Jeremiah complains that he has been (if not outright raped, then) “over-persuaded” by God. (S.R. Driver quoted in Lundbom 855) God laid hold of him when he was a young boy (in the womb even) and overpowered him. They wrestled and God won. How could it be otherwise?

A lion has roared,
who can but fear?
My Lord God has spoken,
who can but prophesy?
(Amos 3:8 JPS)

The Word of the Lord came to him, and the word of God was put into his mouth, and now by words he lives and dies. He speaks, he cries out, he proclaims (20:8). And for his speaking, he is mocked. He is held in “constant disgrace and contempt” (20: 8 JPS). Everyone jeers at him.

If the prophet, in his wearied exasperation, says to himself, “I will not mention Him, No more will I speak in his name,” (20:9 JPS) he discovers that the word is a burning, raging fire in his heart, a conflagration contained deep within his bones. The overcoming word that cannot be resisted when it calls can neither be contained in silence within the called. It burns, it blisters Jeremiah from within, until he speaks again. He must. The prophet is helpless; he cannot hold it in. (20: 9).

And then, when he speaks again, his is met with more than mockery. He hears them whispering all around him. “Terror on every side!” All his supposed friends inform against him. They denounce him (and are eager to do so). They charge him with treason because he speaks and speaks so incessantly. They cannot wait to see him stumble. They cannot wait to see him fall. They want for him to fail because when he does, they will have their revenge on him.

This is what happens to the faithful prophet of God. And this is why the prophet is angry. He is disillusioned. He does not feel the “Joy of the Lord.” He does not find fulfillment and contentment in his prophetic work. The oracle of the Lord is a burden to the prophet (Jeremiah 23: 33).[ii] It is a weight that hangs upon his tired soul. It is this blistering anger that pushes the prophet towards, but never quite across, the line of blasphemy.

Yet, here the prophet makes an abrupt shift in his confession. The complaint is over; the lament is ended. And the prophet begins a psalm of confidence:

“But the LORD is with me like a mighty warrior;
therefore my persecutors shall stumble;
they shall not prevail and shall not succeed.
They shall be utterly shamed
with a humiliation for all time,
which shall not be forgotten.

O LORD of Hosts, You who test the righteous,
who examine the heart and the mind,
let me see Your retribution upon them,
For I lay my case before You.”
(Jeremiah 20: 11 – 12 JPS)

Here is the confident prophet that we would expect. Here is the bold man of God that we would envision. Here is the prophet trusting that God, the mighty warrior, will faithfully keep his promise to be with, and to protect the prophet, “Have no fear of them, For I am with you to deliver you.” (1: 8 JPS) Here is the undaunted prophet who calls upon others to join with him in this brave psalm:

“Sing unto the LORD,
Praise the LORD,
for he has rescued the needy
form the hands of the evildoers!”
(Jeremiah 20: 13 JPS)

And if this were a contemporary, American, Christian writing, this is probably where the writing would end.  This is the happy ending. It is something like what Alexander Dumas says in The Count of Monte Cristo. "Happiness is like those enchanted palaces we read of in our childhood where fierce fiery dragons defend the entrance and approach; and monsters of all shapes and sizes requiring to be overcome ere victory is ours” (Dumas 28). Jeremiah has gone through his trouble, has fought his way past the dragons at the gate of happiness, has suffered at the hands of his enemies, and suffered even at the hands of his god, but in the end he has endured and triumphed. The prophet smiles, the scene ends, the lights dim and the curtain closes.  The End.

We like–we want-the happy ending, the tidy resolution of conflict, with the good and the faithful receiving their right and proper reward, and the wicked receiving their just and well deserved punishment.

But this is not where the confession ends.

It is true that the book of Jeremiah betrays the hand of an editor who has combined the various bits and pieces of the prophet’s writing without a constant regard for chronology. And it is true that the three sections of this confession were likely composed at various times, in response to unrelated events and only placed in arrangement that we now have by a later editor. And that editor has not allowed us to close Jeremiah’s final confession with the comfort of a happy ending.

This is not the way we’d do it today. We’d draw a straight line through Jeremiah’s sufferings, piling them upon his shoulders until he couldn’t take anymore, turning down the lights until all was dark – then come triumphantly into the final act with the blazing light of God and an unambiguous victory. Instead, the finale of the last of Jeremiah’s confessions lurches violently away from the confident psalm back into another bitter complaint, even darker than what preceded. The whole thing crashes back down into the depths of despair-sinking even lower than he was before, if that were possible. “[A]ncient Hebrew composition tolerates-and may even prefer-beginnings and endings in dissonance, and centers containing hope, faith, and thanksgiving” (Lundbom 852). 

Jeremiah, who has already come close to speaking blasphemies, now comes close to doing so again. By the commands of the torah, as angry and bitter as he is, he cannot curse his mother or father (to do so would violate the fifth commandment…[iii]) instead he curses the day that his mother gave birth to him and curses the man who brought the good news to this father. And these curses are among the harshest in the entirety of scripture.

Jeremiah’s misery is complete, his depression is an abyss without bottom. I don’t think that the prophet Jeremiah would have joined with us to sing the familiar hymn by John H. Sammis (1846 – 1919) “Trust and Obey”[iv]:

When we walk with the Lord
In the light of his word
What a glory he sheds on our way;
While we do his good will,
He abides with us still
And with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there's no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Trust and obey to be happy? When was Jeremiah ever happy? Only the one time that we know of from his writings, just after the “book of the law” was discovered during the temple renovations during the reign of King Josiah. (Jeremiah 15:17) 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)” But after that? Jeremiah had no glory shed on his way, not during his lifetime, anyway. There was only dogged duty and the darkness of depression for the prophet.

Why ever did I come out of the womb
to see toil and sorrow
and end my days in shame?
(Jeremiah 20: 18 NJB)

If his book were submitted to Christian publishers today I’m quite certain that Jeremiah would receive a rejection letter saying something along the lines of: “While the reviewing council appreciates that doubt and the working out of one’s faith is a natural occurrence, we feel that-by and large-this was not resolved in the manuscript, leaving the readers with a hopeless tenor. The writings overall were dark and somber, and without the context of faith and resolution, the members of the reviewing council felt this could be detrimental to others' faith.”

There is no happy ending in Jeremiah’s work. He preached his message for 40 years but few listened and even fewer responded. He was arrested, beaten, and ridiculed repeatedly. By all objective standards, we’d have to say that he was a failure.

So what is the lesson here? What should we take away from all of this? I don’t think I could tell you.
I know what benefits I have received from reading and studying this passage – but I don’t think I could describe them as tangible or as a practical 12 steps plan, and certainly as nothing as simple as an alliterative three point sermon…

Is there joy in following Jesus? Is there pleasure in the service of God? For some, sometimes. Yes. I’m sure that there must be. Is there struggle and disappointment and bitter grief? For most everyone, yes, at some point there will be. Will we feel disillusioned and abandoned? Maybe. Even abandoned by God? Maybe yes. Will we succeed? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Can we be angry with God? If Jeremiah is to be any example to us, yes. Can we be fiercely angry with God? Yes. Absolutely. Can we wrestle with doubt and depression? Without a doubt. Can we give expression to those doubts and depressed feelings? Yes, we can, and we probably should or we risk them burning us up from the inside.

I don’t know how the prophet did it-and though I find myself doing it, I don’t know how I do it- we can hold to that confident psalm in the middle of this confession. We can, though I don’t understand it, sing praise to God because he rescues the poor and the needy.

 I’ve preached from this passage before. It wasn’t a good sermon then, and I’m not convinced that it’s been a good sermon this time either. The passage is too overloaded with complex and out of control emotions for me to get a handle on it in a sermon. The prophet is over-persuaded and overwhelmed by the word and we are as well. But the prophet endured, struggled through and we will as well. We will speak the things that we know, speak the word that has come to us. We will be over-persuaded and overwhelmed, but we will go on.

Dumas, Alexander, The Count of Monte Cristo, 1844 

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.

New Jerusalem Bible. New York, NY. Doubleday. 1999.

Sammis, John H. “Trust and Obey” The Salvation Army Songbook, The Salvation Army, London.

[i] Should we also include here Jeremiah complaint in 4:10 “Ah, Lord Yahweh, how sadly you deceived this people and Jerusalem…”?
[ii] The Hebrew word “oracle” (maśśâ) also means “burden.”
[iii] Fifth in Jewish and Protestant counting, fourth in the Roman Catholic rendering.
[iv] Ignoring the fact that he probably wouldn’t have sung about Jesus anyway…

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