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Sunday, October 4, 2015

To Dive into the Pool of Israel

The book of Jeremiah (where we’ve been the past couple of weeks, and will be for a few more) is difficult to read from start to finish, beginning to end, because the various parts and sections of the book are not arranged in a strictly chronological order. It begins with Jeremiah’s call to ministry in chapter one and ends with his flight to Egypt in chapters 42 – 43 (though it continues on for several more chapters…) after his message has been thoroughly rejected by the kingdom of Judah. But the sermons and speeches and (most importantly for our consideration these weeks) the confessions between the first and last chapters, delivered at various times and places during his 40 years as a prophet, have been collected and arranged and rearranged in this final form that we have today without a consistent regard for historical chronology. “Attention…is paid to chronology but only in a limited sort of way” (Lundbom 86). They are sometimes out of order, mixed, and repeated or interrupted (as in last week’s reading where Jeremiah’s confession was interrupted by a judgement against the nation of Judah).

Taking a cue from that somewhat disjointed arrangement, we’re going to, for the purposes of this sermon, proceed backwards through the confession in Jeremiah 17: 13 – 18. [i] I hope that this will prove more help than distraction. Reading the confession in this reverse order forces me, however, to begin with the material that I like least in this passage: the imprecatory prayer of Jeremiah against his enemies:

“Let my persecutors be confounded, not me,
let them, not me, be terrified.
On them bring the day of disaster,
destroy them, destroy them twice over“(Jeremiah 17:18-New Jerusalem Bible).

This is an example of an imprecatory prayer–a curse, if you will–on those who have been pursing and persecuting the prophet. It is a wish and a prayer for trouble or disaster to fall upon them–and soon! (Stuart 1218)

I recognize that I have, in the past, been somewhat critical (okay, yes…very critical) of the imprecatory prayers of the bible; they are not my favorite. If I were given the authority to remove portions of the bible, I would be tempted to take my scissors to them. I do not like them very much at all and I freely admit that this may say more about me than it does about the imprecatory passages themselves.

But I’m not alone in this uneasiness: many people of faith are uncomfortable with these passages. We’ve come to believe that if our faith causes us to hate than perhaps we’re doing it wrong. We’ve taken to heart the instruction of Jesus in the New Testament that we should love our enemies and that we should pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44 / Luke 6:28) and those instructions were further elaborated by the Apostle Paul, “Bless your persecutors; never curse them, bless them” (Romans 12:14–NJB). And the imprecatory prayers and psalms rub like coarse grit sandpaper against these instructions to love and bless. Imprecatory prayers call down death and destruction upon the supplicator’s enemies. Jeremiah called upon Yahweh God to “destroy them, destroy them twice over” to “Bring on them the day of evil and a double breaking, break them!” (Jeremiah 17: 18-Anchor Bible) [ii]

How should we read Jeremiah’s prayer (curse...) against his persecutors in light of these instructions that we should love and bless our enemies? It is important that we remember that Jeremiah had been hurt, had been abused–emotionally and physically by these enemies (many of whom had been members of his family and friends of the prophet). He was cut from his community, isolated and shunned, rejected by his people. His message was mocked; his warnings were ignored. His work was fruitless. He was despised by the leadership of the country. And all of this hurt. The prophet was deeply wounded both in body and in soul.

And the prophet gives vent to his wounded emotions in an outrageous, violent outburst: “Bring on them the day of disaster, and shatter them with double destruction!” (JPS) Jeremiah, the prophet- called by God, empowered to minister and to prophecy in his name, was-after all- a human being. He hurt. He suffered. He bruised. He bled. He wept and he cried. And Jeremiah, the fully human prophet, lashed out in his pain and his desperation, calling upon God to bring down the fullness of curses of the day of disaster on them, indeed he asked for a double fullness of that disaster to break upon his enemies.

Perhaps we are shocked to find this sort of violence in our holy scripture. It is somewhat unsettling. Refined religious folk don’t react this way. Right? Holy people don’t get angry. Right?  Holy people don’t have emotional outbursts like this. We expect our prophets to clear headed, our leaders to be calm (even under stress) and our spiritual heroes to be perfect (just as God is perfect–Matthew 5:48) without fail and without falter.

They are not allowed to be…human.

We don’t want to see them in their weakness. We insist that the faithful be successful and heroic. We don’t want to hear about their distress. We want power and dynamic victory after dynamic victory! And if we can’t have that we expect nothing less than quiet and patient endurance of suffering, fully trusting that God will soon move in a mighty way to bring restoration and vindication and reward.

But to demand this of our prophets and leaders and spiritual heroes (and of ourselves and fellow believers) may be setting up an impossible, not to mention-unhealthy-standard. The prophets and psalmists of our scriptures–like us today–were subject to hurts and pains and griefs. And we–like the prophets and psalmists before us-need to give expression to those painful emotions. We should not dare to dismiss or discredit the emotions of the prophet and the psalmists, just as we should not dismiss or discredit our own emotions. To stifle them is dangerous; to repress this is unhealthy.

But what should we do with the imprecatory passages of the bible in light of the other biblical injunctions against cursing and against violence and hatred? This is a question that may not ever have a full and final answer, but perhaps asking ‘what should we do with the imprecatory passages?’ is the wrong question.

Perhaps we should do nothing with them but read them and accept them for what they are: the unfiltered, immediate response of wounded people who were broken and desperate; read them as ragged cries of grief and not as sage reflections of holy wisdom. Listen to the cry of the poor and the distressed. Hear it. Feel it. Just as God does. And when necessary give expression to your own hurt. To deny our own wounded humanity (and that of others) is to lie, is to say that abuse and injustice will be allowed to go unchecked. We need to speak out-even if it is only to wail in grief and pain.

But Jeremiah’s cry of distress isn’t only against his human oppressors. Moving back a verse we find the prophet saying:

“Do not be a terror to me,
you, my refuge in time of disaster” (Jeremiah 17:17-NJB).

Jeremiah, who has, in previous confessions, suggested that God is something like unreliable and deceptive waters (Jeremiah 15: 18) now pleads with God to not be yet another source of terror and disaster; he has enough to deal with as it is. I don’t need another threat. I can’t take anymore. The prophet needs Yahweh God to be a refuge in time of disaster, not another danger to endure.

In verse sixteen, the prophet reminds God this was all his idea after all; Jeremiah never really wanted to be a prophet in the first place:

“As for me, I did not insist on shepherding after you,
and the day of desperation I have not desired.” (Jeremiah 17:16-The Anchor Bible)

That he follows obediently, and preaches the message that God has given to him and that he endures the hurt and abuse and scorn that is heaped upon is a demonstration of his faithfulness to God and to his word. And the prophet asks God to remember this. He could not endure, he could not persist if he thought that God was against him as well. Who could stand against that? Jeremiah knew that he could not continue, could not go on in the face of continual rejection and failure and slander and ridicule if he did not have a place of refuge to hide during his days of personal disaster.

And Jeremiah seems to have plenty of them. I mentioned last week that there is only one place in the 52 chapters of his work, only one point in the 40 years of his prophetic ministry, where Jeremiah described anything like joy in his work (Jeremiah 15: 16). And even that joy was somewhat muted. The rest of his work was an exhausting 40 years long challenge that often left him broken and feeling defeated. His enemies mocked him and his apparent failure saying:

“Where is the prediction of the LORD?
Let it come to pass!” (Jeremiah 17:15–JPS)

“Where is Yahweh’s word? Let it come true then!” (NJB)

They mocked his lack of results. They derided his inability to prove his message. Show us the statistics. Show us the proof. Give us some evidence. But he had none–only the word of his message and the depth of his faith.

“All my work is for the Master,” wrote the sixth general of The Salvation Army, Albert Orsborn.
“He is all my heart’s desire;
O that he may count me faithful
In the day that tries by fire!” (Orsborn)

All my work may be for the Master, but it would be nice to have some tangible reward, some evidence of success, some measurement of achievement. Jeremiah gave his speeches and his warnings, preached his sermons, delivered his addresses but few took him seriously. They taunted him: “Where is the word of Yahweh? Let it come!” (Jeremiah 17:15-Anchor Bible) I think Jeremiah would have been as keen as (if not more so) his taunters to see the word of Yahweh proven true (even if he never desired to preach it, or wanted to see the day of disaster come); he wanted to have some vindication and validation of his life’s work.

Can we wonder that the prophet felt broken and abused by everyone–even (almost) by God? Are we still surprised by his angry outbursts and by his desire to see his detractors get some of the pain that he’d received for so long? Jeremiah was a wounded man, Jeremiah was a broken man. I’m sure that there will be some who’ll object to my description of the prophet of God as a broken man. ‘He was strong and firm in his faith,’ they’ll say. ‘He was faithful and true. How could you describe him as broken?

I say it because Jeremiah said it of himself:

“Heal me, Yahweh, and I shall be healed,
save me and I shall be saved,
for you are my praise” (Jeremiah 17:14–NJB)

He was a man in need of healing, in desperate need of salvation. He was a broken man, even if he was the prophet of God–maybe especially because he was the prophet of God. We make the prophet into a plaster saint of little value if we fail to recognize how broken he was. And the same is true of any of our heroes of the faith.

I especially like the JPS translation of this verse:

“Heal me, O LORD, and let me be healed;
Save me, and let me be saved;
for You are my glory” (Jeremiah 17:14–JPS).

Let me be saved. The prophet is begging: please, Lord! Let me be healed. Let me have some relief. My wound is incurable, refusing to be healed; Lord, heal me and let me be healed. Please. My suffering is continual; Lord, save me and let me be saved (Jeremiah 15:18). 

Why do we insist on seeing our prophets and spiritual leaders as unwavering paragons of triumphant, victorious faith? Are we afraid to see them in weakness? Are we unwilling to accept them as failures? Why can we accept the apostle Paul’s boasting: “…and that is why I am glad of weaknesses, insults, constraints, persecutions, and distress for Christ’s sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 9:12–NJB) but we’re unable to accept Jeremiah’s desperation: “Heal me, and let me be healed. Save me, and let me be saved!”

If Jeremiah has been faithful in his work, in spite of cruelty and abuse and without any appreciable results, there have been many who were less than faithful to God. The worship of Yahweh had been, during the reign of King Josiah, restored somewhat. The idols and shrines of the polytheistic cults had been torn down and destroyed, their priests had been killed. But after Josiah’s untimely death, his religious reforms were halted and undone. The worship of Molech, Ba'al, Ashtoreth, Chemosh, Asherah, etc. returned.

Jeremiah says that those who have abandoned the God of Israel, Yahweh, would be “written in the earth” (Jeremiah 17:13b-Anchor Bible[iii]). They will be “written in dust” (NIV), “registered in the underworld” (NJB). The first human, Adam, was formed from the dust, the adamah, but there was no life in that dust man-not until God breathed life into him and he became a living being. The human was taken from dust, and dust they were and to dust those who abandoned Yahweh would return (Genesis 3: 19). They were doomed men, doomed to death and to dust because they had forsaken the Spring of Living Water. They had abandoned the source of their life.

“Yahweh, hope of Israel, all who abandon you will be put to shame” (Jeremiah 17: 13a-NJB).

The hope of Israel, Jeremiah’s hope, was Yahweh. People (not even friends and family members) could not be trusted, religious leaders could not be trusted, princes and kings could not be trusted (Jeremiah 17: 5). Only God could preserve the prophet. Only God could save and heal him. Only God could protect the country, preserve and restore it. Only Yahweh God-the hope of Israel, the pool, the source, the life, the Spring of Living Water.

It has been pointed out by those who know the Hebrew language better than I[iv] that the phrase “the Hope of Israel” can also be translated as “the Pool of Israel” (Lundbom 797). The Hebrew word miqwēh has the double meaning of both “hope” and “pool of water” that “reinforce[s] the image of Yahweh as [the] ‘fountain of living water’”(Lundbom 797)[v]. The word has the sense of something waited for, expected-something abiding. The word carries the idea of things gathered together–like the chaotic waters of creation gathered together (Genesis 1:10) into deep pools.

Yahweh is the expectation of Israel, the hope of the prophet, the deep cool waters of the pool of Israel, the spring of living waters. Yahweh God is the “fount of every blessing” with “streams of mercy never ceasing” (Robinson). He is the hope of our patient enduring and waiting, the hope of our sweet relief, the cool blessing of our lives. When accusers make demands that we cannot meet, we have the Pool of Israel. When our work is marked by failure and few successes, we still have the abiding, gathering Hope of Israel. When we feel beaten down, even to death, we have the ever-flowing Spring of Living Water to heal us and we shall be healed; the Hope of Israel to save us and we shall be saved.

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to [the Hope of Israel]!
Let anyone who believes in the [Pool of Israel] come and drink!
As scripture says, ‘From his heart shall flow streams of living water.’ (John 7:37-38-with interpolations)

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.

Orsborn, Albert. “All My Work Is for the Master” The Salvation Army Songbook,
The Salvation Army, London.

Robinson, Robert. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” The Salvation Army Songbook,
The Salvation Army, London.

Stuart, Douglas. “Curse” Pages 1218 – 1219 in Vol. 1 of Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ed. David Noel
Freedman. New York. Doubleday. 1992.

[i] (It should also perhaps be noted that division of the various parts of Jeremiah’s writing is not an exact science. There are various opinions about where this confession begins and ends. Some commentators include verse 12. Some start with verse 14. Some believe that the confession continues through verse 20.) Choices have to be made and I have chosen this material for this sermon.
[ii] Lest we think that violent imprecations are only found in the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible, here are a few (but not all) from the New Testament / Christian Bible: Matthew 23: 13 – 36, Matthew 26: 23 – 24, 1 Corinthians 16: 22, Galatians 1: 8 – 9, Galatians 5: 12, 2 Timothy 4: 14, Revelation 6: 10, Revelation 22: 18 – 19.

[iii] I like Lundbom’s suggestion (794-798) that this confession should be read as a three way conversation between Jeremiah, Yahweh and the mockers in Israel, and that this verse is to be understood as Yahweh’s voice. If I were reading the confession the ‘right way round,’ I would have followed that interpretation.

[iv] I often tell people that I’m a bilingual illiterate-I can’t read in two languages.

[v] It also means “yarn” (1 Kings 10:28, 2 Chronicles 1:16) – go figure…

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