My Sunday school class has been studying Jeremiah for the last several weeks. We usually hear these searing texts in Advent, but out of lectionary season, we soldier on. This prophet had a tough calling, and his words were met with disbelief and scoffing. His time of service is during the fall of Jerusalem, and the worst possible thing descends upon the people. The book of Jeremiah chronicles the dismantling of the northern and southern kingdoms, Israel and Judah. The land promised by God will no longer be theirs – a grave, unsettling horizon.
The book of Jeremiah, which could cover up to 250 years of history, displays heavy editing by the Deuteronomists, those responsible for Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. The theology of the Deuteronomists is pretty concrete in terms of cause-effect. If you obey the covenant, you will be blessed. If you worship other gods, God will not protect you from your enemies. At times, God may be more with the enemy of the people of God than their ally, more against them than for them.
“At times, God may be more with the enemy of the people of God than their ally, more against them than for them.”
Such is the message of Jeremiah – more doom than comfort.
His nation could hardly swagger through the Ancient Near Eastern world as a super-power. A small nation, not particularly arrayed with the armies and weaponry that the Assyrian and Babylonian empires could boast, was vulnerable to attack. The location of the land, with its access to the Mediterranean Sea through its varied ports, made it even more attractive to those with plans for domination of the region.
Some scholars have suggested that one might read the whole of the Hebrew Bible through the lens of asking this one question: How did the covenant people fail to keep the land? And inexorably, these questions follow: Could not God preserve them from exile and captivity? Does all the blame fall on a faithless people?
Scholars of Jeremiah conclude that it is very difficult to find a coherent theme in this wide-ranging, prophetic text. Further, scholars of the Hebrew Bible struggle to construct any linear historical narrative out of the morass of judges, priests, prophets and monarchy. The episodes of covenant fidelity, followed by idolatry and everyone “doing what was right in their own eyes,” stain the pages that recount the roots of our present identity as Christians.
We know the challenge of reading ancient texts in a way applicable to our own context; yet, the questions raised by our forebears prompt our own examination of the times we are experiencing. We ask a similar question: Is the tumult of the nations an act of divine judgment or simply the working out of the fall to violence, which is the hallmark of sinful people? And, as Jeremiah queried: Whose side is God on?
Written as a retrospective analysis of what went wrong in the divided nation’s relationships with neighboring powers, the prophet and editors seemed to assume that God determined whoever won in the political-military fray. There are those who follow that viewpoint today, believing that God micro-manages the ongoing machinations of warring people.
“God has created space for us to do what only we can do, joining God’s side of justice and mercy.”
For example, President Donald Trump’s step into North Korea was viewed by many as a bold overture toward peace, prompted by God’s favoring of this elected leader, as many white evangelicals continue to aver. Others viewed the incident as a fool’s errand, intended only to provide optics for a leader whose next move usually serves a measure of self-interest, not national security for either nation. Which is it?
I believe it is an over-reach to conscript God’s favor for our political calculations, as if God has a pre-determined plan for each discrete nation, political party or individual leader. Instead, God plays the long game, seeking to influence all toward justice, mercy and flourishing. Our prayers to God about present circumstances should prompt our own actions to mend the world. God is always on that side.
In a day when nationalism is on the rise around the world, modeled blatantly by the United States, it would be dangerous to claim God’s complicity in policies that do not think about the most vulnerable in the social contract. In the biblical vernacular, widows, orphans, the poor and the alien are the focus of God’s concern, as attested by the prophets who refuse to “tickle the ears” of those listening.
God’s providence in the affairs of humanity requires that we are full participants. As my former colleague, Frank Tupper, taught generations of seminary students, “God always does the most God can do.” God’s engagement with creation is compassionate. This “transforming engagement” calls humanity to do its part, and in the process we become ingredient in a larger vision of interacting factors in nature and history. This suggests that God has created space for us to do what only we can do, joining God’s side of justice and mercy.