"Torn Between Two Loves"
February 25th, 2020
From: "A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching out to God in the Lost Language of Lament"
As we have seen, Jeremiah was a priest (Jeremiah 1:1), which means he was supposed to know what it felt like to stand before God and offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people. But he was also called to be a prophet, albeit a reluctant one (Jeremiah 1:6). And a prophet is called to offer to the people, in effect, the sacrificial, sacramental Words of God. Rarely was any man called to both of these desperate offices. Only, some four hundred years later, would Someone perfectly fulfill both offices by being the Word who
was sacrificed for the people.
These two great and conflicting roles struggled to come together in Jeremiah. But even after the disastrous destruction of Jerusalem had occurred, he must have found it difficult to grasp that, as priest, he had witnessed the people destroyed by their own sin. And that, as prophet, he had spoken the Word of God to ears that would never hear. Out of this frustration his laments would flow as Jeremiah found himself torn between his deep love for his own people, Israel, and his intense, personal, fearful affection for God.
In one of his first oracles, Jeremiah announced to Israel that God could no longer bear with her faithlessness (2-3). What is most striking about this prophecy from the very mind and mouth of God is that it sounds remarkably like a lament. God is lamenting through Jeremiah to His people.
"What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me?" (2:5, NIV).
"They have forsaken me, the spring of living water" (2:13, NIV).
And perhaps most heart-breaking of all: "I thought you would call me 'Father' and not turn away from following me" (3:19, NIV).
God's own heart had been broken by His unfaithful people. The One whom Jeremiah discovered was moved by his tears was now weeping for Himself, lamenting the loss of His beloved. Jeremiah, who would weep so many tears on behalf of his people, wept first the tears of his betrayed God. His lament is the only bridge that seems to have survived the destruction. It is a surprising place to find oneself in, reaching out to a God who is moved by our tears and who, more often than we could imagine, weeps His own tears through us.
Jeremiah's tears flow from God's anger as well as His pain. Though Jeremiah had himself felt the pain of their rejection, it is the prophet's identification with God's indignation that gives birth to his bitterest complaints. In his first great complaint (12:1-4), to which God gives answer in verses 5-17, Jeremiah says to God, about the people: "You are always on their lips, but far from their hearts" (12:2, NIV).
Before he proceeds to his next imprecation, Jeremiah makes the careful preliminary statement, "You know me, O Lord. You see me and test my thoughts about You," lest God fail to recognize that Jeremiah has not lost sight of the dangerous dimensions of his own anger. Next erupts a surprising and venomous statement that only hints at the inner turmoil and pain with which the conflicted prophet will struggle for the rest of his life. To experience the depths of the emotional life of God, to weep His tears and give voice to His pain: how could any human bear such a burden? Of his own beloved people, Jeremiah screams,
"Drag them off like sheep to be butchered!
Set them apart for the day of slaughter!" (verse 3, NIV).
In a later complaint passage (20:7-18), Jeremiah vents his anger and frustration in the other direction, toward God Himself! After Pashhur, the son of the chief priest in the temple, had Jeremiah beaten and placed in the stocks, the prophet turns around and attacks God:
O Lord, you deceived me, and I
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, "I will not mention him
or speak any more in his name,"
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot. (NIV)
Caught between the obstinate disbelief of the people who refuse to listen to the Word of God that burns in his bones, and the almighty outrage and consuming bitterness of the betrayed Bridegroom, Jeremiah finally exhausts himself against God. Somehow internally, he mystically steps across a line. It is the same line we have seen Job and David cross so many times in their laments. Having emptied himself of himself, Jeremiah overflows in praise.
Sing to the Lord!
Give praise to the Lord!
He rescues the life of the needy
from the hands of the wicked. (verse 13)
Then, as inexplicably, perhaps his eyes having focused on the bruises on his wrists caused by the stocks, the tormented Jeremiah spits out an imprecation on himself. It could well be Job speaking:
Cursed be the day I was born!
May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
who made him very glad, saying,
"A child is born to you - a son!"
May that man be like the towns
the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
with my mother as my grave,
her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
to see trouble and sorrow
and to end my days in shame? (verses 14-18, NIV)
In the twists and turns of his life as a prophet of God and a priest for God, Jeremiah comes often to the end of his rope. Each time he discovers himself hanging there, he will find the strength to hold on (even as Job and David did) only by means of the honest laments that kept him connected to his difficult God in the service of His impossible people. In the truest place inside his heart, he loves them both so deeply. He longs to reconcile the two. His heart aches, like the friend of the bridegroom, to usher Israel the bride into the wedding feast to which God had invited her again and again. The Bridegroom refuses to give up, motivated by His inexhaustible and inexplicable hesed. The bride stubbornly, blindly, deafly, refuses to give in. Jeremiah stands between the two with a hand resting on them both (recall Job 9:33), called to reconcile the irreconcilable. Impossibly ill-equipped, outrageously inadequate to the task that would only eventually be perfectly carried out four hundred years in the future by the impoverished Prophet/Priest from Nazareth. Jesus would be the One who would eventually intercede by "laying a hand on them both, as His hands were outstretched on a cross."
I find it striking that at least once, Jesus was mistaken for Jeremiah (Matthew 16:14). Perhaps it was the tears that often coursed down His cheeks. Perhaps it was His own prophecies of the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41; Matthew 27:37). Jesus would use Jeremiah's words to describe His own anger and pain (Matthew 21:13). Jesus would, after all, finally bridge the gap, the vise, in which Jeremiah had been caught and eventually crushed. Jesus, the priest, would offer at last a perfect sacrifice before God on behalf of the people. The perfect Prophet, Jesus, would speak the lament on behalf of the God who had been forsaken once again by His people in those darkest words of David, "Why have You forsaken me?" Jeremiah had been torn between the people and God. Jesus would be torn apart by them.