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Bible Study Helps: Jeremiah and Lamentations

Jul 18, 2018

Jeremiah is one of the most well-known and most-read prophets, and for good reason. His persistence in proclaiming the whole counsel of God, even in the face of dogged and determined opposition is amazing to behold. For over forty years he preached a message that was overwhelmingly rejected.

Yahweh even told him ahead of time that the people would not listen to him. We only read of two people in the entire book who respond favourably to his prophetic preaching. The overwhelming bulk of the people preferred the false prophets who told them what they wanted to hear.

But Jeremiah told them what they needed to hear, with repentance at the top of the list. Indeed, over 100 times in the book he tells the people to turn around or repent. But to no avail. Because he ministered in the decades just before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., he lived to see his warnings come to pass.

The weeping prophet

We know more about Jeremiah than we do most of the other prophets. We learn a lot about the man in this book, and we learn that his heart broke with the things that broke the heart of God. He grieved over the people’s sins, and he grieved over their justly deserved punishment.

So close is Jeremiah to Yahweh that it is often difficult to tell who is speaking in the book: God or the prophet. Commenting on Jer. 14 for example, John Goldingay writes:

Here again is Jeremiah sharing the anguish of God, Indeed, it is a puzzle to decide whose anguish is referred to here. . . . We are not sure whether we are reading lyrical poetry or the words of Yahweh. But the reason why we cannot tell whether we are sharing Jeremiah’s anguish or God’s is that both are the same thing, because Jeremiah is identified with God. Jeremiah is torn apart not merely because of his one affliction, nor only because of Judah’s affliction, but because of the affliction of God, which God allows him to share.

Or as J. A. Thompson says in his commentary: “Jeremiah was never a dispassionate observer of his nation’s suffering, but entered into the anguish of the people and suffered with them.” He notes that other prophets share in this reality, and goes on to say,

The problem of these men was that they were bearing a message of divine judgment while at the same time sharing the sufferings of the people either in vision or in fact. But they were men torn asunder between God and the people, to both of whom they were bound with deep ties. This combination of love and anguish is nowhere seen more clearly than in Jeremiah.

Thus the prophet bore a double, even a triple, load of suffering: he not only had his own personal grief to carry, but he shared in God’s suffering, as well as the suffering of God’s people. The so-called confessions of Jeremiah are a good example of this.

Jeremiah’s confessions

Part of the personal pain of Jeremiah is found in his “confessions”. They have to do with his concerns about what is going on: why the wicked seem to flourish, why he is being persecuted, etc. They are laments or complaints, asking God why things are the way they are.

Various lists of them have been offered, with no unanimity as to exact passages, but most agree that parts of these chapters contain his 6 to 8 laments: Jer. 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, and 20. The earlier ones include a reply from Yahweh while the latter ones do not.

Consider the first one: Jer. 11:18-23 (which some extend to 12:4 or 12:6). Here Jeremiah bewails all the opposition he is facing, and asks God to vindicate him. Chris Wright says this about this first “confession”: “Jeremiah’s preaching was not calculated to make him popular – to say the least. In fact it put him in danger of his life.”

In these confessions “we have interwoven a series of deeply personal encounters between Jeremiah and God. They are a mixture of complaint, protest, grief, self-pity, loneliness and pain – closely similar to the psalms of lament, and doubtless owing some of their language and imagery to that source.”

Wright goes on to explain why Jeremiah received so much frenzied hostility and even death threats:

Jeremiah was engaged in a systematic attack upon the key pillars of Israel’s self-identity and worldview. We have seen how he dismantled the people’s confidence in the temple, in the land, in the written law, in circumcision, and now in the very covenant with YHWH itself. None of these things, Jeremiah argued, could provide security from the wrath of God now being unleashed. But all of these things had ancient tradition and profound theological weight behind them. To attack such precious foundational beliefs must have seemed radically undermining of all that the people’s life and faith were built upon. In fact, his relentless attacks probably appeared blasphemous.

This explains why Jeremiah was so alone and so full of grief. Yet his distance from his own people was offset by his nearness to his God. As Willem VanGemeren says of the confessions:

Jeremiah, forsaken and rejected by people, experienced many setbacks during his lengthy ministry, but he gradually adjusted to being a loner. Kings, leaders, priests, and false prophets opposed him. His “confessions” draw us into the personality of the prophet and into his dialogical communion with his God. . . . They are in the form of lament (soliloquies) by which he – like the psalmists and our Lord Jesus in the Garden – struggled with God’s will. . . . In Jeremiah, the suffering servant of God and the spokesman of God are one.

But interspersed in all the suffering and grief due to the people’s sin and God’s judgment are notes of hope. The famous new covenant spoken about in Jer. 31 is one such example. Jesus of course was the fulfillment of what Jeremiah had prophesied about. And like Jeremiah, Jesus knew all about suffering. Yet joy was a part of this.

As we read in Hebrews 12;2, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.” In his discussion on the prophetic imagination, Walter Brueggemann finds similarities between Jeremiah and Jesus and their respective ministries. He remarks,

The riddle and insight of biblical faith is the awareness that only anguish leads to life, only grieving leads to joy, and only embraced endings permit new beginnings. . . . Jesus had understood Jeremiah. . . . Jesus’ concern was, finally, for the joy of the kingdom. That is what he promised and to that he invited people. But he was clear that the rejoicing in that future required a grieving about the present order. . . . [This implies] that those who have not cared enough to grieve will not know joy.

These confessions certainly reveal the very real human face of Jeremiah. He was not an aloof, impartial spokesman for God, but one who felt the pathos and the pain. And if we find this in the book of Jeremiah, even more so is it found in the book of Lamentations.

Lamentations

Lamentations is usually grouped in the wisdom literature. If placed in the prophetic books, we then have 17, instead of the usual 16 books. This short book (5 poems in 5 chapters) is penned just after the fall of Jerusalem. It offers the pain of the prophet as God’s people are taken away into Babylonian captivity.

In some ways it is one of the most depressing books you will read in the entire Bible. How can it not be, given its subject matter? Jerusalem and the temple have been destroyed, God’s enemies have triumphed, and God’s people have been carried away as captives in a foreign land.

The psalmists speak about this horrific loss and devastation, as in Psalm 79:1, 5:

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.…
How long, O Lord?

And in Psalm 137:1-4:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

But even in the midst of all this darkness and gloom, there are still words of hope. The centre of the book contains these glorious verses (3:21-26):

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

But see here for more detail on this important OT book: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/10/22/the-book-of-lamentations/

Studies

Brueggemann, Walter, Like Fire in the Bones: Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah. Fortress Press, 2016.
O’Conner, Kathleen, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise. Fortress Press, 2012.
Shead, Andrew, A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah. Apollos/IVP, 2012.

Jeremiah commentaries

These solid and scholarly works are mainly from conservative, Reformed and evangelical points of view.

Image of The Message of Jeremiah (Bible Speaks Today)
The Message of Jeremiah (Bible Speaks Today) by Christopher J. H. Wright Amazon logo

Allen, Leslie, Jeremiah (OTL, 2008)
Bright, John, Jeremiah (AB, 1965)
Brown, Michael, Jeremiah (EBC rev, 2010)
Brueggemann, Walter, A Commentary on Jeremiah (Eerdmans, 1998)
Craigie, Peter, Page Kelley and Joel Drinkard, Jeremiah 1-25 (WBC, 1991)
Dearman, J. Andrew, Jeremiah/Lamentations (NIVAC, 2002)
Feinberg, Charles Lee, Jeremiah (EBC, 1986)
Guest, John, Jeremiah, Lamentations (MTOT, 1988)
Harrison, R. K., Jeremiah & Lamentations (TOTC, 1973)
Hays, J. Daniel, Jeremiah and Lamentations (TTC, 2016)
Huey, F. B., Jeremiah, Lamentations (NAC, 1993)
Keown, Gerald, Pamela Scalise and Thomas Smothers, Jeremiah 26-52 (WBC, 1995)
Lalleman, Hetty, Jeremiah & Lamentations (TOTC, 2013)
Longman, Tremper, Jeremiah, Lamentations (NIBC, 2008)
Mackay, John, Jeremiah 1-20 (MC, 2004)
Mackay, John, Jeremiah 21-52 (MC, 2004)
Martens, Elmer, Jeremiah (BCBC, 1986)
Thompson, J. A., The Book of Jeremiah (NICOT, 1980)
Wright, Christopher, Jeremiah (BST, 2014)

Lamentations commentaries

In addition to the ones just mentioned above, see also these works:

Dobbs-Allsopp, F. W., Lamentations (Int, 2002)
Ellison, H. L., Lamentations (EBC, 1986)
Ferris, Paul, Lamentations (EBC rev, 2010)
Garrett, Duane and Paul House, Song of Songs/Lamentations (WBC, 2004)
Mackay, John, Lamentations (MC, 2008)
Parry, Robin, Lamentations (THOTC, 2010)
Provan, Iain, Lamentations (NCB, 1991)
Wright, Christopher, Lamentations (BST, 2015)

Devotional and expository commentaries

Allen, Leslie, A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations (Baker, 2011)
Meyer, F. B., Jeremiah (CLC, 1980)
Ryken, Philip Graham, Jeremiah & Lamentations (PTW, 2001)
Sire, James, Jeremiah, Meet the 20th Century (IVP, 1976)
Wilcock, Michael, Jeremiah & Lamentations (Christian Focus, 2013)

Happy reading and study.

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One Response to Bible Study Helps: Jeremiah and Lamentations

  • I remember you writing an article on Jeremiah a few years ago that inspired me to read the book. It is one of my favourite Old Testament books.

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