If, as is possible, the name Jeremiah means Yahweh hurls
or shoots forth
, it fitly describes the Prophet's temper, struggles and fate. For he was a projectile, fired upon a hostile world with a force not his own, and on a mission from which, from the first, his gifts and affections recoiled and against which he continued to protest. On his passage through the turbulence of his time he reminds us of one of those fatal shells which rend the air as they shoot, distinct even through the roar of battle by their swift, shrill anguish and effecting their end by their explosion.
Jeremiah has been called The Weeping Prophet, but that is mainly because of the attribution to him of The Book of Lamentations, which does not profess to be his and is certainly later than his day. Not weeping, though he had to weep, so much as groaning or even screaming is the particular pitch of the tone of this Prophet. As he says himself,
For as oft as I speak I must shriek,
And cry |Violence and Spoil!|(681)
His first word is one of shrinking, I cannot speak, I am too young.(682) The voice of pain and protest is in most of his Oracles. He curses the day of his birth and cries woe to his mother that she bare him. He makes us feel that he has been charged against his will and he hurtles on his career like one slung at a target who knows that in fulfilling his commission he shall be broken -- as indeed he was.
Lord, Thou beguiled'st me, and beguiled I let myself be, Thou wast too strong for me, Thou hast prevailed.(683)
Power was pain to him; he carried God's Word as a burning fire in his heart.(684) If the strength and the joy in which others rise on their gifts ever came to him they quickly fled. Isaiah, the only other prophet comparable, accepts his mission and springs to it with freedom. But Jeremiah, always coerced, shrinks, protests, craves leave to retire. So that while Isaiah's answer to the call of God is Here am I, send me, Jeremiah's might have been |I would be anywhere else than here, let me go.| He spent much of himself in complaint and in debate both with God and with his fellow-men:
Mother! Ah me!
As whom hast thou borne me?
A man of quarrel and of strife
To the whole of the land --
All of them curse me.(685)
Nor did he live to see any solid results from his work. His call was
To root up, pull down and destroy,
To build and to plant.(686)
If this represents the Prophet's earliest impression of his charge, the proportion between the destructive and constructive parts of it is ominous; if it sums up his experience it is less than the truth. Though he sowed the most fruitful seeds in the fields of Israel's religion, none sprang in his lifetime. For his own generation he built nothing. Sympathetic with the aims and the start of the greatest reform in Israel's history, he grew sceptical of its progress and had to denounce the dogmas into which the spirit of it hardened. A king sought his counsel and refused to follow it; the professional prophets challenged him to speak in the Name of the Lord and then denied His Word; the priests were ever against him, and the overseer of the Temple put him in the stocks. Though the people came to his side at one crisis, they rejected him at others and fell back on their formalist teachers, and the prophets of a careless optimism. Though he loved his people with passion, and pled with them all his life, he failed to convince or move them to repentance -- and more than once was forbidden even to pray for them. He was charged not to marry nor found a family nor share in either the griefs or the joys of society. His brethren and his father's house betrayed him, and he was stoned out of Anathoth by his fellow-villagers. Though he could count on a friend or two at court, he had to flee into hiding. King Sedekiah, who felt a slavish reverence for his word, was unable to save him from imprisonment in a miry pit, and he owed his deliverance, neither to friend nor countryman, but to a negro eunuch of the palace. Even after the fall of Jerusalem, when his prophecies were vindicated almost to the letter, he failed to keep a remnant of the nation in Judah; and his word had no influence with the little band which clung to him as a fetish and hurried him to Egypt. There, with his back to the brief ministry of hope that had been allowed him, he must take up again the task of denunciation which he abhorred; and this is the last we hear of him.
It was the same with individuals as with the people as a whole. We may say that with few exceptions, whomever he touched he singed, whomever he struck he broke -- a man of quarrel and strife to the whole land, all of them curse me. And he cursed them back. When Pashhur put him in the stocks Jeremiah called him Magor Missabib, Terror-all-round, for lo, I will make thee a terror to thyself and to all thy friends, they shall fall by the sword and thou behold it.(687) Nothing satisfied his contempt for Jehoiakim, but that dying the king should be buried with the burial of an ass.(688) Even for Sedekiah, to whom he showed some tenderness, his last utterance was of a vision of the weak monarch being mocked by his own women.(689) His irony, keen to the end, proves his detachment from all around him. His scorn for the bulk of the other prophets is scorching, and his words for some of them fatal. Of Shemaiah, who wrote of the captives in Babylon letters of a tenor opposite to his own, he said he shall not have a man to dwell among this people.(690) When the prophet Hananiah contradicted him, he foretold, after carefully deliberating between his rival's words and his own, that Hananiah would die, and Hananiah was dead within a few months.(691) He had no promise for those whom he counselled to desert to the enemy save of bare life; nor anything better even for the best of his friends: Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not! Only thy life will I give thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest.(692)
The following are the full texts from which the foregoing summary has been drawn and most of which I have reserved for this Lecture.
IV.10. Then said I, Ah Lord Yahweh, Verily Thou hast deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying There shall be peace! -- whereas the sword striketh to the life!
O my bowels! My bowels, I writhe! 19
O the walls of my heart!
My heart is in storm upon me,
I cannot keep silence!
I am filled with the rage of the Lord, VI.11
Worn with holding it in!
Pour it out on the child in the street,
Where the youths draw together.
The following refers to the conspiracy of his fellow-villagers against him.
The Lord let me know and I knew it, XI.18
Then I saw through(693) their doings;
But I like a tame lamb had been, 19
Unwittingly(694) led to the slaughter.
On me they had framed their devices
|Let's destroy the tree in its sap.(695)
Cut him off from the land of the living,
That his name be remembered no more.|
O Lord, Thou Who righteously judgest, 20
Who triest the reins and the heart,
Let me see Thy vengeance upon them,
For to Thee I have opened(696) my cause.
21. Therefore thus saith the Lord of the men of Anathoth, who are seeking my(697) life, saying, Thou shalt not prophesy in the Name of the Lord, that thou die not by our hands:(698)
Lo, I am to visit upon them! 22
Their(699) youths shall die by the sword,
Their sons and their daughters by famine,
Till no remnant be left them. 23
For evil I bring on the men of Anathoth,
The year of their visitation.
Mother! Ah me! XV.10
As whom(700) hast thou borne me?
A man of strife and of quarrel
To the whole of the land.
I have not lent upon usury, nor any to me,
Yet all of them curse me.
Amen,(701) O Lord! If I be to blame(?), 11
If I never besought Thee,
In the time of their trouble and straits,
For the good of my foes.
Is the arm on my shoulder iron 12
Or brass my brow?(702)
Thou hast known it,(703) O Lord. 15
Think on and visit me!
Avenge me on them that pursue me,
Halt not Thy wrath.
Know that for Thee I have borne reproach
From them who despise(704) Thy words. 16
[End them!(705) Thy word's my delight
And the joy of my heart
For Thy Name has been called upon me,
Lord of Hosts!]
I have not sat in their company 17
Jesting and merry.(706)
Because of Thy hand alone I sit,
For with rage Thou hast filled me.
Why is my pain perpetual, 18
My wound past healing?
Art Thou to be a false stream to me,
As waters that fail?
This to Him on Whom he had called as The Fountain of Living Water!
Therefore thus saith the Lord: 19
If thou wilt turn, then shall I turn thee,
That before Me thou stand;
And if thou bring forth the dear from the vile,
As My Mouth thou shalt be.
[Then may those turn to thee,
But not thou to them.]
For to this people I set thee 20
An impassable wall.(707)
When they fight thee they shall not prevail,
With thee am I to deliver,(708)
And deliver thee I shall from the power of the wicked, 21 From the hand of the cruel redeem thee.
Thou(709) shalt not take a wife -- XVI.2
Rede of the Lord --
Nor shall sons nor daughters be thine
Within this place.
For thus hath the Lord said: 3
As for the sons and the daughters
Born in this place,
[As for their mothers who bore them
And their fathers who gat them
Throughout this land.]
Painfullest deaths shall they die 4
[Be for dung on the face of the ground,
Consumed by famine and sword.]
And their corpses shall be for food
To the birds of the heaven and beasts of the earth.(710) Thus saith the Lord: 5
Come not to the house of mourning,
Nor go about to lament,(711)
Because My Peace I have swept
Away from this people.(712)
For them shall none lament, 6b
Nor gash nor make themselves bald;
Neither break bread(713) to the mourner,(714) 7
For the dead to console him,
Nor pour him(715) the cup of condolement
For his father or mother.
Come thou not to the house of feasting, 8
To sit with them eating and drinking.
For thus saith the Lord of Hosts,(716) 9
The God of Israel:
Lo, I shall stay from this place,
In your days, to your eyes,
The voices of joy and of gladness,
The voices of bridegroom and bride.
Follows, in 10-13, the moral reason of all this -- the people's leaving of their God -- and the doom of exile.
Heal me O Lord, and I shall be healed, XVII.14
Save me and saved shall I be.(717)
Lo, there be those, who keep saying to me. 15
|Where is the Word of the Lord?
Pray let it come!|
But I have not pressed ... (?) 16
Nor for evil(718) kept at Thee,
Nor longed for the woeful day,
Thyself dost know.
Whatever came forth from my lips
To Thy face it was.
Be not a (cause of) dismay to me, 17
My Refuge in evil days.
Shamed be my hunters, but shamed not I, 18
Dismayed, but dismayed not I.
Bring Thou upon them the day of disaster
And break them twice over!
XVIII.18. And they said, Come and let us devise against Jeremiah devices, for the Law(719) shall not perish from the priest, nor Counsel from the wise, nor the Word from the prophet. Come let us smite him with the tongue and pay no heed to any of his words.
O Lord, unto me give Thou heed, 19
And hark to the voice of my plea!(720)
Shall evil be rendered for good, 20
That they dig a pit for my life?(721)
O remember my standing before Thee,
To bespeak their good --
To turn Thy fury from off them.
Give therefore their sons to famine, 21
And spill them out to the sword.
Let their wives be widows and childless
And their men be slain of death --
And smitten their youths by the sword in battle.
May crying be heard from their homes, 22
As a troop comes sudden upon them!
For a pit have they dug to catch me,
And hidden snares for my feet.
But Thou, O Lord, hast known 23
Their counsels for death against me.
Pardon Thou not their iniquities,(722)
Nor blot from Thy Presence their sins;(723)
But let them be tumbled before Thee
Deal with them in time of Thy wrath.
Verses 21-23 are rejected by Duhm and Cornill, along with XI.22b, 23, XII.3b, XVII.18 for no textual or metrical reasons, but only because these scholars shrink from attributing to Jeremiah such outbursts of passion: just as we have seen them for similarly sheer reasons of sentiment refuse to consider as his the advice to desert to the enemy.(724) Yet they admit inconsistently the genuineness of VI.11, XI.20, XV.15.(725)
Lord, Thou beguiledst me, and beguiled I let myself be, XX.7 Too strong for me, Thou hast conquered,
A jest I have been all the day,
Every one mocks me.
As oft as I speak I must shriek, 8
Crying |Violence and spoil.|
Yea, the Word of the Lord is become my reproach
All day a derision.
If I said, I'll not mind Him(726) 9
Nor speak in His name,(727)
Then in my heart 'tis a burning fire,
Shut up in my bones.
I am worn away with refraining,
I cannot hold on.(728)
For I hear the whispering of many, 10
Terror all round!
|Denounce, and let us denounce him,|
-- And these my familiars! --
Keep ye watch for him tripping,
Perchance he'll be fooled,
|And we be more than enough for him,
And get our revenge.|
Yet the Lord He is with me, 11
Mighty and Terrible!
So they that hunt me shall stumble
And shall not prevail.
Put to dire shame shall they be
When they fail to succeed.
Be their confusion eternal,
Nor ever forgotten!
O Lord,(729) Who triest the righteous, 12
Who lookest to the reins and the heart,
Let me see Thy vengeance upon them,
For to Thee I have opened my cause.(730)
Cursed be the day, XX.14
Whereon I was born!
The day that my mother did bare me,
Be it unblessed!
Cursed be the man who carried the news, 15
Telling my father,
|A man child is born to thee!|
Making him glad.
Be that man as the cities the Lord overthrew, 16
And did not relent,
Let him hear a shriek in the morning,
And at noon-tide alarms;
That he slew me not in(731) the womb, 17
So my mother had been my grave,
And great for ever her womb!
For what came I forth from the womb? 18
Labour and sorrow to see,
That my days in shame should consume.
Considering the passion of these lines, it is not surprising that they are so irregular.(732)
Some have attributed the aggravations, at least, of this rage to some fault in the man himself. They are probably right. The prophets were neither vegetables nor machines but men of like passions with ourselves. Jeremiah may have been by temper raw and hasty, with a natural capacity for provoking his fellows. That he felt this himself we may suspect from his cry to his mother, that he had been born to quarrel. His impatience, honest though it be, needs stern rebuke from the Lord.(733) Even with God Himself he is hasty.(734) There are signs throughout, naively betrayed by his own words, of a fluid and quick temper, both for love and for hate. For so original a poet he was at first remarkably dependent on his predecessors. The cast of his verse is lyric and subjective; and for all its wistfulness and plaint is sometimes shrill with the shrillness of a soul raw and too sensitive about herself. His strength as a poet may have been his weakness as a man -- may have made him, from a human point of view, an unlikely instrument for the work he had to do and the force with which he must drive -- painfully swerving at times from his task, and at others rushing in passion before the power he hated but could not withstand.
So probable an opinion becomes a certainty when we turn to God's words to him. Be not dismayed lest I make thee dismayed and I set thee this day a fenced city and wall of bronze.(735) For these last imply that in himself Jeremiah was something different. God does not speak thus to a man unless He sees that he needs it. It was to his most impetuous and unstable disciple that Christ said, Thou art Peter, and on this rock will I build.
Yet while his own temper thus aggravated his solitude and his pain we must also keep in mind that neither among the priests, the prophets and the princes of his time, nor in the kings after Josiah, did Jeremiah find any of that firm material which under the hands of Isaiah rose into bulwarks against Assyria. The nation crumbling from within was suffering from without harder blows than even Assyria dealt it. These did not weld but broke a people already decadent and with nothing to resist them save the formalities of religion and a fanatic gallantry. The people lost heart and care. He makes them use more than once a phrase about themselves in answer to his call to repent: No'ash, No use! All is up! Probably this reflects his own feelings about them. He was a man perpetually baffled by what he had to work with.
Poet as he was he had the poet's heart for the beauties of nature and of domestic life: for birds and trees and streams, for the home-candle and the sound of the house-mill, for children and the happiness of the bride, and the love of husband and wife; and he was forbidden to marry or have children of his own or to take part in any social merriment -- in this last respect so different from our Lord. Was it unnatural that his heart broke out now and then in wild gusts of passion against it all?
There is another thing which we must not forget in judging Jeremiah's excessive rage. We cannot find that he had any hope of another life. Absolutely no breath of this breaks either from his own Oracles or from those attributed to him. Here and now was his only chance of service, here and now must the visions given him by God be fulfilled or not at all. In the whole book of Jeremiah we see no hope of the resurrection, no glory to come, no gleam even of the martyr's crown. I have often thought that what seem to us the excess of impatience, the rashness to argue with Providence, the unholy wrath and indignation of prophets and psalmists under the Old Covenant, are largely to be explained by this, that as yet there had come to them no sense of another life or of judgment beyond this earth. When we are tempted to wonder at Jeremiah's passion and cursing, let us try to realise how we would have felt had we, like him, found our one service baffled, and the single possible fulfilment of our ideals rendered vain. All of which shows the difference that Christ has made.