Jeremiah, Theology of

Jeremiah, Theology of

To state the theology of a book is to offer a synthesis of the material from a theologicalrather than historical angle of vision. A theology of Jeremiah is derived by observing thestructure of the book, its genres (e.g., judgment oracles, laments), the traditions onwhich it draws (e.g., covenant), its vocabulary (e.g., turn, sub), its"characters" (God, Israel, nations, the prophet), and the religious/socialagenda of the time (i.e., a threat on Judah from the northern foe and subsequent siege).To determine a theology of the book one asks in essence, "What convictions drive thisbook?"

The structure of the Book of Jeremiah, much debated, may be sketched in envelopefashion by chapters as follows:

A. God's Personal Message to Jeremiah (1)
B. Speeches Warning of Disaster (2-10)
C. Stories of Prophet Wrestling with People and God (11-20)
D. Disputation with Kings and Prophets (21-29)
E. The Book of Comfort (30-33)
D1. Disputation with Kings (34-38)
C1. Stories of a Sacked City and the Aftermath (39-45)
B1. Oracles against Nations (46-51)
A1. Appendix: Historical Documentation (52)

A fresh approach to the theology of Jeremiah is by means of a two-directional grid: (1)the book's chiastic structure and (2) the "characters" within the book. Ourdiscussion proceeds via the chiastic couplets.

The Dynamic of a History of Salvation (chaps. 2-10 = B; 46-51 = B1). The firstmajor section, leaving aside chapter 1, contains speeches and is matched by the oraclesagainst nations. The theological rubric in which the sermons and the oracles are cast isthe history of both salvation and judgment. The section begins in a review mode: "Iremember … [how] you loved me and followed me through the desert" ( 2:2 ). The recital,alternately of God's actions and Israel's response, is capsulized in 2:21: "I hadplanted you like a choice vine… How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wildvine?" God's salvific actions include the "exodus" ( 2:6 ; 7:22 ) and Israel's"entry into a fertile land" ( 2:7 ; 3:19 ; 7:7 ). God's judgmenton the "corrupt, wild vine" will include disintegration and dislocation.

The indisputable lordship of God over history is poignantly made through the repeateddesignation (more than eighty times) of God as "the Lord of hosts" (NIV"God Almighty"). This title, associated closely with verdicts of judgment(thirty times), is liberally sprinkled in the oracles against the nations. World history,as well as redemptive history, proceeds under the eye of the cosmic commander-in-chief.

God: Benevolent, Angry, and Pained. Yahweh, the God of Israel is magnanimous butjust. God is solicitous. "How gladly would I treat you like sons and give you adesirable land" ( 3:19 ). DespiteJudah's gross evils, the Holy One of Israel will not forsake his people ( 51:5 ). A succinctcharacterization of God is given in 9:24: God delights in steadfast love, justice, andrighteousness.

Because of the people's sin, however, and the departure from the "ancientpaths" ( 6:16 ),God is about to act with anger and fury ( 7:20 ). Warnings andexhortations are cast in graphic pictures of coming devastation of Judah by enemy forces,primarily the foe from the north ( 5:15-17 ; 6:22-26 ;7:32-8:3; Jeremiah 8:13-14 Jeremiah 8:17 ; 9:20-22 ; 10:18 ) and alsoin scenarios of cosmic catyclism not unlike the prospects of atomic destruction ( 4:23-26 ). God isalso angry with nations ( 50:21 ; 51:25 ). Thesescenes of judgment are driven by God's anger, which "burns like a fire" ( Jeremiah 4:4 Jeremiah 4:8 ). One ofseveral terms for anger, ‘ap, is found twenty-four times in Jeremiah—moreoften than in any other biblical book. Forty-two different passages in Jeremiah speak ofGod's anger. The tradition of God's anger against evil reaches far back (cf. Exod 32:10 ). Thisanger is not wrath on a rampage but a holy anger, for the nexus between sin and punishmentis unambiguous ( 4:18 ; 51:6 ).

It would be totally wrong, however, to conclude that Jeremiah's God is nothing butharsh. It is especially in chapters 2-3 that the pain of God surfaces, and in the contextof rejection, as of a spouse in a marriage: "Does a maiden forget her jewelry, abride her wedding ornaments? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number" ( 2:32 ). Thetradition of God's pain over a people's sin reaches back to the flood, if not earlier ( Gen 6:6 ). Expressiveof his own pain and God's, the prophet sobs over the waywardness of the people (8:21-9:2).The pathos is echoed by Jeremiah: "O my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain" ( 4:19 ).

The People of God: Violating the First Commandment and More! The Temple Sermonpinpoints Judah's sin. Other speeches cite her ungrateful response to a gracious God. Shehas rebelled ( Jeremiah 2:8 Jeremiah 2:29 ). Most repugnant of all is her sin of idolatry ( 7:9 ), the exchangeof other "gods" for the true God ( 2:11 ). Thismonstrous evil, described classically in chapter 10, is contrary to the first commandment.Descriptions of God as great, "the true God, " "the living God, the eternalKing, " "the Maker of all things, " "the Portion of Jacob, " andthe "Lord of hosts" ("Lord Almighty" NIV; vv. 6-7, 10, 12-13, 16)alternate with the sarcastic description of senseless, worthless, perishable idols (vv.8-9, 11, 14-15). Further, God charges his people with deceit and insensitivity toinjustice ( 5:23-29 ).A poll of the citizenry shows that there is no one with integrity ( 5:1-9 ; cf. 9:3-6 ). Back ofthe indictments of adultery (lusty stallions, each neighing for another man's wife, 5:8 ; 3:2-3 ; 7:9 ), stealing, andmurder ( 7:9 ), liethe Ten Commandments. A sinful people is characterized as two sisters,"ever-turning" Israel and apostate Judah ("faithless Israel" and"unfaithful Judah, 3:11 3:11 ). Urgings toward repentance, a concept that is deepened,are many. Sub ("turn" or "return" in the sense of repent) is averbal trademark of the book.

Nations Destined for Judgment and Salvation. The oracles against the nations donot so much present the case for punishment as they do the certainty and nature of God'sjudgment. Significantly, Egypt, with a history of oppression, heads this roll call ofnations. She will flee like a hissing serpent ( 46:22 ), and Moab,because of pride ( 48:29 ),will be emptied like jars ( 48:12 ). A swordwill come against Babylon ( 50:35-38 ) forher wrongdoing to Israel ( 51:24 ).Surprisingly, there are also bald, unconditional announcements of restoration for Egypt ( 46:26b ), Moab ( 48:47 ), Ammon ( 49:6 ), andElam ( 49:39 ).

The Dynamic of Covenant (chaps. 11-20 = C; 39-45 = C1). The next block ofmaterial, together with its complementary section in the latter half of the book, moves tostories about Jeremiah personally, especially his "inner life" (chaps. 11-20 =C) and national events (chaps. 39-45 = C1). The theological matrix for this block isprimarily covenant, a subject introduced at the outset: "Cursed is the man who doesnot obey the terms of this covenant" ( 11:3 ).

A fundamental understanding beginning with Moses and continuing in Jeremiah was thatcovenant differed from contract. Covenant was a matter of divine initiative, not mutualnegotiation. In covenant, loyalty to a person was the critical factor; in a contractperformance of set stipulations was central. Failure in a covenant relationship was afailure in interpersonal relationships, and not alone failure in adhering to a set ofrequirements. Moses warned against breaking the covenant ( Deut 28:15-68 ).For Jeremiah a broken covenant was a reality; covenant curses such as loss of land wereimminent. The nexus between wrongdoing and retribution was clear: "I am going tobring … disaster … because they were stiff-necked and would not listen to mywords" ( 19:15 ;cf. 15:4 ; 40:3 ).

The Prophetic Ministry: Pathos and Conflict. Jeremiah, in contrast to Moses, anearlier covenant mediator, was involved more in the dissolution of the covenant than inits institution ( 1:10 ;but cf. 24:6 ). Aperspective on the pain of this task is given in the seven laments ( 1:18-23 ; 12:1-6 [13]; Jeremiah 15:10-12 Jeremiah 15:15-21 ; 17:14-18 ; 18:18-23 ; 20:7-13 ). Likeprophets before him, Jeremiah's personal life was far from untouched by his role. He wasnot to marry ( 16:1 ).An intercessory role in behalf of his people was forbidden him ( 11:14 ; 14:11 ). The taskof uprooting and tearing down institutions and misguided theologies ( 1:10 ; 7:1-15 ) broughttears, misery, and depression ( 9:1-2a ; 15:15-18 ). LikeElijah ( 1 Kings 19:4 ),Jeremiah would rather die than continue ( 20:14-18 ).

Jeremiah, like other servants of God, was divinely called ( 1:4-10 ; cf.Moses, Exod 3:1-14 ; Isa 6 ). Likeothers, his call put in him conflict-filled situations. In Jeremiah's self-disclosinglaments, quite unparalleled in prophetic literature, one glimpses the discomfort thatprophetic role brought him. Confused, he asks about justice ( 12:1c ). Pained,beset with hostility, he blurts, "Remember me and care for me" ( 15:15 ; cf. Baruch,45:3). Angry and frustrated, he protests, "O Lord, you deceived me, " for hisrole set him in tension even with God ( 20:7-13 ).

Israel and Judah: Disloyal Covenant Partners. Loyalty in covenant isdemonstrated in obedience. God's people have been disobedient. "Obey" (sama[[;m'v])is a key word in these sections and throughout the book. More than thirty times,especially in chapters 7, 11, 26, 35, and 42, the word is found in the charge, "You (they)have not obeyed (listened)." Worse than disobedience is a deliberate commitment towaywardness: "We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow thestubbornness of his evil heart" ( 18:12 ; cf. 44:16 ; Jeremiah 17:9 Jeremiah 17:23 ). Inbrief, Israel and Judah have "broken the covenant" ( 11:10 ).Consequences will follow. A trio of disasters—sword, famine, and plague—to whichis added exile, surfaces frequently, in whole or in part ( Jeremiah 14:12 Jeremiah 14:16 Jeremiah 14:18 ; 15:2 ; 16:4 ; Jeremiah 44:12-13 Jeremiah 44:27 ).

A God of Persistence, Integrity, and Freedom. God is depicted not as an umpirewho upon determining that the covenant is broken heartlessly announces the punishment. Onthe contrary, God coaxes his fickle covenant partner to keep the covenant intact. Symbolicactions are a marked feature in chapters 11-20. Two of these, one about a belt and anotherabout a jar, symbolize an evil portent of ruin ( 13:9 ; 19:11 ; cf. 43:8-13 ). Godemploys every means—verbal appeals ( 11:4 ), warnings ( 15:7 ), andsign-acts—to mend a covenant that is breaking.

These two narrative sections (chaps. 11-20, 39-45) underscore a fundamental conviction:that which God announces, he fulfills. The frequent threats in chapters 10-20 are reportedas fulfilled in the narrative of Babylon's siege of Jerusalem and deportation of hercitizenry (esp. 39:1-9 ).Nebuzaradan, a Babylonian commander, articulates the theology of God's integritysuccinctly: "The Lord your God decreed this disaster for this place. And now the Lordhas brought it about; he has done just as he said he would" ( 40:2-3 ; cf. 44:29 ).

Yet God was not bound, as another sign-act makes clear, even with a covenant virtuallyshattered, to proceed with implementing the covenant consequences ( 18:1-12 ).Prophecy about the future is conditional; it is not the announcement of a fated destiny.The declaration in Section E is that God is free to initiate a new covenant ( 31:31-34 ). Godis and remains free.

The Dynamics of an Agenda for Justice (chaps. 21-29 = D; 34-38 = D1). Theoverriding theological concern in the disputations of Sections D and D1 is justice:"Administer justice every morning" ( 21:11 ). Thebiblical concept of justice involves much more than fairness. It includes compassion forthose marginalized and powerless, such as victims of oppression, aliens, widows, andorphans ( 21:12 ; 22:3 ). Justice,the fundamental requirement for political life, is a topic that surfaces sharply in theroyal roll call (22:10-23:6). In building an ostentatious palace at the expense of thepoor and needy, Jehoiakim failed to do justice ( 22:13-17 ). Inthe section's counterpart (chaps. 34-38 = D1), the same concern for justice appears in thestory of Zedekiah's freeing and then reenslaving the slaves ( 34:1-22 ). Afundamental conviction is that God is tenacious about justice.

Integrity, part of the justice agenda, is the forefront issue in the indictment againstanother leadership group, the prophets. A key word in this section is seqer [r,q,v],"deceit." It occurs thirty-seven times in the book, more often than in any otherbiblical book. The prophets are charged with telling lies and living a lie ( 23:14 ). Hananiahis a case in point (chap. 28; cf. Jeremiah 23:16 Jeremiah 23:25-40 ; 27:16 ).Prophets lack integrity; they commit adultery. Ahab and Zedekiah are examples ( 29:23 ; cf. 23:14 ). Any misuseof power, whether by kings or prophets, is altogether counter to "justice, " amatter of "doing the right."

The Prophetic Role: Confrontation. The episodes in these sections are mostlyabout encounters of confrontation and disputation with leaders. Already clear in theexchanges of Samuel and Saul centuries earlier is the understanding that the call to be aprophet includes confronting public leaders. Standing over the king, given Israel'shierarchy, is the prophet who in the name of God calls the king to account ( 1:10 ). In the twosections, evil has faces: Jehoiachim ( 22:13-19 ; 36:1-33 ),Zedekiah ( 34:8-22 ),Hananiah ( 28:1-17 ), Ahab and Zedekiah ( 29:20-23 ),Shemaiah ( Jeremiah 1:1 Jeremiah 29:24-32 ).The prophet names the evil in the lives of these "dignitaries, " and calls downthe consequent punishment. One of the functions of prophets is to identify the shape ofevil in a society irrespective of consequences ( Jeremiah 26:11 Jeremiah 26:20-23 ; 37:16 ; Jeremiah 38:4 Jeremiah 38:6-9 ).

People: Free to Choose, but Responsible. An anthropology that holds to theindividual's freedom of moral choice is basic to the book, but is highlighted in thissection. Early in the section Zedekiah is presented with options: "See, I am settingbefore you the way of life and the way of death" ( 21:8 ). This themeof choice for both Israel and other nations is made visual in the symbolic action ofJeremiah's wearing the yoke ( 27:1-15 ). Thetheme of choice, accompanied by persuasion (even threats) to choose the good ( 22:4-5 ; 25:5-6 ), surfacesclimactically in the final meeting of Jeremiah with Zedekiah ( 38:20-21 ). Asalways, the nexus between choice and destiny is forthrightly stated: to choose the way ofdisobedience is to be doomed to destruction ( 21:8-9 ; 25:8-9 ; 27:4-6 ; 38:17-18 ); toobey is to live ( 26:13 ; 35:15 ).

God: Not Infinitely Patient but Nevertheless Gracious. God pleads for the peoplenot to listen to counterfeit messages ( 27:16 ; 29:8-9 ).Patiently God has dispatched prophets "again and again" ( 25:4 ). But God'spatience has a limit, which is reached when people and especially leaders reject hiscommunication. Jehoiakim burns the written word (chap. 36). Zedekiah silences the oralword by incarcerating Jeremiah (37:16-38:9). God's patience is exhausted ( 36:31 ). A keyword, "burn, " in chapters 37-38 recurs in the historical record ( 39:8 ).

Beyond judgment lies hope. God's intention is not destruction. His plans for his peopleare to give them "a hope and a future" ( 29:11 ). Godremains accessible (29:13). He will watch over the exiles, give them a heart to know him ( 24:7 ), and returnthem from exile to their land ( 24:6 ; cf. 23:5-6 ).

The Dynamics of Hope (chaps. 30-33 = E). The Book of Comfort (chaps. 30-33)occupies a strategic place in the larger book in two ways. The book's chiastic structureputs these four chapters in a pivotal position. Seen as introductory to the second half ofthe book, these chapters may be compared with the speeches that introduce the first halfof the book. The pivotal section takes up, as might be expected, all the threads of thebook, but one—hope—dominates. The motivation for words of hope, unlike thejudgment speeches, is without rationale other than God's willing: "I have loved youwith an everlasting love" ( 31:3 ; 33:11 ; cf. Deut7:7-8).

The Saving God. Saving history (cf. Jer. 2-10) meets us here. Echoes of thejudgment, even allusion to God's anger, have not disappeared ( 30:23-24 ; 31:2 ; 32:28-29 ), butthe promised salvation lies beyond the exile. God will create a new thing on the earth:his people will be enamored of God ( 31:22 , a likelyinterpretation of a difficult text). The theme of the little "book, " announcedin the opening verses, is restoration: a people spiritually restored to God, a peoplephysically restored to the land (30:3, 3a is better rendered "bring about therestoration of my people Israel"). A spiritually restored people will be intent onthe worship of Yahweh instead of idols ( Jeremiah 30:9 Jeremiah 30:17 ; 31:6 ).Geographically a deported people will be returned from exile to their own land ( 30:10 ; Jeremiah 31:8-9 Jeremiah 31:16 ).The message is exhilarating: "There is hope for your future" ( 31:17 ).

Israel: A Covenant People. Just as other sections (chaps. 11-20, 39-51) turnedon covenant, especially covenant curses, so that theme is featured here. Echoes of sin andthe fracturing of the earlier covenant remain ( 30:14 Jeremiah 14 ; cf. 32:30-35 ). Theconcentration of the covenant formula, variously worded, points to a new reality: "Iwill be your God; you shall be my people" ( 30:22 ; Jeremiah 31:1 Jeremiah 31:33 ; 32:38 ). Theremarkable announcement of a new covenant moves beyond the broken covenant ( 31:31-34 ). Byhis initiative God sets in place a covenant both like and unlike the earlier Sinaicovenant. The goal of bondedness remains; the means for achieving that bondedness betweenpeople and God is forgiveness and the placing of God's law in people's hearts. It is asthough with renewed energy God commits himself to covenant ( 31:35-37 ; 33:19-21 ).

Justice for All. The subject of justice, highlighted in surrounding chapters(21-29, 34-38), also brackets the enlarged Book of Comfort ( 30:11 ; 33:15 ). God willdo right by his people ( 30:11 ). God'sintention is unchanged: he will "rejoice in doing them [Israel] good, and willassuredly plant them in this land" ( 32:41 ). If doingjustice means to pay attention to the oppressed, then God, fully committed to justice, hasswung into action because Israel had become known as "an outcast … for whom noone cares" ( 30:17 ).God will do right by Israel's enemies, too. Those who oppress and plunder will be exiled ( Jeremiah 30:16 Jeremiah 30:20 ). Inthe future time God will establish the righteous Branch (Messiah) who will do "whatis just and right in the land"; so the banner over the land will read, "The LordOur Righteousness" ( 33:15-16 ).

The central chapters (30-33) gather up the theology of the book. They offer a synopticview of God, of Israel (past and future), of nations, and of the prophet, who, caught inthe mystification of purchasing land when Jerusalem is besieged, is given and then gives aword of ultimate hope.

Elmer A. Martens

See also Israel;Prophet,Prophetess, Prophecy

Bibliography. A. R. Diamond, The Confessions of Jeremiah in Context: Scenesof Prophetic Drama; R. B. Chisholm, Jr., A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp.341-59; J. P. Hyatt, IB, pp. 784-87; G. McConville, Judgment and Promise: TheMessage of Jeremiah; R. E. Manahan, Grace ThJ, 1 (1980): 77-96; E. A. Martens, Reflectionand Projection, pp. 83-97; T. W. Overholt, The Threat of Falsehood: A Study in theTheology of the Book of Jeremiah; T. M. Raitt, A Theology of Exile: Judgment andDeliverance in Jeremiah and Ezekiel; C. R. Seitz, Theology in Conflict: Reactionsto the Exile in the Book of Jeremiah; J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah; J.Unterman, From Repentance to Redemption: Jeremiah's Thought in Transition; W. A.VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word; G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Jeremiah, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.