“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.‘” –Tolkien
Alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land strives and contends! I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me. -Jeremiah
It would be understatement to say that Jeremiah lived in difficult times. The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen, and the southern kingdom of Judah was about to be overthrown as well. Jeremiah understood the cause of the looming defeat of God’s chosen people to be due to their unfaithfulness to God. I find it interesting that Jeremiah first began to hear from God in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, and Josiah was a pretty good king by Biblical standards. Following a couple of pretty bad kings (his father and grandfather) Josiah took the throne at the age of eight. After the boy-king grew up, he instituted a number of serious reforms “in the eighteenth year of his reign”. Josiah intended to get the people right with God, by force if necessary, and continued his efforts until his death about five years later “in the thirty-first year” of his reign. Although Jeremiah composed a lament after Josiah’s death, he doesn’t mention Josiah’s reforms. I have to wonder if Jeremiah and Josiah had more interaction than the Bible records. Perhaps Jeremiah’s warnings were part of the impetus behind Josiah’s urgency in making changes.
In any event, Josiah was killed in a battle with Egyptians he probably shouldn’t have fought, and his reforms turned out to be short-lived. Perhaps the people didn’t really buy into them, but were only pretending to be faithful to God in order to avoid the consequences of violating their kings’s orders. Josiah’s sons were not good kings according to any kind of Biblical or political standard, and things went downhill rather quickly after they took charge. Jeremiah continued to prophesy “through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile”.
Jeremiah is a young man when he begins to preach, and his entire adult life seems to have been given entirely to proclaiming words he believes God wants him to say but no one wants to hear. He foresees disaster coming upon his country, and not only does no one heed his words, he is often ridiculed and punished for saying them. Other prophets claim to speak for God and contradict what he says. Political leaders see him as treasonous, because he advises submission to rather than fighting against the invading Babylonian armies. He is imprisoned, put in the stocks, threatened with death, and thrown into a muddy cistern. The king cuts up the scroll on which Jeremiah has written the words he has heard God saying, and burns it. Feeling used and abused by both God and humans, Jeremiah wishes he could choose not to speak, but he literally can’t help himself.
“You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; 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 his word or speak anymore 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.”
Jerusalem falls as Jeremiah had predicted, and the Babylonians set him free, probably because they’d heard that he advised the residents of Jerusalem to cooperate with their Babylonian conquerors. His freedom to move about is short lived, however, because he continues to receive and pass along what he hears God saying, and that advice runs contrary to what the surviving remnant of people want to hear. They think if they go to Egypt they won’t have to submit to Babylonian rules and regulations, but Jeremiah knows that the Babylonians are coming for Egypt too, and that things will be infinitely worse for them there. Jeremiah is forced to go with them to Egypt, where he presumably will die along with the other refugees. The last we hear from him, he is still proclaiming “the words of the Lord” in Egypt, and his countrymen are still ignoring what he has to say.
I don’t think that if Jeremiah were given a choice, he would have chosen the times in which he lived. And unlike Frodo in Tolkien’s story, Jeremiah didn’t live to see a rewarding outcome to what he decided to do with the time he was given. And yet, because of his faith in a faithful God, he foresees a restored and renewed Israel:
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
Even if we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, even if we don’t see the results of the good we try to do, even if the arc of the moral universe seems not to bend at all, even if all seems lost, God is still there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear him. But wait, there’s more! Not only is God still there, God is still working with and through and in spite of us. Somehow, God will manage to work past all the foolishness and stubbornness and injustice and evil that humans both cause and suffer. And that’s good news.