Justice and the Covenant
1 Thus says the LORD: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, 2 and say: Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David– you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. 3 Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. 4 For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. 5 But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation. 6 For thus says the LORD concerning the house of the king of Judah:
You are like Gilead to me, like the summit of Lebanon;
but I swear that I will make you a desert, an uninhabited city.
7 I will prepare destroyers against you, all with their weapons;
they shall cut down your choicest cedars and cast them into the fire.
8 And many nations will pass by this city, and all of them will say one to another, “Why has the LORD dealt in this way with that great city?” 9 And they will answer, “Because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD their God, and worshiped other gods and served them.”
10 Do not weep for him who is dead, nor bemoan him;
weep rather for him who goes away, for he shall return no more to see his native land.
Two conflicting views of reality are coming into conflict between the prophetic and the royal ideologies of the day. Jeremiah’s worldview comes out of the Mosaic and particular the Deuteronomic covenant where the covenant is conditional, if the people live into the vision that God has set before them they will be bless and if they do not they shall be cursed. For example the structure of Deuteronomy 28 illustrates this well:
If you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; 2all the blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey your God:….
But if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you:
Deuteronomy 28: 1,2,15
And the prophetic voice interprets these obligations primarily not in terms of cultic actions but in terms of living in justice/righteousness (justice and righteousness are the same word families in both Hebrew and Greek). In contrast the royal ideology views God’s commitment as unconditional, so long as there is a Davidic king and a temple God will not forsake God’s people. The prophet Jeremiah tries again and again to call the people and the rulers back to the vision of justice and righteousness. They are charged again to not shed innocent blood, to care for the weakest of the society, the widows and orphans, and their success is conditional upon their living out of this justice. In contrast to the desire to accumulate more and more wealth among the elite as a way of securing their position, Jeremiah points to the practice of justice and righteousness as a condition for their security which ultimately comes from God. Numerous passages throughout the prophets echo this sentiment, perhaps one of the most well known being from Amos:
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5: 24
The King Of No Account
11 For thus says the LORD concerning Shallum son of King Josiah of Judah, who succeeded his father Josiah, and who went away from this place: He shall return here no more, 12 but in the place where they have carried him captive he shall die, and he shall never see this land again.
13 Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages;
14 who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,”
and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion.
15 Are you a king because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well.
Is not this to know me? says the LORD.
17 But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.
18 Therefore thus says the LORD concerning King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah: They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” or “Alas, sister!” They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, lord!” or “Alas, his majesty!” 19 With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried– dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem.
20 Go up to Lebanon, and cry out, and lift up your voice in Bashan;
cry out from Abarim, for all your lovers are crushed.
21 I spoke to you in your prosperity, but you said,
“I will not listen.” This has been your way from your youth,
for you have not obeyed my voice.
22 The wind shall shepherd all your shepherds,
and your lovers shall go into captivity;
then you will be ashamed and dismayed because of all your wickedness.
23 O inhabitant of Lebanon, nested among the cedars,
how you will groan when pangs come upon you, pain as of a woman in labor!
24 As I live, says the LORD, even if King Coniah son of Jehoiakim of Judah were the signet ring on my right hand, even from there I would tear you off 25 and give you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans. 26 I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. 27 But they shall not return to the land to which they long to return.
28 Is this man Coniah a despised broken pot, a vessel no one wants?
Why are he and his offspring hurled out and cast away in a land that they do not know?
29 O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!
30 Thus says the LORD: Record this man as childless,
a man who shall not succeed in his days;
for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David,
and ruling again in Judah.
Much of the ire of the prophets is directed at the kings, and we need to remember that this is a time much different from our own. In an age where the vast majority of the population was illiterate and relied on the kings and the elites of the society to establish the systems of justice that the society operated within. As Brueggeman accurately states, “The conduct of the king is decisive for the weal or woe of the entire social system.” (Brueggemann, 1998, p. 194) and so here at the end of the Davidic monarchy, at the point where the elites are being taken into exile, including King Jehoiakim and his son Jeconiah (here referred to as Coniah) who is contrasted to his well respected father/grandfather Josiah. He is of no account, he will not have the honors he desires, instead of an honorable death Jeremiah declares he will have the death of a donkey—simply thrown beyond the gates. God is done with Jeconiah, ready to cast him off. In contrast to Josiah who rebuilt the temple, his son and grandson are accused with surrounding themselves with luxury far greater. This is not a new critique, it goes at least as far back as Solomon when the amount of resources placed into the temple is compared with the amount of time and resources that go into the construction of Solomon’s houses. Yet in contrast to Jeremiah’s words at the end of this chapter about his being recorded childless, when the people return to Jerusalem under the Persian empire it will be Zerubabbel, the grandson of Jeconiah will be leading the people home. The grandson of the one who if he was a signet ring on the LORD’s finger he would be cast off will experience the reversal of being the signet ring that is put back on after the exile is over.
On that day, says the LORD of hosts, I will take you, O Zerubbabel my servant, son of Shealtiel, says the LORD, and make you like a signet ring; for I have chosen you, says the LORD of hosts. Haggai 2: 24
And the harsh words of Jeremiah about the type of death Jehoiakim (or Jehoiachin) would receive seem also not to come to pass as the ending of 2 Kings points to:
27 In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of King Jehoiachin of Judah, in the twelfth month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, King Evil-merodach of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, released King Jehoiachin of Judah from prison; 28 he spoke kindly to him, and gave him a seat above the other seats of the kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes. Every day of his life he dined regularly in the king’s presence. 30 For his allowance, a regular allowance was given him by the king, a portion every day, as long as he lived. 2 Kings 25: 27-30