I have struggled with how to begin this since this has seemed like a Herculean task to approach a book which has given rise to any number of wild and disparate interpretations both recently and throughout the history of the church. If the brief survey of the history of interpretation of Revelation I wrote and my own study of church history and biblical interpretation has shown me anything it is that any reading of scripture is a provisional reading that is informed by the time and position of the interpreter—and yet scripture in its own living way continues to speak across the millennia. So, it is in a sense of humility that I begin this reading of Revelation. This is a reading of one pastor who comes to this strange book with a sense of wonder and awe as we enter into the mysteries that John the Seer relates to us in his recording of this vision. I begin having some sense of where this is going because I’ve been working through the book as a whole as I attempt this beginning, so here are some aspects that inform this reading:
- This reading is canonical in the dual sense that I am beginning with the belief that Revelation is both a part of the broader canon that Christians consider the scripture and that its placement within that canon also shapes the way we hear Revelation. The same God, the same Jesus who is witnessed to throughout the rest of the scriptures is who we encounter in Revelation. There will be portions of Revelation that can only be clear in hearing it in dialogue with the rest of scripture.
- It is intertextual in the sense that I will often refer back to other places throughout scripture where Revelation’s images resonate. Revelation is a much clearer and richer document when one listens closely to Ezekiel, Daniel, Exodus, Psalms, Deuteronomy and the gospels and Paul’s letters. John the Seer was either a Jewish Christian or a gentile extremely well steeped in the language of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) since it is rare when Revelation does not subtly echo these scriptures.
- That the God of Revelation is the loving God we encounter in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. This is about a God who does love the world as John 3: 16 reminds us. This is about a God who is the creator who does care about this world God created. In that sense it will be an ecological reading. It will also be a gracious reading. My work with Jeremiah and Exodus has given me some empathy for the way God’s involvement with humanity comes at a cost: God becomes brokenhearted about the state of the world and the state of God’s people.
- The God of Revelation chooses sides and is not the unmoved mover of deist and philosophical thought. This is not a new thing in scripture. The story of the Exodus is a story of a God who chooses those who are oppressed and weak and intervenes. The book of Revelation is a similar story. Like in the book of the Exodus, we will also see God use an incredible amount of restraint allowing time and space for repentance and renewal. The cry of the saints, “How long Lord” which echoes the words of the Psalmist, indicate the cost of God’s patience and yet God will not ultimately allow the forces that work against God’s will for the world to prevail.
- The violent language of the book of Revelation has often been a source of discomfort for interpreters, much like the more violent portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. In some ways we will see some of this language has been misinterpreted but I do think we need to wrestle with the violence that is a part of this book. Much more on this as we proceed into the images of Revelation.
- Revelation is a profoundly anti-imperial book. Specifically, the empire of this time is the Roman empire. This also is nothing new for the scriptures. From the book of Genesis onward there has always been a suspicion of the claims of nations, kings and empires. The story of the Exodus, which is the foundational story for the Jewish people, is a story of God taking a people out of the empire of the day and creating a way for them to be a different kind of society. Revelation with its calls to ‘flee from Babylon’ stands within this tradition. In this sense it is a work that gives us a lens to understand our own interactions within our own societies, nations and world. Revelation is not the only voice within the scripture which addresses how people of faith live and work within the empire, but it is also not a lone or outlying voice in the broader scriptures.
1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.
3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse from the Greek title of the book, gets its title from the opening line which declares it is a revelation of Jesus Christ. Without entering into a long conversation about ‘apocalyptic literature’ I think perhaps a good place to start is with the meaning of the word Revelation or apocalypse. An apocalypse, in the way we normally use this term, typically means something like an event involving destruction on a catastrophic scale or something that involves the final destruction of the world. But the translation of apocalypse to revelation is telling. Revelation means something which is revealed or disclosed and that is what this book claims to be. While the book of Revelation does point to a conflict between the forces that are at work destroying the world and God’s unwillingness, as world’s Creator, to let these forces of death and destruction continue to exercise power and dominion forever it is more concerned with disclosing the images seen than anything else. The book is a book of hope filled with powerful images that continue to resonate thousands of years later. John, the named author of Revelation, writes down these visions to disclose them to church of his time and by extension to the church of our time.
The John of Revelation is probably not the same John who wrote the gospel of John and the letters of John. Ever since Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264) showed that the two works could not come from the same person because of writing style and content the position of Revelation has been questioned. Dionysius and eventually the church accepted Revelation as a part of the canon but without apostolic authorship there would continue to be questions about the authority of Revelation. (Koester, 2014, p. 34) Yet, Revelation is a part of the collection of works we consider as our scriptures and regardless of the apostolicity of the author has been valued throughout the church’s life. John, or John the Seer as I will sometimes refer to him, attempts to put into words that which seems to defy description. His language is the language of the scriptures, what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (or ELCA, the denomination I am a part of) in its Book of Faith initiative would refer to the first language of faith.
John considers this a prophesy and the language of this first chapter resonates strongly with the call scenes of the prophets into service to testify to the word of the Lord (see for example Isaiah 6: 1-13; Jeremiah 1: 4-10 and Ezekiel 1:1-3:11). John’s self-understanding is probably that of a prophet, one who has been called to deliver a message on behalf of God. The prophets point to a different way of understanding the world in light of God’s revelation to them. They often are unpopular with those in authority since they are calling their hearers back to God’s alternative way of living in the world. John’s message to the church should be heard in this light. This will become clearer as we approach the letters to the seven churches in chapters two and three.
John also, like Paul and other writers of the Christian epistles, is writing a letter and this first chapter holds many similarities to letters like the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, etc. While John is addressing the seven churches in Asia (modern day Turkey) who we will encounter in the following chapters we will find the number seven is significant in the book of Revelation since it denotes completion or wholeness and so while this is a letter to seven specific churches it is also a letter or book to the larger church. Like the letters that Paul writes these introductions can densely packed with language that articulate key points of the author’s faith. These key affirmations include:
- ‘from him who is and who was and who is to come’ this way of referring to God probably goes back to the divine name, “YHWH” that God gives Moses in Exodus 3: 13-22. The circular way of naming God without actually saying the name of God probably also reflects the desire not to violate the commandment about using the Lord’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7, Deuteronomy 5: 11)
- ‘Seven spirits before the throne’ as mentioned above seven will appear continually throughout Revelation to denote completion or wholeness. Below we will see seven stars and seven lampstands and the seven spirits may well be connected to the seven eyes for the lamb or the seven churches.
- Jesus Christ as ‘faithful witness,’ ‘first born of the dead’ and the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ uses several titles to refer to Jesus which each can be unpacked briefly. Jesus as faithful witness becomes the model or icon that the readers of Revelation are to emulate. The word for witness is the word which ‘martyr’ comes from and that is an important concept for Revelation. While being a faithful witness does not require death or suffering in a society that is established in a manner that is counter to God’s will it will often be uncomfortable and involve persecution. ‘First born of the dead’ resonates strongly with the Pauline language used to describe the impact of Jesus’ resurrection (Romans 8:29, Colossians 1: 15,18). ‘Ruler of the kings of the earth’ also resonates with Pauline language for who Christ ultimately is, even though the powers and principalities seem to exercise power they will also bow with everything on heaven and earth to the resurrected Christ (ex. Philippians 2: 9-11)
- ‘to him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood’ again reflects the language of places like Romans 3:25 where Paul can use sacrificial language in relation to Jesus’ death on the cross. This will also be important in the gospel of John in particular in its way of describing Jesus’ death. In this light the image of Jesus as the sacrificed lamb throughout Revelation expands this image.
- ‘made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father’ these words are a particularly audacious claim made early in the book which refers back to Exodus 19: 5-6 and point to what the role of the church is for the book of Revelation. The church is now joined to the vocation and calling of Israel, and in many ways the church becomes Israel. This is an audacious claim and yet it also points to the critical roll that John identifies for these churches receiving this message.
John then transitions into their shared hope of Christ’s return which every eye will see. Those who witnessed faithfully and those who opposed Christ will see and be confronted with the kingship of Jesus. It will be an event that impacts all the people of the earth, not only Israel or the church. Much like the closing of the book these initial confessions end like a prayer.
Finally, in this opening is the first use of ‘Alpha and Omega’ and another reference to the one ‘who is and was and who is to come.’ This is significant because in this revelation of Jesus Christ we will soon see this language paralleled in the description of Jesus and this will become one of the several places where the New Testament points to a close correlation between Jesus and the LORD the God of Israel. In the Christological controversies of the early church where they attempted to find language to talk about Jesus the New Testament’s way of using titles reserved for God for Jesus would prove decisive as the early Christians began to understand the Jesus was a revelation of the God of Israel.
Revelation 1: 9-11
9 I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”
John indicates his connection with the churches receiving the letter. He is one of them who shares in their struggles who live in the time in between the resurrection and Christ’s return. In this time the powers and principalities continue to call for allegiance and at times worship and yet as followers of the resurrected Christ and the LORD the God of Israel they are called to have only one God, one Lord. John is on Patmos, an island in the Aegean Sea about forty miles southwest of Miletus and Ephesus on the sea route to Corinth and Athens. John may have been sent to Patmos by regional authorities because of his testimony but he is also the only person we have a witness of being sent to Patmos and there is no evidence it was a prison colony. Yet, John is isolated from these seven communities he is writing to on that day he receives the vision. Like the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures and the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians he is, “in the spirit” most likely on a Sunday (the day of the Lord’s resurrection) but possibly on a Saturday (the Sabbath). The voice like a loud trumpet resembles the language of Exodus 19:16 and 20:18 where God speaks to the people. Yet the voice like a trumpet is hearable as language and instructs John to write what he sees and send it on to the seven churches.
Revelation 1: 12-20
12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
John turns toward the voice mentioned above and the begins to write what he sees in the book we have. The vision is full of symbolism and echoes of the scriptures. ‘One like the Son of Man,’ is an image that goes back to Daniel 7:13-14, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being (son of man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” This is what is referred to when Jesus uses the ‘Son of Man’ title in the gospels. Because of this usage by Jesus in the gospels we shouldn’t be surprised that the speaker is Jesus. Yet, Jesus also has the traits of the Ancient one (God) spoken of immediately prior to the ‘Son of Man’ quotation from Daniel “As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head was like pure wool; his throne was like fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment and the books were opened.” (Daniel 7: 9-10) We begin to see the ways in which Revelation links Jesus to the Lord the God of Israel, something that will continue throughout this initial vision. The initial description of the resurrected Christ appearing to John is an awesome and fear inducing sight for the seer.
The sharp two-edged sword which comes out of his mouth will be a recurring image in Revelation. On the one hand, it does refer to speech as in Isaiah 49:2 when the servant of the Lord’s mouth is like a sharp sword. On the other hand, it is also the force by which Christ defeats evil, how truth overcomes the lies. The word of God is never a tame thing that should be wielded carelessly, it can cut both the church and the nations as it will here in Revelation.
John, overwhelmed by the image, falls down at the feet of the risen Christ, and unlike later when he bows down to another messenger he is not corrected. Falling at the feet of the risen Christ is an acceptable response and John is met with encouragement. “Do not be afraid” is a frequent instruction upon hearing from God or receiving God’s message. Now Jesus uses words for himself that are patterned after the words the Lord God uses, he is the ‘first and last’ paralleled to ‘Alpha and Omega’ and ‘the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever;” paralleled to ‘him who is and who was and who is to come.’
Jesus now holds the keys to Death and Hades. Even though in this time the forces of destruction can kill the faithful and send them to the realm of Death and Hades the book of Revelation looks towards that time when Christ claims this power and opens the realm of Death and Hades causing them to surrender those held there. Death remains real for the followers of the risen Christ, but it is not the final reality. As Paul could say, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6: 5)
The image of seven stars and the seven lampstands is one of the few explained images in the book of Revelation itself. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches themselves. This image takes on an additional resonance when one realizes that the lampstands in the image is like the lampstand for the tabernacle and later temple (Exodus 25: 17-22). This is another place where Revelation makes an audacious connection between the churches and Israel. As mentioned above when discussing Revelation 1:6 when the calling of Israel is used now the imagery of Israel also gets linked to the churches.
Exodus 32: 1-6 The People Ask for Gods
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
Being the people of God involves learning patience: patience with the LORD and patience with the leaders who mediate between the people and their God. While Moses has been up with the LORD receiving the instructions for the tabernacle where God can dwell among the people, the people and Aaron go against the covenant they have made and cast the golden calf and prepare to worship it. This is a pivotal scene in the relationship between the people and God. The covenant has been broken by the people and the next couple chapters must reconcile the brokenness of relationship between God and the people.
The people heard the prohibition of creating an idol at the head of the decalogue in Exodus 20 and in Exodus 24 they sealed the covenant ritually as the people when the blood of the sacrificed oxen was dashed on them. The people have heard the LORD’s commandments and agreed to them and yet the absence of Moses creates a crisis of faith for them. Whether the cast image of the calf was meant to represent the LORD the God of Israel whose voice they had heard or whether the calf is not clear, it could be read either way. In either case the people have either, with Aaron the high priest’s assistance, abandoned the LORD their God or attempted to make an image for the God who refuses to be limited to any image on the earth or above the earth or under the earth.
One of the threads in this reading is control. The people and Aaron want an image for god, something they can carry and use as a symbol but there is also a limiting function to having a god in the image of a calf or any other form. Yet, fundamentally the LORD refuses to be limited or controlled by an image. Images of the LORD or any other god were not to be made by the Israelites, even the name of the LORD was only spoken in the greatest of care. From chapters 25-31 we have seen how God has worked with Moses to set aside a space where a little bit of heaven can come down to earth and where the LORD would meet with the people. In contrast the people have attempted to create an earthly god to replace the LORD of heaven and earth.
The golden calf is an incredible resonant image. It can become in any age and time the safe gods we choose instead of the LORD the God of Israel that Exodus presents us with. Even in our time the image continues to hold power. It is perhaps the height of irony that the largest amount paid to a living author for a piece of art was to Damien Hirst for ‘the Golden Calf’ a week before the financial collapse of 2008. (Sacks, 2010, p. 259) During the time while the initial draft of this sat these lines were written by me:
Security may be the golden calf we sacrifice to and worship
We dance in the glow of the images of fertility and strength
Following the masses in the shadow of Sinai as they celebrate
That which they can cast and control, tame gods that don’t speak
Metallic beings of the valley rather than the master of the mountain
There will always be the temptation to worship that which we can see or to model the things we worship upon that which we value. As a religious leader there is the temptation to provide that which the crowd desires rather than to be the prophet in the uncomfortable position of standing between a wounded God and a stiff-necked people. Yet, the golden calves of every age tend to lead to our fragmenting into tribes of like-minded worshippers and sometimes to intertribal warfare like we see at the end of this chapter as Moses and the Levites attempt to bring the people back to the LORD and the LORD’s ways.
Exodus 32: 7-14 Moses Between God and the People
7 The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” 9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
11 But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Moses stands between the people and the LORD and he is the one unbroken strand in the covenant. For the LORD this is a betrayal that threatens not only the relationship of the people and their God, but a betrayal that threatens to overcome the people with God’s anger. The LORD takes this relationship seriously! There are many things that can be said about the portrayal of the LORD the God of Israel depending on one’s perspective but this God is never the enlightenment’s unmoved mover. The LORD is engaged in the redemption of the people of Israel from slavery and is invested in this people and the people’s actions can wound God emotionally. Yet, the LORD’s tie to Moses also remains strong and the LORD considers starting over with Moses and even presents this offer to Moses, the same offer that Abraham received.
Moses stands between the people and the LORD, that is where the prophet stands. In the coming verses we will see Moses’ anger but in this time before God Moses is the logical one calling to mind not only God’s honor but also God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Moses calls upon God, even in God’s anger and grief, to honor the promises that have been made. Moses calls God back to the covenant, even though the covenant has been broken in a spectacular way by the people. Prophets stand between God and the people and God listens even when God wants to be left alone. When the LORD desires silence, for the sake of the people the prophet speak so that they might change God’s mind and avert disaster for the people.
Exodus 32: 15-24 Broken Covenant, Broken Relationships
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant1 in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said, “It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear.” 19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off ‘; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
Moses risked entering the furnace of the LORD’s anger for the people but now his own anger burns hot. Moses knows the danger the people have put themselves into, he knows the consequence of the broken covenant with the LORD. He has seen not only the LORD’s hopes but his own hopes dashed in this sudden act of rebellion. The tablets, the work of God, have been made worthless by the work of the people. A broken dream and a shattered covenant. The object which Moses had waited to bring to the people now lies shattered at the base of the mountain.
The tablets are broken, the calf is destroyed and scattered on the waters for the Israelites to drink in the bitter taste of their betrayal. Yet, it is Aaron who in this moment receives Moses’ first attention. Aaron who will be the high priest of the people, whose role will be to atone for the people has been active in their betrayal. In a manner like Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, Aaron immediately attempts to deflect Moses’ anger onto the people. Yet, Moses and Aaron here are in strong contrast: Moses interceded for the people while Aaron blamed them. In one way this is oversimplified since Aaron is down the mountain with the people and feels pressured by them, yet the role of leaders is to restrain the people from a path that would lead to their destruction. Aaron minimizes his role within the creation of the golden calf (I threw the gold into the fire and out popped the calf). Atonement will need to be made for Aaron before he can make atonement for the people. The only one able to make the needed atonement is Moses.
Exodus 32: 25-35 Sin, Brokenness and Consequences
25 When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.'” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves1 for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”
30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin — but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33 But the LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.”
35 Then the LORD sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf — the one that Aaron made.
Moses and the sons of Levi violently restore order to the camp. I struggle with the violence unleashed in this scene even though I can appreciate the seriousness of the situation. For Moses this is a struggle of life or death. If order cannot be restored he knows the consequences of the LORD’s wrath continuing to burn and break out against the people. The Levites here are set aside for their future ministry in the service of the LORD. The cost of the earlier celebrations has been high indeed. This is nothing short of intertribal warfare and its conclusion determines the direction of the people of Israel.
In what, to me, is one of the most courageous scenes in the book of Exodus and perhaps in all of scriptures, Moses returns to the LORD and still stands with the people. He dares to ask God to forgive the people, but if God cannot forgive the people then Moses stands with them and asks for his own name to be removed. Moses refuses to give the LORD the option of starting over with him. There is consequence to this sin and brokenness but it is not immediate. God has turned aside from the threat of letting God’s anger consume the people, even though there is the plague which comes at the end of the chapter. There is judgment but not annihilation. The relationship and the promise of the land continue but trust has been broken and the relationship is not the same.
Deuteronomy 18: 1-8: The Levitical Priests
1 The levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no allotment or inheritance within Israel. They may eat the sacrifices that are the LORD’s portion 2 but they shall have no inheritance among the other members of the community; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them.
3 This shall be the priests’ due from the people, from those offering a sacrifice, whether an ox or a sheep: they shall give to the priest the shoulder, the two jowls, and the stomach. 4 The first fruits of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the first of the fleece of your sheep, you shall give him. 5 For the LORD your God has chosen Levi out of all your tribes, to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, him and his sons for all time.
6 If a Levite leaves any of your towns, from wherever he has been residing in Israel, and comes to the place that the LORD will choose (and he may come whenever he wishes), 7 then he may minister in the name of the LORD his God, like all his fellow-Levites who stand to minister there before the LORD. 8 They shall have equal portions to eat, even though they have income from the sale of family possessions.
In addition to judges and the king outlined in Deuteronomy 16 and 17 respectively now a third ordering portion of society is added, already alluded to in Deuteronomy 17: 8-13 with their role being the final judicial appeal for cases too difficult for the regional judges. This third pillar of the society is the priesthood, a group set aside to minister before the LORD and who serve cultic, teaching and judicial roles for the people of Israel.
The Levites do not have an inheritance of agricultural land, they will have places to live but not the fields for growing crops or animals like the other tribes. On the one hand they are independent of the necessity to work in the fields and are able to dedicate their time to their work of ministering on behalf of the community. On the other hand, they are incredibly vulnerable and dependent on the other tribes providing for them and continuing to offer before the LORD their sacrifices and bringing in their first fruits. If Israel remains faithful to their calling to bring in from the fields their first fruits of grain, wine and oil as well as offering the firstlings of the flock and the other offerings that are outlined the Levites will be taken care of. If Israel becomes a more secular society then the economic security of the Levites is undercut because they do require the other tribes to provide the portion that they are living off of. They have no inheritance other than the LORD which gives them, perhaps, a closer sense of communion with their God but also depends upon receiving the blessing of the LORD through the labor and work of the other tribes.
Israel was intended to be a society structured around this covenantal relationship with their God, not a secular society. In this society structured around a particular understanding of justice the people will care for the tabernacle and later the temple and those who minister to it. The remembered reality is often far different: the priests would often fail in being faithful by abusing their position, the temple and tabernacle would fall into disrepair, the people and kings would be attracted by the ways of the other nations and the economy would become indistinguishable from the nations that surrounded them or the practices of Egypt where they were enslaved.
It is possible that the reference to Levites leaving the towns and coming to minister at the temple/tabernacle may reference the reforms of King Josiah in 2 Kings 23: 8-9, where he tries to centralize the worship of Judah in the temple and eliminates the high places. In the theology of Deuteronomy and the books that come after it, the high places are places where the worship of the LORD is not done correctly, perhaps blending in the elements of the surrounding nations. Perhaps this is also referencing the practices mentioned in 16: 20. The centralization of the cultic functions in Jerusalem does cause a concentration of a large number of levites, but the ongoing narrative also is aware of priests that are scattered throughout the nation. There would be tensions that would arise between the rural priests and the urban priests who became a part of the power structure in Jerusalem, but these verses imagine a situation where rural priests would be welcomed into Jerusalem as equals.
We live in a very different world than the one imagined in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy the Levites become one of the central parts of the society ordered around the worship of the LORD. In the United States where there is a strange hybrid relationship between the religious and the secular those in religious callings that are dependent upon the support of their congregations share the blessing and insecurity imagined for the Levites. There is the gift of being able to dedicate one’s time to the ministry that they fell called to be a part of. Yet, particularly in our increasingly spiritual but not religious age where many congregations are aging and shrinking and fewer people identify themselves religiously as a part of a congregation much less support one financially, many leaders of religious communities are finding their calling very tenuous. Unlike the Levites there is the opportunity in a diverse economy for dual callings where the religious role becomes one of two or more roles that sustain a person and their family, but in the ancient world where wealth was tied to land the Levites were placed in a vulnerable state if the other tribes did not support the religious system.
Deuteronomy 18: 9-14: Forbidden Magic
9 When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. 10 No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God. 14 Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the LORD your God does not permit you to do so.
We live in a world where magic is predominantly a part of fiction and the magicians we may see are illusionists that are able to trick our senses through various forms of deception. There are still people who look to horoscopes, palm readers, mediums and other spiritual forms of divining the future but for most people in our society theses are looked upon in terms of entertainment rather than items to place one’s trust in. In the world of Deuteronomy, the practices listed were apparently real and persuasive options available in the world they lived within. All of these forms of magic and divining the future were not to be things that the people of Israel were to heed.
Many of the prohibited practices relate to trying to predict the future or discern how a person is to act to bring about a desired future, whether through practices like augury or by inquiring of the dead. In many respects this vacancy is to be filled by the role of the prophet talked about in the coming verses, even though the biblical prophets are primarily concerned with the present and its impact on the immediate future. Perhaps one of the key differences comes from a different view of the universe. For many people in the ancient world the future was fixed and many ancient religions have some idea of fate. For the people of Israel the future rested in God’s freedom and their relationship with their God. Ultimately God would decide the course of their lives based upon their obedience to the covenant. Deuteronomy will echo repeatedly: if you follow the ways of the covenant you will be blessed and your lives will be long, if you do not follow the commandments and ordinances you will be cursed.
In verse 13, the command is that “you must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God.” Walter Brueggemann points out when speaking about the word translated completely loyal, “The Hebrew term tāmîm means “integrated, whole, undivided, as one unit.” This idea and term likely lies behind Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:48 which gets translated, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The translation in the gospel as perfect could mislead the reader to think this is about some type of moral perfection which is different from the direction of the Sermon on the Mount within which this verse is contained. Jesus and Deuteronomy are both calling for unreserved loyalty and living a whole integrated life within the followers ongoing relationship with their God. (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 194)
Deuteronomy 18: 15-22 The Prophetic Voice
15 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17 Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak– that prophet shall die.” 21 You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?” 22 If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.
The fourth and final pillar of the Israelite society is the voice of the prophet. The judges, priests and king will all be voices charged with defending the faithfulness of Israel and protecting the justice for all the people, especially the vulnerable. Yet, the judges, priests and king will all compose the ruling class of the people and come from privileged positions which may skew their perspective on justice at times. With Moses all of these roles are held within one person but in the coming future without Moses these gifts will need to be spread among the community, yet the prophetic voice, the one charged with speaking on behalf of God, is a unique gift of the Hebrew people. The prophets may or may not come from the priestly Levites, but they are charged with standing between God and the people as a mouthpiece. Often their words will be uncomfortable: they will challenge kings and sometimes be thought of as traitors. In Deuteronomy 13 it is the faithfulness of the prophet to the LORD that is the critical discernment as to whether the prophet is a true or false prophet, but sometimes a situation may arise, as in Jeremiah 28 where Hananiah and Jeremiah are proclaiming two very different prophecies and both apparently in the name of the LORD. Now the actual occurrence of the prophecy becomes a key part of discerning who the true and false prophet is. Being a true prophet of God is often a dangerous and lonely vocation because it often challenges the monarchy, priestly and judicial powers calling them back to justice and their vocation on behalf of the LORD. Only certain people seem to be able to hear the voice of the LORD, and this story places this back with the reception of the law at Mount Horeb/Sinai (see Exodus 20: 18-21). The word of God being enfleshed in messengers rather than appearing in its terrifying unveiled power is a concession to the people’s plea. Yet, in this enfleshment in the prophets there is also the potential for abuses even in this office. The story of Israel will be full of false prophets who tell people what they want or expect to hear or those who ensnare others. The prophets will also be those who at least in some cases, like Elijah and Elisha, are able to act as an extension of God’s power towards (or against) the people of Israel.
Within the person of Moses he bears together the roles of leader, priest, judge and prophet. From a Christian perspective these roles come together in a very different way with Jesus. Because of this it is not surprising that the gospel of Matthew spends a lot of time placing Jesus and Moses alongside each other and understands who Jesus is in light of Moses story and role. It is very early in the Christian church that you can find references to the three roles of Christ: as prophet, priest and king. And perhaps it is underappreciated how Jesus was seen by the people of his time as a prophet because his words and his actions would have called to mind some of the biblical prophets that had been a part of the story of Israel.
Jeremiah 26: 1-19 The Prophet, the Temple and the Elders
At the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came from the LORD: 2 Thus says the LORD: Stand in the court of the LORD’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the LORD; speak to them all the words that I command you; do not hold back a word. 3 It may be that they will listen, all of them, and will turn from their evil way, that I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them because of their evil doings. 4 You shall say to them: Thus says the LORD: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, 5 and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently– though you have not heeded– 6 then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.
7 The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the LORD. 8 And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, “You shall die! 9 Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant’?” And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD.
10 When the officials of Judah heard these things, they came up from the king’s house to the house of the LORD and took their seat in the entry of the New Gate of the house of the LORD. 11 Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.”
12 Then Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying, “It is the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. 13 Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you. 14 But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. 15 Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.”
16 Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, “This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God.” 17 And some of the elders of the land arose and said to all the assembled people, 18 “Micah of Moresheth, who prophesied during the days of King Hezekiah of Judah, said to all the people of Judah: ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.’ 19 Did King Hezekiah of Judah and all Judah actually put him to death? Did he not fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, and did not the LORD change his mind about the disaster that he had pronounced against them? But we are about to bring great disaster on ourselves!”
This passage is traditionally linked with the ‘Temple Sermon of Jeremiah’ in Jeremiah 7 and into chapter 8 based on the dating and the circumstances lined out in the first lines. Jeremiah goes into the temple, the heart of the royal and priestly justification of the people’s favored status and compares the temple to Shiloh, which was an earlier site of the tabernacle site in the time of 1 Samuel. The prophet calls the people back to the two sided covenant of Deuteronomy, ‘If you will do these things, then you will be blessed, if you will not do these things you will be cursed.’ Since the construction of the temple by Solomon there has been a critique of the possibility of relying solely on the temple for maintaining the people’s status with God. For example when God answers Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 9, it relates the answer as this:
2 the LORD appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. 3 The LORD said to him, “I have heard your prayer and your plea, which you made before me; I have consecrated this house that you have built, and put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 4 As for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, 5 then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised your father David, saying, ‘There shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.’
6 “If you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, 7 then I will cut Israel off from the land that I have given them; and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight; and Israel will become a proverb and a taunt among all peoples. 8 This house will become a heap of ruins; everyone passing by it will be astonished, and will hiss; and they will say, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this land and to this house?’ 9 Then they will say, ‘Because they have forsaken the LORD their God, who brought their ancestors out of the land of Egypt, and embraced other gods, worshiping them and serving them; therefore the LORD has brought this disaster upon them.'” (1Kings 9:2-9)
Yet in the time of King Jehoiakim this way of understanding the covenant with God is either forgotten or neglected. For the prophet claims of obedience to God’s law/Torah are more important than any human authority. This undercuts the certitude of not only Jehoiakim, but particularly here the priests in the temple where Jeremiah makes his proclamation. Their lives are invested in the maintaining of the centrality of the temple worship and the proclamation of the prophet threatens not only their temple with its words but their livelihood. The react quickly and harshly demanding the death of Jeremiah because he has spoken against the temple and the city and bring him before the leadership of the city. It is a tense picture painted where the priest and temple authorities and the crowd have surrounded the prophet and the city leaders quickly move to bring calm to the situation and hold judgment in the case of this troublesome prophet.
For his part, Jeremiah denies nothing that he is accused of and yet he claims his role as a prophet of God speaking on God’s behalf and still in the hope of both the prophet and God that the people will hear and turn from their ways. What the priests have heard as condemnation is from Jeremiah’s perspective a hope for turning and rescue by God, but the words have fallen on unreceptive ears. Jeremiah knows that his life rests in these officials’ hands and yet he warns them that if they take his life they will be liable for innocent blood.
The elder’s rely on the precedence of Micah, one of the examples of intertextuality in the Bible. This instance refers back to the prophet Micah who a century earlier had spoken harsh words against the city, and yet Micah was not killed by the leadership then. The ‘elders’ override the ‘priest’ and the historical memory of prophetic witness and Torah piety hold out in this case and the elders too are able to see this as an opportunity for repentance rather than a certain doom. Unfortunately for the people the repentance does not come as the priestly and royal authority are hostile to this message that Jeremiah proclaim.
Jeremiah 26:20-24 The Risk of the Prophetic Challenge
20 There was another man prophesying in the name of the LORD, Uriah son of Shemaiah from Kiriath-jearim. He prophesied against this city and against this land in words exactly like those of Jeremiah. 21 And when King Jehoiakim, with all his warriors and all the officials, heard his words, the king sought to put him to death; but when Uriah heard of it, he was afraid and fled and escaped to Egypt.22 Then King Jehoiakim sent Elnathan son of Achbor and men with him to Egypt, 23 and they took Uriah from Egypt and brought him to King Jehoiakim, who struck him down with the sword and threw his dead body into the burial place of the common people.
24 But the hand of Ahikam son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah so that he was not given over into the hands of the people to be put to death.
King Jehoiakim is not receptive to Jeremiah’s message, and while Jeremiah apparently has some protection from Ahikam son of Shaphan another prophet, Uriah son of Shemaiah does not. The words of Uriah infuriate the king enough to send men into Egypt to capture, bring the prophet to the king and then to be killed by the king. This is not a welcome time for prophets and death and torture are real possibilities to ensure the message of King Jehoiakim is the dominant message heard.
Jeremiah 23: 1-7: The Righteous Branch
1 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. 2 Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. 3 Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. 4 I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
5 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
7 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” 8 but “As the LORD lives who brought out and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” Then they shall live in their own land.
Anyone who reads Jeremiah has to make educated guesses about the context that Jeremiah is writing to, especially when the time period is not made explicit. I see this as an extension of what comes before at the end of chapter 22 which is addressing the beginning of the exile (the first exile where the leadership is taken into exile but the people are left primarily in the land) in the time of Jechoniah and so this passage comes very late in the story of Jeremiah. The chapter verse delineations in scripture come much later and probably reflect an effort to highlight the messianic hope of this passage rather than see it buried at the end of a long chapter of judgment against the king, yet this passage probably belongs as an extension of chapter 22. Rabbi Lau has a different perspective, that it comes much earlier in the time of Josiah and contrasts between Josiah and the local leaders of his time (Lau, 2013, p. 28ff.) but this is an area where I think both Walter Brueggemann and Patrick Miller, who I have been reading as I have gone through Jeremiah, are correct. (Brueggemann, 1998, p. 205) (Elizabeth Actemeir, et. al., 1994, p. VI:744)
The themes of these verses are full of echoes throughout the prophets and in the gospels as well. The verses about the shepherds and the ways they have not been faithful is echoed in Ezekiel 34:
2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them– to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As I live, says the Lord GOD, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
10 Thus says the Lord GOD, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. 11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out Ezekiel 34: 2-11
And is echoed in John chapter 10 where Jesus talks about being the good shepherd in contrast to the previous shepherd, or in Mark 6: 34 where the people are discussed as sheep without a shepherd. Here in Jeremiah at the end of verse four the promise is for a new and faithful shepherd who will come. After a long passage of judgment now comes the hope of the coming days.
Again the passage about the righteous branch has echoes in other places as well, for example in Isaiah 11:
A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Isaiah 11:1
And the hope is that out of the defunct lineage of David which seems to be coming to an end that the God of Israel will maintain the commitment to the line of David and from that line will raise up a righteous branch who will live out of the vision of the Lord’s peace. And the renewal that the Lord will bring will make even the paradigmatic event of the Jewish people’s story, the Exodus, take second place to the new renewal that the Lord will do when the people are returned from exile. This is a story of hope for at least two sets of people: for the Jewish people it was a hope of renewal and return with a righteous and faithful king where God would gather from all the lands of the diaspora God’s people once again, and for Christians is also is an image of hope for from the story of Jesus we cannot help but hear that story in the hope of the righteous branch that arises out of the line of David. One passage can bring hope in two different ways, and hearing the hope of one another should also help us to see our dependence upon the Hebrew Scriptures to understand the life and ministry and hope of Jesus and his followers.
Jeremiah 23: 9-40: The Failure of the Prophets
9 Concerning the prophets:
My heart is crushed within me, all my bones shake;
I have become like a drunkard, like one overcome by wine,
because of the LORD and because of his holy words.
10 For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns,
and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up.
Their course has been evil, and their might is not right.
11 Both prophet and priest are ungodly;
even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the LORD.
12 Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness,
into which they shall be driven and fall;
for I will bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment, says the LORD.
13 In the prophets of Samaria I saw a disgusting thing:
they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray.
14 But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a more shocking thing:
they commit adultery and walk in lies;
they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness;
all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.
15 Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts concerning the prophets:
“I am going to make them eat wormwood, and give them poisoned water to drink;
for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has spread throughout the land.”
16 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. 17 They keep saying to those who despise the word of the LORD, “It shall be well with you”; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, “No calamity shall come upon you.”
18 For who has stood in the council of the LORD so as to see and to hear his word?
Who has given heed to his word so as to proclaim it?
19 Look, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest;
it will burst upon the head of the wicked.
20 The anger of the LORD will not turn back
until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind.
In the latter days you will understand it clearly.
21 I did not send the prophets, yet they ran;
I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied.
22 But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their doings.
23 Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? 24 Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. 25 I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” 26 How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back– those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? 27 They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. 28 Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD. 29 Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? 30 See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who steal my words from one another. 31 See, I am against the prophets, says the LORD, who use their own tongues and say, “Says the LORD.” 32 See, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says the LORD, and who tell them, and who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them; so they do not profit this people at all, says the LORD.
33 When this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, “What is the burden of the LORD?” you shall say to them, “You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the LORD.” 34 And as for the prophet, priest, or the people who say, “The burden of the LORD,” I will punish them and their households. 35 Thus shall you say to one another, among yourselves, “What has the LORD answered?” or “What has the LORD spoken?” 36 But “the burden of the LORD” you shall mention no more, for the burden is everyone’s own word, and so you pervert the words of the living God, the LORD of hosts, our God. 37 Thus you shall ask the prophet, “What has the LORD answered you?” or “What has the LORD spoken?” 38 But if you say, “the burden of the LORD,” thus says the LORD: Because you have said these words, “the burden of the LORD,” when I sent to you, saying, You shall not say, “the burden of the LORD,” 39 therefore, I will surely lift you up and cast you away from my presence, you and the city that I gave to you and your ancestors. 40 And I will bring upon you everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.
First the critique goes towards the ruling elite, the shepherds, the king but now it turn on the religious authorities and in particular the other prophets. There are several points in the book of Jeremiah where we hear about other prophets who are proclaiming a different message than Jeremiah is called to proclaim and the people hear different religious authorities proclaiming a very different message, or more likely they hear Jeremiah as a voice that is so different from the message others are saying that he goes unheard. In giving the people a false message they have prevented the people from having a realistic hope of turning. The narratives from the political and religious elites are going in the opposite direction of the proclamation given to Jeremiah. They proclaim an unconditional peace which serves the people rather than the covenantal shalom which calls the people to live in justice.
Perhaps these other prophets feel compelled to live into their roles, prophets are supposed to have a message from the Lord, dreams to dreams and visions to tell and so in the absence of these visions they have kept up the appearance, or perhaps the prophets have been coopted into the royal and priestly power systems to be additional mouthpieces for these authorities. Whatever the case they have failed in their calling, according to Jeremiah they are producing only lies and false visions and they are leading the people astray. They have become worse than the prophets of northern Israel which led Israel to worship Baal, for they perhaps are constructing a misleading image of the Lord. God’s judgment is on the prophets who have misled the people. Their condemnation will be harsher, everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, and unlike the promise of a righteous branch that will arise out of the stump of Jesse, there is no promise for the prophets-they are also to be cast out of the city.
Jeremiah 4: 19-31
19 My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly;
I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.
20 Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste.
Suddenly my tents are destroyed, my curtains in a moment.
21 How long must I see the standard, and hear the sound of the trumpet?
22 “For my people are foolish, they do not know me;
they are stupid children, they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.
24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro.
25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.
26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.
27 For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation;
yet I will not make a full end.
28 Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.
29 At the noise of horseman and archer every town takes to flight;
they enter thickets; they climb among rocks;
all the towns are forsaken, and no one lives in them.
30 And you, O desolate one, what do you mean that you dress in crimson,
that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
Your lovers despise you; they seek your life.
31 For I heard a cry as of a woman in labor,
anguish as of one bringing forth her first child,
the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands,
“Woe is me! I am fainting before killers!”
In entering the prophet’s poetry we come to experience some small part of the agony of his profession. His whole life, even his very health becomes consumed by the foreboding fear of what is to come. He sees the disaster which he feels he has no power to stop, and yet he takes the fear and names it, places it into words. Perhaps he hopes that by painting reality through the dystopic lenses that perhaps someone might hear and turn, that perhaps the uttering of this potential reality might alter the reality that comes, otherwise he is looking at the end of the world as he has known it.
The Bible has an audacious belief that the human conduct matters for the well being of creation, in fact the whole notion of shalom and justice are not merely human concepts in Hebrew thought, they effect everything and Israel and Judah’s failure to live this vision is poisoning the earth. From the beginning of the Genesis story Adam and adamah (the Hebrew word for soil/earth) are tied together and in Genesis 3 the earth bears the price of the man’s disobedience:
And to the man he said,”Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘you shall not eat of it,’cursed is the ground because of you; Genesis 3: 17
This is a poetic and theological description of reality that Jeremiah is living out of. It is also behind Paul’s imagery in Romans 8:18-25 where creation will be set free by the children of God being revealed and beginning to live out of their identity and into God’s shalom.
The final image of the poem at this point shows the distance between the poets reality and the peoples with the offensive imagery of a foolish prostitute. When invading armies come and the capture a city the soldiers do not pay, they take what they want-and yet here is Judah represented as a prostitute who is decking herself out in her finest jewels expecting payment, but what Judah will find is rape. As I have said in earlier posts it is an offensive image, and yet it is the image of the poetry which is trying to rouse the people from their slumber.
Jeremiah 4: 5-10
5 Declare in Judah, and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say:
Blow the trumpet through the land; shout aloud and say,
“Gather together, and let us go into the fortified cities!”
6 Raise a standard toward Zion, flee for safety, do not delay,
for I am bringing evil from the north, and a great destruction.
7 A lion has gone up from its thicket, a destroyer of nations has set out;
he has gone out from his place to make your land a waste;
your cities will be ruins without inhabitant.
8 Because of this put on sackcloth, lament and wail:
“The fierce anger of the LORD has not turned away from us.”
9 On that day, says the LORD, courage shall fail the king and the officials; the priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded. 10 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD, how utterly you have deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you,’ even while the sword is at the throat!”
When I lived in Oklahoma, tornado sirens were a way of life. When spring came you knew that if the siren was blaring its dissonant tones that you needed to check the TV to see where the storm might be and how dangerous the storm was. Some storms were storms that you could weather in place, going to the safe room in your house. But some storms, if you were in their path you didn’t want to stay in place and wait out, you needed to flee to designated areas that were better able to withstand the winds. And yet sometimes even fleeing to a strong place is not enough, as was the case of the F5 tornado that struck Oklahoma City in 1999 destroying or badly damaging over 8,000 homes.
Jeremiah has the unfortunate role of being the siren, alerting the people to a disaster they do not expect nor do they want to see. War is approaching, an unspecified invading army is coming to lay waste to the land. Destroying cities, burning crops, killing and enslaving and the Lord has withdrawn the protection they have relied upon in the past. The prophet goes even farther, to place the Lord behind the movement of the predicted enemy. The Lord has made a choice, a dreadful choice, a choice against his former people. It is a choice the prophet has allowed us to see the Lord agonizing over, and yet the pieces are in motion, the storm is in motion and yet the prophet continues to hope for a turn. The prophet desires for the people to put on sackcloth, to lament and wail, and perhaps the Lord will turn once more.
The very people who should be keeping the people in the relationship with God, the king-priest-prophet have become the very people who have dulled the people to the siren’s call. There is a Davidic king and the temple which the people have begun to place their trust in, yet the prophets are always pointing to God’s vision of justice and shalom (harmony/peace) and the ways that the people have betrayed this vision.
Jeremiah makes a bold statement, in essence placing the blame at God’s feet, for the people have heard and received the message that it is well (most likely from the king and his officials, the priests and the prophets) while terror approaches. One of the roles of the prophet is to stand between the people and God, challenging both. The prophet will love both God and the people and weep with and for both of them, and in standing between the two his heart and body will be broken. Yet Jeremiah, among the prophets, seems to stand alone-for the other prophets of his time seem to be singing in unison with the kings and priests. Jeremiah speaks dangerous words, but they are the words of the faithful willing to enter into the struggle with God, to challenge God, to even go so far as calling God a traitor while still remaining in the relationship. As Moses in the Exodus, Jeremiah intercedes for the people he loves and yet even Jeremiah will have his limits as we will find.
The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, 2 to whom the word of the LORD came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. 3 It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.
4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the LORD said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
11 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see a branch of an almond tree.” 12 Then the LORD said to me, “You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.” 13 The word of the LORD came to me a second time, saying, “What do you see?” And I said, “I see a boiling pot, tilted away from the north.”
14 Then the LORD said to me: Out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land.15 For now I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, says the LORD; and they shall come and all of them shall set their thrones at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its surrounding walls and against all the cities of Judah. 16 And I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands. 17 But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. 18 And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land– against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. 19 They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you.
Why would anyone want to be a prophet? I know, I’ve heard the young rebels I know who want to ‘speak truth to power’ but the reality is that the prophet is not an easy role. To use Richard Lischer’s words, “The prophet’s voice is usually about an octave too high for the rest of society.” (Lischer 2005, 23) And while there may be moments of anger for the prophet they are caught between God and a people and often they feel abused by both sides. They are the messengers of God at a time when it is all to common to shoot the messenger, they are the bearers of the news that nobody wants to hear. They love their people dearly even when they are abused by them, and while there may be moments of anger, that is not their dominant emotion. Following Lischer again: “…the emotion most characteristic of the prophet is not anger but sorrow. He tells the truth but rarely in bitterness of spirit and never with contempt for the Other. His truth-telling is pervaded by a sense of tragedy.” (Lischer 2005, 161) As we journey with Jeremiah we will experience that tragedy, the sorrow, the frustration and the honest emotions he feels as he is caught between God and the people of God.
Let us begin with his calling: Jeremiah starts out as a priest, one of the literate elite in the time leading up to crisis. He will serve for a prophet as a long time, and will suffer much and it is not a life he chose, but rather a life that was chosen for him:
4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
God is the actor, Jeremiah is acted upon. God makes the choice, God has made Jeremiah who he is for this role, to be a mouthpiece. Jeremiah doesn’t ask for this, doesn’t want this and like every other prophet I can think of tries to talk God out of this: I don’t know how to speak, for I am only a boy. Like Moses who didn’t know how to speak, and he is not the type of youth who thinks he knows it all but rather is all too aware of his unworthiness and weaknesses-and yet he is chosen and he begins the road that is laid out before him.
Back in the 1980s one of my favorite bands was a heavy metal group, Queensrÿche, and one of their songs The Road to Madness is perhaps helpful at this point:
Most of this is memory now
I’ve gone too far to turn back now
I’m not quite what I thought I was but
Then again I’m maybe more
The blood-words promised, I’ve spoken
Releasing the names from the circle
Maybe I can leave here now and, o
Transcend the boundaries
For now I’m standing here
I’m awaiting this grand transition
The future is but past forgotten
On the road to madness
Times measure rusts as it crawls
I see its face in the looking glass – stop
This screaming laughter hides, the pain of its reality
Black, the door was locked I opened
And now I’ve paid that price ten-fold over
Knowledge – was it worth such torment, oh
To see the far side of shadow
And still I’m standing here
I’m awaiting this grand transition
I’m a fool in search of wisdom
And I’m on the road to madness
Yes, I’m on the road to madness
I’m awaiting endlessly
Pounding rhythms echo me
Won’t you take me somewhere far beyond the void
And still I’m standing here
I’m awaiting this grand transition
Maybe one day, oh I’ll meet you, and we’ll
Walk the roads to madness
Yes, we’re on the road to madness
Oh, I think they’ve come to take me
I hear the voice, but there’s no-one to see
I can’t scream, too late it’s time
As with this song, the actual meaning of the words may not be as important as what they convey-the sense of having and seeing things in a way that everyone else sees them opens the one seeing to a whole new world of pain, it is almost like Plato’s famous story in the Republic of the Cave where the person who has seen the world in a new way and returns home only to be apprehended and killed by those who are still in darkness. Being God’s mouthpiece is going to come at a high personal price for Jeremiah.
God has chosen, the prophet will pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant. The prophet will bear the news that nobody wants to hear and he doesn’t have the choice to throw up his hands and give up. In the words of the song, the door that is locked is opened (and not by the prophet but from the other side, from God) and the prophet will pay the price ten fold over. Who the prophet is, why he was chosen is based on who God formed him to be—God has chosen his instrument for a difficult task and will continue to be with Jeremiah, but Jeremiah never has the ability to give up for it is either withstand priests and princes or be crushed by God?
But who is this God who puts prophets in such a difficult circumstance? Why make the chosen ones suffer so? And yet it is the way of the elect. A person is set aside not for their own benefit but for the benefit of others. The way we naturally want to think of election is that it is what makes a person separate and perhaps able to look down their righteous noses at others, election makes me or us special…but in scripture election, setting apart is always for the sake of the other. Israel is set apart to be a blessing to the nations (the world), the prophets are set apart to be a witness to either the covenant people or those outside the covenant. They are a part of what God is doing and the world, and it is not always easy. The suffer and grieve for those who will not or can not hear, they bear the weight of seeing all that is wrong even when they may not be able to fix it. They may indeed be close to the road to madness, and yet they are there not for their own sake, not for some secret knowledge…they are there because ultimately God loves God’s people (and by extension the world) so much that God will not let go and so God allows those who are drawn closest to suffer on their behalf so that they might see, know and return.
The world of Jeremiah, like our world is not as it should be. Most people accommodate and make their way as best they can with little reference to God or any other source of meaning outside what benefits themselves. The prophets, like Jeremiah, are drawn into the relationship with God and into God’s desire to re-establish the relationship and the idea of shalom (God’s peace or harmony in the world). They are drawn to the dream and they see the nightmare that most of the rest of us have grown accustomed to. It is like us watching a dystopic movie, like The Hunger Games for example, where reality is so dark and yet when we are honest we can see parts of our own society mirrored in that experience. In a very real sense, when everyone else sees things as running along OK the prophet will see through a dystopic lense of all the things that are really wrong and it is only in the midst of crisis that the prophetic hope of what a utopia might look like emerges and gives light and hope for the hard work of building that society of shalom and reconciliation. We are journeying towards the light, but we have a long way to go before the dawn and the road ahead will get darker on the prophet’s road.
Jeremiah is one of the more challenging books to approach, both for its content, its length, the fact that it is not organized linearly on a specific timeline but rather skips and jumps to different times and places, and the general unfamiliarity of most people with the context that the prophet (and most prophets are written in). Prophets for many people either are considered fortune tellers or their use is limited to foretelling the birth and ministry of Christ in the New Testament, but that is not how even the authors of the New Testament would have seen the prophets. The prophets were:
-re-interpreters of the story and tradition of God’s relation with the Jewish people. Scripture was not fixed at this point, and even scripture is present would be mediated through the priestly and kingly offices (since they would be the literate people- there is no general interpretation of scripture by the majority of the population at this point in history, nor would there be for millennia)
-A voice that often spoke in sharp contrast to the priests and kings of their time. Prophets often deal with not only religious but concrete economic and political injustices. It is a mistake to assume that we can separate religion from political power in the ancient world, they are linked. The prophets become the counter-voice that often (although not always) speaks against power and they often are persecuted for their words and actions.
-The actions and words of the prophets may seem strange to us, and I’m sure that even in their time they were looked upon as abnormal, but they also were seen as having a role. Many prophets came from the priestly side (although not all, for example Amos is not a priest) but they in taking up the call of the prophet may lose the safety of the priestly role they are born into.
Jeremiah is born and does his ministry in a time leading up to the defining crisis of this point of the Jewish story, the Babylonian exile. For a better understanding of that time you may want to look at The Place of Authority A Brief History Part 3a: The Exile, The Crisis of Collapse. Which I wrote as part of a different project but which briefly addresses this part of the story. Being a prophet who is pronouncing the impending destruction of the way that things are is not an easy calling. But enough of that for the moment, let’s approach Jeremiah and walk with the prophet through the destruction and the hope and examine the God who he encounters throughout that journey. This is a long journey, since Jeremiah is 52 chapters long-many of them quite lengthy. I actually wrote the first three chapters prior to the posts on Haggai and Esther and rather than rewrite them, I have left them largely intact (hence they cover larger pieces, sometimes entire chapters in a single post) but since I know this is a long journey I have continued to move forward rather than going back and starting over again. I will attempt to do at least one chapter per week in addition to my other posts (due to the length of several chapters that may be all there is space for).
For me this is a discipline, it is a way of training myself to listen and see better. If you are reading this I hope you are able to benefit from this journey with Jeremiah through the darkness and towards hope. There will be times when the darkness seems overwhelming in this book (it is a book set at the ending of the world that the prophet knew, the ending of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the taking of the people into exile) and yet in the midst of the darkness, hope will come forth.