YEAR C: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between September 11 and September 17)
Jeremiah 4:11–12, 22–28
This lectionary reading is made up of three parts: vv. 11–12, an introduction, v. 22 a saying about the nature of the people, and vv. 23–28, a prophetic poem. The whole passage, in different language and forms, is about the destruction that Jeremiah sees in the nation’s future.
The introductory verses 11-12 start the idea of destruction. The image here is the wind. Winds of a certain strength were useful agriculturally to separate wheat from the lighter chaff which blew away. A wind that was too strong, however, ceased to be of use, blowing both wheat and chaff before it. This image of a destructive wind is used to introduce the idea of the destruction of the people, and of the judgment that lies behind it.
Verse 22 stands alone as a short poem, lamenting the foolishness of the people. Its language is that of a brief wisdom poem, using words like foolishness and lack of understanding. This is the one point in this passage where there is some thought to the reason for the destruction, laying the blame for it at the feet of the people who do evil and do not know how to do good.
The poem in vv. 23–28 divides into two parts, vv. 23–26 and vv. 27–28. In the first part, Jeremiah presents the destruction, not just of the nation, but of the whole creation. There are many echoes of the Genesis 1 creation account in these verses, but here the creation is unmade. The strongest echoes to the creation narrative are in v. 23, where earth is a waste and returns to the void, and the heavens have no light. The passage does not show direct dependence on the creation account, but is more like a reflection on its reversal. This poem includes many elements not specifically mentioned in Genesis 1, including the destruction of the mountains and cities, and the desertification of the fertile land. The only mention of living creatures is in v. 25, and they are noted as absent: there are no people, all the birds have fled.
Verses 27-28 is a puzzling pair of verses at the end of this passage. Verse 27 presents the only voice in the text indicating that this destruction is not final. Many commentators have difficulty with this verse, some seeing it as God’s commitment that the destruction is not final, and others finding this line to be out of place in this passage and either omit it, or emend it so that it reads ‘I shall indeed make a final end.’ (For a fuller discussion of this, see either Robert Carroll’s Jeremiah commentary in the Old Testament Library Series, or Jack Lundblum’s in the Anchor Bible series.) Verse 28 certainly ends with God deciding on destruction and not turning back while the whole creation mourns. There is a strong temptation to cling to the possible voice of hope in this bleak text, but I agree with those who argue that this is out of place in this poem – it certainly does not clearly present a possibility for averting the disaster, or changing its course.
This is a very bleak passage, where there is little to distract or turn the reader aside from the destruction that is in sight here. This is not an easy passage to dwell on. There are no easy answers here, no straightforward turn either to redemption or to the possibility of resurrection. This poem is an invitation to stand in silence, the silence where no people live, and no birds sound, and contemplate the possibility of complete destruction. To engage imaginatively with this possibility, to live with its power in our world is not an easy task. It is possible for us, though, to see this destructive force in our own ways and forms. Perhaps this is the voice in our settled world from war-torn places and times. It is perhaps one way to engage with those who have experienced the destruction of their world, and the devastation that this causes. It is perhaps also the voicing of the possibility for the ultimate destruction we hold in our own hands, through weapons and war, or through destruction of the environment. In all of these ways we might contemplate destruction – and also, with Jeremiah’s hearers, accept in our own ways that this destruction arises out of our own behaviour.
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