Who Was Jeremiah the Prophet?

Jeremiah, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

God called Jeremiah a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall (Jer 1:18); a tester and refiner of metals, a tower and fortress (Jer 6:27); a man through whom He would speak against false prophets and shepherds who mislead their sheep. Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29) Jeremiah would be the voice of that word. Hated and feared by many, yet secretly sought by the king, He belonged to no one but God, was indebted to no one but God. He was totaliter aliter (totally other).

Indeed, Jeremiah was the best kind of prophet, a reluctant one (Jer 1:6). Beware the eager prophets, the self-appointed ones who seize the mantle as a pretext for their anger and opinions. They claim to speak for God, but He says of them, I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied (Jer 23:21).

God had always known Jeremiah and had laid the foundation for his ministry: 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 (Jer 1:5).

Jeremiah ben Hilkiah was born in 640 B.C. in Anathoth, a small town just three miles north of Jerusalem. At age twelve or thirteen he had a mystical experience in which God spoke to him:

“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.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:5-10).

Jeremiah’s early years were his happiest and it was of these that he likely wrote, When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart, Because I bear your name, LORD, God of hosts (Jer 15:16). The rediscovery of the Book of Deuteronomy and the sober example of the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel (721 B.C.) had spurred a religious revival led by King Josiah, beginning in 622 B.C. Foreign entanglements and the religious errors that accompanied them were eliminated. These days of reform would be brief, but for this short time there would be one Lord, one temple, one worship. It was a kind of Jewish renaissance, the best since the days of King David.

But then came disaster. Instead of trusting God, Josiah engaged in a foolish war against King Neco of Egypt, who was marching to assist Assyria against Babylon. Josiah was killed at Megiddo in 609 BC. The kings that followed were puppets of Neco, and foreign entanglement and religious syncretism resumed.

Jeremiah wrote of Israel’s infidelity and Judah’s failure to learn from Israel’s poor example:

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce.

Yet her treacherous sister Judah does not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Israel took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord (Jer 3:6-10).

Jeremiah’s next forty years would be spent laboring under four different Kings (Jehoiakim, Johoiachin, Zedekiah, and Gedaliah). None of them would trust God, instead compromising with the world for a false peace. For them, Jeremiah had only scorching denunciations about a coming catastrophe for their religious laxity and political cowardice.

Even as a boy he had seen disaster coming from the north:

I see a boiling pot, facing away from the north. Then the Lord said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. … each king shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah. And I will declare my judgments against them, for all their evil in forsaking me (Jer 1:13-16).

Against the priestly class who trusted merely in the location of the Temple and in sacrifices offered without obedience of the heart, Jeremiah railed:

Do not trust in your deceptive words, chanting, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For only if you really change your ways and deeds, if you act justly toward one another and no longer oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods to your own harm, only then I will allow you to live in this place, in the land I gave to your fathers forever and ever. But look, at you, you keep trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before Me in this house, which bears My name, and say, “We are delivered, so we can continue with all these abominations”? Has this house, which bears My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Yes, I too have seen it, declares the LORD. But go now to the place in Shiloh where I first made a dwelling for My name and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel (Jer 7:4-12).

An even greater source of distress to Jeremiah were the court prophets and priests who lost their way in the halls of power and told the king what he wanted to hear and what was expedient rather than what God had to say. To them he said,

All are greedy for gain; from the prophet to the priest, all practice deceit. They dress the wounds of the daughter of My people with very little care, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all, not even enough to blush. … But the snorting of enemy horses is heard from Dan. At the sound of the neighing of mighty steeds, the whole land quakes. They come to devour the land and everything in it, the city and all who dwell in it (Jer 8:10-12, 16).

Such talk, such an action, is sure to generate a reaction. Jeremiah was soon assailed by foes, family, and friends alike as an enemy of the state and of the Temple. He was labeled a doomsayer and “no friend of Judah.” A prophet’s lot is not a happy one.

Was Jeremiah simply an angry man, unpatriotic and hypercritical of his people and the leaders of the day? Time would tell. Too often people and cultures that are heading toward ruin become locked in avoidance, lies, denial, self-deception, and half-truths; they cannot envision a love that is anything other than approval. Dysfunction and disordered drives become the norm.

Jeremiah loved his people and sought their repentance. The medicine they needed was reality, not the smoke and mirrors of lies and half-truths. Jeremiah would pay dearly for his disclosure of the truth. To a people used to darkness, the light is obnoxious.

The king’s officials, including Pashur the priest, convinced King Zedekiah that Jeremiah should be put to death because his prophecies were discouraging the soldiers as well as the people. Zedekiah did not oppose them, and so Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern, where he sank down into the mud. They intended to starve him to death, but Ebed-melech the Cushite rescued Jeremiah by pulling him out of the cistern. However, Jeremiah remained imprisoned until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army in 587 B.C.

The tide had turned against Jeremiah:

And the LORD informed me, so I knew. Then You showed me their deeds. For I was like a gentle lamb led to slaughter; I did not know that they had plotted against me: “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name will be remembered no more” (Jer 11:18-19).

Pursued and opposed, Jeremiah went into a dark place and lamented his role and the constant pain of hatred directed against him. He was isolated and sensed no consolation from God:

Woe to me, my mother, that you have borne me, a man of strife and conflict in all the land. I have neither lent nor borrowed, yet everyone curses me (Jer 15:10).

You have deceived me, O LORD, and I was deceived. You have overcome me and prevailed. I am a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I proclaim violence and destruction. For the word of the LORD has become to me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,” His message becomes a fire burning in my heart, shut up in my bones, and I become weary of holding it in, and I cannot prevail. For I have heard the whispering of many, “Terror is on every side! Report him; let us report him!” All my trusted friends watch for my fall: “Perhaps he will be deceived so that we may prevail against him and take our vengeance upon him.” But the LORD is with me like a fearsome warrior (Jer 20:7-11).

Prophets suffer because they love and care for the ultimate well-being of God’s people, not merely their present comfort. They suffer because they do not fit into tidy political or tribal categories. They speak for God, who transcends such groups. Yes, although the prophet is totaliter aliter (totally other), the human cost is high, and he comes to resemble Christ on the cross. The prophet’s own notions of grandeur must be crucified. The idea that most people will ultimately accept the truth must be crucified. (I have written more about Jeremiah’s struggle here.)

Just before the end of Judah, King Zedekiah summoned Jeremiah from prison and asked for a prophecy regarding the war he proposed against the Babylonians. Jeremiah prophesied against it, implying that the present Babylonian oppression was punishment for Judah’s sin. He told the king that God would spare Judah the worst if they accepted this and did not take matters into their own hands.

This is what the LORD, the God of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: If you indeed surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned down, and you and your household will survive. But if you do not surrender to the officers of the king of Babylon, then this city will be handed over to them. They will burn it down, and you yourself will not escape their grasp (Jer 38:17-18).

Zedekiah did not listen, and the end came swiftly:

In the ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the tenth month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against Jerusalem with his entire army and laid siege to the city. And on the ninth day of the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, the city was broken through. … [The] king of Babylon slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and he also killed all the nobles of Judah. Then he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze chains to take him to Babylon. The Chaldeans set fire to the palace of the king and to the houses of the people, and they tore down the walls of Jerusalem (Jer 39:1-8).

Jeremiah was freed from prison and likely spent the remainder of his days in Egypt (against his will). The remnant of Judah refused his prophecy and made alliances with Egypt. Jeremiah spent the rest of his life there trying to dissuade the Jewish people in Egypt from foreign alliances and from being enamored of the Egyptian gods. His warnings went unheeded and the remnant in Egypt received the following condemnation from God through him:

The Lord says, “Those who escape the sword to return from Egypt to Judah, will be few in number, and the whole remnant of Judah who went to dwell in the land of Egypt will know whose word will stand, Mine or theirs (Jer 44:28).

It was likely in Egyptian exile that Jeremiah died, although there is no certain account of his death. He died preaching and warning.

Yes, he was a pillar of brass against a stubborn people. He suffered greatly for his work; he had the often-thankless task of summoning people away from worldly thinking and political alliances that compromised their devotion to God.

This work must continue both in and out of the Church. In our world there is a great darkness, but Jeremiah would warn us that the problem should be seen within before we look outside. We can surely hear the echoes of warning to shepherds who mislead their flock. Collectively, we are compromised; we are too politically aligned with secular agendas and prone to giving God lip service rather than wholehearted obedience.

From the depths of Jeremiah’s dark period come some of the most beautiful promises of all from God:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with loving devotion. Again I will build you, and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out in joyful dancing. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant and enjoy the fruit. For there will be a day when watchmen will call out on the hills of Ephraim, “Arise, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God” (Jer 31:3-6).

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. … “But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD. I will put My law in their minds and inscribe it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they will be My people. … For I will forgive their iniquity and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:31-34).

Yes, Jeremiah, you were like a brass wall and a pillar of iron among a shaky people. Your name means “The Lord founds.” May the Lord who has founded us find us again in His word through you.

The Battle of Anger in God’s Prophets

Jeremiah, by Lorenzo Monaco (1407)

We recently read a passage from the Book of the Jeremiah in daily Mass (Wednesday of the 17th Week of the Year) that provides an important teaching on righteous anger and the need for meekness. Meekness is the virtue that moderates anger; it is a form of temperance that controls resentment.

The biblical prophets were people too, and one of the human passions that most drove and affected them was anger. The focus in the passage is on “righteous anger,” not the sinful anger rooted in ego, vanity, and/or desire to have everything on our terms. Righteous anger is our response to sin and injustice. Seeing injustice and observing the sinful behaviors of the very people who should have exemplified holiness, provoked the prophets to anger, to disappointment, and to rebuke rooted in love for God and His people. Of itself, anger is neither sin nor virtue. It is simply a response in the face of perceived danger or injustice. Sometimes we have to get angry enough to do something about a problem and work at it until it is resolved.

Even righteous anger is difficult to balance and navigate well. There is a difference between being creatively angry and simply being angry. At its best, anger alerts us to a problem and then supplies the creative energy and resolve to correct it. At its worst, anger is too easily vented in destructive and unhelpful ways or is carried about like a heavy weight. Anger turned inward is depression and sullenness. Anger vented is often mere wrath and/or vengeance.

In the following passage we see a description of Jeremiah’s struggle with anger and of God’s call for him to engage in an internal battle with his own anger so that he can engage in the external battle for righteousness among God’s people. As the passage opens we see a sullen and depressed Jeremiah:

Woe to me, mother, that you gave me birth!
a man of strife and contention to all the land!
I neither borrow nor lend,
yet all curse me.

Why is my pain continuous,
my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?
You have indeed become for me a treacherous brook,
whose waters do not abide!
(Jer 15:10ff)

Jeremiah is weary of the weight of his anger. He has contended for righteousness among God’s people but has encountered much resistance. (Welcome to the life of a prophet!) Based on the limited information in the passage, it would seem that Jeremiah’s anger has turned inward and become depression.

One error in the face of anger is to vent it. Often this involves fits of temper, invective, and lashing out that misses the target and causes a good bit of collateral damage. Vented anger brings more heat than light, more tense reaction than true reform.

Jeremiah, however, seems to suffer from the other error in the face of anger: he suppresses it or turns it inward. One definition of depression is this: anger turned inward. When we do this, we begin to carry our anger like a heavy weight. We ruminate and feel blue. This is especially the case when we experience resistance or feel powerless to effect the change our anger energizes us to address. The desired outcome of our anger seems too distant, but instead of redirecting the energy of our anger (e.g., prayer, fasting, educating God’s people in first principles of justice and holiness), we carry the anger as a kind of bitterness and defeat that we take personally.

Jeremiah describes his life as one of woe, so much so that he wishes he had never been born. He sees all as strife and takes personally the fact that all curse him. He is weighed down with this suppressed anger and feels it continuously. He is stuck in his anger and depression.

To some degree, his sorrow is multiplied by his memory of the joy that God’s righteousness inspired in him. God’s word gave him a joyful idealism wherein he could live God’s ways and call others to do the same:

When I found your words, I devoured them;
they became my joy and the happiness of my heart,
Because I bore your name,
O LORD, God of hosts.
I did not sit celebrating
in the circle of merrymakers;
Under the weight of your hand I sat alone
because you filled me with indignation.

In the early stages, Jeremiah’s anger was like an energy that supplied a resolve for him to do what was right, even if it cost him some of the carnal pleasures and the relationships that preoccupy most people. He was content with the joy of God’s teaching and perhaps that God was preparing him to draw others to that joy.

When results are lacking, though, joy can turn to sorrow. The soul can cry out, why do others not see and desire the joy I have found? Why do they prefer vain and sinful things? Where is the harvest of justice and righteousness that God has promised?

It has been said that expectations are premeditated resentments. The joy and hopeful expectations of Jeremiah have not come to fruition. Given the intensity of the joy and zeal, the disappointment is all the more deep and dark. Jeremiah’s anger has turned dark and inward; it is experienced as a heavy weight and brings him weariness and depression.

Therefore, the Lord speaks to Jeremiah in the following way:

Thus the LORD answered me:
If you repent, so that I restore you,
in my presence you shall stand;
If you bring forth the precious without the vile,
you shall be my mouthpiece.

Then it shall be they who turn to you,
and you shall not turn to them;
And I will make you toward this people
a solid wall of brass.
Though they fight against you,
they shall not prevail,
For I am with you,
to deliver and rescue you, says the LORD.
I will free you from the hand of the wicked,
and rescue you from the grasp of the violent

God counsels Jeremiah to repent of this unhelpful use of his anger. God has supplied him with righteous anger to give him resolve, fortitude, patience, a steady dependence on Him, and a confident expectation of ultimate victory. The battle will be long; there will be no quick resolution here. The people are stiff-necked and resistant. Jeremiah must learn to bring forth the precious truth without the negative aspects of anger: wrath, vengeance, arrogance, impatience, and the thin-skinned quality that comes from forgetting that the battle is the Lord’s not his.

Many of us who have worked for justice and respect for life in this increasingly selfish and greedy culture know Jeremiah’s struggle. Sometimes in our zeal we vent our anger and say hateful or unhelpful things. At other times we grow weary and carry our anger around like an anchor rather than channeling it to creative ends.

The virtue that controls anger is meekness. Meekness is not weakness; it does not mean being easily manipulated or free from all anger. It is the virtue that gives us authority over our anger. It is the proper middle ground between too much anger and not enough. The meek are in fact strong because they have authority over perhaps the strongest and most unruly of the passions. Jesus says in the beatitudes that the meek will inherit the earth. Why? Because it is they who will consistently work to build a better world; it is they who will use their anger like a creative energy to establish a more just and holy order.

Another beatitude that applies to anger is this one: Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. Who are those who mourn? It is those who see the awful state of God’s people, that they are often lost and searching for meaning in vain things. Seeing this, they mourn, but it is not the mourning of depression. It is a creative mourning. It is a grief, an anger, that motivates them to pray and to try to reach as many of God’s people as possible. God comforts them (more literally he strengthens them) to channel their grief and anger to resolve, patience, and persistence.

Jeremiah, though a great prophet, was flesh and blood like us; he had his struggles and dark moments. In speaking to him, God also speaks to us:

Stay close to me in daily repentance and realize that your strengths and struggles are very closely related. Your anger and resolve are gifts I offer you to strengthen you and summon you to battle. Make sure that you fight the right battle against the right foe. Satan and his unjust vision are the enemy, not the people I send you to correct, nor your very self. Neither vent your anger at the wrong foe nor turn it inward to depression. Receive my gift of meekness to have authority over your anger. Receive the comfort and strength I offer to those who mourn the state of my people. The battle is mine and I have already won the final victory.

Be angry, but sin not.

The song below is from the Carmina Burana. The man in the poem laments that his anger is based in sinful rootlessness and indulgence of his passions. This is wholly different from “righteous anger” because its source is carnal and sinful drives rather than sorrow at injustice. Here is the English translation of the Latin text:

Burning inwardly with strong anger, in my bitterness I speak to my soul; created out of matter, ashes of the earth, I am like a leaf with which the winds play.

Whereas it is proper for a wise man to place his foundations on rock, I, in my folly, am like a flowing river, never staying on the same course.

I am borne along like a ship without a sailor, just as a wandering bird is carried along paths of air; chains do not keep me nor does a key; I seek men like myself, and I am joined with rogues.

For me a serious heart is too serious a matter; a joke is pleasant and sweeter than honeycombs; whatever Venus orders is pleasant toil; she never dwells in faint hearts.

I go on the broad way after the manner of youth; and I entangle myself in vice, forgetful of virtue; greedy for pleasure more than for salvation, I, dead in my soul, attend to the needs of my flesh.