Over the past few years I have been spending more timing thinking and reading about the prophets of ancient Israel such as Ezekiel, Elijah, Jonah, Isaiah, Daniel and Jeremiah among others. Joining the GP brotherhood (no offence intended ladies) has only piqued my interest further.
These figures were once highly regarded in Christianity, especially hard core Protestants like me in the centuries after the Reformation, partly because there was a sense around that Britain was God’s Chosen people, something strengthened by Britain’s extraordinary rise to world empire, and industrial, financial and cultural pre-eminence, a sense that there was a Covenant* between Britain and Jehovah – the early Victorian evangelical missionaries and empire builders were quite explicit about this – which meant that Britain’s imperial mission wasn’t one solely of conquest and exploitation, but primarily one of lifting the benighted heathen from their savagery. Many Third World Christians still see the British Empire at least partly in that light and as – on balance – a benevolent force. It was.
But as Britain’s fortunes waned, secularism grew, established British Christianity softened into disillusionment, doubt and a sense that there never was a Covenant, and so the Hebrew prophets who had been seen by earlier generations as speaking to them for their times, no longer seemed relevant, and, besides, the Old Testament had lots of wars and bad behaviour in it which didn’t seem to fit with Jesus’ ‘touchy-feely message, These new “Christian” thinkers however prefer to avoid the Book of Revelations and quite a few of the hard things Jesus said.
Oddly, the one place you will still find the Hebrew prophets studied and expounded is among the still confident US evangelical protestant churches, and among some US leaders, who embrace the idea that the US is a ‘shining city on the hill’ with an exceptional blessing from God in the form of a Covenant. Such a sense of exceptionalism is nothing new – but in modern times has been largely confined to Protestant Britain and the USA. It’s easy to laugh, but this is a really powerful, cultural driver of national identity.
So why is Jeremiah THE – or at least A highly relevant – prophet for our times.? It has taken me a while to see it, but it makes sense at least to me.
The Life and Times of Jeremiah
Jeremiah was born around 640 BC in Anathoth in the land of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the two Hebrew tribes that formed the southern kingdom of Judaea after the split with the northern tribes of Israel. As a teenager he felt called to be a prophet by Jehovah, but resisted at first, thinking himself too young and scared to say the things he felt called to say, but around 626 BC he was persuaded to start work.
The king of Judaea in 626 BC was Josiah, who had restored Judaea to Jehovah worship after his grandfather Manasseh had switched to polytheism, notably Baal or Moloch worship (that of the burning babies in metal idols of the god). So, it wasn’t too hard at first for Jeremiah, but he started touring Judaea warning that unless the people repented of the still strong Baal worship, Jehovah would consider the Covenant broken and Judaea would be destroyed. Not a popular message, but under Josiah no real measures were taken against him.
Things changed however with the death of Josiah in 609 BC with the return of paganism and the progressive corruption of the Temple authorities and priestly classes, during four successive kings – Jehoahaz, Jehoiakin, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah. Dynastic and political instability infected Judaea, and Jeremiah was subject to persecution for his politically unpopular message.
Meanwhile, things were changing fast on the international political scene. Egypt was in decline and Assyria was the rising power. The northern kingdom of Israel was progressively swallowed by Assyria and, after a series of revolts, was subject to a ruthless genocide which left only the peasants left in the land and large numbers of foreigners brought in to replace those killed or exiled.
Judaea looked to be the next victim, but Assyria (Northern Iraq) was itself then destroyed by an alliance of the Medes and Babylonians who carved it up between them. The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar got the south, which included Judaea, which first meant driving the residual Egyptian imperium out of the area, which was achieved by his victory at Carchemish in Syria in 605 BC and then moving on Jerusalem which fell in 597 BC.
Enemy of the State
All this time Jeremiah had been warning about the Babylonian threat, preaching against Baal worship and the corruption of the Temple authorities and governing class, and not exactly being popular for it.
Nebuchadnezzar made Zedekiah client ruler of the newly annexed Judaea. Jeremiah was a realist who understood that little Judaea had no chance against the new power that had defeated Egypt and Assyria, and advised both Zedekiah and the Jews to live quietly under Babylonia and to focus on internal renewal. This wasn’t advice that the ruling class wanted to hear, calling him a traitor, and Zedekiah imprisoned Jeremiah in a flooded cell and launched a revolt against Babylon.
Jeremiah’s warnings were proven right when in 586 BC, after a two-year siege, Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem, looted and destroyed it, executed many and carted the rest off to exile in Babylon. He also freed Jeremiah and appointed him adviser to his governor of a Judaea now reduced to just the country dwellers. Again, Jeremiah advised the surviving Jews to live peaceably under the Babylonians, but again a large number ignored him, assassinated the governor, kidnapped Jeremiah and took him to Egypt with them as prisoner where, or so tradition has it, he was stoned to death for treachery. Once again, they had calculated wrongly – Nebuchadnezzar followed them to Egypt, conquered it and massacred them all.
So quite a eventful life: one foreseeing the impending destruction of his nation through, as he saw it, its corruption, heresy and arrogance, and the eventual fulfilment of his warnings, something that caused him to issue bitter tears. Not for nothing is he called ‘the Weeping Prophet’ and has his name entered English as a byword for someone who is warning of disaster ahead.
So, what does it all signify? The religious meaning
I believe there to be two levels of significance to be sifted from the life of Jeremiah, both of which are highly relevant to the times in which we live.
The first is spiritual or theological. Some theologians have drawn parallels between Moses, the first great Hebrew prophet and state founder, and Jeremiah, the last. But the parallels seem to me to be quite superficial and not convincing at all. Far greater are those between Jeremiah and Jesus. Like Jeremiah, Jesus lived in a client state of an overwhelmingly powerful empire which it could not hope to defeat; like Jeremiah Jesus warned the Jews about thinking military means were the way to liberation and to focus instead of ridding themselves of corruption and heresy; like Jeremiah Jesus warned that the Temple would be destroyed and Judaea erased if the Jews didn’t take heed; like Jeremiah Jesus was persecuted and eventually executed for alleged blasphemy and challenging the Jewish leadership. That both Jeremiah and Jesus’ warnings were ignored and came to tragic fulfilment was of course not acknowledged subsequently by the Jews though.
Jesus was of course so much more, but just as Jeremiah warned his generation of the ending of the old Covenant between them and Jehovah, Jesus spoke of himself being the start of a new Covenant between mankind and God generally, not just the Jews, something the Jews found blasphemous. The parallels are stark and the implications profound.
Jesus of course was the culmination of all the work of all the Old Testament prophets; he was quite clear that his work was the fulfilment of their teachings, a theme I will perhaps explore in future articles because it’s all there. But too many modern Christians are too soft and weak to explore the implications and indeed no longer understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and why they stand or fall together.
So, what does it all signify? The political implications
Jeremiah was a clear-eyed realist and brave enough to speak out. He understood that the Jews were subject to far greater forces than they could master by military means. The great days of David and Solomon happened in part because the surrounding great powers were all weak and distracted, but that had changed by Jeremiah’s time and the Hebrews’ geographical position meant that they were the battleground for great empires contending with one another.
Furthermore, Jeremiah knew that the division of the Hebrew state into two rival kingdoms was a source of disaster. His writings show his concern for what happened to the northern kingdom and his understanding that Judaea would be next. He also saw that Egypt was a spent force unable to protect his people from the encroaching Assyria and then Babylonia, and in effect advised the Jewish leadership to ally with the latter to ensure that it retained some autonomy, in the way that many later kingdoms did with the rising Roman Empire, until the international situation changed again and circumstances became more benign.
He also knew that his governing class were corrupt, arrogant and deluded, thinking they were invincible because of the Covenant they themselves had repeatedly broken – they had forfeited their exceptionalism. His remedy was internal reform and cultural renewal, something for which the leadership hated and persecuted him, even to his death in forced exile, to restore their strength and their exceptionalism.
The Jews/Hebrews, or at least the governing class, both political and religious, wouldn’t listen and persisted in policies that led to total disaster, genocides, national destruction, fulfilling Jeremiah’s prophecies and warnings.
So why is he, if anyone, THE prophet for our time? Well, look around you.
The parallels are so stark that they are frightening. A previously blessed nation, civilisation, beyond all others has indulged in folly and cultural self-harm, corrupting everything, sinking lower and lower in decadence, debt and pride such that the replacements for its very people are establishing themselves in their own land, blind to the need to reform, repent and relearn the lessons of our so much better forefathers, breaking our Covenant and forfeiting our exceptionalism.
It seems a miracle to me now that enough of the British voted to leave the sinister EU, a marker of hope that our exceptionalism has not been completely lost… But like Jeremiah’s governing class, our own, and too many of us, are corrupt and incompetent, and set on a course of national self-destruction. They persecute ruthlessly anyone who points this out effectively, but resorting to violence, at least first, will just give them the excuse to sweep away our remaining freedoms. So, it’s about renewing our exceptionalism, reforming, repenting, returning to the values that made us great, and waiting for the moment…
The same process has been underway in the USA, but there enough of the ‘little people’, the people so laughed at by so many on both coasts, still believe in the old beliefs and adhere to their Covenant such that their exceptionalism survives, at least for the present. These are the people who still study the stories of men like Jeremiah and understand their wisdom and truth.
If we go down and they don’t, that will be the difference.
* The Covenant was of course the original one made between Moses and Jehovah in which God made the Hebrews his ’Chosen’ People and gave them a land of their own, in return for them following Him exclusively. Jeremiah wrote that the Hebrews abrogated the bargain by their worship of other gods and that the Covenant was therefore null-and-void and all that followed was self-inflicted by the faithless Hebrews.
© 1642again 2018