Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

December 2002
Jeremiah at the tunnel-mouth
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Comment on this column JEREMIAH IS A DIFFICULT book to read, even in a modern translation or paraphrase. At first reading it seems to jump around like crazy – it's not arranged chronologically, it judders from poetry to prose and back again, from straightforward personal history to symbolism (though thankfully never as surreal as Ezekiel). But it's not only hard to follow through, it's also the longest book in the Bible to try to follow through.

And then there's the subject matter itself. Jeremiah lived at a very unhappy time. Long before him, the 12 tribes had split into two separate kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The north had already fallen to Assyria. How self-righteous the south must have felt – how blessed and protected by God. It was Jeremiah's task to prophesy the fall of the south to Babylon and to live through those times and the immediate aftermath.

Now I grew up in America. And there we were used to taking 2 Chronicles 7:14 ("If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land") as if it referred to the States. Since living in the UK, I've heard it applied to this country as well. It originally referred to Solomon's (still united) kingdom, under the old covenant. If there could come a time when it was too late for Israel and Judah, we must live with the possibility that such a time may come to our nations as well.

Before the end came to them, the people of Judah had a choice of prophets to listen to. One set were saying that God would hear the people's cry, forgive their sins and heal their land. Then there was Jeremiah who said that they were lying, false prophets. I wonder who I would have believed – I would probably have hung back and tried to avoid taking sides.

The book of Jeremiah is the prophets' equivalent to the book of Ecclesiastes in the wisdom literature. He knows that his own society is corrupt and, as a society, irredeemable. Neither is he under any illusion about the chosen executioners, Babylon, who, he knows, will get their turn.

Jeremiah stands just past the mouth of a tunnel so long, so tortuous, so twisted that it takes a prophet to see the light at the end of it. So, oddly, for many people today – those who can see clearly enough to know that they're at a tunnel mouth – the depressed and depressing Jeremiah can be a comrade and a comfort.

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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