The Old Testament Book of Jeremiah (the longest book of the Bible written by one person) mixes tough personal biography with harsh Jewish history and some hopeful prophecy. Jeremiah was born into a Jewish priestly family about 600 years before Christ in a village just outside of Jerusalem. The Jewish nation, always a small grouping, had sadly fallen under the influence of their mightier pagan neighbors, especially in their worship practices. Even bold idolatry was sometimes witnessed. Josiah, the Jewish King at the time, had begun a much-needed and somewhat successful religious reformation. But Josiah’s reform, begun with much zeal and optimism, ended when the king was killed in battle at Megiddo.
King Josiah had been trying to halt the Egyptians who were advancing from the south on their way to way to aiding the Assyrians who themselves were in retreat before the Babylonians. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar alas conquered the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh, subdued that nation, and then quickly overran Judea, seizing and destroying Jerusalem, putting an end to Jewish independence and halting religious renewal.
The Jewish King Jehoiachin and most of the Jewish establishment were taken off into a 70-year exile in Babylon. Jeremiah, however, remained behind in Jerusalem enduring arrest, imprisonment, public disgrace and finally enforced exile in Egypt. After his death, Jeremiah’s personal writings heartened the Jewish nation in exile and nurtured their hope for a return to Israel.
The first reading at Mass this Sunday offers a brief glimpse of Jeremiah’s dual theme: discontent about the present but encouragement for the future. The young prophet writes: “I hear the whisperings of many: ‘Terror on every side! Denounce! Let us denounce him!’ All those who were my friends are on the watch for any misstep of mine. ‘Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail, and take our vengeance on him.’” Jeremiah is speaking here about his own concerns as well the experience of the Jewish community.
Jeremiah’s troubles began when the priests of his local sanctuary plotted to kill him because his prophecies were hitting too close to home. God delivered him in this instance, but revealed that such harassment would get worse. A priest at Jerusalem had Jeremiah beaten and put into stocks in a public square for a day. Yet, God’s Word still burned intensely within Jeremiah’s heart. While Jeremiah’s prophetic utterances realistically predicted disaster, other professional prophets foresaw peace and greatly resented Jeremiah’s cautions. God had Jeremiah wear a wooden placard publically declaring defeat in the conflict with Babylon. Another prophet tore this bulletin board from Jeremiah’s neck, exposing him to more ridicule.
Again, a temple priest convinced the tottering Jewish king that Jeremiah’s woeful prophecies were disheartening the troops and schemed to have him placed in a muddy cistern where he would eventually die of thirst and starvation. Rescued from the cistern, he spent the remainder of Israel’s final free months in prison. The Babylonian victors ironically freed him, allowing him to choose a remote village as a place of refuge before finally residing in Egypt where he still sought in vain to turn his people back to God.
Although Jeremiah and his generation experienced grim fortune politically and militarily and personally, the prophet remained a man of great hope. This Sunday’s first reading continues: “But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph. In their failure they will be put to utter shame, to lasting, unforgettable confusion. O LORD of hosts, you who test the just, who probe mind and heart, let me witness the vengeance you take on them, for to you I have entrusted my cause. Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD, for he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked!”
While the reader’s life experiences might not involve blatant humiliation in a public square or desperate sinking in mounds of sludge, every believer has his or her disheartening moments.
Certainly, sin as well as illness, debt, estrangement, addiction, and failure of any sort test a Christian’s self-confidence and, more importantly, strain a disciple’s faith in the fortifying and enduring goodness of God. Christians must maintain their belief, along with Jeremiah, that God is always a “mighty champion,” who faithfully “rescues the life of the poor from the power of the wicked,” even if that wickedness might reside in one’s own heart. “Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD!” must be the happy song of the faithful believer today just as it was the heartening refrain that supported Jeremiah in his day.