Jeremiah Part 2: Broken to Build – The Desolate City

Torn apart in a tug of war.
Caught in the crossfire.
Crushed between a compulsion to preach and a refusal to hear.
Trapped between his God and his people.

That was the calling of the prophet Jeremiah.
As we saw last week, his calling had a cost: it looked like the cross.

There’s a slogan, “the medium is the message.”
It’s like that for Jeremiah: the prophet embodies the prophecy.
He is not a postman, who delivers a letter from heaven to Jerusalem,
and then flops on his lazy boy to watch the America’s Cup.[1]
He is a walking picture of the city’s fate.
In a way, Jeremiah is Jerusalem.

The next book of the Bible is the Lamentations of Jeremiah,
After the Babylonian army sacked Jerusalem:

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become …
She weeps bitterly in the night…
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have betrayed her.
Lamentations 1:1-2

Sound familiar?  It could be Jeremiah.
Like prophet, like people.
Last week, we saw his sorrows.
Today we’ll sit and sympathise with Israel.

Jeremiah in the ruins of Jerusalem, Ilya Repin, 1870

Jeremiah in the ruins of Jerusalem, Ilya Repin, 1870

Act One: Exile

Imagine Israel as a boat on a river, slowly drifting down.
Through Jeremiah, God says, “there’s trouble ahead.  Row upstream”
The sun is shining, the water is calm.  No one listens
Jeremiah knows there are rapids ahead. [2]
Far to the North, armies are massing
Jeremiah says, “We don’t want to go that way.”

The river narrows.  Smiths forge swords.
“Turn back and row”, Jeremiah pleads.
They yawn.

The current grows stronger.  Sheer stone banks.  The troops march.
Jeremiah begins to tremble.
“Blind fools.  Turn back while you can.  There’s a waterfall ahead”

One or two listen and try to find the oars.
Most slumber on; a few wants to throw the glum prophet overboard.

At some point, it’s too late.
The current is flowing too swiftly.
Nebuchadnezzar’s army encircles the city

The prophet’s tears fall.
The water surges.
The people panic.
The trumpets sound.
The cascade roars.

For a second, the ship teeters on the edge.
The city walls totter
Then they fall
down down down.
Wrack and ruin.
The ship shatters on the rocks.
The temple burns.[3]


“The reader who is not confused by reading the book of Jeremiah has not understood it”
Robert Carroll

Has anyone here tried to read Jeremiah right through?
How did you find it?  Smooth sailing?  A rough ride?
If you found it hard, don’t worry.
Professional Jeremiah scholars call it:

“a difficult read”, “exceedingly complex”, “literary chaos”,
“disjointed”, “bumpy”, “a glorious mish-mash”, “a hopeless hodgepodge” [4]

The cynics explain it like this:
over the years, editors grabbed a sermon of Jeremiah from here,
a story about his life from there.
They scribbled them down at random.
Like a snowball rolling downhill, the scroll grew and grew.
It does seem a bit like that.

Others take a less helter-skelter view.
Jeremiah describes the relationship between God and Israel
as a marriage – that crashed.

Imagine you’re talking to a friend
that morning, their long-term partner walked out.
Do they give you a cool systematic discourse on the vicissitudes of existence?
Not likely.
My favourite Jeremiah scholar writes:

[Jeremiah’s] language is jumbled and incongruous … because it reflects a situation of anguish occasioned by a broken relationship…  Grief, especially over acts of betrayal and unrequited love, is rarely tidy and coherent.   (Stulman, 2005, 24) [5]

Betrayal, unrequited love, a messy breakup – that’s the story of God and Israel
Jeremiah runs the rapids of emotion.

I still remember the day we first met…
What happened?
We were so close.
What did I do wrong?
I just wish she’d come back.
I never want to see that beep again.
I can’t believe it!
Read the book: there are verses that say each of those!

That’s one take on Jeremiah’s confusion.  Here’s another.
Kathleen O’Connor has read psychological studies of trauma and disaster victims
shell-shocked survivors of war and violence.[6]

Like, she says, the survivors of Jerusalem, brutalised by Babylon.
The book was first written for them.

Disasters create turmoil in nearly every realm of life, and that turmoil finds expression in Jeremiah’s ragged contours and blue-printless architecture…  The book’s fragmentation mimics the fragmented memories of the traumatised.  It reproduces Judah’s predicament… (O’Connor, 2012, 126, 128)

The book is in disarray, because the people are.
It’s far too early for tidy closure

They lie on the rocks, among the ruins.
Numbed, stunned, speechless. (Lamentations 1:13) [7]
Broken bones, fractured faith, amputated hope.

Everything they valued has been lost.
All God’s promises to Israel:
the land, the king, the Temple, the holy city
all are gone.
As vast as the sea is their ruin (Lamentations 1:12, 2:13)

I remember a pastor saying there are three things needed
for healing after loss: “time, talk, and tears”.
But the victims of major trauma often cannot cry; they cannot speak about it.

Jeremiah’s tears teach the survivors to grieve.
His poems of pain give voice to their loss.
His doubts let them ask their hard questions:

Why has the Lord our God done all these things to us?  (5:19) [8]
Why is the land ruined and laid waste?  (9:12)
What is our sin?  (16:10)
Why have you forgotten us?  (Lamentations 5:20)

A holocaust survivor said,

There is nothing worse than suffering except meaningless suffering,
Elie Wiesel

Or as Nietzsche said,

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Jeremiah helps them bring coherence to the chaos,
get a handle on what happened,
Find some meaning in it all.
He gives answers to that anguished “why?”

“Jeremiah and his editors do not believe that the world moves according to the rules of geopolitical Realpolitik, as discussed by viziers in Babylon or professors at Harvard University”
Jorge Pixley

There was an easy political answer.
Israel lies between the empires of Egypt and Babylon.
“When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.”

But Jeremiah said the real reason was moral.[9]
In the covenant at Sinai, Moses was very clear:
obeying God would bring abundant life.
Disobedience – like worshipping idols, abusing the poor – would bring disaster.
Just what happened.

Because your guilt is great,
because your sins are so numerous,
I have done these things to you.
Jeremiah 30:15 [10]

Life is not random.  The world isn’t meaningless.
God has not lost control.
What happened made sense.  It was predictable.  It was predicted.[11]

A political answer: imperial power games.
A moral answer: breaking God’s law.

But Jeremiah’s diagnosis cut deeper.
The problem is not just that they keep choosing to disobey God of their own free will.
But that they’ve rebelled for so long, they no longer have free will.
They are so far down the river, they can’t turn back.

This people has a stubborn and rebellious heart. (5:23)

Their ears are closed, they cannot listen. (6:10)

Can an Ethiopian change his skin
or a leopard its spots?
Neither can you do good
who are accustomed to doing evil.
Jeremiah 13:23

It’s almost as Paul wrote,

I can will what is right, but I cannot do it…
I am a slave to the law of sin.
Romans 7:18-25

As Jeremiah puts it,

The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts.
Jeremiah 17:1

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Jeremiah 17:9

Your hurt is incurable,
your wound is grievous.
There is no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you.
Jeremiah 30:12-13

This is the diagnosis: an incurable wound, a terminal illness,
a fatal rottenness in the heart.

A few godly kings tried to bring reform.
Like shots of adrenaline for a short-term boost
The prophets hammered away like pacemakers to keep the heart beating.
Palliative care.
Band-Aid solutions.

And so, in the end, in the coronary care unit of the Middle East,
the heart monitors screamed, then fell silent.
Israel went into cardiac arrest.

The city fell, the temple flamed, the king fled, the covenant failed.
It was the death of Israel.

As Jeremiah surveyed the ravaged land, looking for any sign of life,
It seemed like all creation was undone:

I see the earth, and, look, welter and waste,
the heavens, there light is no more.
I see the mountains, and, look, they quake,
and all the hills shudder.
I see, and, look, there is no man left,
all the birds of the heavens have gone off.
I see, and, look, the farmland is desert,
and all its towns razed.
Jeremiah 4:23-26 (Robert Alter) [12]

The earth will mourn
and the heavens will be draped in black
Jeremiah 4:28 (NLT)

On the story of Israel, the lights go out.
The curtain falls.

It didn’t just happen back then.
From Syria alone, there are more refugees than the population of NZ.
Exiles whose land is a bombed-out waste like Jeremiah described.

Christchurch has a small sense of exile with earthquakes and storms.
The West is in spiritual exile:
quiet desperation, secret despair; without hope, without God.
Personal disasters, depression, divorce can still leave us reeling.

In the 14th century, the Italian poet Dante was in love with Beatrice.
She died young.
He roamed the streets in a daze, and spoke those words of Lamentations:
“How lonely lies the city, once so full of people.”
Without her, Florence was a ghost town.[13]
Have you ever felt like that?

When our world comes to an end, when we’ve suffered too much to speak,
Scriptures like Jeremiah, or Job and the Psalms of Lament,
can give us words – as for Dante.
When pain blocks prayer, they can help us talk to God again.

There may be seasons when that’s what we need.
But, thank God, Jeremiah does not leave us there.

Act Two: Homecoming

Jeremiah is a drama in two acts:
we’ve seen the first, judgement and devastation, but there’s another to come.

When God called Jeremiah, he gave him a synopsis of the plot:

See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
“to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow” – Act One
“to build and to plant.” – Act Two
Jeremiah 1:10

Prophets are
“harbingers of doom and disaster” and
“heralds of salvation and survival”
Stulman & Kim

This verse echoes through the book. [14]
Exile and home-coming.
The end of the world, cosmic chaos, welter and waste.
Then the promise of a bright new creation.

Jeremiah is ultimately a survivor’s guide for dispirited exiles living on the edge of despair.
It is a map of hope for people whose lives have been utterly shattered…
It sculpts new beginnings out of the rubble of fallen worlds (Stulman, 2005, xix) [15]

When we hit rock bottom, God can carve new blessing out of that rock. [16]

to the exiles in Babylon, lost in despair,
Jeremiah sent a survivor’s guide, a map of hope.

I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Jeremiah 29:11

It’s not just on Christian posters and bookmarks and T-shirts.[17]
It is on the wall of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
Serious hope for those in severe pain.

Let’s map out these good plans in Act Two.

The old covenant, the marriage between God and Israel, ended in divorce.
Because it depended on human obedience.
Moses taught:

If you return… and obey… Then the Lord will restore your fortunes and have compassion
Deuteronomy 30:1-5

“if… then” – if we measure up, then God will deliver.
When the current’s too strong,
when only a pacemaker keeps the old ticker going, that’s gonna fail.

So God makes a new promise:

I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…    I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Jeremiah 31:31-34  [18]

Can you see the difference?
The new covenant does not depend on us. God simply says “I will
I will make, I will put, I will write, and best of all: I will forgive.

The new covenant depends solely on the character of God.
The faithfulness of God to his people,
I have loved you with an everlasting love (31:3)
The power of God to save.
It’s what Paul calls salvation by grace alone.

It’s no Band-Aid solution.  It’s the radical surgery we need.
It’s a heart transplant.

I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord;
and they shall return to me with their whole heart.
Jeremiah 24:7

Once again, not if you return, then the Lord will restore.
But first, the Lord will renew your heart, so that you can return.

their mourning changed into music
of birds alighting in trees, by windows
thrown open to new mornings
David Rosenberg

I will restore health to you,
and your wounds I will heal,
Jeremiah 30:17

Once the heart is replaced, the disease cured at its root.
All the promises can be resurrected.
Chapters 30 to 31 are called the book of comfort.

They are a medley of blessing:

I will bring them back to the land (30:3)
I am going to save you from far away (30:10)
I will turn their mourning into joy (31:13) [19]

They shall sing aloud on the height of Zion (31:12) [20]
The city shall be rebuilt (30:18)

Death and Resurrection

When Jerusalem fell to Babylon in 587 BC,
It was the ninth of the Jewish month of Av.
On the same day in A.D. 70, Romans burnt down the Second Temple.

The ninth of Av has gathered up all the history of Jewish suffering.
The rubble of two temples.  Jews killed in the Crusades.  Auschwitz.[21]
On this day the Lamentations of Jeremiah are read in synagogues around the world.[22]

Av is a month of mourning.
But some Jews believe, in time to come it will be a month of joy!
There is an old tradition, that on the ninth of Av,
The Messiah will be born

It is a striking thought:
The judgement that consumed their future is the birthday of salvation.

For Christians there is also one event, one day,
that gathers up all sin and sorrow and suffering.
Not the fall of a city,
But a death on the cross.

Again the women of Jerusalem wept (Luke 23:27)
again the sky grew dark in mourning,
again the earth shook in shock (Matthew 27:45, 51) [23]

Through the darkest night, the new creation was born.
Christ’s descent into hell opened the gate into heaven.

For Israel: exile and restoration.
For Christ: death and resurrection.
And so it often is for us. [24]

“Surrendering the treasures of the past makes room for the newness of God”
Louis Stulman

Jeremiah said that God’s new future
was not for those who remained in the rubble of Jerusalem,
Clinging onto an empty shell of the past.
God’s new gift was for those who had lost everything
and been exiled to Babylon. (Jeremiah 24) [25]

To receive God’s new gifts, we may have to let go of the past.
To enter the new covenant of grace, the old covenant must be cancelled.
For our hardened heart to be renewed, it may have to be broken.
To be born again, first we have to die. [26]
Have you experienced that?

Maybe my greatest loss was the death of my father from cancer.
Two days after Christmas in 2010.
Many people spoke comforting words, but what moved me most was this:

“May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” [27]

I love it.  It’s the old Jewish bereavement blessing.
It acknowledges the pain, but it refuses despair.

It says that my loss is real, but I am not alone.
My mourning is part of the mourning of all God’s people.
From Jews at the Wailing Wall (Lam 2:18), to Christians at the cross,
to the groaning of all creation (Romans 8:22)

It says that, yes, we grieve, but not without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
because we know the promises of God to Zion and Jerusalem, like in Jeremiah,
the promises of rebuilding and resurrection.

So we lament, but with expectant longing.
Through our tears, we can sing, in a deep minor key that yet resonates with hope:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.


We’ve seen that Jeremiah is a drama in two acts:

Accept no mitigation,
but be instructed at the null point;
the zero breeds new algebra.
Amos Wilder

first God’s judgement; then God’s promise.
Shattering loss and surprising new hope.
Exile to a distant land, and coming home again.
Death and resurrection.

The pattern runs through scripture.
The pattern runs through life.
There is

A time to break down, and a time to build up.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

If the ship of your life has fallen or foundered on the rocks.
If your dreams for the future have crumbled like Jerusalem’s walls.
If you feel like a shell-shocked survivor.
Or if you know someone who does .

Remember that, in the script of God, the curtain will rise for Act Two.
From the rubble, God can sculpt a new future.
Through a strange land runs the road back home.
Out of death comes resurrection.[28]

The people who survive the sword
will find grace in the wilderness (31:2)

If you or someone you know sits alone in sorrow right now.
Like Jeremiah, like Jerusalem.
You may relate to Rachel from our reading.

Beloved wife of Jacob.
She died as she gave birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-20)
she was buried near the road to Ramah,
5 miles north of Jerusalem. (1 Samuel 10:2)
The captives were dragged through here on the way to Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1)

Rachel “grieves over the generations, for all the lost children who are so vulnerable and so brutalised”
Walter Brueggemann

Jeremiah imagines Rachel as a mother of Israel,
weeping over her children. [29]
Do you remember where we meet her weeping again?
When Christ was born, and king Herod
slaughtered the babies of Bethlehem.  (Matthew 2:17-18)
a time of tears, at the birth that brought us life
– almost like that Jewish tradition.

A kindred spirit with Jeremiah.
So with her we will farewell the weeping prophet for today.

Here is Rachel in Jeremiah 31:15-17, in the words of a modern Jewish poet.[30]
God’s promise to all who mourn the loss of a child, the loss of hope,
the loss of what they once held dear.  [31]

listen, a voice sobbing in Ramah
bitter weeping, open

Rachel mourns her children
refusing all comfort, all soothing
all her hope gone blind:

her children gone –
yet these are the Lord’s words:
your voice will cease its weeping

your eyes brighten behind the tears
that dissolve into crystal-clear vision
of the children alive

returning home
from the lands of enemies
from beyond anguish to hope revived

[1] “A prophet is not a systematic theologian, but a poet who lives very close to the hurts and hopes of God’s own heart” (Brueggemann, 1991, 58)
[2] prophets are like barometers, who can sense the pressures of reality and predict the coming weather (Pixley, 2004, 49)
[3] Only Jeremiah notices the spray is salty: this is a flood of the tears of God.
[4] “The long, complex book resembles a collage constructed of a motley collection of materials like paper, fabric, paint, photographs, newspaper clippings, feathers, found objects-all glued together by some not entirely clear connections to the prophet Jeremiah.”  (O’Connor, 2011, 29)  “The reader who is not confused by reading the book of Jeremiah has not understood it.”  (Robert Carroll, 1989)
[5] “from profound sadness, disappointment, and bitterness, to declarations of war, hope, yearning for reunion, tenderness mingled with harshness, and sympathy. ..  just as grief gives rise to many discordant expressions, so Israel’s rejection of Yahweh fuels a wide range of divine emotions, responses, musings, and strategies.”  (Stulman, 2005, 24, 61)
[6] Walter Brueggemann describes her recent book “Jeremiah: Pain and Promise” at
[7] Psychologists today would call it post-traumatic stress syndrome.
[8] Why have these things come upon me?  (13:22)
[9] “Jeremiah and his editors do not believe that the world moves according to the rules of geopolitical Realpolitik, as discussed by viziers in Babylon or professors at Harvard University” (Pixley, 2004, 5)
[10] Because: 9:13, 13:22, 16:11, 22:9, 30:15, 52:3
[11] Kathleen O’Connor points out that accepting responsibility – even when like here it is a bitter pill – is a key step in empowering survivors, freeing them from a passive victim mentality.
[12] The Jewish novelist Elie Wiesel survived Auschwitz.  About the above passage, he wrote:
As for the birds of the sky that have fled, I understood the prophet’s imagery only when I returned to Auschwitz and Birkenau in the summer of 1979.  Then and only then did I remember that, during the tempest of fire and silence, there were no birds to be seen on the horizon: they had fled the skies above all the death camps.  I stood in Birkenau and remembered Jeremiah.  (Wiesel, 126)
He struggled to find the words to describe such tragedy, but Jeremiah showed him the way.  In one biography, two chapters are titled “writing like Jeremiah.”
[13] He was later politically exiled from Florence and forbidden to return on pain of death.  Out of these twin losses came perhaps the greatest single work of Christian poetry.
[14] 12: 14-17, 18:7-10, 24:6, 31:28, 42:10, 45:4
[15] “Jeremiah presents a literary re-enactment of the death and dismantling of one world in preparation for the emergence of another.”  The prophets are both “harbingers of doom and disaster” and “heralds of salvation and survival”, their writings both “war-torn artefacts”, and “tapestries of hope” (Stulman and Kim)
[16] Early in the book are glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel.  Thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.  Jeremiah 1:27.  By halfway through, there are further signs of hope:  a faithful few heed Jeremiah’s message and rescue him from death. If Jeremiah’s life represents his people, maybe they too will survive!  10 years before Jerusalem fell, Nebuchadnezzar took a first batch of Jews captive to Babylon, along with items from the temple.  In chapter 28, the prophet Hananiah proclaimed that God had promised, in two years they would all be back.  But Jeremiah declared that Hananiah was a false prophet, preaching false hope.  There was no escape.   The sentence has been passed, the die cast.  Jerusalem will fall, and those who remained there will be destroyed (24:8-10)
[17] See
[18] The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts.  Jeremiah 17:1
[19] their mourning changed into music / of birds alighting in trees, by windows / thrown open to new mornings
David Rosenberg
[20] Jeremiah 33:10-11 is still sung at Jewish weddings.
[21] Also on the ninth of Av, Jews were expelled from England in 1292, from Spain in 1492, and the Nazis deliberately killed on this day.  See David Slavitt’s The Book of Lamentations: A Meditation and Translation, 2001.
[22] For the first nine days of the month, Jews traditionally hold no weddings, fast from meat and wine, don’t wash their clothes, cut their hair or shave-all signs of mourning.
[23] Jesus called his body the temple. (John 2:19), so again, the temple, God’s dwelling place on earth, was destroyed. Some Christians read Lamentations in Holy Week.
[24] “Death of a nation, death of the Son of God, death of something in the self-from each of them, Scripture insists, God brings a resurrection” (Gowan, 1998, 200)
[25] Relinquishment of the old identity and acceptance of their marginal status in Babylon is the first step to survival and hope.  Surrendering the treasures of the past makes room for the newness of God… When the community lets go of past certainties, transformation takes place… It stops clinging and gives itself wholly to God.  Mercy and grace rush in to fill the void.  (Stulman, 2005, 257)
[26] In “Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say?” 1989 (in Brueggemann), George Steiner  writes that we know about Good Friday: injustice, the suffering, the waste, the brute enigma of ending, the death of love.  And we know of Sunday: resurrection, a justice and a love that have conquered death.
But ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday.  Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation on the other.
[27] See  The bereaved traditionally stay home for a week after the funeral and visitors come-with a small tear in their clothes-to sit on low chairs or the floor with them.  They leave with these words.
[28] Accept no mitigation,
but be instructed at the null point;
the zero breeds new algebra.
Amos Wilder
[29] Rachel “grieves over the generations, for all the lost children who are so vulnerable and so brutalised” (Brueggemann, 1991, 64)  See Kathleen O’Connor, 2002, Lamentations and the Tears of the World
[30] from “A Literary Bible,” by David Rosenberg
[31] Rabbi Schreiber remembers standing at the harbour of Haifa in Israel in 1947 at eight years old, as boatloads of Holocaust survivors and Jews from around the world arrived.  “And as they kept coming, [Jeremiah] seemed to be walking among us, reconnecting us to our long history in this biblical land.  And I remember how his words were on everyone’s lips: a voice is heard in Ramah, wailing, bitter cry…”

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