Jeremiah Part 3: Weeping to Woo – The Suffering God

Why is the sea salty?
Into it runs every river of tears.

Why did the prophet weep?
Sound the alarm, and they raged against him.
Stay silent, and God’s Word burnt like fire within.

Why did the people weep?
Their home was gone.  Their hope was gone.
Like shell-shocked survivors, they cried
What went wrong?
How could Jerusalem fall?  Why?

Jeremiah gave them answers:
Israel’s heart was so hard, their soul so sick,
that desperate measures were needed.

“to pluck up and to pull down;
to build and to plant”

Exile to amputate the past, then a clean new start.
Total demolition – to rebuild from the ground up.

So the book of Jeremiah is a two act drama of
Death and resurrection.

Behind their questions – what, how, why – hovered another:
Who is God?
Does he care?  Is he in control?
While we sit here in pain, where on earth is God?
Have you ever asked that question: where is God when it hurts?

In the last weeks, we’ve met the prophet, we’ve met his people.
Today we’ll see how Jeremiah tells the story of Israel,
and through it paints a picture of God.

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt, 1630

Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt, 1630

One: Rejected Love

Let’s turn to Jeremiah chapter 2, where the saga begins.
Get out your hankies.
The poet casts a tragic spell.

God takes down the leather-bound album.
Tenderly he opens it.
Sepia photos from their honeymoon.
A little faded now, but his memory is clear.

There they are, hand in hand, in the desert.
Israel gazes up at her strong Lord with devotion.
Fearless and free beneath his outstretched arm.

“I remember how eager you were to please me
as a young bride long ago,
how you loved me and followed me
even through the barren wilderness.”
Jeremiah 2:2

And look – here is the wedding day.
How beautiful Israel was.
As he gazes on his love, God’s smile fades

Does a young woman forget her jewellery?
Does a bride hide her wedding dress?
Yet for years on end
my people have forgotten me.
Jeremiah 2:32

Israel is like a woman with Alzheimer’s.
She can no longer recognise her husband.
Israel has forgotten him.
And it got worse:

My people have exchanged their glorious God
for worthless idols!…
My people have done two evil things:
They have abandoned me—
the fountain of living water.
And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns
that can hold no water at all!
Jeremiah 2: 11-13

In the desert
Sand.  Rock.  Sun.  Thirst.
There’s a bubbling spring, clear and cool.

“Can any idols of the nations bring rain?”

“No thanks God.
I can get my own water.”

She turns her back and starts to dig.
It’s hot work.
At last it rains
she kneels for a drink, but the hole is empty.
The cistern is cracked, the water is gone.[1]

God offers them – for free – the fresh flowing water of life
but the people would rather die of thirst, trying to do it their own way.

They swap the glory of the living God, for a dead chunk of stone.
The prophets called it spiritual adultery.

As a faithless wife leaves her husband,
so you have been faithless to me
Jeremiah 3:19

What is wrong with them?
It’s crazy – as cracked as the cisterns!

And yet, are we that different?

Have we too lost our first love?
Forgotten what God has done for us?
How seldom I think of God.
So much else fills my mind.
If he saw our life, would Jeremiah say
We too are digging that useless hole?
Am I investing in the cracked cistern business?
The stocks are sure to fall,
Because only God can satisfy our thirst.

Rejecting the water of life is suicidal stupidity.
And yet we do.
As they did.

God himself can’t believe it.
Like the people, he cries out:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me?  (2:5).
Why has my people turned away? (8:5)

With a heavy heart, God turns the page,
And finds a different metaphor.
Here is Israel, his precious son, sitting on his knee.
God’s pride and joy.

I thought how I would set you among my children,
and give you a pleasant land…
And I thought you would call me, My Father
Jeremiah 3:19

“sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child”
King Lear

Barack Obama said that having children
is like having your heart walking around outside of you.
Love makes us so vulnerable.
By choosing to love sinful people, God tastes this too.[2]
When his people grew up,

They say to a tree, “You are my father,”
and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”
Jeremiah 2:27

The album page is stained and wrinkled from the tears.[3]

Who is God?  What is he like, says Jeremiah?
God is like a father – rejected by his children.
A husband deeply in love – with an unfaithful wife.

Over and over, God called them back:

“O Israel, my faithless people, return home again” (3:12)
“Come back to me” (3:22)

Their ears were deaf.  Their hearts were hard.

Doors were slammed shut, and the family broke apart.
The marriage that started so well was over.[4]

I divorced faithless Israel because of her adultery.
Jeremiah 3:8


Two: Wrathful Love

Israel had an incurable wound, a fatal disease.
Here’s the saddest verse:

“They worshipped worthless idols, and became worthless themselves.”
Jeremiah 2:5

If we serve the living God, we will grow into his image.
But Israel served false gods, cruel gods of lust and greed and violence,
and became like them. [5]

God is a tender husband, a devoted father.
He has a burning commitment to relationship with his people.
And a consuming hatred of all that is false and unjust and cruel.[6]
So he knew that Israel needed radical surgery.

Remember Jeremiah’s first message:

I am calling the armies of the kingdoms of the north to come to Jerusalem.
Jeremiah 1:15

God is no hawk.
Over and over, he offered peace, but every offer was refused.

He ordered Jeremiah,

“Run up and down every street in Jerusalem,”
“Look high and low; search throughout the city!
If you can find even one just and honest person,
I will not destroy the city.”
Jeremiah 5:1-9

Any excuse to call off the attack, but not one was found.
God was forced to cry,

How can I pardon you?
Jeremiah 5:7

He commanded the armies to advance. [7]

Jeremiah straps on a flak helmet and a jacket that says Press.
He heads to the front to cover the conflict. [8]

Sound the alarm throughout the land:
‘Run for your lives!’…

A lion stalks from its den,
a destroyer of nations.
It is headed your way …

a burning wind is blowing in from the desert…
A roaring blast…

Our enemy rushes down on us like storm clouds!
His chariots are like whirlwinds.
His horses are swifter than eagles…

They surround Jerusalem …

I have heard the blast of enemy trumpets
and the roar of their battle cries.

Waves of destruction roll over the land…

How terrible it will be, for we are doomed! …

Jeremiah 4

It’s almost apocalyptic.
Horses like eagles, whirlwind chariots, a stalking lion.
A hurricane, a tsunami.
Terror on every side.


Three: Weeping Love

In 586 BC,
Jerusalem was destroyed

The poet moves from tenderness, to terror, to tears.[9] [10]
Jeremiah puts on a suit, straightens his black tie,
and heads out to direct the funeral.

After the storm,
the city lies silent.
The walls are rubble.
Only a few charred pillars show where the temple once was.
The smoke is still rising.

Once there was the sound of chatter and laughter from children playing here,
then came the shout of commands barked in a strange harsh tongue.
Now all he can hear is jackals, fighting over the bodies. (16:4)
The wind of the desert blows sand across the ruins.
How lonely lies the city, that once was full of people (Lamentations 1:1).

My grief is beyond healing;
my heart is broken.
Listen to the weeping of my people;
it can be heard all across the land.

I hurt with the hurt of my people.
I mourn and am overcome with grief…

If only my head were a pool of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
I would weep day and night
for all my people who have been slaughtered.
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

“Grief is the tax we pay on the loves of our lives”

It feels like we should have a moment of silence…

Jeremiah weeps.
Jerusalem mourns.

By the Rivers of Babylon, the exiles ask,
where is God?

The walls of Babylon were so wide that chariots could race along the top.
The great gates, the royal palace, the hanging gardens.
Jerusalem seemed a village.

And the mighty temple of Marduk, Babylon’s high God:
Jerusalem had fallen.
Maybe her God had been defeated too.
From the start he was invisible; now he was gone.
The idols have won.

No!  shouted Jeremiah.
Your God is King of the nations, Lord of history.
Nebuchadnezzar is a mere servant;
God is the commander in Chief

Glorious gods of gold?  Strong as stone?
Pah!  Smoke and mirrors. (10:15)
Flimsy as straw.

Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them…

The Lord is the true God …
It is he who made the earth by his power
Jeremiah 10:5, 10-12

And then Jeremiah speaks a single verse in Aramaic, the language of Babylon.
perhaps because Jewish children would learn their language,
and be tempted to serve their gods;
perhaps to mock the idols to their face.

The gods who did not make the heavens and the earth
shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens.  (10:11)

Jeremiah also confronts me here.
He saw the clash of empires destroy every visible symbol of his God.
And yet he still believed that God was in control.

I read of a theologian
who’d only recite the creed after reading the New York Times.
When I watch the news: refugees and rebels.
Stock markets on Wall Street and stockpiles of chemical weapons.
I find it hard to see God.
Hard to believe he’s relevant
Hard to believe he’s in control
My faith is weak, but I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Christians today are very like Israel in Babylon.
A small minority. [11]
Surrounded by things that look much more imposing, much more impressive.
Than our invisible God.
Are there gods of our world that we are tempted to worship?
That’s one reason Jeremiah wrote to the exiles – so the people of God would stay different.
Why we need to meet together and soak ourselves in Scripture.

—————————————

Okay Jeremiah, you can almost hear them say.
So God is the stage manager of the show.
Pulling the strings behind the scenes.[12]
How does that help us?
The Almighty may be in control, but he clearly doesn’t care.  (Lamentations 5:20)

Oh my people, says Jeremiah, don’t you see?
All these years I have wept.
Do you think I wept only for myself, only for you?

Jeremiah is the Weeping Prophet,
he shares the pain of his weeping people.
He also embodies – he weeps for – the Weeping God. [13]

Look at 8:18-9:1 again.
Who is speaking?
It’s unclear.
Jeremiah?  Jerusalem?  God?
Most scholars conclude it’s an intermingling of all three.[14]

The tears of God and the tears of Jeremiah
“run together like paints in a watercolour”.[15]

Why did God weep?
The troops of Babylon exulted as the city fell.
They rejoiced in the plunder (50:11)

But the blows on Jerusalem fell on God’s own heart.[16]
God only judges with deep grief.

I have given the beloved of my heart
into the hands of her enemies.
Jeremiah 12:7

Jeremiah was torn apart, caught in the crossfire between God and Israel.
In a way, there is a crossfire in the heart of God.
He loves his people and longs to show mercy.
He hates evil.  He has to cut it out.

He is torn between his love and his holiness.[17]
Mercy and judgement.
Tender love and tough love.

The prophets reveal

“a dramatic tension in the inner life of God…
an inner oscillation… an inner wrestling” [18]

Once again, we find that Jeremiah leads us to Jesus.
He shows us the heart of God that led to the cross .

“God contends with God”
Martin Luther

On the cross, that tension tore him apart.[19]
There God took the final step.
Not only did he weep with us,
but in Christ he suffered for us, instead of us, in our place.

The weeping God became the Crucified God.
To renew his people’s heart,
to bring his children home,
the heart of the Father was broken as the heart of his Son was pierced.

From Jeremiah to Jesus, God stays the same:

Pulsating with passion and throbbing with pain,
God longs for reunion and embrace (Stulman, 2005, 47)

So where was God as they sat in Babylon?
Jews teach that God went with his people into exile:[20]

With Israel’s distress came the affliction of God, his displacement,
his homelessness in the land, in the world.    Abraham Heschel

Why is the sea salty?
When Jerusalem fell, says Jewish tradition.
Two huge tear drops of God fell into the ocean.
the sound echoed around the world.

In all their affliction, He was afflicted.
Isaiah 63:9 [21]

And they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means, “God is with us.”
Matthew 1:23

“The refiner is never far from the mouth of the furnace when his gold is in the fire.”
Charles Spurgeon

Where is God when it hurts?
God is with his people, in tears.

Thus says the Lord of hosts:
call for the mourning women to come…
let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
Jeremiah 9:17-18 [22]

Have you experienced this comfort?
In our darkest night, we are not alone.
The God of Jeremiah, who entered our world in Christ, Is right there with us.

Near the end of his book, The Cross of Christ, John Stott wrote this:

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross…
In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?  …
That is the God for me!  …  He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.  He suffered for us…  There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolises divine suffering. [23]

Wrote a Jewish poet,

I love my sad God,
my brother refugee.
Jacob Glatstein


Four: Redeeming Love

He cares, he weeps, he shares our pain.
But unlike us, God is not helpless, not overwhelmed by his grief.
He remains in control.

Jeremiah throws off his black jacket and starts to dance.

Divorce and death and destruction were not the end.
The love of God is stronger than death.
The mercy of God triumphs over judgment.
The tears of God are more powerful than Babylon’s armies (O’Connor, 1999)

Despite the destruction,
God still had good plans for his people.
He was working a new thing,
crafting a  new covenant. (Jeremiah 31:31 ff)
In the fires of Babylon, he was forging a new heart in his people.
restoring the beauty of his bride.

Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance (31:4)

—————————————————-

I hope this series has inspired you to meet the weeping poet-prophet yourself.
Jeremiah can seem jumbled and hard to understand.
But there is an overall plot.
Last week, we watched two acts:
death and resurrection, exile and restoration.
Today we viewed the drama of God and Israel in four scenes:

One: God was a living spring, but his people dug cracked cisterns.
Two: Their land became a war-torn waste.[24]
Three: God shed a flood of tears to soften their hard hearts.
Four: Israel would return to the flowing streams and flower again. (31:9,12)

If you wrote a play of your life with God, what would the main scenes be?
What season are you in now:  tender or hard?   Dry or refreshed?   Fruitful or barren?

Jeremiah sings a song of love lost and found:
rejected love, wrathful love, weeping love, redeeming love.

I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love.
Jeremiah 31:3

Who is God?
God is a tender husband and father.
a holy judge and conquering king.
a fellow sufferer in our sorrow.
a mighty saviour in our need.

God woos, he refines, he mourns, he restores.

He is a real person, with different sides to his character.
Which do you relate to most?
Could you reflect on other aspects more, to bring a balance?

Jeremiah was a poet, an actor.
All Jerusalem was his stage.
So I tried a Shakespearean summary of our four scenes.

Scene One: Love’s Labour’s Lost – perfect.
Scene Two: The Taming of the Shrew – a little sexist, but it fits.
Scene Three: The Tempest – shipwreck and exile in a sea of tears.[25]

Lastly, I first thought of All’s Well That Ends Well – Too obvious and boring.

Scene Four: The Merry Wives of Windsor – huh? – the bride returns to the castle of her King.

Thus says the Lord:
In the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without inhabitants,
there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness,
the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride,  (see, “Merry Wives”!)
the voices of those who sing,

“Give thanks to the Lord of hosts,
for the Lord is good,
his steadfast love endures forever!”
Jeremiah 33:10-11  [26]

After the broken family, the shattering war, the bitter funeral,
it is time to rebuild the holy city,
time to renew the marriage vows,
time for the lost children to come home.

Israel will pray,

Bring me back, let me come back,
for you are the Lord my God.

Tears of bewildered grief become tears of repentance.
And tears of repentance turn to tears of joy

God will respond,

Is not Israel still my son,
the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
I will surely have mercy…
I will lead them home.
Jeremiah 31:9,18,20

Deeply moved for his people.
Yearning for relationship.
His heart bursting with longing – for us! [27]

This is the passion of our passionate God.  (Moltmann)

Don’t you want to know him more?
Am I drinking from his living water,
or is he weeping over my hard heart?
How will you and I respond to his everlasting love?

I’ll finish today with the first words of a wonderful book on prayer
I think this expresses the heart of Jeremiah’s message to his people.
And the heart of God’s appeal to us:

Today the heart of God is an open wound of love.
He aches over our distance and preoccupation.
He mourns that we do not draw near to him.
He grieves that we have forgotten him.
He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness.
He longs for our presence.
And he is inviting you – and me – to come home.

Prayer: finding the heart’s true home, Richard Foster, 1992, 1


[1] When in thirsty need, it seems Israel was looking anywhere other than to God for help:
What then do you gain by going to Egypt,
to drink the waters of the Nile?
Or what do you gain by going to Assyria,
to drink the waters of the Euphrates? (2:18)
[2] “the dominant metaphor of rejected lover suggests that God is terribly vulnerable to Israel’s whims” (Stulman, 2005, 62).  It’s been said, “Grief is the tax we pay on the loves of our lives.”
[3] The ingratitude of children is a theme of world literature: King Lear “sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child”; Balzac’s Pere Goriot “when I became a father, I understood God”.  (Schreiber, 2010)
[4] the people “never sincerely returned”, at best, they “only pretended to be sorry.” (3:10) so God brings charges, as in a divorce court (2:9) and finally, so to speak, throws away the wedding ring (22:24)
[5] that word “worthless” is Jeremiah’s favourite word for idols.  The same as in Ecclesiastes: “vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” (1:2)  Vanity is sometimes translated as empty, meaningless, futile.  it also means smoke or mist, like clutching at the wind
The message paraphrase puts it like this:  Took up with Sir Windbag and turned into windbags themselves?
“pursue a bubble and become a bubble” (Brueggemann)
[6] “God’s judgement grows out of a passionate longing for a relationship with Israel as well as a savage intolerance for evil.”  (Stulman, 2005, 22)  “This God is a work of art, an expression of divine involvement when we are stuck in the mud, lost in intense pain, wandering with no compass. Above all… what drives this God is relentless, passionate desire for relationship with this people.” O’Connor, 2011
[7] when he speaks, all creation trembles:
God made the earth by his power…
he stretched out the heavens.
… he speaks in the thunder
Jeremiah 10:12-13
Does not my word burn like fire?”
says the Lord.
“Is it not like a mighty hammer
that smashes a rock to pieces?
Jeremiah 23:29
[8] Look! A great army coming from the north!
A great nation is rising against you from far-off lands.
They are armed with bows and spears.
They are cruel and show no mercy.
They sound like a roaring sea
as they ride forward on horses.
They are coming in battle formation,
planning to destroy you, beautiful Jerusalem.
Jeremiah 6:22-23
[9] These chapters are read in synagogues to commemorate the destruction of the Temple.
[10] My first three parts were partly inspired/confirmed by Kathleen O’Connor.
[11] the church is called to be “a colony… a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the midst of another”  (John Howard Yoder)
[12] “Is God the transcendent and untouched stage manager of the theatre of this violent world, or is God in Christ the central engaged figure of the world tragedy?”  (Moltmann, 1974, 72)
[13] “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)  “Here a human has in a unique fashion borne a part in the divine suffering.”  Von Rad
[14] “says the Lord” in 8:17, 9:3.  Scholars debate over who is speaking here, with papers entitled, for example, “Who Is Speaking in Jeremiah 4:19-22?” or “Who Weeps In Jeremiah Viii 23 (Ix 1)?’  Identifying Dramatic Speakers In The Poetry Of Jeremiah.”  Most recent commentaries I’ve looked at now seem to agree it is both, like an overlapping chorus.
Jeremiah 8:14-9:3 “bears witness to a convergence of tears… Judah mourns over its own wounded condition, Jeremiah is sick with grief over the plight of his countrymen, and God burst into tears as darkness descends upon Israel.”  (Stulman, 2005, 101)
[15] one said, “the “I” of the prophet and the “I” of God run together like paints in a watercolour.”

[16] “The refiner is never very far from the mouth of the furnace when his gold is in the fire.” Charles Spurgeon.

[17] The classic old Testament description of these two sides to God’s nature is in Exodus 34:6-7
The Lord!   The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected
[18] as Martin Luther put it,  “God contends with God”
[19] “The severity of covenant sanctions and the power of God’s yearning pathos are set in deep tension. This deep tension forms the central interest, theological significance, and literary power of the book of Jeremiah.” (Brueggemann, 1988, 5)
“This covenantal God who moves back and forth between pained hope, like a grieving father, and enraged judgement, like an indignant sovereign. God can never be detached and indifferent. That the people of Jerusalem can be detached and indifferent indicates how little they sense either who God is or what is happening among them.” (Brueggemann, 1988, 73)
God resembles the protagonists of Greek tragedy, torn between two ethical commitments (Goldingay).
[20] O hope of Israel, why should you be like a stranger in the land?               (14:8)
From   “All Rivers Run to the Sea” by Elie Wiesel (the first volume of a 2 volume autobiography)  p103 God’s Suffering: What the Commentaries Tell Us.
Here is what the Midrash tells us. When the Holy One, blessed be His name, comes to liberate the children of Israel from their exile, they will say to him: “Master of the Universe, it is You who dispersed us among the nations, driving us from Your abode, and now it is You who bring us back. Why is that?” And the Holy One, blessed be His name, will reply with this parable: One day a king drove his wife from his palace, and the next day he had her brought back. The queen, astonished, asked him: “Why did you send me away yesterday only to bring me back today?” “Know this,” replied the king, “that I followed you out of the palace, for I could not live in it alone.” So the Holy One, blessed be His name, tells the children of Israel: “Having seen you leave my abode, I left it too, that I might return with you.”
[21] other key verses include Genesis 6:6-7, Judges 10:16, Hebrews 4:15
At the burning bush in Exodus, tradition has it that God said to Moses, “Are you not aware that I’m wracked with pain, even as Israel is wracked with pain?  I speak to you from the midst of the thorn bush.  I am a partner in their pain.”
[22] “in some sense, God has died the death of these people; God, too, goes into exile” (Fretheim, 2002, 162)
“God’s pain and disappointment ring throughout the book of Jeremiah… The heart of melancholy beats in God’s words… God’s sorrow rises again and again” (Heschel)
And it came to pass that when Jerusalem was destroyed, God entered the burning sanctuary.  He saw it in flames and began to weep…  “I am like a father, whose only son died on the day of his wedding, during the ceremony”
(Wiesel, 97).  It is said that Jeremiah 13:17, “my soul shall weep in secret” refers to God’s invisible tears.
A Midrash recounts: When God sees the suffering of His children scattered among the nations, He sheds two tears in the ocean. When they fall, they make a noise so loud it is heard round the world.
[23] As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, “Only the suffering God can help.”
[24] The ground is cracked.  Because there has been no rain on the land the farmers are dismayed…
“Can any idols of the nations bring rain?”  (14:4, 22)
[25] Look, the storm of the Lord! a whirling tempest           (30:23)
[26] Jeremiah 33:10-11 is sung at every religious Jewish wedding.
[27] In 1945, Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori discovered Jeremiah 31:20, where God says, “my heart is pained” in Japanese; in Luther’s translation, “my heart is broken”; in other translations, “my heart yearns” or “my bowels are troubled for him.”  (AV)  He writes that the Hebrew word hamah means both pain and love simultaneously, and so “the heart of the Gospel was revealed to me as the ‘pain of God’… Jeremiah may be called the Paul of the Old Testament … ‘God on the cross’ for Paul is ‘God in pain’ for Jeremiah.”   (19-20, 161).  His book “Theology of the Pain of God” was probably the first work of Japanese theology translated into English.  On the cover is a black and white photograph of ruined Hiroshima.


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