Jeremiah’s Use of Metaphors

Jeremiah was called to the prophetic ministry at a crucial time in the political and religious life of Judah. Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah, a priest who lived in Anathoth, a village located a few miles north of Jerusalem. Jeremiah ministered during the reigns of five kings, beginning with King Josiah in 627 B.C., the year when he received God’s call to be a prophet. Josiah’s religious reforms brought much hope to Judah. However, after Josiah’s death, the people of Judah returned to their apostasy. Jeremiah was called to speak against the spiritual and moral decay during Judah’s darkest days, the days before the destruction of the temple and the exile of the population to Babylon.

The Call of Jeremiah

Jeremiah was called to proclaim a message designed to convince the people of Judah that the words he was proclaiming came from God. Jeremiah’s aim was to persuade his audience of the veracity of what he was proclaiming. In order to achieve his goal of convincing the people and to evoke repentance, Jeremiah used verbal and non-verbal language in proclaiming the message he received from God. Jeremiah used every way possible to dramatize his message and convince his audience that God was about to bring judgment against the nation. By using a variety of communication techniques, Jeremiah tried to make sure the people paid attention to what he was saying, responded to his message, and turned from their evil ways.

The book of Jeremiah contains an abundance of metaphors. Some of them are used by God to speak to Jeremiah. The majority of the metaphors in the book are used by Jeremiah as he attempted to communicate with his audience in a language they could understand and in ways that could help him convey his message to his hearers.

One example of the use of metaphors in the book of Jeremiah is found in the narrative announcing Jeremiah’s call (Jer. 1:4-10). In 1:10 the text uses six metaphors to describe the content of Jeremiah’s message. Four metaphors refer to the results the words of judgment will have on the nations: “to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow.” Two metaphors refer to the hope of salvation in Jeremiah’s message: “to build and to plant.” These six metaphors are taken from three spheres of life: agriculture (pluck, plant), construction (pull down, build) and military (destroy, overthrow).[1]

When God called Jeremiah, God placed his words in the prophet’s mouth and told him to go to the people and tell them all the words God had given to him. To emphasize the power of God’s words in Jeremiah’s mouth, the text uses the fire metaphor: “I am going to make My words become fire in your mouth” (Jer. 5:14 HCSB). The two words used in the text, wood and fire, are easy to understand, since the people are compared to wood and fire burns wood. God warned Jeremiah that he would encounter opposition from the people. However, Jeremiah received assurance of divine protection by means of three metaphors: God will make Jeremiah a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall (Jer. 1:18).

The Power of Metaphors

The reason Jeremiah used an array of metaphors is because they are true to life. Metaphors have the power to capture imagination.[2] Metaphors have the power to capture an image and communicate a message to the hearers that forces them to think and respond.

Jeremiah used many metaphors to speak about Judah’s unfaithfulness and of the coming judgment upon the nation. His use of symbolic language was offensive to some people and unpleasant to others. These metaphors were used to describe the relationship between God and Israel, especially the people’s infidelity to their relationship with God.

Those who heard Jeremiah’s message used their own context to understand what the prophet was trying to communicate to them. The proper understanding of metaphors depends on the hearer’s understanding of the literal meaning behind the metaphor. A metaphor is figurative language in which its extended meaning is on the basis of similarity.

The benefit of using metaphors in speech is that the metaphorical language uses both the mind and the emotions to communicate a message thus helping the hearers understand the message through the use of the metaphor. When the speaker uses a metaphor to communicate a truth, the understanding of the meaning of the metaphor opens a window for the proper understanding of content of the message. A metaphor has a dual meaning: the literal meaning, which is generally drawn from the world of the hearer and an analogical meaning, the meaning the hearer applies to the metaphor.

A metaphor is a figure of speech. By using a metaphor, the speaker uses a well-known subject to help the hearer associate the metaphor with another reality known by the hearer.[3] For instance, when Jeremiah says that God is a husband, the metaphor only has meaning when the people who hear his message think about a husband and his relationship with his wife.

One metaphor Jeremiah used to describe the character of God was the king metaphor: God is the “eternal King” (Jer. 10:10 HCSB). In Israel, the people’s understanding of God’s kingship and divine sovereignty came from the way the community perceived their human kings. After Saul became king of Israel, he used to gather his advisors, “sitting under the tamarisk tree at the high place. His spear was in his hand, and all his servants were standing around him” (1 Sam 22:6 HCSB). Once the council made a decision, Saul’s servants would carry out the decisions of the king. Jeremiah spoke of the council of Yahweh. According to Jeremiah, true prophets had been in the divine council, heard the decisions of the heavenly king, and thus were sent to proclaim God’s will to the people. False prophets had not been in the council of the Lord to see and hear his word. False prophets were not sent with a message, thus, they spoke visions from their own minds (Jer. 23:16-18, 21-22).

Metaphors in Jeremiah

Most metaphors in Jeremiah are taken from the sphere of human activities: roles and activities within the family and the home, personal life, agriculture activities, work, and social realities. The language of the law and court offers many metaphors to Jeremiah. To Jeremiah God is the judge who will judge his people for their violation of the covenant (Jer. 11:20). In some passages God appears as the counsel presenting his case against Israel (Jer. 2:9) or against the nations (Jer. 25:9). In other passages God appears as the defending counsel who pleads the case of Israel (Jer. 50:34, 51:36). The reason Jeremiah used legal language was because the people of Israel believed the legal system in Israel was a place where they could find justice.[4]

The primary metaphor Jeremiah used to describe the relationship between God and Israel was that of marriage. In the marriage metaphor God is portrayed as the husband who has been betrayed by his wife and expresses all the anger and disappointment that follows betrayal. The marriage metaphor reflects the depth of Israel’s infidelity.

The marital relationship between God and Israel began well (Jer. 2:2-3) but then it degenerated because the people found other lovers by worshiping other gods (Jer. 2:5-13). Jeremiah used graphic sexual metaphors to depict Israel’s infidelity (Jer. 2:20, 23-24, 33; 3:1-9, 12, 20; 4:30; 13:27). These metaphors were designed to shock Jeremiah’s hearer and to bring home to his audience the depth of Israel’s unfaithfulness.

To describe Israel’s relationship with Yahweh, Jeremiah used the water metaphor. God was “the fountain of living water” (Jer. 2:13), an ongoing source of life like an ever-flowing natural spring. The other gods were “cracked cisterns that cannot hold water.” The water metaphor is also used to describe the politics of Judah. Asking military assistance from Egypt was like drinking the waters of the Nile and asking for help from Assyria was like drinking the waters of the Euphrates (Jer. 2:18).

Jeremiah used several metaphors to describe the coming judgment. The judgment against Judah was hot wind (Jer. 4:11), it was a burning fire (Jer. 4:4), and a devouring lion (Jer. 4:7). To portray Judah’s enemies, Jeremiah used the shepherd metaphor. The generals of their armies are shepherds and their armies are flocks (Jer. 6:3). The devastation caused by the invading armies is like the devastation caused by fire (Jer. 11:16). The people described God’s judgment as drinking poisoned water (Jer. 8:14).

The poetic and symbolic language in the message of Jeremiah is evidence of a prophet skilled in the art of communication. Jeremiah knew that failure to convince the people about the urgency of his message would result in the destruction of the nation. Although Jeremiah was an accomplished orator and his preaching was filled with passion and urgency, the rebellious people refused to accept his impassioned call to repent and turn to God.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

NOTES

[1] Leslie C. Allen, Jeremiah (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 28.

[2] Ian Paul, “Metaphor,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 509.

[3] Peter W. Macky, The Centrality of Metaphors to Biblical Thought (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), p. 49.

[4] G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980), p. 157.

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One Response to Jeremiah’s Use of Metaphors

  1. Pingback: Jeremiah’s Use of Metaphors – Dr. Claude Mariottini – Professor of Old Testament | Talmidimblogging

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