The prophets of the Old Testament were sent by God as his special representatives to deliver a special message to the people of Israel. One classical example of a prophet whose life and words represent the embodiment of God’s presence with the people is the prophet Jeremiah.
When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, Jeremiah was reluctant to go because of his youth. Jeremiah said to God: “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). In order to compensate for his age and lack of experience, the Lord put out his hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth. Then the Lord said to Jeremiah, “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9).
This divine gesture was important to Jeremiah and to the people of Judah, primarily when Jeremiah proclaimed God’s words to Israel. As Jeremiah preached God’s message to the people, the words of Jeremiah were the words of God to the people. When the people heard the words of Jeremiah, they heard the words of God.
A true prophet received the word directly from God and they spoke with authority because the prophet embodied the word of God in his life and in his message. In Israel, the prophets had the same relationship with God that God had with Moses: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command” (Deuteronomy 18:18).
God places his words in the mouth of his prophet so that the prophet speaks a word that is truly the word of God. This is the reason that those who refuse to listen to the prophet will be accountable to God: “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable” (Deuteronomy 18:19).
This is the reason that, at times, it is difficult to separate the words of the prophet from the words of God. When the prophet speaks, it is God who is speaking through the prophet. When God speaks, the words that come out of the prophet’s mouth are the words of God.
This ambiguity is seen in Jeremiah 8:18–9:3, a text that has multiple speakers.
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”)
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!
O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors.
They bend their tongues like bows; they have grown strong in the land for falsehood, and not for truth; for they proceed from evil to evil, and they do not know me, says the LORD.
The problem with the interpretation of this passage in the book of Jeremiah is discovering who is saying what. Some scholars believe that the text introduces two speakers, Jeremiah and the people of Judah. Others believe that the voices in the text reveal a conversation involving three people, Jeremiah, the people of Judah, and God.
The reason for this ambiguity is the intimate relationship that Jeremiah had with God. In explaining Jeremiah’s relationship with God, Terence Fretheim said: “The prophet’s life was reflective of the divine life” (1984:149). In describing how Jeremiah’s life was the embodiment of God’s life to Israel, Fretheim wrote:
God does not, as in the older theophanies, just appear, speak a word, and then leave. God leaves the word behind imbedded in the prophet. God calls the prophet to take the word received and embody that word from the moment of the call onward. The prophet, in effect, is called to function as an ongoing theophany. In the prophet we see a development from the more transient messenger of God to a more extended appearance of the Word of God in human form. One can thus now speak, not only of the participation of God in the appearance of the human, but also in the history of the human. The story of God is lived out in the story of the prophet (1984:151-52).
This concept of Jeremiah becoming the embodiment of the Word of God to Israel can be understood from the reality found in the New Testament where the Word of God became a man. It can also be understood from the embodiment of God in the Old Testament. Esther J. Hamori, in her article “Divine Embodiment in the Hebrew Bible and Some Implications for Jewish and Christian Incarnational Theologies,” deals with the embodiment of God and the reality of divine corporeality in the Hebrew Bible. Hamori’s article deals primarily with Genesis 18:1–15 and 32:23–33, two passages in which God reveals himself as a “man” in the context of divine-human interaction (2010: 161–83).
The text in Jeremiah 8:18–9:3 shows the anguish and the suffering of the prophet concerning the fate of the nation. The intensity of Jeremiah’s lament seems to indicate that this text may reflect the chaos caused by the Babylonian invasion of 597 B.C. during which the vessels of the temple were taken to Babylon and thousands of people were exiled together with Jehoiachin and the royal family (2 Kings 24:10-16).
The suffering of Jeremiah reflects his commitment to be faithful to Yahweh and preach about the severe judgment that was coming against the people. However, his love for his people, whom he calls “my poor people” (Jeremiah 8:19), and for his nation created in the prophet an emotional conflict, grief overwhelmed him to such an extent that he believed that his sorrow was beyond healing.
Jeremiah’s intensive grief brought him to tears: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (Jeremiah 9:1). So intense was Jeremiah’s grief for the people’s suffering that he wished that his head was a spring of water and his eyes a fountain of tears so that he might cry day and night for the many people who had died during the struggle against Babylon. This is the reason that today Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet.”
Since the words of Jeremiah are an embodiment of the words of God to the people, then the tears of Jeremiah are also the tears of God. The tears of Jeremiah and his intensive anguish for the fate of his people offers a small glimpse of the intensive feelings in God’s heart, reflecting the way God suffers because of his people’s rejection of him as their God and how God suffers with the people who are suffering because of the devastation caused by the Babylonians (Fretheim 1984: 108).
The tears of Jeremiah for his people are the result of years of ministry marked by suffering, rejection, and the many struggles he encountered as he proclaimed the message he received from Yahweh. Contrary to the prophets who were preaching a message of peace and salvation, Jeremiah refused to compromise or change his message in order to gain the acceptance of the people.
Jeremiah spoke about the anguish of God over the unfaithfulness of the people. Jeremiah told the people that Yahweh, the divine husband, was a brokenhearted and abandoned spouse. Jeremiah said that Israel was a bride (Jeremiah 2:2) that had broken the relationship and had been unfaithful with other lovers. As a betrayed husband, Yahweh accused Judah of going after other lovers. Jeremiah presents Judah’s infidelity by using explicit sexual language and by describing the shameful behavior of the people.
The tears and the grief of Jeremiah for his people are the tears and the grief of God. The divine pathos present in this oracle indicates that the primary speaker of these words is not Jeremiah, but God himself. In this oracle Yahweh expresses his pain and suffering because his people have abandoned him, provoking him to anger: “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” (Jeremiah 8:19).
In a future post I will study Jeremiah 8:18–9:3 and the problem of divine sorrow. Many Christians are reluctant to talk about the tears of God because such a characterization makes the God of the Bible to be a weak, vulnerable, and powerless God. Such a view of God, a God who weeps for his people, is not the kind of God we have come to know in church, however, divine tears are true to biblical revelation and reflects one of the many aspects of the character of God which is revealed in the Bible.
“Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
NOTE: For a comprehensive collection of studies on the prophet Jeremiah, read my post Introduction to the Book of Jeremiah.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Fretheim, Terence. The Suffering of God. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Hamori, Esther J. “Divine Embodiment in the Hebrew Bible and Some Implications for Jewish and Christian Incarnational Theologies.” In Bodies, Embodiment, and Theology of the Hebrew Bible, ed. S. Tamar Kamionkowski and Wonil Kim, LHBOTS 465 (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 161–83.