In my previous post, “The Tears of Jeremiah,” I wrote that whenever God called a prophet to speak to Israel, God placed his words in the mouth of that prophet so that the prophet would speak words that was truly the words of God. Thus, when a prophet proclaimed God’s message to the people, the words in the mouth of the prophet were the words of God to the people. The prophet was the embodiment of God to the people of Israel.
Using the prophet Jeremiah as an example, I wrote: “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” (if you have not read my post on “The Tears of Jeremiah,” I recommend that you read that post first before reading the present post).
The best example of this ambiguity is Jeremiah 8:18-9:3 (Note: The Hebrew Bible differs in the versification of the text as found in most English translations. All references to the text of Jeremiah follow the English translations). Scholars are divided on how to interpret this passage in Jeremiah. Some scholars believe that the speakers are Jeremiah and the people while others believe that there are three voices in the text: the voice of God, the voice of Jeremiah, and the voice of the people.
Scholars are even divided on how to structure the text. Jack Lundbom, for instance, divides the text into three sections: 8:18-21; 8:22-9:2; 9:3-6. J. A. Thompson divides the text into two sections: 8:18-9:1; 9:2-9. Scholars who believe that Jeremiah 8:18-9:3 is a unit include Walter Brueggemann and Kathleen O’Connor.
The difference between those who accept the unit of the text and those who do not is due to a theological perspective on the nature of the God of the Old Testament. In his article, “The Tears of God in the Book of Jeremiah,” David Bosworth wrote:
Broadly speaking, there appear to be two schools of thought: those who see God weeping in one or more of these verses, and those who deny that God weeps in any of them. K. O. O’Connor suspects that those who prefer that God not weep in any text are wed to an image of an invulnerable Almighty God (2013:27-28).
Bosworth writes that many Christians today believe in the impassibility (apatheia) of God, that is, “that God cannot be affected by something else or suffer in the broad sense, including experiencing emotion (pathos).” Abraham Heschel, in his book The Prophets has a remarkable study on the pathos of God in which he clearly shows that the God of the Bible experiences emotions and suffers with and because of his people.
A careful analysis of Jeremiah 8:18-9:3 reveals that the text is a dialogue between God and the people of Judah, followed by a soliloquy in which God is presented as talking to himself, disclosing his innermost thoughts about his unhappiness with his covenant people.
Two items seem to indicate that the text is a dialogue between God and the people. First, there is not a messenger formula at the end of Jeremiah 8:22, indicating that the poem continues in Jeremiah 9:1-3. Second, the messenger formula in Jeremiah 9:3, “says the LORD,” indicates that the speaker is the Lord himself and not Jeremiah.
The following is a brief study of Jeremiah 8:18-9:3, emphasizing the different voices in the text.
God: 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
This text speaks about the pathos of God because of the rebellion of his people. The people have forsaken God; they have abandoned the demands of the covenant to follow other gods. Because of their rebellion, the people have been “struck down with a crushing blow, with a very grievous wound” (Jeremiah 14:17). God’s grief is intense because he knows that the wound of the people is incurable, that their hurt is beyond healing, and that there is no medicine for their sickness (Jeremiah 30:12-13). As Brueggemann wrote: “God recognizes and embraces Judah’s hurt. God has no alternative. That is the kind of God Yahweh is” (1988:88).
The cry of the people is “from far and wide in the land.” The expression mēʾereṣ marḥaqqîm may be translated “from a land far away.” This translation is adopted by the NIV, ASV, KJV, HCSB, and several others. This may indicate that the people taken into exile in 597 BC were crying to God from their suffering in Babylon. But the mention of the missed harvest in v. 20, indicates that the cry of the people is coming from Jerusalem, not Babylon.
The expression mēʾereṣ marḥaqqîm appears in Isaiah 33:17 and there the expression is translated “a land that stretches far away” (Isaiah 33:17 NRSV). Thus, the expression in Jeremiah may indicate that the whole land was crying in anguish. The cry of the people for help was heard throughout the land, as the NRSV has translated.
The People: Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?
The people affirm that God is present because God dwells in his temple in Jerusalem. It is because Yahweh lives in Zion that he must intervene and save the people. The people’s confidence reflects what is popularly known as “Zion theology.” This view says that because the temple of God in Zion is God’s dwelling place, he will always protect and deliver Jerusalem. But the people had forgotten Jeremiah’s message that trust in the temple without true commitment to God was a presumptuous trust.
Jeremiah said: “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only to go on doing all these abominations?” (Jeremiah 7:8-10). The people believed they were safe because God was in his temple, but, as Jeremiah said, that trust was false because God had left his temple because of the sins of the people: “I have forsaken my house, I have abandoned my heritage; I have given the beloved of my heart into the hands of her enemies” (Jeremiah 12:7).
God: Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?
The people do not understand that they have provoked God to anger with the worship of many gods: “You have as many gods as you have cities, Judah!” (Jeremiah 2:28). The expression “foreign idols” literally means “foreign nothings.” The infidelity of Israel, reflected in their worshiping of gods who do not exist, offends God and leads him to deep pathos, to intense grief, a grief that leads God to tears.
The People: The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
These words reflect the anguish of the people. The wheat harvest lasted from April to June. Summer was already gone, and yet Yahweh had not acted to deliver them from their hopeless situation. They believed that they had been forsaken by Yahweh and that there was no hope that they would be delivered from their oppressive situation.
God: 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?
God’s cry reflects his love for Israel, whom he calls “my poor people.” This expression is literally “the daughter of my people,” an expression that appears several times in the oracles of Jeremiah. What God desires is the healing and the restoration of Israel. What will make the people whole again is as available to them as the Balm of Gilead. The healing of the people will come through repentance (for a detailed study of what Jeremiah means by the Balm of Gilead, read my post “The Balm of Gilead”).
God: 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 argument of those scholars who refuse to acknowledge that the tears in 9:1 belong to God is unconvincing. Generally, when the prophet announces the word of God, his oracle begins with “thus says the Lord.” The conclusion of the oracle in v. 3 affirms that the speaker is Yahweh: “they do not know me, says the LORD.” The expression “says the Lord” is not present in the Septuagint (LXX). Probably the omission of the expression was deliberate, due to reluctance of the translators to acknowledge a God who weeps.
In this text God has shed tears because he was highly touched by the situation of his people. Now that the tears have been exhausted, he wishes that his eyes were a fountain of tears that he might weep without interruption day and night for the people who have been killed by the army of Babylon. As Bosworth wrote: “Here, the speaker’s grief is greater than the volume of tears his body can produce” (2013:33). Or as Brueggemann wrote: “The hurt in the face of Judah’s death requires and evokes more grief, more crying, and more tears than his body is capable of transmitting” (1988:90).
Speaking about the pathos of God because of the suffering of the people, Brueggemann wrote:
With the formula attributing the poem to Yahweh, the pathos cannot belong only to Jeremiah. This is poetry that penetrates God’s heart. The heart is marked by God’s deep grief. God’s anger is audible here, but it is largely subordinated to the hurt God experiences in the unnecessary death of God’s people (1988:87).
Jeremiah describes God’s hurt by saying that God wants to leave his people “and go away from them.” Brueggemann wrote:
Now it is God . . . who yearns to leave, because the fickleness [of the people] is beyond bearing. This is not a God who loves eternally. There is only so much this God will tolerate. Now it is time to depart because the affronts and betrayals have become a burden too great for God (1988:90).
When one hears these words in the mouth of Jeremiah, one has to acknowledge that the pain of Jeremiah is the pain of God, that the tears of Jeremiah are the tears of God. God has been abandoned and betrayed by his people. The people of God have forgotten what God had done for them. They have been unfaithful and have removed themselves so far from God that God says “they do not know me.”
It is this rebellion of Israel that brings grief to God and “provides the reasons for the tears of God and God’s desire to escape to the wilderness.” The unfaithfulness of Israel brings out “divine empathy, vulnerability, and profound sorrow. Grief overtakes anger, sympathy replaces fury” (O’Connor 1998:183).
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Bosworth, David A. “The Tears of God in the Book of Jeremiah,” Biblica 94 (2013) 24-46.
Brueggemann, Walter. Jeremiah 1-25: To Pluck Up, To Tear Down. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.
Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.
Lundbom, Jack R. Jeremiah 1-20. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
O’Cannor, Kathleen M. “The Tears of God and Divine Character in Jeremiah 2-9. In God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, edited by Tod Linafelt and Timothy K. Beal, 172-185. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.
Thompson, J. A. The Book of Jeremiah. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
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