In my previous posts, The Tears of Jeremiah and The Tears of God, I have attempted to demonstrate that the prophet Jeremiah was the embodiment of God to the people of Judah. The words of Jeremiah to Judah were the words of God to his people. The tears of Jeremiah were the tears of God as God expressed his grief over the apostasy of his people.
In his article, “The Tears of God in the Book of Jeremiah,” David Bosworth said that in the book of Jeremiah, “YHWH weeps more often than Jeremiah does, and even Jeremiah’s tears embody the tears of YHWH.” He also said that while the prophet Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet,” the focus of the book is on “the weeping God” (Bosworth 2013:24).
In the present post I will study several passages in the book of Jeremiah which deal with the tears of God for his people. God’s anguish comes out of his love for his rebellious son: “Is not Israel still my son, my darling child? says the LORD. I often have to punish him, but I still love him. That’s why I long for him and surely will have mercy on him” (Jeremiah 31:20 NLT). It is God’s love for Israel and the punishment that he must inflict on his people that gives rise to God’s anguish, an anguish that brings God to tears.
“I will weep and wail for the mountains and take up a lament concerning the desert pastures” (NIV).
The versions differ in translating this text in Jeremiah. The Hebrew text reads: “I will take up weeping and wailing,” with the “I” referring to God. This is the translation that was adopted by the NIV: “I will weep and wail for the mountains and take up a lament concerning the desert pastures.”
The NRSV follows the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The NRSV reads: “Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains, and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness.” The NRSV translation addresses the community, inviting the people to mourn for the land. The reason the Septuagint changed the Hebrew text was to avoid the fact that the text presents God grieving and weeping over the devastation of the land caused by the Babylonian invasion. However, the Hebrew text must be followed here. The text shows God weeping and wailing over the devastation of the land. God weeps and wails because the land is laid waste, because the lowing of the cattle is not heard, and because the birds and the animals have fled and disappeared.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skilled 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.”
In this text, God continues to express his grief which he mentioned in Jeremiah 9:10. In Jeremiah 9:10 God said that he “will weep and wail” for the devastation of the land and for the unfaithfulness of the people of Judah. In this present text, God says that he does not want to weep alone. He calls for the mourning women to weep with him.
In Judah, public lamentation was conducted by professional women who specialized in conducting community lament. These professional mourners are commanded by God to raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water (emphasis mine). Here God includes himself with the professional mourners weeping for the people. In his study of this text, Abraham Heschel emphasizes the pathos of God as God joins the women in lamenting for the people. Heschel wrote: “Does not the word of God mean: Cry for Israel and for Me? The voice of God calling upon the people to weep, lament, and mourn, for the calamities are about to descend upon them, is itself a voice of grief, a voice of weeping” (Heschel 1962:113).
Then the Lord instructs the women what to say. The Lord said: “Hear, O women, the word of the LORD, and let your ears receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament. ‘Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares.’ Speak! Thus says the LORD: ‘Human corpses shall fall like dung upon the open field, like sheaves behind the reaper, and no one shall gather them’” (Jeremiah 9:20-22).
The Lord weeps for his people because death will affect the whole population of Jerusalem, those living in the palace; men, women, and children who live in the city; and even the people who live in the villages of Judah. The devastation of Judah moves God to tears for his people. The coming of this devastation cannot be averted because of Judah’s refusal to repent. The enemy, like a reaper, will cut down the people and pile the corpses “like sheaves.”
“But if you do not listen I will weep in secret because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the LORD’s flock will be taken captive” (Jeremiah 13:17 NIV).
Jeremiah has announced that devastation and exile are coming and the only way to avert the coming day of judgment was by repenting and by giving glory to Yahweh: “Give glory to the LORD your God before he brings darkness, and before your feet stumble on the mountains at twilight” (Jeremiah 13:16).
The focus of Jeremiah 13:17, according to Fretheim, “is on the effect that the captivity of Israel will have on Jeremiah/God! That Israel is here named ‘the Lord’s flock’ shows that the focus is not on the flock but on the shepherd, God. God is deeply affected by how Israel does or does not respond” (Fretheim 2002:209).
The anguish of the prophet is the anguish of God. In commenting on the anguish of the prophet as he contemplated the devastation of the nation, Heschel wrote: “When the catastrophe came, and the enemy mercilessly killed men, women, and children, the prophet must have discovered that the agony was greater than the heart could feel, that his grief was more than his soul could weep for” (Heschel 1962:121).
“You shall say to them this word: Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease, for the virgin daughter – my people – is struck down with a crushing blow, with a very grievous wound.”
Jeremiah 14:17 introduces another divine lament, “a lament that speaks of God’s tear-filled eyes over what has happened to the people in these destructive events” (Fretheim 2002:224).
The statement in this verse is striking because, as Brueggemann wrote, the pathos of Jeremiah is the pathos of God (Brueggemann 1988:132). The reason for God’s grief is because of the attitude of the people. They have confessed their iniquities: “Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O LORD, for your name’s sake; our apostasies indeed are many, and we have sinned against you” (Jeremiah 14:7). However, God does not act because the people do not know the true character of God. The people said that God was absent, “like a stranger in the land” (Jeremiah 14:8). They believed that God was unable to save because he was “someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help” (Jeremiah 14:9).
In response to the people’s action and rejection of him, God tells Jeremiah not to pray for the people: “The LORD said to me: Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Although they fast, I do not hear their cry” (Jeremiah 14:11-12).
Jeremiah blames the fate of the people on the prophets who are proclaiming a false message of salvation. Jeremiah said to God: “Ah, Lord GOD! Here are the prophets saying to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you true peace in this place’” (Jeremiah 14:13). In response to Jeremiah, God commands Jeremiah to send a message to the false prophets, a message in which God expresses his grief for the situation of the people. God told Jeremiah: “You shall say to them this word: Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease, for the virgin daughter – my people – is struck down with a crushing blow, with a very grievous wound.”
The coming judgment upon the people is the cause of God’s grief, a grief so intense that the tears in his eyes are unending, just as they were in Jeremiah 9:1. God’s grief is because “my people” will be devastated, with a crushing blow, causing wounds that refuse to be healed.
The expression “Let my eyes run down with tears” in Hebrew is a jussive and it carries the idea of something that is certain, something that is already occurring. The NET Bible has a better translation of this verse: “My eyes overflow with tears day and night without ceasing. For my people, my dear children, have suffered a crushing blow. They have suffered a serious wound.”
Fretheim, in his commentary on Jeremiah, deals with the paradox of a God who judges and weeps. He wrote:
“The reason for this revelation of the divine emotions is to give readers a glimpse of the inner-divine side of wrath. The God who judges is also the God who weeps. This God is not punitive or uncaring with respect to what the people have had to endure. Such a portrayal of God is important in any interpretation of these events. Exilic readers of this material are reminded that this is the kind of God with whom they are related. This God is genuinely caught up in what has happened and mourns over the disasters experienced by this ‘virgin daughter,’ responding like any good parent would” (Fretheim 2002:224).
Jeremiah 14:17 is the last text in the book of Jeremiah which mentions the tears of God. Israel refused to repent and turn to God. Jeremiah, more than any other prophet, called Israel to repent and turn to God. When they refused to repent, Yahweh told Jeremiah to stop praying for the people: “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble” (Jeremiah 11:14).
The people’s recalcitrant attitude and their rejection of God forced God to bring the judgment which he did not want to bring upon his people. The Lord told Jeremiah: “I have withdrawn my blessing, my love and my pity from this people, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 16:5). Bosworth wrote: “As a result of this withdrawal of love and compassion, YHWH no longer weeps for Israel and expects Jeremiah to stop weeping in order to manifest this divine detachment as he has previously manifested YHWH’s care and concern (Bosworth 2013:43).
The suffering of God for his people is clearly seen in the words and actions of Jeremiah. It is unfortunate that some Christians try to dismiss the tears of God in order to defend a theological position about the impassibility of God that clearly goes against what the Old Testament teaches about the nature and character of God.
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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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.
Fretheim, Terence. Jeremiah. Macon, GA: 2002.
Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. New York: HarperCollins, 1962.
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