21st Sunday After Pentecost
October 9, 2016
Commentary on the Texts
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
This reading is from a section of the book of Jeremiah that records the difficulties the prophet faced because of his message of destruction for Judah (chs. 26-29), especially his conflict with other prophets who proclaimed immediate deliverance from the Babylonians (e.g., Hananiah and Shemaiah). Chapter 26 dates to 609 BC, and records the opposition Jeremiah created when he challenged the centrality of the Temple in Israel's religious life. Chapters 27-29 are dated a little later in the reign of Zedekiah, the puppet king installed by the Babylonians after Jehoiachin surrendered Jerusalem to them in 598 (for more detail on this historical setting, see The Rise of Babylon and Exile, especially on the reigns of Jehoiachin and Zedekiah). These chapters more directly address the tension between prophets who spoke for God, yet proclaimed contradictory messages.
Since the city of Jerusalem had not been destroyed in the first Babylonian invasion in 598, many Israelites were still holding out hope for some last minute reprieve from the destruction that Jeremiah had so long been proclaiming. Promised aid from surrounding nations, especially Pharaoh Hophra of Egypt, encouraged this optimism.
Too, the theological dogma of the inviolability of Zion, the idea that Jerusalem could not be destroyed because God dwelt there in the Temple, had developed since the deliverance of the city from the Assyrians in the time of Hezekiah (ca. 701; see Assyrian Dominance, especially the reign of Hezekiah). That idea made it easy for other prophets to proclaim that God would act the same way in this situation and deliver the city. Even among the exiles who had been taken to Babylon after the first invasion there was agitation for rebellion, fueled by prophets there like Shemaiah who claimed that God would act quickly against Babylon (29:24-32).
Yet, Jeremiah remained resolute in his opposition to the "quick fix" prophets. He challenged them directly at home in the person of Hananiah (ch. 28), as well as those in Babylon represented by Shemaiah. There was free communication between the exiles and Jerusalem, so Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles proclaiming the same message that he had been proclaiming for 40 years, that the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Babylonians, adding that the exile would not soon be ended.
This reading represents part of the content of Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Babylon. We do not know how many letters Jeremiah wrote, but the indication is that there were at least two (29:1, 31). We probably do not have the exact wording of the letter (of letters), but a summary of its significant content. There may be some editorial expansion within the chapter as well, as the later community who had suffered through the very disaster Jeremiah proclaimed verified Jeremiah's message and interpreted his words in light of their own experience. Verses 16-20 are not in the Greek version of Jeremiah (Septuagint), so these verses may represent that later theological reflection.
Some have suggested that the entire section of chapters 27-29 is an independent tradition within the surrounding material. They cite as evidence the fact the names of several key figures, including Jeremiah, Zedekiah, and Nebuchadnezzar are spelled differently in this section than they are in the rest of the book. Also, they point to the fact that much of the following material is attributed to Baruch, Jeremiah's scribe.
The considerable differences between the Hebrew and Greek versions throughout the entire book at least seem to suggest that the book existed in two different forms within the post-exilic community, which would support the idea that different collections of the Jeremiah tradition were circulating within the community. This likely indicates that the Jeremiah traditions became the object of reflection and study in later generations as the people came to terms with the implications of his preaching, and with the fact that most had not been able to hear the word of God and had settled for something less. This bears witness to the theological importance of Jeremiah in the years following the exile.
In any case, the chapter represents the struggle to come to terms not just with the exile itself as a historical event, but with some of the theological implications that it precipitated. That makes these chapters of the book, and those immediately following in what is known as The Little Book of Consolation (chs. 30-33; see Commentaries on Jeremiah 31:7-14, 32:1-3a, 6-15, and 33:14-16), important for understanding how the community processed these events theologically in light of Jeremiah's message from God.
The letter opens with the introductory prophetic formula, "Thus says Yahweh Sebaoth, God of Israel" (v. 4). In typical fashion, this establishes the prophet's words as not his own but from God. However, in this context, there is a level of tension in this formula not usually present. In chapter 26 of this section, Jeremiah had to defend himself against accusations that he was not speaking for God (26:12, 15), and in the following chapter challenged prophets who brought a different message (27:9-11, 14-17). And then in chapter 28, the prophet Hananiah had used the exact prophetic formulation to challenge Jeremiah (28:2), claiming that his message was God's message and that Jeremiah's wasn't. This highlights one of the central issues of these chapters, the problem of determining whether a prophecy, a word from God, is true or false.
The implication here is that the formula, "Thus says Yahweh," is not by itself a valid indicator that a prophet's message is God's message. This helps reveal the larger and most important overarching issue in this text that the conflict between prophets highlights: the tension between established orthodoxy that is safe and credible, that expresses what the people have come to expect of God; and the lone voice that represents a newness in history, that speaks an upheaval of the status quo that cannot be contained in the old orthodoxy and the old promises, the "heresy" that is the true voice of God for the future (note the same tension when a new word of God challenged the old orthodoxy in Acts 5:34-39).
The immediate context for this tension in our reading is Jeremiah's instructions to the exiles contained in the letter. We need to examine the implications of his instructions for what they might help us understand about God and his work in human history. But we also need to keep in mind the issue that occasioned these instructions as the overarching aim of this text.
Jeremiah's instructions to the exiles who had been anxious to return home and would soon, if they had not already, attempt open rebellion against their captors, was to settle in for the long haul. Picking up from his call narrative in 1:10 two of the six theme words that have been woven throughout the book, he told them to "build" houses and "plant" crops (v. 5; see Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-10).
On one level, this was an appeal for the exiles to return some normalcy to their lives, to get on with the business of living rather than worrying about trying to make something happen that would not happen anyway. From a theological perspective, this was a call to embrace the reality of the exile, to let go of the past as forever gone, which is what Jeremiah had always told them. The old ways had ended. As hard as it would be for them to accept it, Jeremiah's message here is that the exile is the arena in which God would now work.
Jeremiah had already made this point in chapter 24 with the vision of the two baskets of figs. Jeremiah understood that the future for God's people did not lay with the survivors back in Jerusalem, because they could still trust the physical buildings and city, and were still placing their hopes in a set of beliefs about how they thought God worked in the world that were simply not true. The future, Jeremiah had graphically understood, lay with the exiles, because they were the only ones who were ready and open for a future since they really had no present in which to trust. But even then, before they could look to that new future into which God would lead them, they had to embrace the present as the arena in which God would work and abandon the false hopes they placed in military rebellion and trying to recreate what was already lost. If there was a future, it had to be God's future, not theirs.
On another level, these two words would become the core of the promise for a new future. While the present would be experienced as "plucked up, "pulled down," "destroyed," and "overthrown," the future would be characterized by "building" and "planting" (cf. 18:5-10). The use of these terms carry with them in Jeremiah the promise of newness beyond the "end" of exile. It was not a promise of restoration back to the way things were, but it was a promise of a new future that would emerge after the end. In this sense, these terms are as much theological confession as they are descriptive of new life in the land for returned exiles.
The thrust of the entire letter is that the exile will be much longer than they have hoped or anticipated. Later in the letter beyond our reading, Jeremiah gave them a figure of "seventy years" before they could think about returning (29:10, cf. 25:11). In effect, he told them that the generation that had gone into captivity would not be coming home at all. If there were any future for them beyond exile, it would be the next generation, their children who will see it.
So Jeremiah emphasized not only the settling down in the land, but called them to focus on the next generation, those who would be the bearers of any new future that was to come. They were to marry and have children. Like the command given to Adam to multiply, and like the increase of children in Egypt before the exodus the command was to multiply, to insure a future generation of children that will survive beyond the exile (v. 6). It is not the main point here, but this is an aspect in this text that often shows up in various ways in Scripture. Sometimes, the most important task for God's people in the midst of a barren present is to be faithful to God in such a way that the next generation can experience what the present generation has already lost or been unable to realize.
So, for example, Abraham lived his whole life anticipating a grand promise that he would never live to see accomplished. His task was to be the bearer of the promise so that future generations might experience it. For all the promises from God of being the father of a great nation, of possessing all the land that he had traversed, and being the means of blessing to the world, he died with one son still in the family and owned one cave where Sarah was buried.
For people who want it all now, it is a bitter realization that God's purposes in history, even his promises, are multigenerational. It seems to be a trait of human nature to have trouble investing in something that cannot be immediately profitable. Human beings tend to want to claim a promise from God as theirs now, rather than embracing the promise of God's work in the world and being a part of that work even though it may be for days to come. And yet, that is the task to which God through Jeremiah was calling the exiles.
But Jeremiah went even further than calling the people to be faithful to God. In one of the most extraordinary and seemingly incongruous passages in Scripture Jeremiah called the people to be concerned with the welfare of the very people who had taken them captive and would soon destroy their homeland. He even called on the captives to pray for the welfare of their captors.
The impact that this must have had on the exiles can perhaps be glimpsed in some of the plaintive and angry expressions of pain at the Babylonian invasions (e.g., Psa. 137, Lam. 4) and the certainty of its future downfall (Jer. 50:14-16, 51:1-24, Isa. 13:19-22, Zech. 2:7-9). Jeremiah had already been accused on more than one occasion of being in traitorous collaboration with Babylon, so this could be seen as another example of his pro-Babylonian stance. Yet, Jeremiah's advice here is not personal or political but profoundly theological.
The heart of this theological insight is found in the confession that God himself was at work in these tragic events: "where I have sent you into exile" (v. 7). Here we could debate whether God actually and personally caused the exile, but that would be to impose modern concerns on the text. Jeremiah has been unrelenting that God's purposes in the world were being served by the Babylonian invasion, and that it came because of Israel's failure to allow God to be God. Because of this perspective, Jeremiah could even call King Nebuchadnezzar, God's servant (25:9).
The issue is not ultimate cause. Rather, the issue for the exiles is how these events could possibly be seen in relation to God. Surely it seemed to them, given the horror of the invasions, that those events were beyond God's control. And yet, Jeremiah's perspective here is that the invasions do not place the people beyond God's concern or care. If they could first conceptualize the exile in terms of God and his larger work in the world rather than simply the raw power of Babylon that was too much for God to handle, then perhaps they could understand God's work to extend past exile.
But they first had to come to terms with the exile itself. If God really was at work in the exile, then they needed to accept the exile in order to accept God's work in the world. If God really was at work with the Babylonians and in some sense Nebuchadnezzar was God's servant, then the welfare of the Babylonians was, indeed, inextricably linked with their own welfare.
There is a great deal of political realism here, just as there is in the New Testament when Paul sends the escaped slave Onesimus back to his master with the instructions to "be a good slave for Jesus" (Philemon; cf. 1 Peter 2:18). That may grate on modern sensibilities. But it is more than just political realism. It is a powerful theological confession that God's people have more important things to be about than fighting political systems when nothing can really change anyway. It is in this same spirit that Jesus responded to those who were agitating for rebellion against Rome over taxes, a rebellion that would eventually result in the second destruction and loss of Jerusalem (Matt 22:21): "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." The exiles could not change their situation. So, Jeremiah instructs them to be faithful and wait rather than risk their future in futile attempts to rebel that would, in effect, be rebelling against God's larger purpose for future restoration.
Yet, there is a larger and more subtle dimension to this instruction that may have even more impact on understanding what it means to be God's people in the world. There is some sense of mission in the instructions to seek the welfare of the city in which they are captives. Here we must be careful not to drift into allegory and read this from our own context and thereby attempt to apply this too broadly.
Still, there is a sense in which the Israelite captives are called to enter into the culture in which they find themselves as a reflection of who they still are as God's people. They cannot become a hostile enclave withdrawn from the life of the empire of which they are a part, even when that empire is not one of their own choosing, or even one that is sympathetic to who they are. To do so would be to withdraw from one of the primary responsibilities God gave them from the beginning, to be a blessing to the world (Gen. 12:3). They cannot be a blessing to anyone if they have developed a sectarian mentality that allows them to withdraw from any engagement with the Babylonians because they are "evil."
In seeking the welfare of their captors, they will have fulfilled their calling as God's people, and will have allowed God to work in the world through them. They will have embraced the exile as a present reality, as God's present reality, which is the only way they can have a future. Rather than longing and fretting for the past or for a different present that they cannot create, Jeremiah called them to live as God's people where they find themselves, whether it is a time and a place and a circumstance of their own choosing or not. And as they seek the welfare, the peace [Heb: shalom], of Babylon, they will find that they have opened themselves up to their own peace, and the future.
It is at this point that the two issues in the text converge, perhaps in an unexpected way. The overarching issue in this reading in its context has been the tension between established orthodoxy that serves the status quo and the true prophetic voice of change and newness. The challenge has been that the preservation of tradition and traditional answers to the issues of life that have been true in the past, even those that might be supported by appeal to sacred texts, may in the dynamic of history themselves become false (note how, for example, Psa. 48 or Isa. 37:33-35 would have supported Hananiah's position). Hananiah was not a false prophet because he denied God or his power, or because what he said was something that other prophets like Isaiah had not said before him. He was a false prophet because he had not heard God's word for that time, because he assumed that what had been would always be.
The issue here is not absolute truth. That is a concern far removed from this text. The issue is how God's people apply God's truth in the reality of life. It is a warning against the fatal mistake of seeing one facet of God's truth in one context, and then assuming that it is the whole for all time. The message from this text on that level simply says that the word of God is dynamic in history. His word may call for one action at one time and another at another (cf. ch. 18). God's people must listen attentively for that living and active word lest they defend the old orthodoxy in a way that shuts out the newness that God would bring.
Which of the two most obvious Preaching Paths from this text one takes depends largely on whether the focus is more closely on the reading itself or places it in the larger context of the book. If we take the reading as more or less self contained, the focus is on Jeremiah's advice to the exiles. If we focus on the larger context, then the overarching issue of what constitutes a true word of God becomes central.
There is danger of distorting the text's message if we read it in isolation apart from the larger context. But with care to keep that context in mind, the text can become an effective means to address the "exile" of modern life in which so many people find themselves.
Here, if we are careful, we can understand "exile" as a metaphor for the catastrophic events that often loom unexpectedly in our lives. Like the Israelites in exile, some of those events are of our own making. We fail to respond to God adequately, do not listen to those who warn us of consequences, or stubbornly assume that nothing is wrong when our whole world is about to collapse into endings. And other events simply happen, because of other people's sin or inattention or stubbornness. But exile comes. Those times when all the old certainties are gone, when everything that we thought we were and everything that we had dreamed is gone. Forever.
Exile can come from a sin that shatters our lives. Exile can come in addictive behavior that alienates even those closest to us and slowly destroys us. It can come tragically in the death of a child by a drunken driver, or of a loved one from disease perhaps even caused by their own carelessness. It can come in divorce and the loss of a family. It can come with the failure of a business or the loss of a job. It can come simply from growing old and realizing that some things are now only in the past.
There is a time to rail against sin, to proclaim the judgement of God against sinners. But not to exiles. Exiles need something different. Exiles need two things. They need to come to terms with the reality of where they are. And they need to have hope that there is a future.
Here this text speaks powerfully. This reading may not be the first step in dealing with exile. Before this text can be heard, we may first have to deal with the anger and pain of exile, as Israel did in lament psalms (e.g., Psa. 137; see Patterns for Life, especially on Lament Psalms). But this reading provides the theological basis for coming to terms with the reality of where we are in exile, of realizing that we cannot go back. That is an important step in turning toward the future.
It is also here that the specific advice from Jeremiah may have application. This is not a word for all time and in all circumstances. Any application here must be judged appropriate in particular contexts to see if, indeed, this is God's word for the situation. But if it is, then the message is that we cannot continue trying to change what cannot be changed. If we try, we may only be directing limited energy to a futile effort to construct our world the way that is most comfortable for us, rather than allowing God to bring us through the pain of change for something better. This does not mean that God directly brings the exile only to make us better. That is questionable theology at best from our worldview. But it does affirm that exiles have possibilities that people who have never been in exile cannot have and cannot even dream!
And it calls us to our mission as people of God who are willing to allow God to work in whatever exile in which we find ourselves. Joseph sitting in Potiphar's prison, sold into slavery by his brothers and falsely accused of a crime, was in exile. And yet, Joseph sought the welfare of those who had mistreated him, both the Egyptians and his brothers. As a result, "many people were saved alive" (Gen. 50:20) because he embraced exile as the arena of God's work in his life. The apostles, and the early church, spread throughout the world because they were forced into exile, and yet it became the vehicle that God used to build his church. From our perspective, we do not want exile. Yet when it comes, there is a sense in which it becomes the arena in which God does some of his best work!
The second Preaching Path would take the overarching issue of what constitutes a true word of God as a starting point. Here likewise, we must be careful that the message is truly the word of God for a particular situation and not just the vehicle to express frustrations with systemic problems that may be far removed from the spirit of this passage.
Yet, there is a real sense in which God's people are called to reexamine the old orthodoxy, the old formulations, the old answers to life issues to see if they are really the answers in a different historical situation. We are called to examine whether our doctrines, our practices, our way of saying things and doing "church," even those that we can support by appeal to Scripture, have only become pious lies simply because they are no longer the living and active word of God for now.
This dimension of the text is disturbing. We cheer on Jeremiah, simply because we know the end of the story. Just like we cheer on Jesus, because we know about Sunday even on Friday! But if had been there in either circumstance, are we really so sure whose side we would have been on? Or would we have helped throw Jeremiah in prison, and helped drive nails into the cross?
It is a sobering thought to take that question seriously! It is that dimension that this text addresses. It is not a call to overthrow all tradition and all doctrine, to claim that we have no creed and belong to no church, to pretend that we hold to no theological opinions and practice nothing but pure worship. We cannot do that even if we wanted to or claim to do so. But it is a call to a careful consideration of how we might have slipped into the pious lie that intends more to make us comfortable in our orthodoxy than it calls us to be the active people of God in the world, who are willing to speak the truth in love when no one else is speaking it. It is a call to stand in the counsel of God, to hear and understand the word of God for today, and then to risk prison or execution at the hands even of our brothers and sisters in the Faith for the sake of proclaiming and living that word. It is a call to be empowered with the strength of God to ask painful and probing questions for the sake of others, even when religious orthodoxy has chosen the comfort of secure certainties.
As in the text itself, there is finally a convergence of these two Preaching Paths. Sometimes the old answers cannot address exile, simply because the old answers were formed in a stable world where the answers made sense. Sometimes in exile the old answers are only pious lies from those who are not and have never been in exile, and so can comprehend little beyond the certainty of the status quo. But increasingly in our modern world, the status quo is where fewer and fewer people live. Increasingly, people today live in exile. In such cases the only path to the future is the living and active word of God that will not settle for the old paths, but is willing to embrace the uncertainty of a new word for the possibility of God's future. Finally, the future rests, not on the reliability of pious answers whether true or false, but on the living God himself.
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