Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Briefest of Histories

Manuscripts and ChaosStart

Jeremiah chapter 1 is about the call of Jeremiah and the fortitude with which he would be strengthened. He would have a hard message and long weary and hard years to drive it home. And so he begins:

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
    Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying,
        Thus says the LORD,
            I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth,
                The love of your betrothals,
            Your following after Me in the wilderness,
                Through a land not sown.
            Israel was holy to the LORD,
                The first of His harvest.
            All who ate of it became guilty;
                Evil came upon them.
        declares the LORD.

The word of the LORD

Note the style of Jeremiah's proclamation. He begins with an event that happened: "The word of the LORD came to me..." It leaves us wondering about the nature of this. Did he see a vision? Was it some internal manifestation? We are not told. All that we can surmise is that it left no doubt as to its origin.

Then there is the curious bracketing of the message, "Thus says the LORD, message, declares the LORD." What are we to make of this? It almost seems that by the time we get to the message we are at least 2 levels removed from the source. In other words, the LORD is not speaking directly to Jeremiah, but rather through an agent or means (i.e. the word of the LORD) who passes on the message to Jeremiah. In passages such as this, Jeremiah makes clear that he is only, if you will, the message bearer who makes no special claims of status before God.

The Message

The meaning of the message seems clear enough on a quick read, "You used to love and follow me, but you don't anymore. You are guilty and evil."

But a detailed reading becomes mysterious. There are 4 parallel couplets that carry this message. The first three couplets seem positive enough. They almost sound like an older parent reminiscing about the days of his children's youth. But as words from the LORD concerning His people, even these simple phrases make one pause.

I remember concerning the devotion of your youth / The love of your betrothals. The phrase "devotion of your youth" is easy enough. One can imagine the days of the patriarchs and the steadfast connection they had with the LORD. It is somewhat harder to connect this with the children of Israel in the general case, because they are often described as stubborn and hard-hearted, but even so there was always a remnant in every generation. However, if it is easy to understand "devotion of your youth" what are we to make of "the love of your betrothals?" Why is there more than one? I almost think of this in terms of generation after generation of Jacob's descendants renewing their connection with the LORD. In other words, Jacob loved the LORD and his children for generation after generation connected themselves intimately with their God.

Your following after Me in the wilderness / Through a land not sown. If the first couplet was about the Patriarchs and the generations after them, we can see that this couplet contains the next important phase in the history of Jeremiah's countrymen. This is the period of time when God took the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and made a nation out of them. The phrase "land not sown" is the bridge to the next couplet.

Israel was holy to the LORD / The first of His harvest. We have moved from a "land not sown" to a harvest. We have moved from the days of the patriarchs to the wilderness wanderings and now come to the nation of Israel. The point of the message at this juncture is that all should have gone well. There was love and devotion. There was a following during a difficult time. There was a sowing and a harvest. We would anticipate a return generation after generation.

All who ate of it became guilty; / Evil came upon them. But things turned sour. The descendants of Israel delighted to receive the benefits of the harvest, but they failed, in a sense, to re-sow the seed. Instead of becoming holy and maintaining their devotion and continuing to follow, they became guilty. Then evil came.

In short these four couplets contain the entire history of the children of Israel from the days of the patriarchs to Jeremiah's own day. Evil has fallen upon the land and its people. It will be up to Jeremiah to bring the charge. From this introduction, Jeremiah will lay out the legal case against his own countrymen. It is important to remember how far removed they are from the LORD who planted them.

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