Jeremiah

Jeremiah is one of the most complex and sad figures in all human history. In many respects he represents the quintessential Jew, because he carried with him the terrible tragedy of his people and yet is the author of some of the greatest and most beautiful lines of hope ever written.

He lived in the aftermath of the terrible failure that was Manasseh, the most destructive Judean king. When Hezekiah refused the mantle that could have led him to become the Messiah, as we discussed, the vacuum of that lost opportunity was filled by the debacle of Manasseh, who reversed almost all the good Hezekiah did.

After Manasseh, Judea began an irreversible slide. Jeremiah lived during that slide, a period covering the last five kings of Judea, and was ultimately eye-witness to the destruction of the Temple.

Josiah

The first of those last five kings, Manasseh’s heir Josiah, was the last great king of Judea. He restored the Jewish kingdom again to spiritual greatness. “There never was anyone like him who returned to God with all his heart, all his soul and all his might…” (II Kings 23:25).

Josiah was an extraordinarily righteous king who reigned for 30 years. Nevertheless, even the righteous can make mistakes, and he made a grievous one by embarking on an ill-advised war with Egypt.

The Egyptians did not even want to fight the Judeans. Their goal was to pass through Judea to fight the Babylonians (II Chronicles 35:21). However, Josiah forbade them to pass through, relying on his interpretation of the verse: “Not even a [peaceful] sword shall go through your land” (Leviticus 26:6).[1]

The Egyptians did not heed his command and marched their army into Judea. Josiah led his army out into battle to face the Egyptians and exposed himself to frontline dangers. Unfortunately, enemy archers spotted him and shot hundreds of arrows into his body until blood flowed from him like a sieve.

As he lay dying with hundreds of arrows in his body, his last words were: “God is righteous; I did not listen to Him.”[2] His death was especially tragic not just because it was the death of a righteous king, but because it marked the death knell of the kingdom. With his demise the hopes of Judea were buried. His successors were just caretakers until the destruction of the Temple.

Jeremiah — The Unpopular Prophet

Jeremiah was born on the ninth day of the month of Av, the date of infamy on the Jewish calendar when so many terrible things over the ages occurred, including the destruction of both Temples more than four centuries apart.

Jeremiah was a very unpopular figure in his day. Prophets were often unpopular figures anyway. No one likes others pointing out shortcomings that need correction, but a prophet forecasting continual doom grates on everyone’s nerves.

Therefore, people looked for supposed chinks in his armor whenever they could. They claimed that he always prophesied negatively because he was lacking love for the Jewish people. Nothing could be further than the truth. His great pain about the situation stemmed from his great love of the Jewish people. His “sin” was that he saw the truth that others were loathe admitting.

In retrospect we know that it was Jeremiah who saw the situation clearly. He saw Judea for what is was: a small, defenseless country in a world where the empire of Babylon was growing stronger and more aggressive by the hour.

In a pure political sense, Jeremiah knew there was no other realistic option other than making an accommodation with Babylon. In a spiritual sense, he told the people that they had to give up the pagan, idol-worshipping lifestyle of the surrounding nations and do what God wanted them to do. Only then would God save them.

His words not only fell on deaf ears, but were translated in the “media” as seditious and treasonous. Instead of the potential hero of the Jewish people, he was cast as the villain. A great deal of Jeremiah’s message was discounted by the people before they even heard it.

It is not coincidence that in Rembrandt’s famous painting of him – notwithstanding the fact that we have no idea what Jeremiah really looked like – the anguish and sadness can be seen on the lines of his face. The pathos of the situation leaps at you from the canvas.

In the Dungeon

After the death of Josiah, there were four kings before the destruction: Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah, covering a period of 23 years. Jeremiah was the main prophet during each of their reigns. Even those kings who were well-meaning were unwilling to accept the burden that Jeremiah placed upon them. When he got too much for them they mocked him or were physically violent toward him.

In the time of Jehoiakim, he had him arrested and put him in a dungeon (Jeremiah 38:6). The chamberlain of the king’s court, Jonathan, was Jeremiah’s archenemy. “Put your head down in the mud,” he mocked Jeremiah, “maybe you will get a good night’s sleep.”

Fortunately, Jeremiah was saved by a servant who lowered a rope and pulled him up to freedom. However, Jeremiah was never the same after that. Indeed, the king and his court did not treat him the same. Originally, Jeremiah had access to the king. He could tell him his prophecies. However, after he was put in the dungeon, Jeremiah no longer had that access. He was considered an enemy of the state. Everything he said was discounted.

Sadly, their disregard for the prophet’s words did not forestall disaster. Everything came completely true as Jeremiah predicted them.

Sharing Their Fate

After the destruction of Judea and the Temple, which we will discuss in detail later, Jeremiah was offered protection by the Babylonian authorities, who mistakenly interpreted his prophecies of doom to mean that he was a collaborator for their cause. Nevertheless, Jeremiah refused their protection. To the contrary, he wanted to share the fate of his people and went out to join each Jewish group taken to be slaughtered.

In recent history, there were Jews who saw the Holocaust coming and willingly went to share the fate of their brethren. Rabbi Elchanon Wasserman was one such example. He was in the United States just before World War II broke out in 1939. Everyone begged him not to return because it was obvious that the German invasion of Poland was imminent and that no matter what happened it was not going to be good. Nevertheless, he went back to be with his students, family and community fully aware that he was probably going back to a terrible fate, which indeed befell him when he was later murdered by the Nazis.

Despite Jeremiah’s efforts to share in the fate of his people, the Babylonians refused to kill him with the others. Eventually, the Babylonian general in charge, Nebuzaradan, told Jeremiah that he was explicitly forbidden to let him be killed (Jeremiah 39:11-12). Jeremiah accepted the protection, but refused to go into exile with the others to Babylon. Rather, he decided to go with the much smaller remnant of exiles to Egypt in an attempt to build the Jewish community there.

The Tragedy and the Ecstasy

When Jerusalem was besieged, the Babylonians set up their siege machines on huge mounds of dirt they had built outside the city. These mounds enabled them to not only see over the walls but fire a continuous stream of boulders and arrows, often burning, directly into the city, which inflicted tremendous damage.

Remarkably, as the very mounds were going up, God told Jeremiah to buy a piece of property in his home town of Anathoth, and he did so (Jeremiah 32:8). Bewildered, the prophet asked God why He instructed him to buy the property at that time when the Babylonian army was preparing the siege (ibid 32:25). Moreover, God had told him numerous times that the city and the Temple would be destroyed. How could God also tell him to buy property in the Land at that very time?

However, God’s purpose was to convey a tangible message of hope. Even at the time of destruction, He was directing Jeremiah to do an act representing confidence in the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people. “There will be a day when they will yet plant vineyards” (ibid. 32:43), God told the prophet. Buying the property at that very time was an affirmation of faith in the return to Zion that rings down through the centuries.

Despite his characterization as the prophet of doom, Jeremiah uttered some of the greatest words of sympathy and hope for the Jewish people (see, for example, the famous passage read traditionally on Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, Jeremiah 31:14-16). That is the paradox in Jeremiah. He had great hopes for the Jewish people even as he foresaw and was eye-witness to the destruction of Judea and the Temple. In his heart lay both the tragedy and the ecstasy: the tragedy of a ruination he could not prevent and the ecstasy of a new hope that would emerge from the rubble of defeat.

Ultimately, his teachings confirm that even though the end was imminent – it was not the end! The destruction would come, but there would yet be a rebuilding. It would be the end of one stage of Jewish history, but the beginning of another. There never is an end to Jewish history. Therein lays the secret to understanding the paradox that was the prophet Jeremiah.


[1] Talmud, Taanis 22b.

[2] Ibid.

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by
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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