'Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem' by Rembrandt. Wikimedia Commons

Hope Beyond All Hope

Mocked, never believed, arrested, beaten, condemned to death. But after exile there is return; after the cross comes resurrection. The story of one of the most dramatic figures of the Old Testament
Roberto Copello

Traitor, collaborationist, jinx… His whole life long, Jeremiah, whom someone has even called “the prophet who never smiled,” was given labels like these. In truth, he is perhaps the most dramatic figure of the Old Testament, the prototype of the contradictions and sufferings of Israel. No other Biblical prophet belongs so completely to his epoch, no other saw his own destiny so inextricably linked with that of his people.

He lived at the time of the Athenian lawgiver Solon, but he has often been compared to Cato, the scourge of Roman customs, or to the mythical Cassandra in the Iliad, who predicted the destruction of Troy (although she was not taken seriously by anyone). For years and years, he never ceased condemning the moral and religious degeneration of the people of Israel, foretelling the most terrible catastrophes, but no one ever paid him any heed. Moreover, he was accused of treason and defeatism, mocked, arrested, beaten, tortured, and even condemned to death. A veritable scapegoat for a blind nation, Jeremiah has, as a result, often been seen as a figure foreshadowing Christ–not only does he speak in God’s name and predict the future, but his very life has prophetic overtones. Just as Jesus would do after him, Jeremiah foretold the destruction of the Temple, wept over the future ruin of Jerusalem, condemned the conduct of the priests, was misunderstood by his countrymen, and was humiliated and sentenced to death. Jeremiah speaks of himself as “a trustful lamb being led to the slaughterhouse” (Jer 11:19), in a sense embodying the suffering Lamb of God prophesied by Isaiah (Is 53:7). After Jeremiah, a just man who suffered unjustly, the Hebrew people would no longer be justified in claiming that a mechanical link exists between human behavior and divine retribution. No one should be amazed, then, if the Messiah is a figure of suffering, not a triumphant sovereign. Jeremiah’s very life prepares for the acceptance of the bitterness of the Cross and the glory of the Resurrection.

A tragic framework
His condemnation of sin and prophecies of misfortune are, however, always tied to a message of hope and the prospects for rebirth, for return from the Babylonian exile. And Christ, too, in order to affirm His victory over death, would have first to go by way of the Cross.
To understand the figure of Jeremiah, it is necessary to establish the historical framework in which he lived (see also the timeline that follows). Between the seventh and sixth centuries, the Middle East was torn apart by a series of unprecedented conflicts, a “desert storm” which involved Egyptians, Assyrians, Chaldaeans, Medes, and even the Scythians from the Black Sea. In the end, an alliance made up of the Chaldaeans (whose capital was Babylon) and Medes (whose capital was in Ecbatana), divided up control over the region. Palestine in those years became a passageway for foreign armies and was occupied first briefly by the Egyptians and then by the army of the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar, who put down repeated revolts (often set-off by matters of taxation) and finally razed the Temple of Jerusalem to the ground, deporting the Hebrews to Babylon. In these years, the Hebrew people suffered from lost battles, internal political divisions, and moral decline among the people and the priests (who were insensitive to attempts at religious reform and increasingly attracted to superstitious beliefs). The political factions stand out for their absolute lack of realism. The religious fanatics of the party of Zion blindly believed that the Temple was an invincible, indestructible talisman which would preserve Jerusalem forever (a thesis which had, moreover, already been sustained by Isaiah). The war party thought only of organizing terrorist actions against the Babylonians, which exposed the civilian population to bitter reprisals, while the Nile party looked to the Egyptians as possible liberators from the Babylonian yoke. In this context of uncertainty and fear, disappointed even by their own religious leaders, the people forgot Yahweh, no longer respected the Sabbath, entrusted themselves more and more to idols, to Baal, and to false prophets, who used diviners and soothsayers to foretell the future (cf. Jer 27:9). The kings did not respect the Biblical rule requiring slaves to be freed after seven years. There were even those who immolated children as human sacrifices to idols.

The loss of memory
This is the dramatic framework in which Jeremiah preached; among all the Biblical prophets, he is the one whose biography we know best. The son of the priest Hilkiah, he was born in Anathoth, 8 miles northeast of Jerusalem (the date is hard to establish) and was called very early to carry out his prophetic mission, perhaps in 626, during the reign of the reformer Josiah, with whom it seems he enjoyed a good relationship (Jer 22:16). Jeremiah was so young that he begged the Lord to allow him to lead a normal life and to exonerate him from the task of scourging the people of Israel (for having betrayed the God of Moses by devoting to Him an empty, formal religion) and from the task of prophesying an invasion of foreigners “from the north,” who would deport the Jews and destroy Solomon’s Temple. Jeremiah’s fears are understandable: to state that the Temple would be destroyed was inconceivable, since it seemed to deny the promise of eternal faithfulness made by God to Abraham and Moses. Jeremiah even went so far as to curse the day he was born, but God reassured him, promising that He would always be by his side: “If you distinguish between the precious and the base, you shall be as my own mouth…. I shall make you a fortified wall of bronze. They will fight against you but will not overcome you, because I am with you to save you and rescue you.” (Ger 15:19-20) Jeremiah’s own life thus becomes a sign; he even renounced marriage, because he did not want to bring into the world children who would “meet their end by sword and famine” (Jer 16:4).

Jeremiah saw the catastrophe of his people as a moral necessity, an inevitable consequence of the guilt of an entire people who no longer remembered its history. The Hebrews, blindly counting on the Covenant guaranteed by the Lord, and on the Ark preserved in the Temple, felt that as a result they were safe and could allow themselves any kind of sin, because in any case the Lord was with them! Having pulled out from under the yoke of the Lord, Jeremiah told them, the chosen people would fall under the yoke of strangers. The prophet thus established a causal connection between crime and punishment. But the task assigned to him by God was not only destructive: “Look, today I have set you over the nations and kingdoms, to uproot and to knock down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer 1:10). It was also to build and to plant, then. But first it was necessary to uproot. This is the reason for the extreme harshness of Jeremiah’s speech, his obsessive repetition of one sole motif, chapter after chapter, before he got to the point of announcing their future liberation, return to the fatherland, rebirth–something that the eyes of the prophet would not see.

A burning fire
In 609, Josiah was killed and the Pharaoh Necho II set Josiah’s son Jehoiakim on the throne of Judah. To prophesy a Babylonian victory in that moment seemed like madness, and Jeremiah was not at all eager to open his mouth. But an irresistible force pushed him to speak. “There seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not do it.” He stood at the gates of the Temple and proclaimed to all who entered: “Do not put your faith in delusive words such as: This is Yahweh’s sanctuary, Yahweh’s sanctuary, Yahweh’s sanctuary!” (Jer 7:4) In a word, it is not enough to offer sacrifices in the Temple if you then go on adoring idols, stealing, and killing. Faith is not enough without works. Already, in his little town Anathoth, the prophet had received death threats. Even worse things now happened to him in Jerusalem. First a slander campaign was started against him (Jer 18:18), then he underwent torture and harassment of every sort, and finally he was even condemned to death.

The fact is that Jeremiah was completely uncompromising with regard to those in power. Rather, he never lost a chance to provoke and stir them up. The prophet was inflexible with priests and rulers. He threw up in King Jehoiakim’s face the ambition that led him to build a grandiose palace, forcing his subjects to work without pay. When he was forbidden to enter the Temple, Jeremiah began dictating to his secretary Baruch terrible messages about the imminent invasion of the Babylonians (Jer 36). Baruch went to read them in the temple, but King Jehoiakim ordered the scrolls to be brought to him and thrown into the fire. He then ordered the arrest of Jeremiah and Baruch; however, they ran away. Jeremiah had the prophecies written down again, and concerning the king announced, “He will have a donkey’s funeral–dragged away and thrown out of the gates of Jerusalem” (Jer 22:19). This in fact came true, and when his successor Jehoiachin ascended the throne, the prophet immediately called him “a man who has made a failure of his life” (Jer 22:30), and then predicted that the king and his mother would be deported to a foreign land. Within just three short months, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops assailed the walls of Jerusalem and deported the king and the heads of the people to Babylon, in the year 597. Jeremiah’s opinion of the new king, the 21-year-old Zedekiah, was no better. The new ruler was soon the object of a prophetic vision of two baskets set in front of the Temple (Jer 24): one was full of very good figs, like the first-ripened, which symbolized the beloved children who had been deported to Babylon but were deserving of the Lord’s help to return to their homeland; and another basket was full of bad figs, so bad as to be uneatable, destined like King Zedekiah and his ministers to be thrown away.

More destruction
When Nebuchadnezzar declared a new war on Israel, Zedekiah asked Jeremiah to consult the Lord so that He might bring about a miracle and chase away the enemy. Jeremiah’s response was to announce the destruction of Jerusalem and a long period of slavery: “… this whole country will be reduced to ruin and desolation, and these nations will be enslaved to the king of Babylon for seventy years” (Jer 25:11). Jeremiah even advised the Hebrews to surrender: “… anyone who leaves it and surrenders to the Chaldaeans now besieging you will live; he will escape with his life” (Jer 21:9 and 38:2). This was enough to consider the prophet a traitor, perhaps even a collaborator. In reality, when Jeremiah affirmed the necessity to accept the Babylonian domination, it was not only out of political realism. What led him to do it above all was the conviction that the true dominion over the world is God’s, and it is necessary to submit to His mysterious plan even when He has harsh trials in store for His chosen ones. Those in power, however, were not to be called into question: the head of the Temple guards, Pashhur, had Jeremiah whipped and left him chained for a day and a night near Benjamin’s Gate. The next day Jeremiah, who was not at all softened, prophesied to Pashhur–“… you and all your friends to whom you have prophesied lies” (Jer 20:6)–his deportation and death in Babylon. In short, nothing could bend the prophet. His moral strength came to him from a higher conviction and from what the Lord had promised him: that he would not die at the hands of his opponents (Jer 39:17-18). Jeremiah was thus calm even when priests and false prophets called for him to be sentenced to death. Also, part of the crowd was on his side, and he could count on the protection of an important personage, Ahikam (Jer 26:24).

Wood and iron
Jeremiah’s dispute with the prophet Hananiah in the Temple was a significant one (Jer 27), with Hananiah taking a demagogical and utopian position. In 593 King Zedekiah met with ambassadors from the neighboring countries to plot a possible rebellion against Babylon. Jeremiah, making one of his gestures of provocation, came with a wooden yoke across his shoulders. From that moment on, he preached that only by accepting the yoke of Babylon would they be able to stay in the land of Judah. Hananiah, instead, prophesied the return “within two years” of the Hebrew elite who were prisoners in Babylon, and to make his point even clearer he took Jeremiah’s yoke and broke it in two. Jeremiah, who was accused of prophesying falsely, responded harshly. Not only did he announce that Nebuchadnezzar would replace the wooden yoke with one of iron, but he prophesied to Hananiah his death within a year, “since you have preached rebellion against Yahweh.” Hananiah did die soon thereafter.

Then, on the eve of the new Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, Jeremiah amazed everyone by deciding to buy a field from one of his relatives, in his birthplace of Anathoth, and he gave the contract to Baruch so that he could put it in a safe place (by burying it in a clay jar). This was an affirmation of faith in the Lord, an invitation to hope, in the certainty that Jerusalem would be taken but that life would go on, and that in the future the lands that were devastated and abandoned would be once again cultivated and inhabited by the chosen people (Jer 32). When, however, Jeremiah wanted to go look at the field, he was stopped by the guards near a gate of the city. They accused him of wanting to go over to the Babylonian side (Jer 37:14), and threw him in jail. Some dignitaries went to King Zedekiah: “You must have this man put to death: he is unquestioningly disheartening the remaining soldiers in the city, and all the people too, by talking like this. This man is seeking not the welfare of the people but their ruin” (Jer 38:4). Jeremiah was thus thrown to the bottom of a muddy well, and his fate seemed to be sealed, but a high Ethiopian official (a foreigner!) took his side, persuading the king (who must have begun to nourish some doubts about his own fate) to pull him out and place him back in his cell. Then the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, blinded Zedekiah, and deported him in chains.

Before burning the Temple and the royal palace, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the Babylonian commander of the guard Nebuzaradan to free Jeremiah from prison, and to offer him protection and gifts. According to a dubious tradition reported in II Maccabees 2:1-12, Jeremiah immediately took advantage of the Babylonian king’s benevolence to perform an enormously important task: it seems he hid the Ark of the Covenant, to keep it safe, in a cave on Mount Nebo, where God Himself will cause it to be found again at the end of time. Nebuzaradan even offered the prophet the possibility of an exile of luxury: “Look, today I am having your hands unchained. If you would like to come with me to Babylon, come: I shall look after you. If you do not want to come with me to Babylon, do not. Look, you have the whole country before you: go wherever you think it best and most suitable to go” (Jer 40:4). Jeremiah did just this, staying in Yahweh’s devastated vineyard, a country by that point at the mercy of scattered soldiers and armed bands. When, however, to escape the Babylonian soldiers, a band of partisans fled to Egypt, they forced Jeremiah to go with them, even though he tried to dissuade them from leaving by pronouncing one of his dreadful prophecies. It was impossible to silence him; in Egypt, too, he continued to prophesy mishap and death for the rest of the people of Israel, even though he was no easier on the Babylonians, to whom he addressed fierce invectives. After this we have no further certain information about Jeremiah. According to Tertullian, who wrote eight centuries later, the prophet met with martyrdom in Egypt, stoned to death by his fellow countrymen. In the meantime, however, during the Babylonian captivity, the best portion of the people of Judah continued to read his prophecies avidly, especially those about the return to the Promised Land, the proof that God had not abandoned His people and would not betray the promises made to Abraham and Moses. The letters in which Jeremiah recommended to the exiles to work and marry, leading a normal life also in exile, would become a paradigm for the Jews of the Diaspora even down to our own day. And thus the fame of Jeremiah would grow through the centuries, in step with the fulfillment of each of his prophecies, with the establishment of a “new covenant” between God and His people (Jer 31:31-34), with the growth of a sense of guilt among the Hebrew people. And when Jesus asked His disciples what people were saying about Him, they answered, “Some say You are John the Baptist, others the prophet Elijah, others Jeremiah…”