The prophet Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37).
King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Sure enough, after Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE, they pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell of Judah in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Ki 25:21).
Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile—although personally, he was sent into exile in Egypt, even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements.
Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.
“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.
Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). That is the passage that is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday. The grief of the times led Jeremiah to an expression of utter despair: “is there no balm in Gilead?” (8:22).
The region of Gilead was the mountainous northern region of Transjordan, the land to the east of the Jordan River—an area which now is in the nation of Jordan. Whilst it was not part of the land of Canaan, it was promised to “half the time of Manasseh” (Deut 3:13; also Num 32:40). A medicinal perfume was made from a balsam shrub that grew in the area; it is noted in the Joseph story as being carried by a company of Ishmaelites who “came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt” (Gen 37:25).
This balm is also included in the present which Jacob later sent to the ruler of Egypt: “a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds” (Gen 43:11). According to Josephus, the Queen of Sheba brought “the root of the balsam” as a present to King Solomon (1 Ki 10:10; Antiquities of the Jews 8.6); the balm was later noted, admiringly, by a string of writers (Pliny, Tacitus, Florus, and Diodorus Siculus). It forms a saying in contemporary life, referring to a certain cure,
Jeremiah continues after this oracle of woe to denounce the worship of idols that the people perpetuate (10:1–16) and their breaches of the covenant (11:1–17). As a result, his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20). He declares that God condemns others who are prophesying; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18).
The prophet then dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).
The message of Jeremiah up to this point is stark, confronting, demanding: turn around, reshape your life, repent—or suffer the consequences. It’s no wonder that he felt aggrieved and despairing; who would respond? It’s a message that remains confronting and demanding for us, today. How do we respond?