A new covenant with the people (Jeremiah 31; Pentecost 19C)

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). Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE and pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell 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. He is rightly known as a prophet of doom and gloom.

And yet, in the midst of his despair, Jeremiah sees hope: “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it” (30:3).

He goes on to report that the Lord says to the people, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people”, for “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away” (31:1–2).

This grace was made known to the people in the affirmation that God makes, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (31:3).

In this context, Jeremiah indicates that the Lord “will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:31–34). This covenant will give expression to the love and faithfulness of the Lord, which is how God’s grace is to be known by the people. This renewal of covenant is offered in grace; the requirements of the covenant make clear and tangible the grace-filled relationship that the people have with their God.

Clear appreciation for the grace that is offered to the people by the laws which guide the people to keep the covenant can be seen in the affirmation of the Torah as “perfect, reviving the soul … sure, making wise the simple … right, rejoicing the heart … clear enlightening the eyes … pure, enduring forever … true and righteous altogether … more to be desired than gold … sweeter also than honey” (Ps 19:7–14), and then by the majestically grand affirmations of Torah in the 176 verses which are artistically-arranged into acrostic stanzas of Psalm 119 (“happy are those … who walk in the way of the Lord … I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight”, vv.1, 174). The laws shape the way that the covenant is kept; the covenant gives expression to the steadfast love and grace of God.

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The renewal of the covenant was not a new idea in the story of Israel. God had entered into covenants with Abraham, the father of the nation (Gen 15:1–21) and before that, in the story of Noah, with “you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you … that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood” (Gen 9:8–11). The covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:1–6), accompanied by the giving of the law (Exod 20:1–23:33), is sealed in a ceremony by “the blood of the covenant” (Exod 24:1–8).

The covenant with the people that Moses brokered is renewed after the infamous incident of the golden bull (Exod 34:10–28), then it is renewed again under Joshua at Gilgal, as the people enter the land of Canaan after their decades of wilderness wandering (Josh 4:1–24). It is renewed yet again in the time of King Josiah, after the discovery of “a book of the law” and his consultation with the prophet Huldah (2 Chron 34:29–33).

The covenant will be renewed yet another time, after the lifetime of Jeremiah, when the exiled people of Judah return to the land under Nehemiah, when Ezra read from “the book of the law” for a full day (Neh 7:73b—8:12) and the leaders of the people made “a firm commitment in writing … in a sealed document” which they signed (Neh 9:38–10:39). So renewing the covenant, recalling the people to their fundamental commitments made in relationship with God, is not an unknown process in the story of ancient Israel.

However, the particular expression of renewal that Jeremiah articulates is significance, not only for the exiled Israelites, but also centuries later, for the followers of the man from Nazareth who came to be recognised as God’s Messiah. Jeremiah’s articulation of the promise of a “new covenant” will prove to be critical for the way that later writers portray the covenant renewal undertaken by Jesus of Nazareth (1 Cor 11:25; Luke 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6–18; Heb 8:8–12).

Especially significant is the claim that this renewed covenant “will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke” (Jer 31:32), for God “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33). It is a covenant which has “the forgiveness of sins” at its heart (31:34)— precisely what is said of the “new covenant” effected by Jesus (Matt 26:28; and see Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18).

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To signal his confidence in this promised return, Jeremiah buys a field in his hometown of Anathoth from his cousin Hanamel (32:1–15). the purchase serves to provide assurance that the exiled people will indeed return to the land of Israel; “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15).

Jeremiah exhorts the people to “give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (33:11). Here, Jeremiah makes use of a phrase that recurs in key places throughout Hebrew Scripture, where it crystallises what the Israelites appreciated about the nature of God. The Lord is said, a number of times, to be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9). This is the Lord God who enters into covenant, time and time and again, with the people.

There is a strong sequence of affirming, hopeful oracles which characterise this section of Jeremiah, from “the days are surely coming … when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors” (30:3) to “I will restore their fortunes, and will have mercy on them” (33:26). All of this is done because, as the Lord declares, “only if I had not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, would I reject the offspring of Jacob and of my servant David” (33:25–26). It is the covenant which holds the Lord and the people together.

So Jeremiah offers a clear sign of hope for the future; in the places laid waste by the Babylonians, “in all its towns there shall again be pasture for shepherds resting their flocks … flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who counts them, says the Lord” (33:12–13). As the people return to the land, the Lord “will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (33:15).

This oracle, also, is significant for the later community that developed from the followers of the man from Nazareth; the promise of a “righteous branch for David” becomes the title “Son of David”, which is then applied to Jesus in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 10:47–48; 12:35; Matt 1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31; 21:9, 15; 22:42; Luke 18:38–39). The whole sequence of oracles in this section of Jeremiah is of key significance for followers of Jesus in later ages.

Seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29; Pentecost 18C)

The Hebrew Scripture reading which the lectionary offers this coming Sunday is largely a letter—from Jeremiah, to some fellow-Jews, but written in the name of Jeremiah’s God. It is this letter which invites us to consider some important aspects of how we live our faith.

Jeremiah wrote this letter twenty-five centuries ago, a long, long time ago. Does this letter still hold relevance to us, today? Jeremiah wrote in the ancient Hebrew language, running from right to left across the page. It is most likely that the letter was written on a scrap cut from a roll of papyrus, or possibly leather; but there was no neat sheet of paper with carefully-inscribed words, or neatly-typed paragraphs, carefully folded into an envelope, such as we would expect of a letter today.

And not only does it look different, this letter was written to a very specific group of people, who were quite different from us. It was addressed to people in a very different situation from most of us; a group of people who had grown up in Israel, but were now refugees, sent into exile, forcibly removed from their homeland, mourning all that they had lost, and now trying to come to grip with their new life in the faraway land of Babylon.

Do you remember Psalm 137? By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept? This would have been the way that many of these people responded when they arrived in Babylon. And the fact that this Psalm is still in our Bible tells us that the people sang this song, for a long time; it was not just a top-40 wonder for a few weeks or months, but it was sung over and over, and became one of the sacred songs of the people for generations—through into our own time, in fact!

So this letter seems a somewhat unusual choice for the focus of our attention today, as the way in which the word of the Lord might possibly address us, in our settled, comfortable lives. What could it possibly have to offer us, as we reflect on our faith in the world of the 21st century?

And yet, the words have a distinctively contemporary, relevant feel about them. They speak of ordinary life, of family and home, of a life which is comfortable, settled, and peaceable. They speak of building relationships, undertaking good, honest work, and living with responsibility for those under our care. Hear again the heart of the letter: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Perhaps the heart of Jeremiah’s letter is in this simple phrase: seek the welfare of the city. This was the word of the Lord which addressed the disturbed and dispossessed Israelites who had tearfully followed their deposed Israelite King Jeconiah and his court into exile under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, wondering what awaited them there in this strange land. Could it be that this is also the word of the Lord which addresses comfortable, settled Australians, enjoying the fruits of hard work over many years, living in a time of ongoing material prosperity?

Some knowledge of the original language of the letter might be relevant as we ponder this matter. In the last verse of the letter, Jeremiah three times uses the one Hebrew word that probably most of us have heard and would recognize: the word shalom. Each time the NRSV translates this word in this letter, it uses the English term welfare. We know this word, perhaps more familiarly, through the slightly different translation, peace.

And perhaps we are also aware that the ancient sense of shalom encompasses not just peace (the absence of conflict), but also wholeness, fulfillment, security, satisfaction, a co-operative spirit, a sense that all is well with the world. This is what the fearful exiles were being encouraged to work towards.

What would it have meant for those homesick Israelites, long ago, to have been prepared to seek the welfare [the shalom—the peace—the wholeness] of the city?

I think that it might have meant things like this: Get ready for a long period of time away from “home”; there will be no quick fixes, no easy answers, no instant gratification. You are here, in this strange land, for the long haul. Settle down, make your peace with the locals. Be prepared to make this the new “home” for yourselves and your descendants.

I wonder how would we feel if that were the situation we were facing? It could mean: Be prepared to work co-operatively and constructively with the very people who have inflicted pain and suffering on you and your people. They dragged you away from home and set you to work in this strange place. They are the ones who forced you into this bad situation. They are “the enemy”. But God is telling you to work with them. To co-operate with your enemies. To love your enemies, perhaps? To co-operate with those who hold different points of view from yourself—in precisely the way that various groups in our society are learning that they must do.

The word of the Lord presents a serious challenge, then, to the exiles in Babylon.

Even more than this; Jeremiah delivers God’s message to the people in very specific ways: Be prepared to marry and raise families with people from outside of your group … be prepared to marry these strange, alien, unfamiliar people. You won’t be able to keep on marrying your own people, those who have come with you from Israel; the gene pool is too small for that to work for too long. So get yourselves ready, to marry a foreigner. You are the ones who are going to create a multi-ethnic community, a multi-cultural society.

And perhaps, then, the challenge to the people of Israel, in exile, was for them to lift their eyes above their immediate grief and pain, and do what was good, what made for peace, for the whole city. Through Jeremiah, God was telling them: Set your goals, not on the basis of what is good for me as an individual, but rather on what is best for the whole community. Seek the shalom of the city; the whole collection of human beings who are gathered in this one sprawling metropolis.

What was this city, in which they found themselves? It has been estimated that Babylon was the largest city in the world in the 17th century BCE, and again between 612 and 320 BCE— and of course it is during this latter period that Jeremiah was writing.  Babylon was probably the first city to reach a population above 200,000—a figure which seems relatively small to us when we think about cities, but which would have required complex administration and organization to ensure that, just as a start, all 200,000 inhabitants were fed each day. So seek the shalom of the city means that the Israelites were being challenged to immerse themselves in the largest population, the most vibrant and diverse community of people, at that time, in the ancient Near East.

And this is the point at which I believe this ancient Hebrew letter comes alive and speaks to us with a message of relevance for our own times and our own place. Seek the shalom of the city in which you live, work, relax, shop, and worship. How might we seek the welfare of our own cities?

City life, today, is marked by its diversity, its complexity, its ambiguities and uncertainties. This is particularly so as the nature of particular suburbs and areas change over time. Once quiet dormitory suburbs for people working in the city, in nearby business centres, can change, as different groups of people move in. As times change, the old certainties of suburban life no longer hold; the predictable patterns of comfortable middle-class lifestyle are challenged. We cannot ignore these changes; we cannot hide our faith from engagement in what is taking place around us.

Perhaps a different ethos emerges in the quiet dormitory suburb, as the area transforms into a regional transport hub, is filled with medium-density housing, caters to a greater concentration of students and aged people. All of these features can be gleaned from census material; all of these factors, and more, need to be part of the deliberations for a local Congregation as they consider those vital questions: who are we? what is our ministry? what might our ministry be? what sort of leadership is required for us to develop accordingly? These are questions that all Congregations should ask on a regular basis.

In the city, says Jeremiah, the people of God are to seek the welfare, the wholeness, the shalom, of the whole population. It is a charge that we ought to hear as a clear and direct word to each of us, and to the Congregation where we are active, as we seek to contribute to the welfare of the city. What do we have to offer, as the people of God in this time, in this place?

The Uniting Church is committed to being a church that takes seriously the context in which we are located. Our Basis of Union set out to ensure that we were formed as a church that was relevant to our Australian location—not simply a colonial copy of an English or Scottish church, but an authentically Australian church. I was privileged to be trained in theology in the early years of this church, when living out our faith in the Australian context was of paramount importance.

In past years, I have been part of Congregations that have sought to engage in active ways with people in their local communities: through a weekly School for Seniors programme; by offering a weekly meal at no cost to people in the local community who are poor, or lonely; by volunteering with the telephone ministry Lifeline; by engaging with local artists in a programme called Arts in Action; by fostering constructive relationships with Indigenous students and their families; by supporting partnerships with people in the third world and developing robust micro-businesses; by undertaking training in the Sydney Alliance and engaging with local community groups on specific, focussed projects; by being active in a local environmental advocacy group, Climate Change Australia. These are but some examples of the many ways that our church has long been committed to seeking the welfare of the city.

So we, today, face the challenge of responding to the changing circumstances of our time, when fewer people claim an active belief and participation rates in church activities are much less than in the “glory days” of decades past. We might well be seeking to create new ways of being communities of faith; looking for new opportunities to make connections with people in our immediate locality; exploring the means for ensuring that our city is one which is marked by fairness and justice; and shaping a church which is committed to finding new and creative ways of expressing our faith in our own locality.

The Uniting Church is a participatory church. At every level, there are opportunities for people to play all sorts of roles, in contributing to the work of the church. We are not dominated by one group, a clergy-led church, or a male-led church, as some other denominations might appear to be. We affirm the equal role of people, regardless of their gender—males and females can exercise leadership and offer ministry; regardless of their race; regardless of their age. We believe that the Spirit is at work amongst people who are striving for justice, seeking fairness, working to create equity in the lives of other people.

As a Uniting Church, we are an inclusive church that values the contribution that each and every individual can make. We are also a church that values the commitment of groups of people—that is why we meet together, act together, and share with other groups who also act together, in organisations such as Sydney Alliance or Climate Change Australia or other local enterprises. As we work alongside others, we offer a way of understanding life which is guided by moral principles, shaped by ethical commitments, and always informed by standards based on our faith commitment. That is something of a distinctive quality which we bring.

Whilst our faith does not solve every problem or resolve every dilemma, it does equip us to think carefully and to act with integrity as we engage with others. In these ways, we can surely attend to the challenge that Jeremiah provides, and seek the welfare of the city (or town, or village) where we are.

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See also

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The Sydney Alliance is an organization which has been created in recent years, as one attempt to seek the welfare of the city of Sydney, to strive to make this city a better place to live for those who have lived here a long time, and for those who are recent arrivals to the city. It has a commitment to seek justice and fairness across the city. The Uniting Church is one of the foundation members of the Sydney Alliance, along with a number of community groups, trade unions, and other religious groups drawn from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

The website of this organization describes it in this way:

“The Sydney Alliance is a citizens’ coalition whose vision is to provide our community with a voice to express common values and aspirations for a fair and just Sydney.  The Alliance is broadly based across religious organisations, community organisations and unions establishing relationships that respect diversity, while building a cohesive society.  The Alliance is a non-party political organisation. Its primary purpose is the ability to act for the common good to achieve social change in our communities.”  

The way that the Sydney Alliance operates is through building bridges, engaging in dialogue between organisations, and seeking to find opportunities for its members to participate in reshaping the society of which we are a part. Why should the Uniting Church join itself with other organisations in our society in this way? Why should we commit time and energy to involvement in this kind of coalition, with a wide range of people who live alongside us in the city? Some of these are people who seem familiar to us—Catholics, nurses, teachers, members of the Cancer Council, bus drivers, public servants.

Some are people of nodding familiarity, perhaps, although we don’t know many of them very well—Jews, Asian women, hotel employees, members of the climate action network. Some are perhaps strongly alien to our regular lives—people from the Indian community organization Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Australia, from the United Muslim Womens Association (complete with traditional Islamic female attire), from the Federation of African Communities Council. These are the people with whom our church is joining in this new, emerging Alliance.

Prophetic acrostic (inspired by Lamentations, for Pentecost 17C)

The lectionary reading for this Sunday contains selections from two acrostic poems in the book of Lamentations. The first reading is Lam 1:1–6, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people”, a lament about the desecration of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian invaders. The psalm offered is Lam 3:19–26, probably because it contains a counterpoint to this lament in the famous words of hope, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22–23).

An acrostic poem begins each line with each letter of the alphabet, in order, line after line. It is an aide-de-memoire for recalling the lines of the poem in order. Thus, in Hebrew, which has 22 letters in its alphabet, Lam 1 has 22 verses, each new verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. There are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations; chapter 3 has 66 verses, so each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter.

There are other acrostic poems in the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalms 9 and 10 together, Psalms 25, 34, 37 (2 verses per letter), 111 (two letters per verse), 112 (also two letters per verse), 119 (which has 176 verses, meaning eight lines for each of the 22 letters!), and Psalm 145. There are also acrostic poems in praise of the eset chayil: “a woman of valour, who can find? she is far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10–31), and in the oracle of judgement at Nahum 1:1–9, “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies”.

Psalm 34 in Hebrew,
showing its acrostic structure

In recognition of the selections from acrostic poems that are provided by this Sunday’s lectionary, I have written my own attempt at an acrostic poem, including some of the key motifs that we encountered in the recent course on The Prophets.

Anger burns fiercely in your potent words,

Burning, raging, searing into our hearts;

Compassionate, merciful, you say that you are

Drowning out all our anxieties and fears. Yet,

Every breathe of inspiration that comes,

Flowing with energy, abounding in intensity,

Greets my heart with a stunning announcement:

How can I pardon you? while sin abounds

I cannot let it pass by, I cannot forgive!

Justice you desire, justice you call for,

Kindling a sense of righteousness in my heart,

Leading me along the paths of equity.

May this be how we live, how we are,

Nurturing all that you want us to be.

O Lord of hosts, look down on our lives;

Pity our inequities,

Pardon our transgressions,

Quieten our hearts,

Quicken us with grace.

Restore us to righteousness,

Revive our hearts,

Send again your spirit;

Strengthen and sustain us,

Teaching us the way that you would have us walk.

Under your guidance, we will be faithful,

Vowing to serve you in all of our ways.

When we are judged righteous,

Excelling in your ordinances,

You will delight in us,

Zealous for your ways.

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See also

How lonely sits the city (Lamentations 1; Pentecost 17C)

Last week’s Hebrew Scripture passage was full of hope. Jeremiah, under arrest in the royal court (Jer 32:1–3), was planning for a future—a personal future, as well as a future for the besieged nation. He arranges, through Baruch, to purchase a field from his cousin Hamael, the son of his uncle, Shallum (32:6–15). He tells the people of Judah that, even though the Babylonian army was encircling the land and he was unable to move about freely, nevertheless the time would come when God would ensure that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ (v.15). He demonstrates a firm, unwavering trust in God.

This week, the lectionary turns our attention to the book of Lamentations, which comes immediately after the book of Jeremiah, and which, by tradition, is attributed to Jeremiah, even though these is nothing at all in the text that makes this connection. Jeremiah, remembered for being a gloomy naysayer, seems to be a good match for this depressing text—the loss of hope and the growth of despair amongst the people is evident throughout the five chapters of Lamentations, and nowhere more than in these opening verses (Lam 1:1–6).

The passage sounds notes of mourning, with bitter tears and a sense of betrayal, hard servitude and enduring distress, a sense of suffering and loss of privilege, all contributing to a deep malaise, as the poet has sunk down into the depths of despair. Perhaps the link with Jeremiah can be validated by referring to one of his early pronouncements: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (8:18–22).

God echoes this mournful attitude: “oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (9:1); then later, in an oracle over Judah, “if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive” (13:17); and still later, in an oracle over Moab, “more than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah” (48:32).

The weeping that Jeremiah and God display is expressed in the poems of lament found in the book of Lamentations; “for these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears”, the author mourns; “for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lam 1:16). All five chapters of this book express a forlorn hope that the punishment being experienced by the people of Judah might come to an end.

However, that hope remains unfulfilled, from the opening lament, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people! how like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1); to the final disconsolate prayer, “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure”(5:22).

Lamentations contains beautiful poetry, carefully crafted, skilfully compiled; it is aesthetically powerful, its form conveys a message spoken deep from the depths of human emotions. This opening chapter, like three of the four which follow, is an acrostic poem—each new verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. As there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, there are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4. Chapter 3 has 66 verses; each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter. (The final chapter also has 22 verses, but they are not arranged in any alphabetical order.)

The first four chapters employ a strict rhythmic pattern, known as a qinah rhythm: three stresses followed by two, which F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp describes as “the rhythmic dominance of unbalanced and enjambed lines” (Lamentations, Westminster John Knox, 2002). The pattern is suggestive of the broken, disjointed existence of the people.

In these five chapters, the author reveals much of how he, and the people, are lamenting their situation in the aftermath of the savage destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587/586 BCE. Chapter one paints a picture of the deserted, desolate city: “the roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter” (1:4). Chapter four provides a detailed portrayal of the destruction of the temple: “how the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! the sacred stones lie scattered at the head of every street” (4:1).

The poems describe the traumatised state of the people in the immediate aftermath of this conquest. They suffer affliction (1:7, 9; 3:1, 19) and captivity (1:18), grief (3:32, 51) and suffering (1:3, 5, 18), hunger (2:19; 4:4, 9) and thirst (4:4). They express lamentation (2:5, 8) and mourning (1:4; 2:5; 5:15), with tears (1:2, 16; 2:18; 3:48), crying (2:12, 16, 18, 19; 3:8, 56), and weeping (1:2, 16; 2:11). As we read through the poems, we hear a constant, depressing cry: why have you let this happen, O Lord? why have you done this to us, O God?

These five poems bear many similarities with the “psalms of communal lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90, and the psalms of individual lament, such as Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142. In the face of God’s seeming inaction and unresponsiveness to pleading prayers, what is there to do, other than to lament?

The experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) in 1939–1945 has led many Jewish writers to reflect this attitude. It is not “giving up on God”, but resting in the pain and grief, venting about this to God, and hoping against hope that, in time, there may be a reversal of fortunes—a change of mind by God.

One writer notes that “Lament allows us to fully face and name our pain, and it creates space for future resolution and hope without glossing over our trauma. It gives us permission to protest life’s difficulties, to scream, cry, vent, plead, and complain in the presence of God and others. It lets us ask the hard questions without condemnation: Why did this have to happen? How could you allow it? Where are you in the midst of it? It allows weeping without explanation. It might be messy and uncomfortable, but it’s the first step towards healing.” (Whitney Willard, “Lamentatations: the volatile voice of grief”, https://bibleproject.com/blog/lamentations-voice-of-grief/)

These poetic expressions of lament (the psalms of laments, as well as the “confessions” of Jeremiah and Lamentations itself) also inform some elements of the way that the passion of Jesus is narrated in the canonical Gospels; although these accounts are told with a knowledge of the resurrection, there is grief, sadness, and despair at the fate of Jesus, with perhaps a note of patient lament at some moments in those narratives.

Lamentations is recited annually by Jews on the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av, usually in late July or early August), to mourn the destruction of both the First Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE) and, on the same day (it is believed) the Second Temple (by the Romans in 70 CE). The book provides a fitting way to remember the two greatest moments of national grief and loss, many centuries later.

See also

God, merciful and gracious: themes in The Prophets

That God’s grace is central to who God is and how God relates to human beings, is a fundamental claim in the writings of Paul. This affirmation is key to the extended theological,discussion we find in Romans, Paul’s longest letter, where Paul affirms that those who believe “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).

After citing the example of Abraham, justified by “the righteousness of faith” (4:13), which means that the promise rests on grace (4:16), Paul explains that, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (5:1–2).

So Paul rejoices that “the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, [has] abounded for the many” (5:15), and he tells the Romans that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (6:14). It is God’s grace which marks the life of those who believe in Jesus as Messiah—the Messiah who, in an act of supreme graciousness, “while we were still weak, at the right time [this Messiah] died for the ungodly” (5:6).

Even when considering his unbelieving brothers and sisters in Israel, Paul insists that “God has not rejected his people” (11:1), for “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29); accordingly, “there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5), demonstrating that God remains persistently faithful to God’s people, for “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6). God’s grace is the key.

This key theological motif is signalled in the standard greeting that we find at the start of every one of Paul’s seven authentic letters—“Grace to you and peace”, or some minor variant (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; and Phlm 3). The greeting appears as well in many of the other letters collected in the New Testament (Col 1:2; Eph 1:2; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim Q:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2; 2 John 3; Rev 1:4).

A blessing of grace also closes each of Paul’s authentic letters (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; 1 Thess 5:28; Phlm 25) as well as a number of other letters (Col 4:18; Eph 6:24; 2 Thess 3:18; 1 Tim 6:21; 2 Tim 4:22; Tit 3:5; Heb 13:25; 2 Pet 3:18) as well as the very last book of the New Testament (Rev 22:21). Each time, it reminds us of this central theological claim about God: God is a god of grace.

In reporting on the activities of Paul, the writer of Acts notes that his preaching told of the grace of God (Acts 13:43; 14:3; 20:24, 32). Indeed, in a rare moment of theological concordance, Peter is said to have concluded his speech to the council in Jerusalem with a characteristically Pauline flourish, affirming that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will” (Acts 15:11).

So God’s grace is central to early Christian understandings of God—and the fourth evangelist places it front and centre in his portrayal of Jesus, “the Word [who] became flesh and lived among us”, known to us as being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). (None of the Synoptic Gospels employ the precise term; many commentators, however, influenced by the predominance of grace in Pauline theology, interpret the way that Jesus offers forgiveness of sins—Mark 2:10 and parallels; Luke 23:34; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38—to be an expression of God’s grace.)

The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as being seated on “the throne of grace”, which we are to approach “with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). The letter attributed to James affirms that God “gives all the more grace”, citing the text that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6, quoting Ps 138:6), whilst 1 Peter closes with a claim that was is contained in that letter reveals something of “the true grace of God” (1 Pet 5:12). That God is gracious is a fundamental theological claim in the New Testament.

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This is not a new insight into the nature of God, however. Centuries before, faithful Israelite people had grasped the same insight and expressed it in clear and unambiguous ways. The prophet Joel attests that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

The same note is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).

It is the very same affirmation about God which an explicit priestly writer placed on the lips of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6).

During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), once the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship of the Lord in the Temple, informing the people that “the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him” (2 Chron 30:8–9).

Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah affirmed that God pledges to the exiled people, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people”, and then affirms that “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness”, and continues by restating that “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer 31:1–3).

These are the opening words of the chapter that contains Jeremiah’s most famous oracle, in which God promises, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:31–34). That is deep, deep covenant love, expressing God’s thoroughly grace-filled character.

Later still, as the people returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, praising God as “a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).

It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a cry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).

In another psalm, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).

In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).

And in yet another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this God, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom people of faith turn in regular prayers of supplication and petition.

So we need to let go of the archaic and inaccurate claim that “the God of the Old Testament is a god of wrath, the God of the New Testament is a god of love”. God, in both testaments, with equal intensity and equal integrity, is a God of love, abounding in steadfast love—a God of grace, indeed!

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Alongside this strong prophetic affirmation of the grace of God, there is a similarly-strong thread that insists that God will judge the people of God in accordance with their faithfulness, or infidelity, to the covenant that God has made with them. Thus, alongside the God of grace in texts of the Hebrew prophets, stand many texts about the wrath of God, to be delivered on The Day of the Lord. See https://johntsquires.com/2022/09/12/the-day-the-end-themes-in-the-prophets/

How are we to reconcile these two aspects of God? That is the task that our biblical witness invites us to undertake for ourselves!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

The Final Minor Prophets: Malachi, Jonah, and Joel

The Uniting Church Basis of Union declares that we are followers of Jesus, and that in Jesus, God made a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. It is righteousness and love which is at the heart of God, and it is righteousness and love which is at the centre of the work that Jesus undertakes. That is the perpetual dynamic that expresses the essential nature of God—and, indeed, that describes the demands and requirements of living with others in society.

We have considered prophets from Miriam in the story of the Exodus, through Deborah in the prime of the judges, through the time of the divided kingdoms (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and others), after the conquest of the northern kingdom, as the southern kingdom continues (Huldah and Jeremiah) into the time of exile in Babylon (Jeremiah, still, as well as Ezekiel and Second Isaiah), and on into the return to the land after exile (Third Isaiah, Haggai, and Zechariah). Today we move beyond those periods into the ongoing life of post-exiled Israel.

Each of these prophets wrestles with this dynamic; how does God express deep seated covenant love to show his mercy, whilst holding the covenant people to the terms of their agreement, living in a just and righteous manner, and executing punishment for their failure to uphold what that covenant requires. Righteousness and mercy, judgement and grace, belong together in an unbroken whole within God. That is the dynamic that each prophet is aware of, and that each prophet articulates in the oracles the speak to their people.

As the later Jewish writer Ben Sirach, a scribe and sage in the 2nd century BCE, wrote: “Do not say, ‘His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins,’ for both mercy and wrath are with him, and his anger will rest on sinners” (Sir 5:6). That phrase, “both mercy and wrath are with him”, articulates the tensions inherent in the developing Jewish understanding of God.

The final group of prophets that we consider now are also grappling with that same dynamic. The tension between mercy and anger, between gracious forgiveness and fierce punishment, between righteousness and love, runs through these books. How do they deal with this?

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The prophet Malachi was active after the Babylonian Exile, soon after Haggai and Zechariah had been prophesying. The city and temple had been fully restored and worship was now active in the temple. In this context, Malachi called the people to repentance, starting with the priests, whom he attacks for their corruption (1:6–2:9); “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts; but you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts” (2:8–9).

He then turns to the religious profanity of the people; “Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god” (2:11), and instructs them to “take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless” (2:16). God threatens punishment in graphic terms: “I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence” (2:3).

Malachi then identifies a range of ways by which social inequities are practised; God threatens, “I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (3:5). He notes that people regularly shortchange the Lord with incomplete tithes (3:8–15); rectifying this will result in blessings from God (3:10–12).

The prophet looks to the coming of a messenger from God (3:1) who will bring judgment “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (3:2–3).

The fierce imagery continues with a description of “the day [which] is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (4:1). The motif of “the day” has run through the prophets, from before the exile (Amos 5:18–20; Isa 2:12, 17; 13:6–8; 34:8; Zeph 1:7, 14–15), during the years of exile (Jer 35:32–33; 46:10), and on into the years after the return from exile (Joel 2:1–3, 30–31).

What is required of the people is clear: “remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (4:4). Adherence to the covenant undergirds the claims of this prophet, as indeed it does with each prophet in Israel.

This short book ends with a memorable prophecy from Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (4:5–6). These words are picked up in the Gospel portrayals of John the Baptist as the returning Elijah (Matt 17:9–13; Luke 1:17), turning the hearts of people so that they might receive the promise offers by Jesus. Whether Malachi himself understood these words to point to John and Jesus, of course, is somewhat dubious.

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The final two “minor prophets”, Jonah and Joel, are hard to locate within the timeline of Israel. Whether Jonah was an actual historical figure is hotly debated; in fact, the four chapters of this book tell a rollicking good tale, that makes us suspect that it was, in fact, “just a story”, rather than actual history.

The large city in this book is Nineveh (Jon 1:2; 3:1–10); it was the capital of Assyria (2 Ki 19:36; Isa 37:37) and we learn at the end of the story of Jonah that it had a huge population of more than 120,000 people. The story thus appears to be set during the period of Assyrian ascendancy, in the 8th century BCE. But many of the literary characteristics of this book reflect a later period, perhaps even a post- explicitly time.

It is true that 2 Kings 14:25 mentions that God speaks through “Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet” during the time of Jeroboam II (about 793–753 B.C.), but this was a time before Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. There is no other indication that this individual was the prophet whose story is told in the book of Jonah, for it does not provide any specific dating; nor does the mention of Jonah in 2 Kings indicate how he exercised his prophetic role.

The charge that Jonah is given is a stock standard prophetic charge: “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:2; cf. Amos 1:3; Isa 6:9–13; Jer 1:9–10; Ezek 2:3–4; 3:18–21; Nah 1:2–3; Hab 2:2–5; Zeph 1:2–6). The response of Jonah is like some of those prophets: an initial reluctance to accept the charge (Isa 6:5; Jer 1:6; and see Moses at Exod 3:11, 13; 4:1, 10).

However, whilst other prophets accede to the divine pressure to take up the challenge and declare the judgement of the Lord to a sinful people, Jonah holds fast to his reticence—when commanded to go northeast to Nineveh, he immediately flees in the opposite direction, boarding a ship that was headed west across the Mediterranean Sea, to Tarshish, “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:3).

The escape of Jonah from the command of the Lord may be deeply troubling; but the narrative spins the story into burlesque, as “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea”, all the cargo on the ship is thrown overboard, and then Jonah (blissfully sleeping, apparently unaware of the great storm—as if!) is interrogated by the sailors, and eventually offers himself as a sacrifice to save the boat (1:12).

The sailors try in vain to save the ship; realising that this is futile, they throw Jonah into the sea—and immediately “the sea ceased from its raging” (1:15). Then, adding further incredulity to the unbelievable narrative, “the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah” (1:17). The three days and three nights that he spends “in the belly of the fish” before he is vomited onto dry land (2:10) add to the comic exaggeration.

The psalm that Jonah prays from inside the fish (2:1–9) and the successful venture to Nineveh, where even the king “removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (3:1–10) apparently demonstrate that Jonah should have obeyed the command of the Lord in the first place. However, Jonah’s response continues the exaggerated response of a burlesque character; “this was displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry” (4:1).

Jonah’s resentment and his plea for God to take his life (4:2–4) and his patient waiting for God to act (4:5) lead to yet another comic-book scene, as a bush grows and then is eaten by a worm and Jonah is assaulted by “a sultry east wind” (4:6–8). The closing words of the book pose a rhetorical question to Jonah (4:9–11) which infers that God has every right to be concerned about the lives of pagans in Nineveh. The last laugh is on Jonah; indeed, he has given his readers many good laughs throughout the whole story!

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The final prophet for us to consider is Joel, who speaks words of lament and calls for repentance amongst the people of Judah. Nothing in this book provides any clues as to the time when Joel was active. The identification of the prophet as “son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1) gives no clue, as Pethuel appears nowhere else in the Hebrew Scriptures—indeed, the name Joel, itself appears nowhere else. The name appears to combine the divine names of Jah and El, suggesting that it may be a symbolic creation. Was Joel an historical person?

Joel calls on the “ministers of God” to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13); this reminds us of the response of the pagans in Nineveh (Jonah 3), whilst his remonstrations that “the day of the Lord is near” (1:15) echoes the motif of “the day” already sounded by other prophets (Amos 5:18–20; Isa 2:12, 17; 13:6–8; 34:8; Zeph 1:7, 14–15; Jer 35:32–33; 46:10).

This day forms the centrepiece of Joel’s undated prophecies, as he describes that day as “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” (Joel 2:2), when “the earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble, the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (2:10). He describes the response of the people “in anguish, all faces grow pale” (2:6).

However, Joel adheres to the constant thread running through Hebrew Scriptures, that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13). Because of this, he yearns for the people to “turn with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12), sensing that there might be hope of restitution for the people.

Joel calls for the people to gather (2:15–16); the oracle that follows paints a picture of abundance and blessing (2:18–27), affirming that “my people shall never again be put to shame” (2:27).

The prophet then speaks words which have been given a central place in the later story of the Christian church, when he foreshadows that the blessings of God will be manifest through the outpouring of the spirit: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions; even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28–29). This promise is specifically for “all flesh”; this universal vision informs the whole outward impulse of the movement of followers of Jesus, after the day of Pentecost, which Peter interprets as being a fulfilment of this prophecy (Acts 2:14–21).

The day of the Lord that is then envisaged (2:31) will signal a significant reversal for Israel. The Lord laughs at other nations (3:1–8), a reversal that pivots on a turn from despair to hope, from the threats of judgement to a glorious future (3:9–21). Joel repeats the irenic vision of swords being beaten into ploughshares (3:10; see Isa 2:4; Mic 4:3); he sees a ripe harvest (3:13), the land will drip with sweet wine, and there will be milk and water in abundance (3:18). The voice of the Lord “roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake” (3:16; cf the similar pronouncement of Amos at Am 1:2; 3:8).

The last word of this book, “the Lord dwells on Zion” (3:21), provides assurance and certainty for the future. These words of hope promises a peaceful future for the nation. When Joel might have been speaking these words cannot be definitively determined; it could have been under the Assyrian threat, during the Babylonian dominance, in the time of exile, or after the return to the land—the promise of hope holds good in each of these scenarios.

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See also

Houses and fields and vineyards again (Jeremiah 32; Pentecost 16C)

Jeremiah is usually associated with doom and gloom, as we saw in last week’s lectionary offering: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer 8:18, 22). In the reading for this week, however, offered by the lectionary (Jer 8:18–2, 9:1), Jeremiah is optimistic. Even though he is being held under arrest in the royal court (Jer 32:1–3), he is planning for a future—a personal future, as well as a future for the besieged nation.

Jeremiah arranges, through Baruch, to purchase a field from his cousin Hamael, the son of his uncle, Shallum (32:7, 16). He is a child of Judah, and here is sending down his roots even deeper into the land that God had given his ancestors. He believes that, even though the Babylonian army was encircling Judah and he was unable to move about freely, nevertheless the time would come when God would ensure that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ (v.15). This attitude is thoroughly grounded in trust in God.

Jeremiah “serves as an examplar for exiles by acting with obedient hopefulness in the face of invasion and captivity”. The land purchase “begins the fulfilment of the visions of 30:1–31:40.” It is located at “the nadir of Judah’s story, during the bleakness of invasion” (587 to 586 BCE by our reckoning). (Quotations from Kathleen O’Connor, Oxford Bible Commentary, 515)

On the surface, the purchase appears futile, as Jeremiah foresees the dominance of the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar, their king; this dominance shall remain, it seems, for some time, “until I attend to him, as the Lord declares” (32:5). So the prophet insists that the transaction take place, as a sign of hope in the future amidst the despair and devastation of his present.

This is what scholars call a “prophetic sign-act”, one of a number that Jeremiah enacts: wearing a linen loincloth, then hiding it, recovering it, and finding it “ruined, good for nothing” (13:1–7), a sign of the punishment to come on Judah (13:8–11); living as a celibate (16:1–2) as a sign of the exile to come (16:3–9); and pointing to the work of the potter, shaping a vessel, spoiling the vessel, and remaking it (18:1–4) as a sign of the way the Lord will treat Israel (18:5–11). Indeed, the last word of Jeremiah is to have his words written on a scroll which is thrown into the Euphrates River (51:59–63), to indicate that “Babylon shall sink, to rise no more”. (51:64).

The redemption of this parcel of land is a “prophetic sign-act” offering hope. It is reminder of the commands about the land found in Leviticus 25, where the Lord is said to have declared that “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me, you are but aliens and tenants” (Lev 25:23). The last concept is picked up in New Testament texts describing the people as aliens (1 Pet) and looking to the promise of a heavenly city (Heb 11).

The Levitical decree sits in the chapter concerning the Sabbatical Year (Lev 25:1–7) and the Year of Jublilee (Lev 25:8–55), a time of cancellation of debts and restitution of the land, a liberating sign of the liberating God who is to be worshipped; “the people of Israel are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev 25:55). The redemption of the land by Jeremiah, acting through Baruch, signals an ongoing commitment to the covenant which the people had with the Lord God.

The purchase of land demonstrates a trust in the promise spoken in the preceding chapter. Jeremiah famously speaks about the new covenant; his words, however, are often spiritualised—the law is not written on stones, but written in the hearts of the people (Jer 31:31–33), the knowledge of God is not to be taught, but will be innate—“they shall all know me” (Jer 25:34).

By contrast to this common spiritualised interpretation, Jeremiah intends that this new covenant is to be lived in all of life; it is not simply a promise for an ethereal future, but it is to be a tangible reality in the immediacy of life in the present. So Jeremiah enfleshes the promise through the purchase of land. It is an incarnation of action some centuries before Jesus!

Interestingly, although the lectionary shifts the order of these passages, the purchase of land in Jer 32, signalling the promises made in the oracles of Jer 30–31, is placed immediately after the letter that Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon, urging them to come to terms with their situation in exile: “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, take wives and have sons and daughters … multiply there [in Babylon] and do not decrease” (Jer 29:1–9). They, too, are to express their covenant faith in the realities of everyday life, even if they are in exile in a foreign land.

The details of this commercial transaction, involving money, property, and a deed of purchase (vv.9–12), are important; they indicate that how we treat our possessions, the land on which we live, the land which we own, reflects our faith. Jeremiah knows the trust of Lev 25:24; the land is of God—in this case, it has been given over to the family of Jeremiah as a trust, for them to care for. That trust is to “last for a long time” (v.14).

So the story invites us to consider how we exercise our responsibilities in property matters, how we live on the land, how we show that we believe that the land is of God. (It sits well alongside the Gospel passage offered in the lectionary, from Luke 16, which also emphasises the importance of responsible dealing with property and material things, in the life of faith.)

Our attitude to the land is actually a live current issue in Australia, as we mark the turning of an era (as the Queen dies, so the King reigns). Signs and symbols of British imperialism in this Great Southern Land remind us that, although the land was, and is, and will remain, central to the lives of the First Peoples of this continent, British colonisers have invaded, settled, massacred, and imposed a foreign way of life on those First Peoples. For them, being on country is being in spirit—connected with the spirit of the ancestors, living in harmony with the spirit of the creator God. There are resonances, surely, with the close connection to the land that Jeremiah here exhibits.

So in our context, the fact that Jeremiah buys the land is a challenge to our expectations that we can simply assume and take control of these lands. The fact that Jeremiah exchanges a contract for the land reinforces the importance of our dealings with real estate, property, finances, and people. His property transaction attests to the promise of the Lord to a besieged and soon-to-be exiled people, “ houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15). The sign, to us, is clear: what we do with our material, physical lives ought to reflect the spiritual hopes and commitments that we have as people of faith.

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See also

As I watched visions in the night, I saw one like a human being (Daniel)

In this series on the prophets of ancient Israel, the figure of Daniel is something of an anomaly. He does not say “woe is me”, as many of the priests do. He does not stand and declaim words of divine judgement on the people for their sinfulness. He does not deliberately use symbolic actions to dramatise his message, as do many other prophets, although his book is replete with many symbols that invite—indeed, require—interpretation.

Whilst he does speak of the wrath of God (Dan 9:16), this to be executed “later, in the period of wrath” (8:19; 11:36). Like other prophets, he does affirm that “the God of heaven” exhibits mercy (2:18; 9:9) and prays seeking that mercy from God (4:27; 6:11). He also affirms the covenant of Israel with their God (11:28–35), although this is set in the context of specific timeframes: a period of seventy weeks (9:24), including a period for “a strong covenant with many” for one week (9:27), followed immediately by “an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out on the desecration” (9:27).

Daniel himself is never “called to be a prophet”, as we have seen in other prophetic books; he is introduced as one of a number of “young men without physical defect and handsome, endowed with knowledge and insight”, who were chosen “to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (1:3–5). Indeed, the Israelite Daniel is given a Babylonian name, Belteshazzar (1:7; 4:8), and his entire story takes place in the Babylonian court.

(The Chaldeans were part of the Babylonian Empire; centuries earlier they had settled beside the Euphrates in what became the southeastern edge of the Babylonian Empire. Abraham is said to have come from Ur, a city in the region of the Chaldea; see Gen 11:31; 15:7.)

The story of the prophet Daniel is thus set outside Israel, in the time of exile, after the conquest of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in 587 BCE (Dan 1:1–2; see 2 Kings 25). Daniel had been chosen to serve in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned from 605 BCE to 562 BCE (Dan 1:3–7); when the Persians took control of the Babylonian empire in 539 BCE, Daniel continued to serve in a position of some power.

Scholars believe, however, that the story is told at a much later time, after the exile—perhaps even during the time of Seleucid superiority in the second century BCE. Two centuries after they had returned to the land of Israel, rebuilt their Temple, restored their cities and towns, and living under Persian rule, the people of Israel were over run by the troops of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, as he swept across the eastern Mediterranean region as Far East as modern day India. A new foreign power, and a new attitude towards the religion and customs of Israel.

Initially the interaction between Israelites and Macedonians was one of integration. Greek became the language of trade; syncretism marked the religious life of the people, as they adopted Greek customs. But when Antiochus Epiphanes came to power over the region, he introduced an altar in the temple to receive pagan offerings—something which, in Israelite eyes, was known a “desolating sacrilege” (Mark 13:14; 1 Mac 1:54). This appears to be clearly described in the final vision, recounting how forces “shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress, abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate” (Dan 11:31).

A clear reflection of the exile experience is that an extended section of the book (2:4b—7:28) is written in Aramaic, a language which evolved from Hebrew because of the influence of Babylonian culture and language on the exiled Israelites. The rest of the book (like all the rest of Hebrew Scripture) is written in Hebrew. Whereas Aramaic became the common language of Jews even when they were living back in Israel (and this was the case by the time of Jesus), Hebrew was preserved as the holy language of scripture.

Curiously, the book has two distinct parts, which overlap this linguistic division; each part is likely to have originated in a different time after the exile. The first six chapters recount stories about Daniel, who was serving in the court and enjoyed friendly relations with the monarch; the style is one found in other legends about courtiers and dream interpreters. Chapters 7–12 comprise a series of apocalyptic visions which appear to contain some very direct references to events that took place in the second century BCE. These chapters come “from the mouth of Daniel”, as it were, rather than being stories about him (as in chapters 1–6).

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This first half of the book of Daniel contains a number of dramatic scenes. In these first six chapters, we find some striking stories about Daniel (given the Babylonian name Belteshazzar) and his companions, each of whom are also given Babylonian names (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). While Daniel and his companions are serving in the Babylonian court (1:3–18), a number of dramatic incidents are narrated.

One striking aspect of Daniel is that he provides interpretation of the king’s two dreams (chapters 2 and 4). To the intense frustration of King Nebuchadnezzar, none of his wise men are able to explain the meaning of the first dream about a huge statue made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay; he is on the brink of having them all executed (2:12–13) when Daniel intervenes.

It is then that we learn that Daniel has been gifted by God to be “a revealer of mysteries” (2:47), and he is able to explain what each element in the dream signifies (2:24–45), and to assure the king that “the dream is certain, and it’s interpretation is trustworthy” (2:45). As a result, Daniel is promoted and his three friends are installed in responsible and powerful positions (2:46–49).

However, under the influence of “certain Chaldeans” (3:8), the three friends of Daniel are denounced and are cast into the fiery furnace by an infuriated king (3:19–21). Miraculously, the three men survive this ordeal; King Nebuchadnezzar “was astonished”, called the three mean out of the furnace, blessed them, and condemned those opposing them to be “torn limb from limb, and their households laid in ruin” (3:24–30).

The king subsequently has a second dream, and the narrative follows the same pattern: the king is afraid, he calls his wise men, they are unable to provide any explanation, and then Daniel is asked to offer an interpretation, because “you are endowed with a spirit of the holy gods” (4:18). Once again, Daniel’s interpretation is offered—but what he foresees for the king fails to please him; and just twelve months later, “the sentence was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar” and he becomes mad: “he ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws” (4:33).

This time of madness fortunately is soon lifted. Nebuchadnezzar prays to God: “I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured the one who lives forever” (4:34–35), praising God “for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice” (4:37). What follows is an account of “a great festival for a thousand of his lords”, organised by Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar—but during the festivities, those present demonstrate their pagan traditions, as they “drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (5:1–4).

During the feast, fingers of a human hand wrote on the wall of the palace (5:5–9). The king’s advisors were (once again) unable to understand what what written; Daniel is brought in and offers an interpretation of “the writing on the wall” (5:10–31), warning the king of the end of his kingdom: “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting”, so the kingdom will be divided between the Medes and the Persians (5:25–28). So it was that Daniel was clothed in purple and accorded a high ranking in the kingdom (5:29); but Belshazzar was killed that night, leading to the accession of Darius (5:30–31).

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Daniel was thus thrust once again into the murky arena of national politics (then, as now, a fraught environment!). Whilst Daniel exercised his role as a satrap under Darius the Mede, a conspiracy was formed against him as opponents looked to bring him down. When he is caught praying to the Lord God, despite the interdict of the king (6:1–15), he is thrown into the lion’s den (6:16).

The next morning, the king hurries to the den, and finds Daniel alive; his prayers have miraculously saved him (6:19–22). Daniel is released from the lion’s den and rescued from danger (6:23–28); Darius issues an edict praising “the living God” whose “kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end; he delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth” (6:26–27).

If the story was written (as is thought by many) during the time of the Seleucids, its depiction of a foreign ruler who is positively disposed towards Israel’s God is striking. Under Antiochus Epiphanes, the colonising forces of the Macedonians “built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant; they joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil” (1 Mac 1:14–15). Antiochus not only erected an image in the temple (the “desolation of sacrilege”), but even had the scrolls of Torah collected and burnt—many centuries before the Nazis did this (you can read the details of his rule in 1 Mac 1:41–64).

The author of Daniel is writing political literature as political critique. We know that Antiochus provoked a political uprising led by the Maccabees, the sons of Matthias (1 Mac 2—6)—figures later upheld as heroes by the Zealots in the time of Jesus. The book of Daniel provides a rationale for the zealous ideology of the Maccabees, seeking to put in place a righteous leadership in Israel.

Carol Newsom observes that “in several narratives in the book of Daniel, the king humbly confesses the sovereignty of the God of the Jews, acknowledging that he rules by the will of God” (“Political Theology in the Book of Daniel: An Internal Debate”, Review andn Expositor, vol. 109, 2012, pp.557–568). Prof. Newsom continues, “other parts of the book depict the gentile king as being part of God’s plan, but a part that will ultimately be destroyed as incompatible with divine sovereignty.” We see this clearly in view in chapters 1—6.

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By contrast, Prof. Newsom observes that when we read on into chapters 7—12, we encounter “the most negative view of gentile kingship, finding it to be monstrous and utterly evil. Although one can understand the different perspectives based on particular historical circumstances, a more fruitful hermeneutical approach is to read the different perspectives in Daniel as a never-fully-resolved conversation about the good or evil nature of political power, a conversation that continues to this day.” In this way, the book of Daniel is quite timely and relevant.

In this second half of the book (chapters 7–12) we read a series of visions seen by Daniel. The opening vision of the four beasts (7:1–8) famously contains a description of “one like a human being [son of man] coming with the clouds of heaven [who] came to the Ancient One and was presented before him” (7:13–14). This vision appears to inform the later words of Jesus, when he predicts that people “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26) and tells the Jerusalem Sanhedrin that they will see “‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:62).

The involvement of the angel Gabriel (chapters 8 and 9) brings the decree of “seventy weeks … to atone for iniquity” (9:20–27) and opens up a full-scale apocalyptic scenario, with battles, floods, the rise of a warrior king, shifting alliances amongst the various kings, more battles, the besieging of a city, the dominance of a “contemptible person”, the profaning of the temple and violation of the covenant in Israel, the disrespecting of “the God of gods” (10:1–11:39).

It also leads to a grand vision “at the time of the end” (11:40–12:13) when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2), thereby providing a key Hebrew Scripture text which is used in discussions of the resurrection as reported in the New Testament.

The notion of “The End” has been developing in prophetic literature, emerging from the earlier prophet’s declarations about “The Day of the Lord”. This theme will continue to be developed and expanded in apocalyptic texts both in Second Temple Judaism and in earthly Christian texts in the New Testament and in works of the following century or two. See

At this time, a “man in linen” declares that “when the shattering of the power of the holy people [namely, Israel] comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished” (12:7). The language is reminiscent of the extended apocalyptic response that Jesus gives when his disciples ask him, “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).

Daniel, the supreme interpreter, has been able to make sense of all that has gone before; at this point, however, he “heard but could not understand” (12:8). The “man in linen” informs him that “the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the ends (12:9); Daniel is dismissed and the story ends. The ending invites readers to “make sense” for themselves of what they have read—and so, apocalyptic speculation continues unabated to this day!

More importantly, perhaps, is the observation that apocalyptic speaks not only into the future, but especially into the present time of the author; and therefore, the political edges of the narrative and especially of the apocalyptic visions portray what is needed to remain faithful to God in the challenges of those times. That dynamic translates into a challenge for us, today.

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There’s a good discussion of politics and religion in the book of Daniel in this article: https://spectrummagazine.org/sabbath-school/2020/daniel-and-empire-then-and-now

Is there no balm in Gilead? (Jeremiah 8; Pentecost 15C)

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?

The Day, The End: themes in The Prophets

Eight centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had declared, “the LORD said to me, ‘the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 8:2). Amos continues, declaring that God has decreed that “on that day … I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:9–10).

That image of The Day when the Lord enacts justice and brings punishment upon the earth, because of the evil being committed by people on the earth, enters into the vocabulary of prophet after prophet. Amos himself declares that it is “darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18–20).

Isaiah, just a few decades after Amos, joined his voice: “the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high … the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:12, 17). He warns the people, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa 13:6).

Isaiah uses a potent image to describe this day: “pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labour” (Isa 13:7). He continues, “the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it” (Isa 13:8), and later he portrays that day as “a day of vengeance” (Isa 34:8).

Zephaniah, who was active at the time when Josiah was king (640–609 BCE) declares that “the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7); “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there; that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ” (Zeph 1:14–15).

Habakkuk, active in the years just before the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE, declares that “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3); it is a vision of “human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them” (Hab 2:17).

Later, during the Exile, Jeremiah foresees that “disaster is spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth!” (Jer 35:32); he can see only that “those slain by the Lord on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become dung on the surface of the ground” (Jer 35:33). He also depicts this day as “the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of retribution, to gain vindication from his foes” (Jer 46:10).

And still later (most likely after the Exile), the prophet Joel paints a grisly picture of that day: “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2:1-3).

Later in the same oracle, he describes the time when the Lord will “show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30–31). Joel also asserts that “the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 3:14–15).

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The language of The Day is translated, however, into references to The End, in some later prophetic works. In the sixth century BCE, the priest-prophet Ezekiel, writing in exile in Babylon, spoke about the end that was coming: “An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, I will let loose my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, I will punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:2–3).

And again, Ezekiel declares, “Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come, the day is near—of tumult, not of reveling on the mountains. Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you; I will spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your ways, and punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:5–8). This day, he insists, will be “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek 30:3; the damage to be done to Egypt is described many details that follow in the remainder of this chapter).

Obadiah refers to “the day of the Lord” (Ob 1:15), while Malachi asserts that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal 4:1).

Malachi ends his prophecy with God’s promise that “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes; he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). This particular word is the final verse in the Old Testament as it appears in the order of books in the Christian scriptures; it provides a natural hinge for turning, then, to the story of John the baptiser, reminiscent of Elijah, who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus, evocative of Moses.

Another prophet, Daniel, declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days” (Dan 2:28), namely, that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).

Whilst the story of Daniel is set in the time of exile in Babylon—the same time as when Ezekiel was active—there is clear evidence that the story as we have it was shaped and written at a much later period, in the 2nd century BCE; the rhetoric of revenge is directed squarely at the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had invaded and taken control of Israel and begun to persecute the Jews from the year 175BCE onwards.

The angel Gabriel subsequently interprets another vision to Daniel, “what will take place later in the period of wrath; for it refers to the appointed time of the end” (Dan 8:19), when “at the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong in power, shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does. He shall destroy the powerful and the people of the holy ones.” (Dan 8:23–24). This seems to be a clear reference to Antiochus IV.

Still later in his book, Daniel sees a further vision, of seventy weeks (9:20–27), culminating in the time of “the end” (9:26). In turn, this vision is itself spelled out in great detail in yet another vision (11:1–39), with particular regard given to the catastrophes taking place at “the time of the end” (11:1–12:13; see especially 11:25, 40; 12:4, 6, 9, 13).

This final vision makes it clear that there will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (12:1), when “evil shall increase” (12:3) and “the wicked shall continue to act wickedly” (12:10). The visions appear to lift beyond the immediate context of the Seleucid oppression, and paint a picture of an “end of times” still to come, after yet worse tribulations have occurred.

Attention to The Day which will bring The End continues in Jewish literature that was written in the Diaspora, amongst Jews that remained in the lands outside Israel, as well as by Jews whose ancestors had returned to Israel from the late 6th century onwards. Jews continued to write apocalypses (3 Enoch; Apocalypse of Abraham; Genesis Apocryphon; and a number of works in the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Interest in “the end times” appears also in Christian literature, both in words attributed to Jesus (Mark 13; Matt 25–25; Luke 17 and 21) as well as statements in various letters written by leaders in the movement initiated by Jesus (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 1 Cor 7:29–31; 15:21–28; and all of 2 Thess) and in the seven letters found early in the book of Revelation. This interest continues on into other documents from the first few centuries that are not canonical (Didache 16; Barnabas 15; Apocalypse of Peter).