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.

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

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).

Gathering the outcasts, envisaging the new creation (Isaiah 56–66)

The third section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56–66) begins with a familiar prophetic announcement: “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). Written during the period when the people of Judah were returning to their land, to the city of Jerusalem (from the 520s BCE), the book demonstrates what this justice will look like through a series of powerful oracles.

The prophet sounds a vivid counter-cultural note in the midst of the events of his time. He begins with the promise to foreigners and eunuchs that “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:5). This is a striking contrast to the narrative provided in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which tell of the return to the city, the rebuilding of the walls, the renewal of the covenant and the public reading of the Law, the rededication of the Temple—and actions designed to remove foreigners (especially women) from within Israel (see Ezra 10; Neh 13).

Ezra and Nehemiah exhibited a zealous fervour to restore the Law to its central place in the life of Israel. Ezra, learning that “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2), worked with “the elders and judges of every town” to determine who had married foreign women; the men identified “pledged themselves to send away their wives, and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt” (Ezra 10:19). (So much for the importance of families!)

Nehemiah considered that this project to “cleanse [the people] from everything foreign” (Neh 13:30) was in adherence to the command that “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them” (Neh 13:1–2; see Num 22—24). The restoration of Israel as a holy nation meant that foreigners would be barred from the nation.

The oracle at the start of the third section of Isaiah stands in direct opposition to this point of view; “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord … and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:6–7).

Jesus, of course, quoted this last phrase in the action he undertook in the outer court of the Temple (Mark 11:17). Later, the welcome offered to the Ethiopian court official by Philip, who talked with him about scripture and baptised him, a eunuch (Acts 8:26–38), is consistent with the prophetic words, “to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:4–5). (From the earliest days, the church practised an inclusive welcoming of diversity that was consistent with this prophetic declaration.)

Other words in this last section of Isaiah also resonate strongly with texts in the New Testament. The ingathering of the outcasts (56:8) and the flocking of all the nations to Zion (60:1–18) together are reflected in the prediction of Jesus that “this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).

The statement that those coming from Sheba “shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (60:6) most likely informed the story that Matthew created, concerning the wise ones from the east who came to see the infant Jesus and “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt 2:11).

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Further oracles set out exactly what the justice that God desires (56:1; 61:8) looks like. The extensive worship of idols (57:1–13) will bring God’s wrath on the people; “there is no peace, says my God, for the wicked” (57:13). Rather, “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” chooses “to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite” (57:15).

Because God indicates that “I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry” (57:16), the prophet conveys what the Lord sees as the fast that is required; not a fast when “you serve your own interest on your fast day,

and oppress all your workers” (58:3), but rather, a fast “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (58:6–7). These words resonate with the actions of “the righteous” in the well-known parable of Jesus, as they gave food, water, a welcome, clothing, and care to those sick or imprisoned (Matt 25:31–46).

The prophet laments that “there is no justice … justice is far from us … we wait for justice, but there is none … justice is turned back … the Lord saw it, and it displeased him” (59:8–15); he declares that, as a consequence, God “put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle” (59:17)—a description that underlines the later exhortations to the followers of Jesus to “put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10–17).

Because the Lord “loves justice” (61:8), the prophet has been anointed “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God” (61:1–2)—words which are appropriated by Jesus when he visits his hometown and reads from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:18–19); “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, Jesus declares (Luke 4:21).

Adhering to this way of justice, practising the fast that the Lord desires, means that he will give Israel a new name: “you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (Isa 62:4). We have already seen the symbolic significance of names in considering the prophet Hosea and in Isaiah 8.

By contrast, vengeance will be the experience of Edom; using the image of trampling down the grapes in the wine press, the prophet reports the intention of God: “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (63:1–6). So vigorously does God undertake this task, that he is attired in “garments stained crimson” because “their juice spattered on my garments and stained all my robes” (63:1–3). Once again, the prophet speaks in graphic terms about the consequences of sinfulness.

Confronted with this display of wrath and vengeance, the prophet adopts an attitude of penitence, yearning for God to “look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). His plea for the Lord to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1–2) must surely have been in the mind of the evangelists as the reported the baptism of Jesus, when he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).

The book ends with a sequence in which the prophet reports the words of the Lord which indicate that Israel will be restored (65:1–16), followed by the statement that the Lord is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (65:17–25; 66:22–23). (This passage appears in the lectionary on the 23rd Sunday flyer Pentecost.)

This vision is taken up and expanded in the closing chapters of the final book of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–22:7). The closing vision of Trito-Isaiah incorporates a number of references to earlier prophetic words: building houses and planting vineyards (65:21) recalls the words of Jeremiah (Jer 29:5–7); the image of wolves lying with lambs and lions “eating straw like the ox” recalls the vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:6–7).

The promise that “they shall not hurt or destroy all on my holy mountain” (65:25) recalls that same vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:9), whilst the next promise about not labouring in vain nor bearing children for calamity (65:23) reverses the curse of Gen 3:16–19. The story of creation from the beginning of Genesis is evoked when the Lord asserts that “heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool … all these things my hand has made” (66:1–2); these are the words which Stephen will quote back to the council in Jerusalem (Acts 7:48–50) and will lead to his death at their hands.

Even to the very end of this book, the judgement of the Lord is evident; the prophet declares that “the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire; for by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many” (66:15–16).

Nevertheless, the glory of the Lord shall be declared “among the nations” (66:19) and “they shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord” (66:20). The universalising inclusivism that was sounded at the start of this prophet’s work is maintained through into this closing oracle. In “the new heavens and the new earth which I will make … all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (66:22–23). The vision lives strong!

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In my mouth, it was as sweet as honey: Ezekiel the prophet (1)

Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was both a prophet and a priest (Ezek 1:3). The opening verse of the book exhibits characteristic priestly concern to document details; in this case, a very precise date is recorded: “in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month”. The year correlates with what we know as 593 BCE. No other prophet gives the precise day of his seeing “visions of God”!

Six years earlier, Ezekiel had been exiled to Babylon during the siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (599 BCE; see 2 Kings 24:10–17). His prophetic activity was thus undertaken entirely in exile. He addresses both those in exile with him in Babylon, and also those left behind in Judah. His prophecies continue through the period when the people in Judah were conquered and taken to join Ezekiel in exile (587 BCE; see 2 Ki 25:1–21), and then for some time after that.

A 14th century fresco of the chariot in Ezekiel’s vision
from Pomposa Abbey, Codigoro, Italy

A dramatic vision opens the book, in which “the glory of God” appears in the form of a fiery, flaming chariot (1:4–28). Priestly attention to detail marks the account of this vision—the scene is reported in scrupulous detail, with many references to other scriptural stories. The bright cloud and flashing fire evokes the scene on Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses the Law (Exod 19:16–19) and the “burning coals of fire” (1:13) remind us of the burning coals in the scene of the call of Isaiah (Isa 6:6).

Then, “the bow in the cloud on a rainy day” evokes the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen 9:12–17). The creatures with wings that touch perhaps evoke the golden cherubim overlooking the mercy seat in the Tabernacle (1 Ki 6:23–28), while the wheeled chariot may have been inspired by the chariot that carried the ark of the covenant in procession (2 Sam 6:3).

However, the four creatures, each with four faces and four legs, sparkling “like burnished bronze” (1:6–7), with the appearance of a human being, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (1:10) are unusual. Their presence has invited much speculation about their significance. In the early centuries of the Christian church, these four figures were interpreted as symbols for the four Gospels included in the New Testament. They are found also in the first vision of the seer John, in exile on Patmos, many centuries later (Rev 4:1–8).

Similarly, the description of the crystal dome over the heads of the creatures (1:22) and the sapphire throne with a human form seated on it (1:26) signal to us that this prophet has a vivid imagination, and that there will be much symbolism in the oracles that lie ahead! The remainder of the book continues relentlessly in this style; exotic scenes, vividly imagined, described in detail, conveying a consistent theological perspective.

The point of this dramatic opening comes immediately, when Ezekiel reports a further vision, of a scroll (2:1–10) which he is immediately commanded to eat (2:8, 3:1–3). This second vision is at the heart of the call that Ezekiel receives, to “speak my very words to them [the people]” (2:7; 3:4). Ezekiel the priest has become Ezekiel the prophet.

These words “of lamentation and mourning and woe” (2:10) nevertheless taste “as sweet as honey” to Ezekiel (3:3). However, he knows from the start that the task he has been given will be difficult, for “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (3:8). They will not listen to him. The scene is set for the difficult career of this prophet-in-exile.

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A key issue for Ezekiel relates to whether God continues to be the God of the people of Judah who are in exile in Babylon. Ezekiel offers a development in understanding that God continues to care for the people even when they have no land and no temple, when they can no longer “go up to the house of the Lord” and offer sacrifices.

Ezekiel is impelled to play his role as a prophet by “the hand of the Lord” (1:3; 3:22; 8:1; etc); indeed, he says, “the spirit lifted me up” (3:12). That same spirit continues to lift him up with regularity (8:3; 11:1, 24; 37:1; 43:5) to show him vision after vision. More than this, Ezekiel declares that “the spirit entered me” (3:24), a process which he promises will be experienced by Israel as a whole (36:26–28)—for the Lord says he will “pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel” (39:29).

This emphasis on the renewing spirit of God is seen, most dramatically, by Ezekiel when he is taken by the spirit into “the middle of a valley … full of bones” (37:1) and sees a vision that he conveys in what must be his most famous oracle. What Ezekiel sees in this valley of dry bones is the work of God, as God puts sinews and flesh and skin on the bones, and breathes into the bodies so created, so that they live (37:5–6, 8, 10). The scene is a dramatic reworking of the creation scene in Genesis, when God creates humanity out of the dust, breathing “the breath of life” into human beings (Gen 2:7).

The vision indicates what God will do: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil” (37:14). The end of the exile, it seems, is in sight. This passage is often interpreted in a Christian context as a pointer both to the resurrection of Jesus, and also to the general resurrection; for Ezekiel, however, it is not a far-into-the-future prediction (foretelling), but a word of hope to the people in their immediate situation (forthtelling).

Indeed, the very next section of this chapter reports a proclamation of Ezekiel which is quite directly forthtelling. The two sticks that he takes (37:16) stand for Judah and Israel; as he joins the sticks, so he points to the return of these peoples from their exile, their return “to their own land”, and a cleansing which will mean “they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (37:21–23, 27).

That final phrase is a common covenantal affirmation made by God (Lev 26:12; Ruth 1:16; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezek 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; Zech 2:11; and Hos 1:10–11, overturning Hos 1:9). The reunited people shall have one king (37:24) and they will observe “an everlasting covenant” (37:26).

The Lord God addresses the prophet Ezekiel in a distinctive way; 94 times, he begins his words to the prophet with the Hebrew phrase ben adam—traditionally translated as “son of man” (meaning a human being), in the NRSV rendered as “o mortal”. We could simply say, Ezekiel, o human one. My NIV has the footnote, “the phrase son of man is retained as a form of address here and throughout Ezekiel because of its possible association with “Son of Man” in the New Testament”. Certainly, this distinctive address in Ezekiel resonates with the use of this distinctive phrase in the Gospels (although another scriptural usage, in Dan 7:14, offers a different take on this phrase.)

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Continued at

A reticent prophet: called, equipped, and sustained (Jeremiah 1; Pentecost 11C)

This is a sermon that I wrote and presented for Project Reconnect for this coming Sunday, Pentecost 11. The video of the sermon is at https://projectreconnect.com.au/2022/07/21/21st-august-2022-pentecost-9-the-prophet-jeremiah

Project Reconnect is a worship resource that is published weekly to help congregations with their worship service. It includes a PDF information sheet with video messages, music resources and discussion starters. (The website notes, “downloads are free but we would appreciate your donations to help continue our work”; see https://projectreconnect.com.au)

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Prophets. Not profits as in financial gain, the difference between the amount earned and the amount spent in buying, operating, or producing something. But prophets, as in the chosen messengers of God, empowered by the Spirit, equipped to declare the word of the Lord to the people of God.

If your mind goes to prophets, perhaps you might think of Amos: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”; or Micah: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”. Perhaps you think of Elijah: “the Lord was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire; but in the sound of sheer silence.” Or is it Isaiah who comes to your recollection: “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

I’m not surprised if one of those famous prophets was the person you immediately thought of. We have heard from some of them in the Old Testament readings in previous weeks, so they may be fresh in your mind.

But in today’s reading, we hear about the call that God placed on another person, a somewhat reluctant prophet: Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was not itching to respond to God, when he received the call to become a prophet. He was not very old; some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. We might have sympathy for Jeremiah on this account; he was young, hardly at an age that we would recognise as qualified and equipped to be a public spokesperson for God!

So when he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means, “alas” or “woe is me”. Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all.

Maybe you might know how he feels: when we are asked to do something difficult, something demanding, something challenging, that is beyond what we feel that we are able to achieve. For you, that might be the challenge of running a marathon, or being invited to speak in public to a large crowd, or learning a new language. Big challenges, lots of hard work, too much to consider. For me, I can think of a few challenges that really freak me out: climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge (I don’t handle heights very well at all), letting a snake coil around me (that’s a petrifying thought), touching a spider (we just aren’t going to go there in any way!)

Jeremiah was incredibly reticent; like Moses, he was not going to take up this invitation in any way. Moses declined the offer of becoming the spokesperson for God: “who am I, to go to Pharaoh? what could I say to him?” but God persisted, and Moses relented. Likewise, with Jeremiah; initially, he says, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy”, but God persists: he will support the young man Jeremiah, just as he supported the young man Moses.

But I think that we have this story from the opening chapter of this book, in our reading today, not because it shows us that God will help us overcome our fears about challenges set before us. It think that it is not Jeremiah’s words that we are to focus on. It is, rather, the words that God speaks to Jeremiah which should ring in our ears.

It is the encouragement for the task that God promises—and later delivers—that must stand out for us. “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’”, the voice declares; “for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” God gives the right words for the appropriate time. That is remembered when Jesus later tells his disciples that the spirit would enable them to speak, even in the midst of difficulties (Luke 21:13–15).

And then, we hear the words: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” In typical style, the first word of God to the human being chosen for a specific task is, “do not be afraid”. When God appears to human beings—in a vision, as an angel, in a voice from the heavens, in a response to prayer, as a niggling, unsettling feeling, in words of advice or guidance from a friend—however God might appear to us, it can be an experience that evokes fear, awe, anxiety. Who is this, speaking to me? How am I to respond?

“Do not be afraid”, said the Lord, to Abraham, in a vision (Gen 15). “Do not be afraid”, he said, to Isaac, at Beersheba (Gen 26). “Do not be afraid”, to Moses, in the wilderness (Num 21), to Joshua, facing the combined might of a great army (Josh 11), to Elijah, also facing a great army (2 Kings 1); “do not be afraid”, Isaiah says, on behalf of the Lord, to king Hezekiah (Isa 37); “do not be afraid”, the voice of God says to the prophet Ezekiel, when he was called to his role (Ezek 2), and to Zechariah (Zech 8). It is a common refrain throughout the stories of the people of Israel.

And we hear the same phrase repeated in New Testament stories, when God speaks to Zechariah, “do not be afraid” (Luke 1), to Mary, “do not be afraid” (Luke 1), to Joseph (Matt 1), to Simon Peter (Luke 5), to Paul, Silas, and Timothy, in Corinth (Acts 18), and to the ageing prophet John in exile on Patmos: “do not be afraid” (Rev 1). It is God’s consistent and encouraging word to those who encounter the intensity of divine presence, the enormity of divine challenge, the inescapable call to follow, to believe, to declare the word of the Lord: “do not be afraid”. It is God’s word to each of us.

So the word of God to Jeremiah is clear: “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” And Jeremiah is willing to respond; to accept the challenge, to take up the call, to stretch himself and step into a new experience.

What Jeremiah would encounter in the decades that followed, was pretty heavy stuff. He didn’t know that at the time that he accepted the call to be God’s spokesperson. He persisted, held strong, remained faithful throughout all the difficulties that ensued for the people of Israel, as they were attacked, besieged, defeated, and then sent into exile, away from their homeland, off into a strange, foreign country. Jeremiah held fast; he remained faithful to the call that God had placed upon him through all of this.

And God held fast to him through all these tragic events. Jeremiah received the support, the guidance, and the encouragement from God through this all, as the people of God were taken from their beloved land, and sent far away into exile. God remained faithful.

So we give thanks to God, for God holds fast, God remains faithful, God does not let go, no matter what. That gracious, faithful commitment to us is the heart of the good news that we know, that we proclaim, that we live in our lives: the ever-faithful God who is with us, the ever-present God who is for us.

For this, we say: thanks be to God!

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1. What do you think about the idea that a teenager could be the chosen voice of God?

2. How do you deal with difficulties on your walk of faith? How do you listen for what God might be saying to you at such a time?

3. Think of a challenge that faces your congregation or faith community. How might you work together to discern what God is calling you to do?

4. Jeremiah was called to speak to all the people—the whole community—in the public arena. How do you make your voice heard in the public discussion of important issues today?

Cords of kindness, bands of love: the prophet Hosea (Pentecost 7C and 8C)

As we continue to follow the prophets in the readings from Hebrew Scripture that the lectionary offers, we hear from Hosea this coming Sunday (Hos 1:2–10) and the following Sunday (Hos 11:1–11). The two passages offer quite a contrast.

In the first selection in the lectionary, the opening chapter of the book, we hear about the prophet’s own situation. Hosea receives direction from God as to how he is to behave. The actions he undertakes provide a series of signs to the people of Israel concerning their fate (1:2–10). The future looks grim. In the second section offered by the lectionary (11:1–11), the prophet speaks on behalf of God to the people, reminding them of God’s persistent love for them. There is hope for the future, he tells them.

Jeroboam II from Guillaume Rouillé’s
Promptuarii Iconium Insigniorum
(published 1553)

Hosea was active as a prophet in the northern kingdom in the 8th century BCE, over six decades, from the reign of Jeroboam II to the time of Hoshea. He seems to reflect an awareness of the war between Syria and Ephraim, a northern tribe (see 5:8–15), but his oracles do not indicate any knowledge of the defeat of the northerners by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and their subsequent exile (2 Kings 17).

The name Hosea means “salvation”, and the oracles in this book provide occasional glimpses of that desired outcome (1:7; 2:24; 6:2–3; 10:12; 11:3–4, 8–9; 13:4–5) before the final oracle assures Israel, “I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them” (14:4–9). The love song of chapter 11 represents the height of this aspiration. However, the predominant tone of the book is a relentless condemnation of Israel for her sins. This fate is signalled in striking fashion in the opening chapter, through the names of Hosea’s children. They indicate exactly what fate is in store for the people.

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The opening chapter presents a challenge to orthodox views of morality and the nature of God. God commands Hosea to “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord” (1:2). Let’s note that: God commands behaviour that is generally regarded as immorality!

Hosea’s wife is named as Gomer, from the verb gamar, which means “to complete or bring to an end”. Is she the one to bring to completion the salvation to which Hosea looks? The promiscuity of Gomer is noted at 3:1; Hosea wins her back with “fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine” (3:2). Her behaviour seems to signal the infidelity and then return to God of the Israelites (3:3–5). Hosea regularly pleads with Israel to “return to the Lord” (2:7; 4:5; 6:1; 12:6; 14:1–2).

Not only does Gomer signify the behaviour of Israel; the names of her children are similarly significant. The first son, Jezreel (“God sows”) signals punishment (1:4). A daughter, Lo-ruhamah (“not pitied”) signals God’s continuing refusal to forgive Israel (1:6). A second son, Lo-ammi (“not my people”) seals their fate, it would seem: “you are not my people and I am not your [God]” (1:9). The names tell a story; a story that does not bode well for Israel.

Wrath infuses the whole book, from the opening series of names and in the indictment set out in legal form, “the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land” (4:1), with the threat from God that “I will punish them for their ways, and repay them for their deeds” (4:1–11). It is present as the prophet tells of the wrath poured out on Ephraim like drowning water (5:8–11) and in his words about God’s smouldering anger over idol worship (8:1–6). It climaxes in the threat of destruction and the removal of the king (13:9–11). Paradoxically, for a book bearing the name “salvation” (Hosea), the message is consistently about punishment for wrongdoing.

The metaphor of Gomer’s behaviour as a whore (1:2; 2:5; 3:1) permeates the book: the divine accusation is that Israel has “played the whore” (4:10–14; 5:3; 9:1), that “a spirit of whoredom has led them astray” (4:12; 5:5), that “they have forsaken the Lord to devote themselves to whoredom” (4:10–11), that because of this whoredom, the nation is defiled (6:10).

Yet in the opening chapter, Hosea strongly affirms that all is not lost; there is hope. “The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea”, says Hosea, “which can be neither measured nor numbered” (1:10a)—and more than this, “in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God’” (1:10b). The new name for the people signifies the promise that Israel will be saved; “I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give to her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope” (3:14–15).

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This fluctuation between the threat of punishment hanging over Israel, and the alluring words of love that God speaks to her, takes us into a deeper level of concern, for this is precisely the kind of behaviour that is experienced by women caught in abusive relationships. Is the Lord nothing more than a manipulative, power-wielding tyrant of a husband, inflicting damage, driving his woman away in fear, then pleading for his woman to come back to him, offering all manner of blandishments and promises of transformation? “Come, let us return to the Lord, for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up” (6:1)

How we answer that question determines how we read the second passage offered by the lectionary (11:1–11). Is this a truly loving, gracious, ever-forgiving God? or a violent, devious, never-changing tyrant?

Certainly, the larger context of the prophetic literature and of the whole sweep of the story told in scripture encourages us to see God in a good light. This is surely the God who is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6, and a number of other places in Hebrew Scripture). Hosea plays out in one specific time what God and Israel enact time and time again, over the centuries.

Indeed, the words of promise (“after two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him”, 6:2) were even cited by church fathers and scholars as the place in Hebrew Scripture which provides a prediction of the gospel affirmation, “he was raised on the third day” (2 Cor 15:4; and see Acts 10:40; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46).

These words were not, of course, intended to point forward in this way in the time of Hosea; they are poetically non-specific (“after two days… on the third day” is typical Hebraic parallelism with a linguistic variation), and are spoken by Hosea into the context of his own time, as an insight into the divine offer of hope that he senses, for the Lord “will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (6:3). This is forthtelling, and not foretelling.

So the “cords of human kindness … bands of love” (11:4) depict God in an anthropomorphic manner, loving Israel as a child (11:1), calling to them (11:1–2), taking them up into God’s arms (11:3), kissing them and feeding them (11:4, showing warm and tender compassion (11:8), withholding anger (11:9), welcoming them back as they return from their wandering (11:11). God is the patient, loving, caring parent. The chapter offers beautiful insights into how God deals with people, to set alongside our concerns about the nature of God.

As we noted in considering the prophet Amos, the king of Assyria began to deport Israelites to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 5:26), perhaps in the 730s, while Hosea was still alive. Two decades later, after Hosea’s death, a new Assyrian king captured the northern capital, Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6). The northern kingdom had come to an end; the people taken into exile would never return to their land. They became known as “the lost tribes of Israel” (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ten-Lost-Tribes-of-Israel).

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See also