K:JNWTS 31/1 (May 2016): 27-30

Jeremiah: Prophetic Narrative Biography and the Divine-Human Interface

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The book of the prophet Jeremiah is the largest single-author work in the Old Testament (OT). And this largest single-author work among the books of the OT records the greatest amount of biographical detail on the career of any canonical prophet. And this greatest detail of a canonical OT prophet lays out before the reader the greatest crisis of the OT—the great crisis of the destruction of Jerusalem (586 BC). Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians together razed the Temple of Solomon so as to leave not one stone upon another, together with the transportation, the deportation, the expatriation of wave upon wave of Judeans to Babylon.

Rightly branded the "weeping prophet" (cf. Jer. 9:1, 18; 13:17; 14:17; Lam. 1:16; 3:48-49)—an appellation which dominates his portrayal in literature and art—"Jeremiah sat down weeping . . . over Jerusalem" as we read in the heading to the book of Lamentations in the Septuagint (LXX, Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). This weeping prophet, this prophet of tears, this prophet whose narrative biography is the most replete, the most complete, this largest book of the prophets with the greatest amount of biographical detail, this lachrymose prophet is the least known in the church. From the detail of his career recorded in Scripture, he is the best known of the canonical prophets from within the Bible. But outside the Bible, even in the places which revere the Bible, Jeremiah remains the least known of the prophets in the church. As one observer has noted, the most "accessible prophet" from within Scripture is the most "hidden prophet" to the church. And Jeremiah is the most open of the prophets—about his life, his feelings, his complaints, his sufferings; but to us, he remains the most obscure prophet. Jeremiah is the most familiar prophet to his contemporaries, but the most unfamiliar prophet to us and our contemporaries. Well known in his day (as his narrative biography testifies); unknown in our day.

And yet, the Lord Jesus Christ was thought to be Jeremiah. Jesus of Nazareth was considered to be Jeremiah alive from the dead—Jeremias redivivus (Matt. 16:14). Who did some people say that Jesus was? "Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Jesus Christ regarded as the eschatological Jeremiah. The protological (first) Jeremiah is recapitulated in the eschatological (last) Jeremiah. The protological weeping prophet is fulfilled in the eschatological weeping prophet. Jesus, our Savior, is identified with Jeremiah, the OT prophet. That is an identification which is profound, poignant, plangent, powerful! Powerful to attract you to the life of this OT prophet—this figure of Christ of the former era; this prophet who wept over Jerusalem, even as the Son of God wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41).

We are dealing here with a marvelous philosophy of revelation—redemptive-historical revelation—revelation in protological and eschatological tandem—revelation knitting together the redemptive history of the former prophet with the redemptive history of the last prophet. Indeed, we are drawn irresistibly to a once-and-for-all weeping prophet who is more than a prophet, more than a mere recapitulation, more than Jeremiah—a prophet who is very God of very God. That means that God is disclosing himself in his Son, Jesus Christ; but also in his prophet Jeremiah. And, grace upon grace, God the Son is disclosing himself in the prophet Jeremiah. This is magnificent redemptive-historical, recapitulatory, protological-eschatological prophetic narrative biography. The first weeping prophet and the last weeping prophet mirroring themselves in one another. Now that is sweet redemptive-historical union, is it not?!

The interface between the 6th century BC prophet and the 1st century AD prophet is the rippling narrative of the organic history of redemption—an unfolding drama which encloses antecedent and consequent, precursor and successor, first and last, Jeremiah and Jesus. Enfolds them both in a redemptive-historical drama of suffering, rejection, spurned proclamation, betrayal by their own, denunciation, mockery, arrest, imprisonment, scourging, condemnation.

Jeremiah is born of humble surroundings, raised in a rural village setting. The story of Jesus interfaces.

He is commissioned by the foreknowledge, the decree and the calling of God. The story of Jesus interfaces.

His preaching is the thunder and fire of God's judgment and the softness and warmth of God's grace in a new heart. The story of Jesus interfaces.

His message about the destruction of the Temple earns him the enmity of his listening audience. The story of Jesus interfaces.

His own people plot his death—seek to kill him. The story of Jesus interfaces.

He is arrested, beaten, imprisoned and bound over to death. The story of Jesus interfaces.

For telling the truth—the truth of God—he is condemned, an outcast, despised and rejected of men. The story of Jesus interfaces.

When Jeremiah preaches his famous Temple Sermon (Jer. 7), he is banned from the Temple (36:5). When he declares that the Lord will bring fire on the land of Judah, his own family plots to kill him (Jer. 11:21-23). When he prophecies that God will make Jerusalem like Tophet, Pashur, a Temple priest, strikes him, beats him and puts him in stocks overnight (Jer. 20). When his scroll containing prophecies against Judah and Jerusalem is read to King Jehoiakim, the arrogant monarch deliberately slices column from column and feeds them to the flames of his brazier (Jer. 36). When he predicts seventy years of captivity in Babylon, Hananiah, a pseudo-prophet, calls Jeremiah a liar and humiliates him in the presence of all the people (Jer. 28). When Jeremiah proclaims that Jerusalem will be given into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, he is cast down into a cistern full of mud—muck into which Jeremiah sinks and would have suffocated to death had he not been rescued by an Ethiopian (Jer. 38).

Outlawed, censored, threatened, pummeled, imprisoned, derided, belittled, degraded, nearly asphyxiated, Jeremiah endures a range of abuses over the life of his more than forty-year career. And in the face of the near constant barrage of hatred and opposition and dislike and rejection, the prophet often cracks—shows his temper—is provoked to retaliate with complaints, confessions, commiserations. We are admitted to the soul of this prophet as we are excluded from the souls of virtually every other prophet. The humanization of OT prophecy is here in Jeremiah—this prophet of the Lord pressed down into the passion of his God—the pathos of his people: the pathetic passion of prophet and people.

Out of the soul, up from the heart of this weeping prophet, the complaints, the confessions, le cri du coeur—the soul of a man, prophet of the Lord, whose inner person, whose down-deep psyche is displayed to his readers—to those with hearts and souls to understand, to feel the depths of the anguish which Jeremiah, the prophet, feels. Here is religious feeling—religious affection (to borrow the phrase of Jonathan Edwards); here is the soul before God; here is the soul in God; here is the soul of a sinner at the brink of the Last Judgment on his own world. Though spared and exiled, he becomes a provisional mirror of the horror of the eschatological judgment on the cosmos.

And so, the poignant confessions of Jeremiah are a mirror of ambivalence—the tension and erstwhile contradiction between consent and complaint, between praise and protest, between benediction and malediction. It is the prophet's narrative—the narrative of the soul in collision with God, the Sovereign; collision with self—the pitiful narrative of the soul between God and self.

The narrative of the book of Jeremiah is the drama of the interface between prophet and people. The narrative ripples of Jeremiah in his own history and the history of Judah converge, intersect, overlap. And the narrative ripples of Jeremiah the prophet of the Lord and the Lord the giver of prophecy converge, intersect, overlap. The history of Jeremiah dramatically carries along the story of the man as it interfaces with the ripple effects of the story of the nation of Judah. And the Word of the Lord which the prophet expires is the Lord's Word which he inspires—the Word of the Lord in Jeremiah interfaces with Jeremiah in the Lord of the Word. Those ripples are the revelatory ripples of a divine-human drama: God the Lord disclosing himself to his servant; his servant disclosing himself to God the Lord.

We discover we are reading a prophetic narrative biography in which the story of the prophet and the nation-people is mirrored. Such is the redemptive-historical mirror. And we further discover that we are reading a prophetic narrative biography in which the story of the prophet and the Lord God is mirrored. Such is the incarnational mirror. So profound is the inter-relationship between Jeremiah and his Lord that the Word of the Lord in-dwells him even as he dwells within the Lord of the Word. Mirror ripples as mirror interfaces in narrative drama.

This prophetic narrative biography overflows with characters—dramatic, heroic, tragic, pathetic characters: Kings—Josiah, Jehoiakim, Zedekiah; Prophets—Uriah, Hananiah; Baruch, the Scribe; Ebed-Melek, the Ethiopian; Pashur, the Temple priest; Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuzaradan of Babylon—and a supporting cast of thousands. Narrative characterization literally abounds in this book.

It is also brim full of prophetic symbolic actions: Jeremiah's linen girdle (Jer. 13); the potter's vessel of chapters 18 and 19; the yoke he wears upon his neck (Jer. 27); the field he buys in Anathoth (Jer. 32); and the marriage he is forbidden to pursue (Jer. 16). Symbols of the impending acts of God in the acts of the prophet. There is that divine-human interface once more!

And this prophetic narrative biography ripples over and over with Jeremiah's "confessions"; or more trenchantly his "complaints" (Jer. 11:18-20; 12:1-4; 15:10-12, 15-21; 17:14-18; 18:19-23; 20:7-18). Scholars who prefer the term "confessions" compare Jeremiah's expostulations with Augustine's famous book of that title. In the case of the OT prophet and the North African church father, we have the soul laid bare—opened for all to see—plumbing the depths of human feeling and sensitivity. We read Jeremiah and Augustine and they touch our soul—our inner core of feeling and fallenness and shame and delight in our Lord and Savior. With Jeremiah, we journey inward to the narrative of the soul and the soul's narrative journey in to the presence of God and the tender union of his everlasting love (Jer. 31:3) in Christ Jesus.