AMERICA, READ THIS BOOK!
By David George Moore. Dave’s videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com and his blog is www.twocities.org.
Commentaries on books of the Bible are not created equally. You have to be shrewd in what you consult. Good ones come in all different types and sizes, from the devotional to the technical. My favorite ones are those that combine great care with the text of Scripture, are well-written, and offer many connections to our own time and day. Christopher Wright’s terrific work on Jeremiah certainly fits the bill. It is part of The Bible Speaks Today series (InterVarsity Press).
Chris Wright is international director of Langham Partnership and the author of many stellar works in the field of biblical studies including the much heralded, The Mission of God.
Moore: Let me elaborate a bit on the title for this interview. We know that all books of the Bible are equally inspired by God. This, however, does not mean that all books of the Bible are equally important. If push came to shove (as it sometimes does here in the U.S.), I would choose the book of Jeremiah as one of the most important for Americans to digest deeply. Since you are on the “other side of the pond,” I’m curious how you would respond to my bias.
Wright: I agree that we should regard all books of the Bible as equally inspired – and important. But some come into sharp focus at certain times, as particularly relevant and sharp in what they have to say to our culture at any given moment of history. And I would agree with you that Jeremiah is a book for our times, for two main reasons.
First, it emerges at a time of great international confusion and fear. A great empire was falling apart, and smaller nations were in turmoil. What would the “new world order” look like if Assyria collapsed, and who would take their place? Egypt? Babylon? Or everybody for themselves? Meanwhile God’s own people were tempted to ally themselves with whichever political or national policy they thought would bring them most advantage, rather than trust God with their vulnerability. And in the midst of that confusion there were many false prophets – peddlers of all kinds of political and spiritual visions and promises, playing up to what the people wanted to hear. Jeremiah on the other hand spoke from God, in ways that often ran contrary to the “received wisdom” and popular options. One thing he was NOT was a “popularist”!
Secondly, Jeremiah (like other prophets) exposed the idolatry that underlay the spiritual, political, economic and social disintegration of his society. The issue in the Bible is not just “Do you believe in God or not?” Everybody believed in gods of some sort. The question was, “Who is truly the only living God?” And if that God is indeed Yahweh the God of Israel, then there are consequences in real life – as shown in the Torah. Yahweh demanded justice for the poor, compassion and equality for foreigners and refugees, systemic redress for poverty, structural mechanisms to protect the homeless and family-less from abuse and destitution, fair and equitable distribution of land, integrity in the judicial system, humility, simplicity and morality in the government (as opposed to wealth, women and weapons), etc. etc. If you want that kind of society, you need to be faithful to the living God. BUT, if you go after the gods of the surrounding culture – Baal, the god of sex and business, girls and greed, fertility and prosperity; or the national gods of Egypt or Assyria, with their boastful glorying in national greatness based on military might and brutality — then you will get a very different society. Eventually, you will be ruled over by those gods, walking on human legs, and society will become very sick indeed – as God’s inevitable judgment takes hold. Jeremiah warned Judah about the painful consequences of abandoning the truth they knew and going after false gods – with appalling social and political results. They reaped what they had sown. And God gave them up to the gods they wanted (as Paul points out in Romans 1).
But did they listen to Jeremiah? Or any other prophet like him with the same message? No, they preferred to drop him down a hole to shut him up. That’s what still happens to prophets.
So yes, I think Jeremiah is for our times. But whether the church in the west will listen to the Word of God today any more than in the chaos of 7th century BC middle east…. Only God knows.
Moore: One of the many striking things about your commentary on Jeremiah is the teaching you offer on our “suffering God.” As you well know, whether God truly suffers like us humans has been long debated among Christian theologians. Would you describe a bit why you came out in the affirmative as to God’s suffering?
Wright: There is a doctrine called the “impassibility of God.” That is, that God cannot suffer – at least not as we do. It has some roots in Greek philosophy, that if God is a perfect being, then suffering would reduce that perfection, so God cannot suffer. More thoughtful theologians take the phrase in the sense of one of the confessions of faith that talks of God as being “without parts or passions” – that is, he is not physical as we are, and he is not subject to “passions” in the sense of uncontrollable emotions that can take charge of us at times. God is not “emotional,” if that word is used as some kind of weakness.
However, the Bible itself does not seem too bothered by the idea that talking of God suffering might in any way diminish God, or detract from his perfection. On the contrary, the Bible seems to revel in the richness of describing God in ways that reflect our own human realities. This is called “anthropomorphism” (talking about God’s hand, or eyes, ears, or mouth – meaning he is able to do things that those body parts enable us to do), or “anthropopathism” (talking about God having feelings that we have – God weeps, laughs, is angry, expresses disappointment, nostalgia, love, grief, and – yes, suffering and pain).
But this should not be seen as us attributing “our stuff” to God. Rather it is the other way round. God has made us humans in God’s own image. So therefore the highest way to talk about God is by some kind of analogy with ourselves. So, naturally, if we (we who are finite and sinful) suffer in multiple ways because of sin and evil and the horrible things that happen in our world, how much more does God (God who is infinite, sinless, and knows the totality of all that happens to everybody) suffer pain and heartache at the suffering of his human and non-human creation – and be angry at all that causes it?
Ultimately, for me, I cannot hold to any rigid form of “impassibility” of God that would rob all that profound language in Jeremiah (and elsewhere) of its meaning. And especially, I cannot do so in the light of the cross of Christ. For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and plumbed the depths of suffering in doing so.
What is so striking in the book of Jeremiah is how many times it is impossible to distinguish between the words of Jeremiah and the words of God, when deep feelings are being expressed. That is probably intentional. The prophet not only speaks what God says, he also feels what God feels. The tears of the prophet are the tears of God – for God “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (as Ezekiel puts it), but rather suffers deep pain when people’s own sin and folly thrust them into the kind of suffering that we hear in the book of Lamentations.
Moore: You have some wonderful turns of phrase throughout this commentary like Jeremiah “dismantling traditional certainties of faith.” How does Jeremiah do this, and what can preachers of God’s Word learn from him in this regard?
Wright: Jeremiah was subversive. That’s why they hated him, and indeed treated him like a false prophet.
Old Testament Israel had some foundational pillars of faith. They were true and robust and God given. The trouble was that people had come to trust in them merely by repeating them, without paying any attention to the ethical implications of what their faith should mean in how they lived.
They believed God had given them their land. He had. But they had not lived in it in either gratitude or obedience. They had not fulfilled any of the conditions that Deuteronomy had made so clear. So Jeremiah undermines their belief that they would always live there with God’s protection, and threatened that God would turf them out unless they changed.
They believed God had put his name in the temple in the city of David. He had. But just because he had protected the city and the temple at the time of Hezekiah, as Isaiah had prophesied, did not mean that it was inviolable forever. No, if they thought they could sin and break God’s law all week, and come to the temple to sing praises on the Sabbath, they were treating it like a robbers’ den – thinking they were safe. Jeremiah quickly undermined that illusion.
They had God’s law. But they had made it ineffective (same as Jesus said in his day).
They believed they were the nation God had chosen among all the nations. And they were. But that did not give them immunity to God’s judgment. Like the nations, they too would feel God’s wrath if they refused to live in God’s ways. Furthermore, God could deal with other nations in mercy as well as judgment. Jeremiah was full of surprises, as against the popular religious assumptions of his day. That’s perhaps why some people, when they encountered Jesus, thought he was very like Jeremiah. He turned things upside down.
Perhaps preachers today need to think about the assumptions that are common in their congregation – the plausibilities and comforting assurances–which may in themselves have biblical truth, but can easily become insurance policies waved around as immunity from any kind of serious evaluation of how we are living, whether we are truly following the Lord Jesus in the way he walked, whether we are doing righteousness and justice as God commanded.
Moore: I often encourage Christians to read the Bible from the standpoint of identifying with those who made the sinful decisions, not the saints. With Jeremiah in particular it is easy to think we would side with him and his buddy Baruch, but it is probably more honest if we see ourselves being duped by the false prophets. I think most of us Christians would find the false prophets idea of trusting Egypt to bail us out more enticing than submitting to Jeremiah’s message of going into Babylon. Do you think that is true?
Wright: Yes, I do. As a hermeneutical tactic, it is always worth asking of any biblical text – especially narrative and prophetic ones: With whom in this text should I identify myself (there may be several possible answers to that)? What is it like to hear this text from their point of view? And in the case of Jeremiah, that means not only hearing his preaching as if we were among those who first heard it (the citizens of Jerusalem in the final decades before the fall of Jerusalem), but also as if we were among the exiles in Babylon, who, as we know, possessed a copy of the scroll of the prophecies of Jeremiah. How would they respond as they heard the words that they or their parents had rejected? Was there still the opportunity to repent and change things and enable a different future?
The trouble today is that many Christians live in a kind of bubble of assumptions about what their Christianity means, especially if it places them comfortably among “the good guys,” – assumptions that are likely to be drawn as much from folk-Christianity, surrounding political culture, popular pulp-books about the “End Times,” or their favourite guru writer or therapist, than from sober and comprehensive reading of the Bible as a whole. Prophets and preachers have the unwelcome task of pricking that bubble with the sharpness of actual texts and teachings of the Bible itself. The Bible, not the bubble (I like that!)
Moore: You do a terrific job of laying out the sober nature of God’s judgment throughout this book, but also underscoring how much God’s grace permeates the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah really is a great place to understand the gospel, isn’t it?
Wright: Oh indeed yes. The sheer grace of God’s promise in the midst of judgment, in chapters 30-33 especially, is astonishing and moving. If “gospel” means good news, then Jeremiah had some for sure. He saw the judgment coming, in horrifying technicolour. But he saw beyond it to the redeeming, restoring grace of God, and indeed he speaks of the “new covenant”, which takes us to the heart of the gospel in Christ.
It isn’t easy, mind you, to just “read the gospel” out of Jeremiah. It takes some working at, and some deep and careful reading, reflecting and understanding. But then that’s what a book called “The Bible Speaks Today” is supposed to help us do! Certainly, for me, the seven year long task of working on Jeremiah was deeply confirming of the loving heartbeat of God, the centrality and wonder of the gospel – against the backdrop of the awful reality of what sin does to us and of God’s anger at the appalling arrogance and stupidity of human rebellion and rejection of his word and his ways.
Moore: Jeremiah is immensely helpful in showcasing that sin is not worth it. I find Jeremiah’s teaching on the shame that comes from idolatry to be a tangible reminder to me as well as a creative aid with those whom I minister to. Some preachers downplay or don’t talk much about sin. What can we learn from Jeremiah’s creative and multi-faceted descriptions of the havoc sin causes?
Wright: Well, as I said above, it takes some deep reflection. For one thing, we tend to speak of sin in very personal and individual terms. Jeremiah does not downplay that, but he also sees how a whole society can be bound up in the tentacles of sin, in the assumptions that everybody around you makes, about how it becomes easier to sin than not to, and how we can become so confused and contradictory in our reactions, when sin is pointed out (see chapter 2 especially).
Jeremiah is also good at showing how societies can go rotten from within, as well as being corrupted from the top (by government, corrupt courts, greedy profiteers, etc etc). His book is part of the wider biblical analysis of sin that is profound – and sadly much neglected in a lot of church evangelism and discipling. He also shows how deep-rooted it is, how ineradicable by human effort alone, as well as how stupid, pointless and futile it is in the end. Pretty uncomfortable stuff – but, well-worth preaching, PROVIDED you always come back to his message about repentance and grace in the end.