Turn the Cheek

Turn the Cheek January 30, 2014

“Let him give his cheek to the smiter, let him be filled with reproach” (Lamentations 3:30).

In context, Jeremiah is speaking of afflicted Israel, which he himself embodies as the prophet. “I have hope in Him,” Jeremiah writes (v. 24) and then turns to a meditation on the value of suffering in youth: It is good to wait silently, good to bear burdens while young. The response to affliction is silence sitting in the dust, offering the cheek to the one who smites and accepting the shame of a slap (vv. 26-30).

But this is not a permanent condition. The afflicted one is silent, sits in the dust, and offers his cheek confident that “the Lord is good to all who wait for Him” (v. 25) and that “the Lord will not reject forever” (v. 31). The afflicted young man bows to his affliction, but hopes in Yahweh to raise him up.

In several ways, this passage throws light on Jesus’ instructions concerning turning the cheek. First, it shows that a strike on the cheek is an act of humiliation more than a dangerous physical assault. The one who gives his cheek to the smiter is filled with “reproach.” Second, it shows that the stance of humility before an enemy who humiliates is a stance of faith. For Jeremiah, one submits to a cheek-slap in faith that Yahweh will not always reject; Jesus’ disciples turn the other cheek confident that their heavenly Father will rescue them from their affliction and supply everything they need.

Finally, the overall context of Jeremiah’s prophecy is relevant to Jesus’ instructions. Lamentations as a whole is about the destruction of Jerusalem and of the first temple. In that context, Jeremiah and other faithful Jews will wait in hope for the Lord to rescue and restore. They will not retaliate, but offer their cheeks to their enemies. That is consistent with Jeremiah’s message in his prophecy: Submit to Nebuchadnezzar, and you will be saved. 

Jesus’ instructions are given in a similar context: John and Jesus both warn of a coming disaster, brought on by volatile resistance from Jewish purists. When that disaster strikes, Jesus’ disciples are to be pliant toward their adversaries. They accept the reproach of a cheek-slap, and turn the other cheek, waiting on the Father.

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