A Return to Chaos? Reflections on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Lectionary Reflections
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
September 15, 2013

As I have said already concerning the prophets of Israel, they simply do not see as we see. Their sight is deeper, expanded, heightened, sharpened, observing more profoundly than our overly literal eyes are capable of observing. Yet, in the process of their seeing, they urge us to a sharpened sight, they bid us to move beyond the obvious, the prosaic, the simple facts of things. We moderns are too much like old newspaper reporters, asking the straightforward questions only: where, when, what, who, just the facts, ma'am. We need to be more like prophets, activating our dream minds, our connective brain tissues that seek to join ideas that on the surface may not appear to be related, but when probed in fact reveal deep structures that seriously affect the ways we see and the ways we live.

Jeremiah calls us to such sight, and in today's passage he demonstrates what prophetic sight can see. Jeremiah speaks, as we have learned, during dark days of Jerusalem's collapsing life. The reformer, Josiah, has died in 609 B.C.E., and the tiny nation has been turned over to two of his sons, neither of whom is up to the task. Jehoiakim, who assumes the throne after the brief kingship of his brother, Jehoiakin, is excoriated by the prophet who sarcastically castigates the king by accusing him of claiming to be a king because he can "compete in cedar" (Jer. 22:15). Jehoiakim can build grand buildings, says Jeremiah, but in the matters of justice and righteousness, the real work of a king, he is a bumbling novice (Jer. 22:13-14).

As a result of Jerusalem's foolish leadership, Jeremiah reaches for dangerous and frightening metaphors to suggest what YHWH is about to do. "A scorching wind from the desert tracks roars towards my poor people, not to winnow or wash; a wind too much for these tasks is coming from me" (Jer. 4:11-12). There is nothing uncommon about a scorching wind in the Middle East, but to a prophet this hot breeze is anything but ordinary. It is a tempest straight from YHWH, and its intent this time is not for cleansing, not for separating wheat from chaff, but for pure destruction.

And what has engendered this potent wind? "My people are ridiculous; they do not know me; stupid children, they have no perception. They are wise in evil-doing, but know nothing of doing good" (Jer. 4:22). Rising temperatures brought on by howling, hot winds are not mere signs of an unpleasant stretch of unusual weather; the scorching heat is nothing less than a sign that God's anger is kindled against a people who have forgotten right actions in their rush to perform evil.

Now, let me be very clear here. I am not saying that there is a direct relationship between YHWH's anger and the onset of unusual heat, even though it could be said that Jeremiah did make such a connection 2600 years ago. That to me is magic talk, and in the 21st century we need no more of that sort of speech. Still, what Jeremiah is saying in his best prophetic mode is important for us to hear. Scorching heat can mean something far more than scorching heat. And in our time, it can have crucial lessons for those willing to open their own eyes of prophecy.

Despite certain Neanderthal members of the American congress and foolish pundits of the conservative airwaves, both aural and visual, the world is beyond doubt getting warmer due to our now 150-year love affair with fossil fuels. The atmosphere above us is now laden with slightly more than 400 million parts of CO2 gas, insuring a temperature rise over the next decades of somewhere between two to five degrees, either Centigrade or Fahrenheit, depending on which climate scientist one finds most pessimistic. If it is the former figure, the world is in for massive changes, due to ice melt, ocean rise, and the terrifying coastal flooding and population dispersion that will be the result. And even if it will be a rise of the latter variety, gigantic world-wide problems will be the result.

Listen now to Jeremiah in the light of that climate scenario I have just painted. "I looked on the earth, and look! It was tohubohu, and at the skies without light. I looked at the mountains, and look! Quaking! And at the hills, reeling and rolling! I looked and look! No one at all! All the birds of the skies had fled! I looked and look! The vineyard was desert; all its cities were smashed before YHWH, before God's awesome anger!" (Jer. 4:23-26) The key to this very dark picture is found in Jeremiah's use of a memorable figure from Genesis 1. The words I have translated "tohubohu" (yes, that has become an English word!) is a direct transliteration of three Hebrew words "tohu wabohu," found only in Genesis 1:2 and here in Jeremiah. In the Genesis account, tohubohu (often translated "waste and void" or similar words—I imagine the words are chosen merely for their sound which is decidedly spooky!) is an attempt to describe the earth before the creative God gets hold of it. That earth is dark and chaotic with a howling wind roaring over the endless waters of the vast deep. Into that monstrous place God brings first "light," and the world we know begins to form.

9/8/2013 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.