But I will strip Esau bare; I will uncover his hiding places, so that he cannot conceal himself. His children, relatives and neighbours will perish, and he will be no more. Leave your orphans; I will protect their lives. Your widows too can trust in me.
This passage is incredibly fascinating. I think, too, that it reveals something powerful about the desire of our God for justice. Here God is pronouncing judgment on the ancient nation of Edom for their violence against Israel and their idolatrous practice. In characteristic fashion, the word sent through Jeremiah is terrifying, dark and thunderous. Yet, curiously, it is followed by God’s promise of protection for Edom’s orphans and widows. This is incredible, first, because God is making a promise to a Gentile nation—that is, a nation that is not His chosen, not His people. God’s care, therefore, must be universal—not limited solely to Israel (or in our day, to the Church). Also, even in the midst of God’s fierce anger against an unjust nation, God preserves care for the suffering—the orphan and the widow. He even uses the language of faith: “Your widows too can trust in me.”
Again and again I sent all my servants the prophets to you. They said, “Each of you must turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; do not follow other gods to serve them. Then you will live in the land I have given to you and your fathers.” But you have not paid attention or listened to me.
The impression of the role of a prophet that I received growing up was one who foretold the future—that was about it. But really, that was only a secondary part of what the prophet was sent to do. They only foretold the future when it served the greater cause of calling the people back to faithfulness and obedience. For example, God instructs Jeremiah to write down all the words of judgment God had spoken through him and to take them to the king of Judah. The purpose behind it is that, “Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, each of them will turn from his wicked way; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin” (Jeremiah 36:3). The prophetic word was two-fold: calling the people away from wrong action and idolatry, back to right action and faithfulness to God. Evil against one’s neighbour and idolatry are intertwined; the two go hand in hand. The prophetic call is one that we constantly need to hear, and to which we ought to be submissive and responsive, for we are all sinful and weak, as the prophet says, “All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12; Psalm 14:3).
Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: “Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years.”
Judah, the country to which Jeremiah was sent, refused to listen to the critique that he brought against them. Judah had abandoned Yahweh, the God who delivered them from Egypt, who established them as a nation and who granted them prosperity and safety. Though God sent His people many messengers, prophets with words of judgment and repentance, Judah refused to reform their actions: “And though the Lord has sent all his servants the prophets to you again and again, you have not listened or paid any attention” (Jeremiah 25:4). Finally, God raised up a foreign power against them to destroy the land and send them into exile. This was destructive of Judah’s very identity as God’s people. Their occupation of the land was central to their understanding of who they were, especially in relation to God. By removing them from the land, God was essentially rejecting them as His people, revoking His promises to them. Judah experienced the abandonment of God.
In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. I will devastate this city and make it an object of scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.
This God terrifies me. Yet the Bible bears witness that this is the same God who entered the world in Christ. That baffles me. Here I see a God of no compassion, no mercy, no pity—of an infinite, insatiable wrath. Where is the God of the cross? I was reflecting a bit after my post on Jeremiah yesterday, and I fear that I may have too quickly jumped to reflection on God’s saving action in Christ. I feel that I need to let the prophetic image of a wrathful God linger a bit longer, in order to make me realize how precious the incarnation truly is. I’m beginning to develop the sense that when the Scriptures speak of the fear of God, they don’t mean a simple reverence or awe. They mean fear.
These are horrific images: “I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.” God’s own chosen, His precious people, those He called His “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5), are surrendered to the ravaging of the Babylonian empire. And this image is beyond words: “I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh.” Maybe I can only say this: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
For this is what the Lord says: “Do not enter a house where there is a funeral meal; do not go to mourn or show sympathy, because I have withdrawn my blessing, my love and my pity from this people,” declares the Lord. “Both high and low will die in this land. They will not be buried or mourned, and no one will cut himself or shave his head for them. No one will offer food to comfort those who mourn for the dead—not even for a father or a mother—nor will anyone give them a drink to console them.
“And do not enter a house where there is feasting and sit down to eat and drink. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Before your eyes and in your days I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in this place.”
The most disconcerting thing about reading the prophets is the constant depictions of the fury and wrath of God. I often picture God as having an inexhaustible love—indeed, I often hear that God’s love is “unconditional.” Yet this passage, among many others, seems to destroy any such notion. God says, “I have withdrawn my blessing, my love and my pity from this people.” Sometimes I find myself asking, Who is this? Is this the same God who has died for me in Christ? The same God that John describes by saying that He is Love (1 John 4:16)? How can such a God, whose very essence is love, withdraw His love from His very own chosen people? And what of the cross? How does the cross change the way that God relates to His people, or does it?
The way that I tend to understand passages like these and their relation to God’s activity now, i.e. post-cross, is that the cross is in some way God’s act to overcome Himself, to satisfy Himself. This can be explained in a number of ways. First, God is much less willing to subject His people to wrath when He has subjected His Son to it. Sometimes God is pained over the punishment of Israel in the Old Testament: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” (Hosea 11:8). How much more is God pained over the wrath He pours out on His Son! Second, through the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, God overcomes the alienation between Himself and His sinful people. No longer are sacrifices required to purge God’s people of their sin and restore the broken relationship between them and God, because Jesus has been given “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27). Finally, and this is what must be said with fear and trembling, there remains wrath for those outside of Christ. Paul speaks of “Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Even though God has joined Himself to the suffering of the world in Christ, for those outside of Christ there remains only a pallid hopelessness: “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3). For “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:19; Deuteronomy 4:24).