Part 1: Who is speaking in Jeremiah 4:19-21?

As part of a thesis discussing the representative role of Jeremiah the prophet, I looked at how various passages in Jeremiah allow for ambiguity in who is speaking in the text. Below is a discussion on Jeremiah 4:19-21, and forthcoming are short discussions on Jeremiah 8:19-9:2 and 10:19-20.

Jeremiah 4:19-211 is one text in which there is ambiguity about whether the agent of the feelings is the LORD or Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 4, the personal pronoun spilling over into all the verses causes the identification of the participants, most especially the “I” figure, to be not entirely obvious. Ward explains the problem of identification: “The obvious conclusion would be to take the “I” of the two parts as one and the same, were it not for the vivid pathos described in the first part. Commentators therefore have concluded that the prophet was speaking for himself here, but it seems to me that there is an intentional confusion of speakers. The prophet is not conveying his own private response to the tragedy of Judah, but the response of a messenger of YHWH—one who is YHWH’s mouth. It is not too much to say that in his mind, his own pathos is also the pathos of God.”6 Ward’s comments here illustrate how the ambiguity can be an effective part of the prophetic message: Through the ambiguity, Jeremiah is able to speak for God.

Yet, identifying the speaker in vv. 19-21 is not easy. The LORD is speaking in verse 22, as he brings up that the people of Judah do not know him. The previous verses could also be his speech, and the tents would symbolize the temple. However, the anguish in verse 19 sounds more like an emotion caused as a reaction to the alarm of war and is thus not an expected affection belonging to the LORD, even if the LORD is the one speaking in verse 18. Thus, in my opinion, the one speaking in verse 19 is most likely Jeremiah,2 with the tents being symbolic of the property of the people of Israel and the anguish belonging to those facing coming disaster.

Korpel, however, argues that the speaker of verses 19-21 is actually Zion.In her article on who is speaking in Jeremiah 4:19-22, she highlights the various scholarly arguments3 before indicating how textual markings help to make the speaker less ambiguous. She argues that the speaker of verses 19-21 is Zion, based on the coherence of the text of Jeremiah 4:9-18 and the link of concatenation: lbk (4:18aC) || lby (4:19aA, 19aB).4 She goes on to argue that verse 22 is the beginning of a new unit, as “both the phrase ‘wty l’yd’w in v. 22 and the fourfold r’yty of vv. 23-26 can hardly have been spoken by anyone else but God.”5

Although I appreciate Korpel’s argument that the verses prior to v. 22 are most likely not spoken by the LORD, I would argue that the Zion figure has been somewhat superimposed on the text. The people of Israel, identifying themselves as Zion, are somewhat more clearly present here in the text as they are the ones hearing the text. Jeremiah as the speaker is also clearly present. Yet, the only definite conclusion that can be made here is that the verses are then divided into the former being the words of Jeremiah or Zion and the latter being those of the LORD.

Even if Jeremiah is the speaker of verses 19-21, it is not completely clear that his anguish is his alone, especially as it could be shared with the people of Israel who would be identified with Zion. The ambiguity7 allows the anguish still to be that of the LORD, a connection not necessarily expected by the reader even though the cause for such anguish is given in verse 22.



1 Jeremiah 4:18-22 18 (NIV): “Your own conduct and actions have brought this on you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the heart!” 19 Oh, my anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain. Oh, the agony of my heart! My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry. 20 Disaster follows disaster; the whole land lies in ruins. In an instant my tents are destroyed, my shelter in a moment. 21 How long must I see the battle standard and hear the sound of the trumpet? 22 “My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.”

2 As the tents would refer to the property of all of the people of Judah, the reference could refer to the people of Judah. However, it is more likely to refer only to Jeremiah instead of Jeremiah and his community since Jeremiah is the one who had been talking previously in the text. Jeremiah is simply identifying himself as one of the people of Israel.

3 Korpel, M.C.A. (2009). Who Is Speaking in Jeremiah 4:19-22? The Contribution of Unit Delimitation to an Old Problem. Vetus testamentum, 59(1), 88-98. The quote is from pages 92-93. Korpel notes that “several authors have defended the view that in Jer 4:19-21 the person lamenting is Zion or Judah.” She gives the examples of F. Giesebrecht, P. Volz, F. Nötscher, Carroll F. W Dobbs-Allsopp. Furthermore, “Christl Maier, on the basis of comparison with Jer 10:20, suggests that it is Zion who is weeping here [Ch. Maier, “Die Klage der Tochter Zion’, BThZ 15 (1998), pp. 176-189].” Korpel, “Jeremiah 4:19-22,” 93.

4 Korpel, “Jeremiah 4:19-22,” 97. More specifically, with regard to the structure of Jeremiah 4, it appears that “Jer 4:19-22 is part of a larger composition (canto) that starts at 4:9 and ends at 4:31. This canto consists of a diptych of two sub-cantos which from a structural point of view mirror each other [Namely 2+3 | 2+3 || 3+2 | 3+2 strophes ] if—in accordance with ancient manuscripts of the Septuagint and the Vulgate—v. 22 is indeed seen as a separate unit, a later addition which was possibly meant to explain that the disasters bemoaned in w. 19-21 were fully deserved. In this case unit delimitation criticism supports redaction criticism.” Korpel, “Jeremiah 4:19-22,” 98.

5 Korpel, “Jeremiah 4:19-22,” 97. The possibility of verse 22 being a later addition only confirms her position: “If v. 22 is a later addition, the possibility that YHWH is the speaker of w. 19-21 becomes less likely. As we have seen, many commentators doubt the originality of v. 22 and the connection with the previous verse seems to be rather loose.” Korpel, “Jeremiah 4:19-22,” 97.

6 James Ward, Thus Says the Lord: the message of the prophets (1991), 131.

7 Although Korpel argues that the speaker in verses 19-21 are most likely Zion, she does note that an argument for the words being from God does result in some intriguing conclusions: “Most intriguing is the view of Jimmy Roberts who states that the weeping figure in the Book of Jeremiah is ‘better understood as the figure of God’. This would emphasise ‘God’s passionate involvement in the fate of his people’. [J. J. M. Roberts, “The Motif of the Weeping God in Jeremiah and its Background in the Lament Tradition of the Ancient Near East”, OTEs 5 (1992), pp. 361-374 (361).] Roberts’ argument is that the prophet makes significant use of the public lament traditions of the ancient Near East, e.g. in Jer 14:7-9 and Jer 9:16-19 where skilled mourning women are summoned to lead and teach the laments. That God could be physically compassionate with his people also occurs in Hos 11:8, where God complains, ‘My heart recoils within me, my organs of heat are aroused’ and in Isa 42:14 where he utters cries of anguish like a woman in travail.” Korpel, “Jeremiah 4:19-22,” 92.

3 thoughts on “Part 1: Who is speaking in Jeremiah 4:19-21?

  1. Perhaps, I’m allowing myself to be too heavily influenced by the great paper, “YHWH roars from Zion,” that Ryan Roberts gave at the fall Pacific Coast Regional SBL Meeting. Roberts argued quite persuasively that the expression “roars from Zion” in Amos and Joel is a figure for an earthquake. An interesting Akkiadian omen text was central to his argument. While Jer. 4 is full of war language it also seems to me to have a lot of earthquake language (vs. 24-25 for example but I wonder if vs. 20 doesn’t reflect earthquakes as “Alarms of war” to some extent). Is it possible that YHWH is speaking and Zion is his mouthpiece? I certainly don’t have a well-structured argument and I haven’t carefully read the Korpel paper in detail but I plan to.

  2. I’ll also confess I have not studied Korpel’s paper like I should, but I remain unconvinced by her (somewhat peripheral?) arguments that 23-26 should be understood as YHWH’s speech. On ra’iti as always spoken by YHWH in Jeremiah she dismisses 23:13, 14 too quickly, and her second point merely makes it possible YHWH is the speaker, not probable.

    The opening “koh ‘amar YHWH” in 4:27 suggests to me a change of speaker, which in turn suggests 23-26 should be read as “Jeremiah”, for Zion seems improbable to me there.

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