Sorrow and grief in the book of Jeremiah

Alongside of whatever implicit sorrow is found in the text (e.g., sorrow related to shame and/or weariness), the text contains a significant number of explicit references to sorrow. The book of Jeremiah speaks of great sorrow and sadness felt by every agent. Bratcher notes the depth of the sadness, as it appears in Jeremiah 8:18-9:1: “The despair and grief is clear in the jumble of emotive words and the striking metaphors associated with weeping (cf. 9:10, 17-22). They intend to communicate profound anguish and sorrow.”1 Gench puts it slightly differently, but nonetheless argues for the deep grief found in the text: “There are few passages in the Bible that express grief as pointedly and passionately as Jer 8 and 9. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick,’ says the prophet (or God, or both).”2 Both Jeremiah (cf. 20:18) and Baruch (cf. 45:2) bear the sadness over bearing a prophetic message, suggesting that sorrow is not only part of Jeremiah’s experience as a person and/or prophet but that sorrow is also a part of the experience of all those closely involved in prophecy.

Several other occurrences of sorrow in the text include the prediction of the people’s mourning the coming disaster and the command of Jeremiah not to mourn. The text in Jeremiah 16 speaks of a lack of mourning and lamenting for those who die. In the midst of this, Jeremiah is commanded by the LORD not to lament (ספד [spd]) because of the lack of peace in the land (16:5). The text makes a distinct connection between Jeremiah’s not lamenting and the future lamenting in the land: the subsequent verses mention that many will die and not be buried, and they will be neither lamented (16:6) nor comforted nor consoled (16:7). In relation to this lack of mourning for those who die, many other texts point to there being much sorrow in the coming time of exile. Most of the references to grief, sadness, and anguish refer to the anticipated feelings of the people of Judah as they experience the inevitability of the exile.

Furthermore, the LORD shows grief by weeping for Moab (48:31). Ironically, even though the LORD chooses to mourn over Moab, there is no explicit indication of his mourning over his chosen people; considering all of the feelings given in the text, this lack must cause some surprise to the reader. It could be a rhetorical lack: If the LORD mourns and wails for the people of Moab who receive judgment (48:31), how much more does he not mourn for the suffering of his own people, his chosen ones? Yet, it could also be an intentional lack: The LORD’s sense of weariness over the people’s refusal to relent (15:6) could be displayed through a neglect in mentioning the LORD’s weeping for his chosen ones. A study of the word tears (דמעה [dmʼh]) in the text gives a stronger basis for these explanations. While the word “tears” often occurs within a reference to weeping or wailing in the text (e.g., 9:2[1], 19 [18]; 13:17; 31:16), Jeremiah 14:17 3 does not make this connection. Yet, it is just this text that suggests a certain level of mourning for Israel. Even if mourning is not explicitly mentioned, there is nonetheless sorrow on account of the punishment that the LORD is forced to place upon his people. The LORD’s concern for his people is shown even more by the LORD’s promise as the people go into exile: in the midst of this coming anguish, the LORD will still be their deliverer in times of anguish (15:11).

The examples above indicate that the grief of Jeremiah is closely related to that of the other agents in the text. This suggests that Jeremiah’s grief is more than merely a reflection of his own feelings. McConville notes how Jeremiah’s pain relates to that of the people: “Jeremiah’s distress is of a piece with the message. He feels already the pain that will come upon the people, in a way that proves his identification with them.”4 Rosenberg goes even further in discussing how Jeremiah’s sorrow is a mirroring of the grief of the LORD.5 Rosenberg notes that the“mingling of divine and prophetic persona (punctuated only occasionally by first-person markers such as ‘and the Lord said to me’) is frequent in Jeremiah and illustrates the extent to which God’s sorrow and the prophet’s suffering are seen as two sides of the same coin.”6 The use of sorrow in the life of the prophet, including the actions of weeping, wailing, and lamenting, shows a significant relationship between the different agents, and furthermore, it suggests a mirroring of one agent’s feelings by another.

1 Dennis Bratcher, “The Voice/ CRI Biblical and Theological Resources for Growing Christians; 17th Sunday after Pentecost; Commentary on the Texts; Jeremiah 8:18-9:1,” no pages (cited 12 May 2006). Online: http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cproper20ot.html.

2 Roger J. Gench, “Jeremiah 8:18-9:3” Interpretation (Jan 2008):74.

3 Jeremiah 14:17:“Speak this word to them: “‘Let my eyes overflow with tears night and day without ceasing; for the Virgin Daughter, my people, has suffered a grievous wound, a crushing blow.”

4 McConville, Judgment and Promise (1993), 61.

5 Bratcher also concurs with this, pointing out that “in chapter 9 the judgement of God (v. 11) is clearly linked with grieving (vv. 10, 17). This suggests that it is not Jeremiah alone who grieves at the plight of these people, but that Jeremiah is reflecting the grief of God.” (Bratcher, “Commentary,” n.p.), Bratcher argues that this is similar to the concept of “divine pathos” that Fretheim refers to frequently in his book,Suffering.

6 Joel Rosenberg, “Jeremiah and Ezekiel” in The Literary Guide to the Bible (ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode; Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1987), 186.

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