The prophet Jeremiah has been given the thankless mandate to warn God’s people of the peril coming to them. God’s own words to Jeremiah provide the indictment: “This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them” (Jer. 13:10).
Human beings crave the illusion of being in control; we worship the thing we have made and expect it to fulfill our desires. We would think that God’s chosen people would know better, but just like us they are driven by the longing to be their own gods.
Now God is no longer calling on the people to repent and return to him; his message is to prepare for total destruction. “I will scatter you like chaff driven by the wind from the desert. This is your lot, the portion I have measured out to you, declares the Lord…” (Jer. 13:24-25).
Jeremiah begs for another chance for the nation, but God is not to be moved. “Though they fast, I will not hear their cry . . . I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence” (Jer. 14:12). It is the ultimate in evil to reject God, the source of all that is good and true, fair and right. God is perfect justice, and justice requires that evil must be recompensed.
Plunged into anguish at God’s fearsome words and the accompanying drought, Jeremiah responds with fervent prayers for his people: “Though our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake” (Jer. 14:7); and “we are called by your name; do not leave us” (Jer. 14:9). Jeremiah has remained faithful to the Lord, has been chosen to be his witness, yet he identifies himself with his fellow Jews, weeping and pleading for them.
In every chapter of his book Jeremiah’s heart for the people and his identification with their woes comes through. Having been called by God to speak for him, it would be only too easy for Jeremiah to see himself as holier than these people and even to add a few words of his own to God’s accusations, but Jeremiah never does that.
Unlike most of us, he gets no joy from seeing others receive their due punishment. We see a deep love here, a love that can only be God given, to be so constant and free of pride. Jeremiah’s compassion foreshadows that of Jesus approaching Jerusalem and weeping over “the city that kills the prophets.”
But Jeremiah must tell the people that they have reached the point of no return. Have you ever been at that point? When something bad you did has caught up with you, and there is no fixing it? It’s a terrible, awful feeling, as your wits spin around looking for a way out, but there is none to be found. And deep down, there’s that clear sense of inevitability, that my act has met perfect justice and a terrible punishment is coming. That recognition, when it’s too late to change, is a horrible moment.
In the conversation between God and Jeremiah we see God’s perfect love, expressed through Jeremiah’s broken heart for his people, meeting with God’s perfect justice. We know that the destruction of Jerusalem is the necessary end result of the people’s turning from God, just as we know that a terrible crash is about to occur when we run a red light in the path of an oncoming truck.
In this moment of anguish, of our utter helplessness, we cry with St. Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24) We know that our destruction is inevitable, yet we also have Jeremiah’s words of promise: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (Lam. 3:22). It will take a miracle to save us.