“The word of the Lord came to me, saying …” We hear this refrain often, especially in the first chapter of Jeremiah. What do we make of it?
It never grows old to remember that the word of God is active and living, as it remains external, alien and apart from us. It is operative and effectual, bringing something about and doing something to us. It is a verbum externum—a verbal, external word that shapes, remakes, breaks, judges, interprets, restores and quickens. As it remains outside of us, we do not possess the word; it possesses us in its activity.
It is a word that belongs to another, that is active, and that has a purposeful object: it is the word of the Lord himself that comes to me.
What does it do? It first has an x-ray power, seeing through to the end of things rightly and truly. From Jeremiah 2:22 (“Though you wash yourself with lye / and use much soap, / the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Lord God”) one recalls Flannery O’Connor’s character Hazel Motes. In Wise Blood, Motes (so much in a name—“and why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” [Matt. 7:3]) memorably seeks to remove the stain of his own guilt, making atonement by inflicting pain on himself: wrapping his torso in barbed wire, walking all day with sharp rocks in his shoes, and even placing lime in his eyes to blind himself.
But what Motes could not see was the depth of the stain: it goes all the way down. Prevented from seeing it himself, the x-ray power of the word of God gives a different diagnosis from what Hazel could give himself.
But diagnosis is not the only word; mercifully and gracefully, it is not the final word. The word of God that comes to us is also a word that promises. As it speaks the promise, it also creates the fulfillment of the very same: “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:15); “I will heal your faithlessness” (3:22); “[You] shall no more stubbornly follow [your] own evil heart” (3:17); “Truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel” (3:23).
The word knows that the Word will become flesh to dwell among us, so that same flesh could be crucified and raised for our sin and redemption.
Gerhard Ebeling offers a summary of the word of God that comes to us, worthy of slow consideration: “The less one approaches the scripture from a previously established position, looking for specific answers to specific questions, … and the more radically one accepts the challenge to one’s own existential life of an encounter with the scripture, concentrating upon a single fundamental question aimed at human existence itself and touching one’s very conscience, the more one looks ultimately for only one thing in the scripture, the word which brings certainty in life and in death. [It] is called the word of God because it is a decisive utterance about our existence as human beings.”
“The word of the Lord came to me, saying …” Judgment is not the final word. There is a Word that answers the accusation, and heals the dire diagnosis of a mortal wound. God’s restoration and redemption—his creative and resurrecting word: that is his final Word. Jeremiah will have much to say about these promises of the new covenant; we have much to which we may look forward in his book.