Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
On one level this is a very tricky passage indeed for us to cope with. It is essentially a failed prophecy. Spoken to the people of the Northern Kingdom, who were overrun and scattered by Assyria, these words promise restoration at many levels. The scattered will be gathered, the sick and pregnant will be healed and restored, privation will give way to plenty and weeping will become singing and dancing. The hard fact is that this simply did not happen. So what do you do with unfulfilled prophecy?
Christians have answered that question in several different ways. First, you can recycle it. The Northern Kingdom never did see restoration, but it has been suggested that Deutero-Isaiah, who announced restoration to the Southern Kingdom, based his work on these chapters of Jeremiah, known as Jeremiah’s ‘Book of Consolation’ . Our passage ends with ‘comfort’ (v 13) which is where Isaiah 40 begins. God’s purposes may not have worked out perfectly this time, but they remain his purposes, and if the fulfilment delays, wait for it, because it will surely happen. In fact we constantly read prophecy this way, and we understand that a ‘word’ might not just have a single fulfilment. Witness the claiming of Joel 2 in the late 1960s as the charismatic movement burst into life, even though the Bible sees the passage as having been fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost AD33.
Secondly, we can discount it and become cynical about it. Jeremiah was just indulging in a bit of wishful thinking, that’s all. It was, frankly, a bit rash of him to utter as a prophetic world something he would have loved to have seen but clearly had no mandate from God for. Again, don’t those charismatics do that all the time? Or maybe it was a good word, but its time just hadn’t yet come. the blind and the lame people might have heard it as a promise of immediate restoration to their homeland, but that was never what God intended: in fact, as we now know, it was actually all about Jesus.
Or thirdly we might take a more radical approach, and suggest that the ‘word’ really did represent the heart’s wish of God, but the fact is that God doesn’t always get his way, or he doesn’t get it as soon as he and we would like. Pete Grieg’s masterful study of unanswered prayer, God on Mute, suggests, convincingly to my mind, that if God always got his way Jesus wouldn’t have taught us to pray that his will would be done here on earth, just like it is being done in heaven. God looks at our world, and although he longs for justice, peace and restoration, he clearly isn’t getting it just yet. It is the great mystery of all all-powerful and all-loving God who chooses for a while to let things take their course.
So what do we do with prophecies like this? Might it be that they keep us in tune not with what is going to happen in a week or two, but rather with the heart and will of God for his world. Might it be that words like these are there in the middle of the mess and evil of real life (as indeed they are in context here – we looked last week at the passage which follows from this one, about the inconsolable grief for Rachel’s lost children) to remind us that through it all we have a God who weeps with us, and who eventually will have his will done perfectly. What is going on is not God having lost the plot, punishing us, or all the other explanations which Deutero-Isaiah is subverting. It is a temporary, if protracted, state of affairs until God’s kingdom comes in all is fullness.
You’ll have to ask someone a lot wiser than I about why God chooses to delay so long, but in the meantime Jeremiah and many others keep us in touch with what his actually will really is, and that ought to give us some strength towards enduring and steadfastness.