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Shared Pain: The Power of Jeremiah’s Laments

“You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long.” ‒ Jeremiah 20:7-8

“Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” by Rembrandt, 1630. Public Domain.

Jeremiah is known as the “Weeping Prophet.” These words are part of a series of laments in which Jeremiah pours out his anger, anguish, loneliness, sense of betrayal, and despair in a form similar to the laments found in the Psalter.

Jeremiah ministered in Israel’s final years, through the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the peoples’ exile into Babylon. He called God’s people to repent and return to the goodness of covenant life (Jeremiah 1:4-19). Despite God’s assurance that he would be with Jeremiah and strengthen him, ministry was incredibly difficult, lonely, and costly ‒ and ultimately did not prevent exile. No wonder Jeremiah wept.

For a century, scholars have generally considered Jeremiah’s laments as personal expressions of his inner struggles, often confidently linking them to imagined scenarios or one of the biographical accounts in the book of Jeremiah. But, more recently, scholars have felt less confident in asserting such historical contexts, and have moved to other, less historicist approaches. Two such perspectives are explored here, each arising from the prophet’s role as a mediator who represents both the people and God. Each provides helpful ways to engage Jeremiah’s ancient laments.

One role of a prophet is to stand as a representative of the people. In light of this representational perspective, Jeremiah’s laments can be considered as giving voice to the Israelites in exile who are attempting to make sense of their shattered lives. Traumatized by the unparalleled national and personal loss occasioned by the exile, their experience of siege and famine, brutal warfare, social collapse, loss of national identity and land, and suffering and deportation, may have left them numb, shocked, hopeless, and even unable to articulate the experience.

Recent application of disaster and trauma studies to the book of Jeremiah, like Kathleen M. O’Connor’s Jeremiah: Pain and Promise, acknowledges these devastating effects of exile. As well, such studies show that public lament names the trauma and thus gives voice to what feels unspeakable and reaches toward restoration and hope. As the book of Jeremiah took form in the exilic period, the prophet’s laments and their emotions of pain, bewilderment, and loss voice a whole community’s lament. Far beyond merely recounting the prophet’s personal experience, the words provide a public lament by which God’s people can negotiate disaster, acknowledge its devastating pain, and reach again towards God.

A second perspective likewise moves Jeremiah’s laments beyond the personal. As a prophet, Jeremiah speaks God’s words to the people. At times, the voice of the prophet and God blend seamlessly, switching speakers and blurring the lines between them. Jeremiah’s prophetic words truly mirror God’s word to the people.

Similarly, Jeremiah’s life experience communicates God’s message through enacted parables. Alongside these parabolic communications, Jeremiah’s experience of suffering provides an embodied word to God’s people. Jeremiah consistently laments opposition, and there were many attempts to silence him through arrest, trial, and imprisonment. When Jeremiah issues his first lament, he says:

“I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that they had plotted against me, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more’” (Jeremiah 11:18-19).

Jeremiah’s sadness and rejection in these words is palpable, but they also prophetically speak of God’s own experience of rejection. “God’s experience becomes Jeremiah’s experience. As God was rejected by the people, so also the prophet who spoke and embodied God’s word was resisted and renounced by them. Jeremiah’s laments, whatever their roots in his personal life, thereby have become a proclamation of the word of God to the audience for whom these chapters were written,” says Terence E. Fretheim in his 2002 book, Jeremiah. For those in exile processing the pain and anguish of loss, this identification of God’s own pain would communicate that God laments over God’s beloved people, despite the fact they rejected their covenant God. This would provide a powerful invitation to hope and renewal of covenant life.

Lissa Wray Beal is the Professor of Old Testament, and chair of the Seminary Bible and Theology Department, at Providence Theological Seminary. She is currently working on a commentary on the book of Jeremiah for Baker Academic Publishers.

In this second perspective, Jeremiah’s laments embody God’s experience of rejection, and his pain as a rejected covenant partner. In this, Jeremiah, like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, stands as a typological anticipation of the God who comes in human flesh to suffer rejection, pain, and even death for God’s purposes. The great church commentator, Jerome, reflecting on Jeremiah 11:18-19 in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Jeremiah, Lamentations, recognized the Christ presented in the persona of Jeremiah. Much more than the personal laments of an ancient prophet in a specific historical context, Jeremiah’s laments prefigure the suffering Christ ‒ the one who suffers rejection and pain to win back recalcitrant humanity.

The two perspectives explored here consider Jeremiah’s laments as more than personal expressions. As powerful corporate reflections on loss, rejection, and pain, the laments provide pastoral windows into our contemporary contexts. In Jeremiah, God joins our suffering, providing words
and The Word, which meet us there.

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