In Chapter 5 of Jeremiah, the central theme moves from grief to judgment. There is a sense Israel and Judah are on trial. The emotions of anguish and anger that seem to drive chapters 1-4 begin to distill to negotiation and reason. There’s a reason to be angry. Again, theology – or making sense of God – accompanies makes sense of circumstance. The Book of Jeremiah was likely compiled while God’s people were already in Babylonian exile, as a witness and memory for the nation. In other words, it was compiled not in real time but after the fact. This means, the compilers have to make a sense of the people’s fate. Jeremiah’s prophecies, in this context, make perfect sense. He was right. It makes sense that Israel and Judah fell and were plundered because the nation had become corrupt. Verse 1 comes right out and says it:
“Search its squares and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth—so that I may pardon Jerusalem….How can I pardon you? (Vs 1, 7)
The theological thinking of Jeremiah’s time doesn’t differ too much from the logic driving public opinion today. Who would worship a god that allowed the corrupt, unjust, and willfully arrogant to prosper at the expense of the poor, the disadvantaged, and basic human fairness? Who would vote for a politician who would do the same? Should those with willful disregard for the law, others, and basic consequences reign unchallenged? This seems the issue.
“When I fed [your children] to the full, they committed adultery and trooped to the houses of prostitutes. They were well-fed lusty stallions, each neighing for his neighbor’s wife.” (vs 7-8)
“They have spoken falsely of the Lord and have said, “He will do nothing. No evil will come upon us, and we shall not see sword of famine” (vs 12)
For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things?” (vs 26-29a)
Apparently God is neither abusive nor vengeful at this point, at least not in the prophet’s mind. Israel and Judah can lay their fate at the feet of God. God has done what was justifiable. The nation, or at least a critical mass of its people, had become deeply corrupt. Of course, the tragedy of corruption is that it makes victims at the moment of its inception, regardless of later actions. This is where God becomes grieved and, as a God of Salvation, must make sense of it all. This is the prophet’s job. Jeremiah testifies of a God that is Holy, even beyond reproach. But, Israel’s God is not the kind of God to act flagrantly or take advantage of the fact. At least politically, God’s actions are metered and reasonable. The prophet opens us up to the logic of it all.
“Shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?” (vs 29b)
We don’t have to let the question sit there, as if it’s rhetorical. We can answer it with good theology and our personal perspective. But, if we judge God harshly, let us also judge ourselves. Let us judge our nation, its own sense of justice, our own sense of retribution, our own limits of tolerance and intolerance, and do so with the same judgment we judge the God of Jeremiah. Consider your position on war, the role and use of violence, and the death penalty. Perhaps, you believe an eye-for-an-eye. Perhaps, you believe in justice and mercy, basic fairness and compassion. If so, do not forget its cost. Otherwise, we risk being just romantics.