Jeremiah has been called The Weeping Prophet, but that is mainly because of the attribution to him of The Book of Lamentations, which does not profess to be his and is certainly later than his day. Not weeping, though he had to weep, so much as groaning or even screaming is the particular pitch of the tone of this Prophet. As he says himself,
For as oft as I speak I must shriek,
His first word is one of shrinking, I cannot speak, I am too young.(682) The voice of pain and protest is in most of his Oracles. He curses the day of his birth and cries woe to his mother that she bare him. He makes us feel that he has been charged against his will and he hurtles on his career like one slung at a target who knows that in fulfilling his commission he shall be broken -- as indeed he was.
Lord, Thou beguiled'st me, and beguiled I let myself be, Thou wast too strong for me, Thou hast prevailed.(683)
Power was pain to him; he carried God's Word as a burning fire in his heart.(684) If the strength and the joy in which others rise on their gifts ever came to him they quickly fled. Isaiah, the only other prophet comparable, accepts his mission and springs to it with freedom. But Jeremiah, always coerced, shrinks, protests, craves leave to retire. So that while Isaiah's answer to the call of God is Here am I, send me, Jeremiah's might have been "I would be anywhere else than here, let me go." He spent much of himself in complaint and in debate both with God and with his fellow-men:
Mother! Ah me!
Nor did he live to see any solid results from his work. His call was
To root up, pull down and destroy,
If this represents the Prophet's earliest impression of his charge, the proportion between the destructive and constructive parts of it is ominous; if it sums up his experience it is less than the truth. Though he sowed the most fruitful seeds in the fields of Israel's religion, none sprang in his lifetime. For his own generation he built nothing. Sympathetic with the aims and the start of the greatest reform in Israel's history, he grew sceptical of its progress and had to denounce the dogmas into which the spirit of it hardened. A king sought his counsel and refused to follow it; the professional prophets challenged him to speak in the Name of the Lord and then denied His Word; the priests were ever against him, and the overseer of the Temple put him in the stocks. Though the people came to his side at one crisis, they rejected him at others and fell back on their formalist teachers, and the prophets of a careless optimism. Though he loved his people with passion, and pled with them all his life, he failed to convince or move them to repentance -- and more than once was forbidden even to pray for them. He was charged not to marry nor found a family nor share in either the griefs or the joys of society. His brethren and his father's house betrayed him, and he was stoned out of Anathoth by his fellow-villagers. Though he could count on a friend or two at court, he had to flee into hiding. King Sedekiah, who felt a slavish reverence for his word, was unable to save him from imprisonment in a miry pit, and he owed his deliverance, neither to friend nor countryman, but to a eunuch of the palace. Even after the fall of Jerusalem, when his prophecies were vindicated almost to the letter, he failed to keep a remnant of the nation in Judah; and his word had no influence with the little band which clung to him as a fetish and hurried him to Egypt. There, with his back to the brief ministry of hope that had been allowed him, he must take up again the task of denunciation which he abhorred; and this is the last we hear of him.
It was the same with individuals as with the people as a whole. We may say that with few exceptions, whomever he touched he singed, whomever he struck he broke -- a man of quarrel and strife to the whole land, all of them curse me. And he cursed them back. When Pashhur put him in the stocks Jeremiah called him Magor Missabib, Terror-all-round, for lo, I will make thee a terror to thyself and to all thy friends, they shall fall by the sword and thou behold it.(687) Nothing satisfied his contempt for Jehoiakim, but that dying the king should be buried with the burial of an ass.(688) Even for Sedekiah, to whom he showed some tenderness, his last utterance was of a vision of the weak monarch being mocked by his own women.(689) His irony, keen to the end, proves his detachment from all around him. His scorn for the bulk of the other prophets is scorching, and his words for some of them fatal. Of Shemaiah, who wrote of the captives in Babylon letters of a tenor opposite to his own, he said he shall not have a man to dwell among this people.(690) When the prophet Hananiah contradicted him, he foretold, after carefully deliberating between his rival's words and his own, that Hananiah would die, and Hananiah was dead within a few months.(691) He had no promise for those whom he counselled to desert to the enemy save of bare life; nor anything better even for the best of his friends: Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not! Only thy life will I give thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest.(692)
The following are the full texts from which the foregoing summary has been drawn and most of which I have reserved for this Lecture.
IV.10. Then said I, Ah Lord Yahweh, Verily Thou hast deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying There shall be peace! -- whereas the sword striketh to the life!
O my bowels! My bowels, I writhe! 19
I am filled with the rage of the Lord, VI.11
The following refers to the conspiracy of his fellow-villagers against him.
The Lord let me know and I knew it, XI.18
21. Therefore thus saith the Lord of the men of Anathoth, who are seeking my(697) life, saying, Thou shalt not prophesy in the Name of the Lord, that thou die not by our hands:(698)
Lo, I am to visit upon them! 22
Mother! Ah me! XV.10
This to Him on Whom he had called as The Fountain of Living Water!
Therefore thus saith the Lord: 19
Thou(709) shalt not take a wife -- XVI.2
Follows, in 10-13, the moral reason of all this -- the people's leaving of their God -- and the doom of exile.
Heal me O Lord, and I shall be healed, XVII.14
XVIII.18. And they said, Come and let us devise against Jeremiah devices, for the Law(719) shall not perish from the priest, nor Counsel from the wise, nor the Word from the prophet. Come let us smite him with the tongue and pay no heed to any of his words.
O Lord, unto me give Thou heed, 19
Verses 21-23 are rejected by Duhm and Cornill, along with XI.22b, 23, XII.3b, XVII.18 for no textual or metrical reasons, but only because these scholars shrink from attributing to Jeremiah such outbursts of passion: just as we have seen them for similarly sheer reasons of sentiment refuse to consider as his the advice to desert to the enemy.(724) Yet they admit inconsistently the genuineness of VI.11, XI.20, XV.15.(725)
Lord, Thou beguiledst me, and beguiled I let myself be, XX.7 Too strong for me, Thou hast conquered,
Cursed be the day, XX.14
Considering the passion of these lines, it is not surprising that they are so irregular.(732)
Some have attributed the aggravations, at least, of this rage to some fault in the man himself. They are probably right. The prophets were neither vegetables nor machines but men of like passions with ourselves. Jeremiah may have been by temper raw and hasty, with a natural capacity for provoking his fellows. That he felt this himself we may suspect from his cry to his mother, that he had been born to quarrel. His impatience, honest though it be, needs stern rebuke from the Lord.(733) Even with God Himself he is hasty.(734) There are signs throughout, naively betrayed by his own words, of a fluid and quick temper, both for love and for hate. For so original a poet he was at first remarkably dependent on his predecessors. The cast of his verse is lyric and subjective; and for all its wistfulness and plaint is sometimes shrill with the shrillness of a soul raw and too sensitive about herself. His strength as a poet may have been his weakness as a man -- may have made him, from a human point of view, an unlikely instrument for the work he had to do and the force with which he must drive -- painfully swerving at times from his task, and at others rushing in passion before the power he hated but could not withstand.
So probable an opinion becomes a certainty when we turn to God's words to him. Be not dismayed lest I make thee dismayed and I set thee this day a fenced city and wall of bronze.(735) For these last imply that in himself Jeremiah was something different. God does not speak thus to a man unless He sees that he needs it. It was to his most impetuous and unstable disciple that Christ said, Thou art Peter, and on this rock will I build.
Yet while his own temper thus aggravated his solitude and his pain we must also keep in mind that neither among the priests, the prophets and the princes of his time, nor in the kings after Josiah, did Jeremiah find any of that firm material which under the hands of Isaiah rose into bulwarks against Assyria. The nation crumbling from within was suffering from without harder blows than even Assyria dealt it. These did not weld but broke a people already decadent and with nothing to resist them save the formalities of religion and a fanatic gallantry. The people lost heart and care. He makes them use more than once a phrase about themselves in answer to his call to repent: No'ash, No use! All is up! Probably this reflects his own feelings about them. He was a man perpetually baffled by what he had to work with.
Poet as he was he had the poet's heart for the beauties of nature and of domestic life: for birds and trees and streams, for the home-candle and the sound of the house-mill, for children and the happiness of the bride, and the love of husband and wife; and he was forbidden to marry or have children of his own or to take part in any social merriment -- in this last respect so different from our Lord. Was it unnatural that his heart broke out now and then in wild gusts of passion against it all?
There is another thing which we must not forget in judging Jeremiah's excessive rage. We cannot find that he had any hope of another life. Absolutely no breath of this breaks either from his own Oracles or from those attributed to him. Here and now was his only chance of service, here and now must the visions given him by God be fulfilled or not at all. In the whole book of Jeremiah we see no hope of the resurrection, no glory to come, no gleam even of the martyr's crown. I have often thought that what seem to us the excess of impatience, the rashness to argue with Providence, the unholy wrath and indignation of prophets and psalmists under the Old Covenant, are largely to be explained by this, that as yet there had come to them no sense of another life or of judgment beyond this earth. When we are tempted to wonder at Jeremiah's passion and cursing, let us try to realise how we would have felt had we, like him, found our one service baffled, and the single possible fulfilment of our ideals rendered vain. All of which shows the difference that Christ has made.