Why I get annoyed by the thirty-third chapter of Jeremiah

This is a very difficult post to write.

One of the most common themes for Christians is the faithfulness of God. We are repeatedly encouraged, in the Bible and elsewhere, to rely on God’s faithfulness, and specifically faithfulness to His promises.

God has certainly been pretty kind to me. And I know many people have great testimonies of God faithfully providing. But I don’t agree that He’s kept all his promises (yet).

I look at the New Testament, and I see Jesus saying He’ll rise again – and He does. He says He’ll send the Holy Spirit, and He does. He says He’ll return in glory, and He hasn’t yet.

I look at the Old Testament, and in Genesis I see God making promises to Abraham and Sarah (chapters 12 to 15) and faithfully fulfilling them.

I see promises to Moses and the people on the way out of Egypt, which were also kept.

And there are fulfilled promises to other specific Biblical characters, such as Gideon and Hezekiah.

And then we get to the prophets.

There’s an awful lot of The Prophets. More than a quarter of the Old Testament, more than a fifth of the whole Bible. They tend to be preached on in favourite chunks, so we all know Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 53, and that really good bit in Micah.

The prophetic books are full of promises. They contain lots of beautiful pictures of the way things should be (like Isaiah 35) which haven’t happened yet, and we are trusting for.

Sometimes we as individuals claim prophetic promises for ourselves (Jeremiah 29:11 in particular, about the future and the hope) out of context. It is part of the wonder of the Bible that we are sometimes allowed (I believe) to do this, but it can obscure the extremely obvious fact that the promises were originally made to particular people, in a particular context, and they haven’t yet been kept.

I don’t think we talk about this much.

Jeremiah chapter 33 is a particularly striking example.

Chapters 30-33 of Jeremiah are sometimes called his “Book of Consolation”, because here is where you find the message of hope, in among the masses of condemnation and pain.

The pattern of condemnation, prophesied judgment, moving on to a promise of future security and vengeance is surely the basic pattern not merely of Jeremiah, but also Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Amos, at least. That’s a lot of repetitions of promise.

Specifically, Jeremiah chapters 30-33 promises to restore and bring back Judah, and apparently Israel, and let them live in prosperity and peace. Chapter 33 goes on: “I will cleanse them of all their guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a prize and a glory before all the nations of the earth.” (vv 7-9). And “David shall never lack a man to sit on throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings… ( v17-8)… if you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant shall be broken… and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers (v20-21).”

In my experience, nobody addresses the fact that these nice things did not happen, have not happened, and we are 2500 years on.

These passages are not examples of God’s faithfulness because they haven’t happened. The way in which Bible notes and commentaries (I have read a commentary on Jeremiah) skirt over these issues annoys me every time.

The people of Judah, or some of them, did return from exile and rebuild the Temple (books of Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra and Nehemiah). The people of Israel, on the other hand, never did, and are lost to history (unless you are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and believe that they were transported to America.) The restored Judah continued to have problems with their neighbours and other great powers (see the prophet Daniel and the story of the Maccabees) and was occupied by Rome. When has Jerusalem known a consistent time of peace?

The chapters in Jeremiah surely promises that Israel as well as Judah will be restored. That Jerusalem will be secure and happy. They specifically and very solemnly promise that there will always be a King of David’s line, and a Levitical priesthood. There isn’t.

There is a standard line on this, of course, which is that all these promises are fulfilled in Christ.

The notes in our home NIV say “The priestly covenant with the Levites, like the royal covenant with David, was not a private grant to the priestly family involving only that family and the Lord. It was rather an integral part of the Lord’s dealings with His people in which Israel was assured of the ministry of a priesthood that was acceptable to the Lord and through whose mediation they could enjoy communion with Him. That ministry was and is being fulfilled by Jesus, who administers a higher and better form of priesthood.”

So there is still a Levitical priesthood, sort of. You may find this convincing.

But suppose Jeremiah had explained his prophecy at the time, to the people about to experience the sack of their city and exile. “Yes, Jerusalem is going to be destroyed, but in about 500 years we’ll have a new Davidic king! Most of the Jewish people won’t believe in Him, and about this time Jerusalem will be sacked again, and the Jews exiled again, and the sacrificial system destroyed for ever. This new king’s followers will mostly be Gentiles, and they’ll persecute the Jews for 1900 years, persecution that will culminate in a very efficient attempt by pagans to kill every Jew there is.”

If I were Jewish, I think I would find the NIV’s interpretation (and I haven’t seen a better one) glib and offensive. In fact I think I do anyway. At the very least it is metaphorical in the extreme. If that’s what God means by a perpetual Levitical priesthood, what does He mean by the prophecies in the New Testament?

I would be grateful if any readers could point me in the direction of a sensible book or website that addresses this issue, and does so without resorting to the words “living in the now and the not yet”, which we use as God’s excuse for everything, and of which I’m a bit tired.

This is one of the reasons why I am not currently a fundamentalist.

Lord, have mercy.

Love from the PPI Blogger

 

1 Comment
  • Judith Leader

    9th December 2018 at 8:07 pm Reply

    I am not a theologian but I know someone who is. John Goldingay is an old testament scholar and also writes books that the likes of me are able to read and I would recommend ‘Men behaving badly’ starting with Eli and going on to David and perhaps Solomon, that bit I can’t remember. I took the liberty of forwarding Penny’s blog to him and this is his comment, not mine.

    I can’t see much difference between the issues raised by Jer 33 and lots of other passages in NT as well as OT. Sometimes God changes his mind. Sometimes God does something better than the original promise. Sometimes we interpret literally when he was speaking figuratively. Sometimes people don’t obey God so he doesn’t do the thing. Sometimes God lets human beings frustrate him…. But sometimes we don’t know the answer, but the fact that we know we have reason to trust in him to be faithful we don’t worry about it too much.

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