Connections 09.22.2019: God’s Grief

Jeremiah 8:14–9:1

When you go through something that seems terrible and senseless, how do you try to explain it? Many people who face a personal crisis believe that God is punishing or testing them. They feel that God is responsible for what they are going through.

The people of Jeremiah’s time seemed pretty certain of God’s role in their crisis: “the Lord our God has doomed us to perish” (v. 14). When they experienced hardship and trauma, they looked for someone to blame—much like we do today. They believed that God had doomed them. Later in the lesson text, God speaks in a little aside and reveals who is really to blame: the people are, because they have worshiped images and foreign idols instead of the one true God (v. 19c, in parentheses).

But, as usual with God, that’s not the end of the story. There is no eyerolling or sarcasm on God’s part. There is anger, but it is born of love. And there is also grief. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the section that begins with verse 18 has this title: “The Prophet Mourns for the People.” Most of the verses in the section express great grief over the people’s suffering. Our lesson attributes this grief to God instead of to the prophet, but perhaps we can read these verses as God speaking through Jeremiah. The point seems to be that God loves us, our decisions can sometimes anger God, and yet God feels grief when we suffer—whether or not our suffering is due to our own actions.

In 2011, my marriage, which had seemed so vibrant and healthy for ten years, began to deteriorate. Over the four long years to come, I spent hours soul searching—first through private journal entries, then under the counsel of friends and close family, and finally in the presence of a licensed marriage and family therapist. One common theme in my soul searching was the question of God’s role in our family crisis.

Was God disappointed with my husband and me? As a wife, had I not focused on God enough? Was I being too selfish and reaping the consequences of that sin? Had I not put my husband first under God? Had God decided not to bring restoration to the commitment my husband and I made on our wedding day? These are some of the questions I pondered in my desperate, heartbroken prayers and conversations.

I never got specific answers to each of my questions during the dark season of our marriage. What I did get was an overwhelming sense of God’s presence amid our doubts, failures, and inadequacies. In my case, my husband and I experienced healing and reconciliation with each other. Either way, though, I know God would have been present with both of us—sometimes maybe in anger and sometimes in grief, but all the time in love.

Discussion

• When a senseless trauma happens in your life, how do you try to explain it?

• Why might we want someone to blame when things go wrong?

• The Old Testament writers often depict God bringing calamities upon the people for their wrongdoing. Do you think God does that in our lives? If so, how have you seen this happen?

• What do you think causes God to feel grief?

• Even when you sense God’s disappointment with you, how can you cling to the presence of God when you go through trauma?

Reference Shelf

Laments Over the Coming Disaster, 8:14–9:1

This segment begins with a question from the people: why are we sitting around in our homes and villages in the face of the Babylonian onslaught? In response, they call on one another to head for the fortified cities (heeding the warning of 4:5), perhaps out of a conviction that they may as well die fighting. And die they will, for all their hopes have been dashed. The people are resigned to the effects of divine judgment, described in various ways: being doomed; being given poisoned water to drink (also 23:15, either a metaphor for deathly experience, an enemy tactic of poisoning wells, or to the “cup of wrath” in 25:15-16); nothing good is happening; and there is no healing or peace, only terror and despair.

The people use similar language in 14:19, where they raise questions as to whether God has completely rejected them. This language could well be reflective of the exiled readers’ sense of their situation; there is no healing or peace, for God has doomed them to perish because of their sins. The people’s admission that they have sinned against the Lord (v. 16; similarly, 14:7, 20) stands in some tension with v. 6. This is not necessarily an act of repentance, however; it could be simply the mouthing of a current or even a typical interpretation of their situation. From another perspective, they do answer correctly the recurrent question of 5:19 and 9:12. If it is a repentant act, it comes too late to stop the judgment (as in ch. 14); the trip over the falls is inevitable.

God responds to the people in vv. 16-17 with no word of deliverance from the relentless judgment. Indeed, the armies from the north are already on their way (exilic readers would understand this to be Babylon). They have entered the land of promise; those in Dan—either the northernmost tribe or its city by that name—have already experienced the invasion. The enemy is now so close that one can almost hear the snorting of their horses and the trampling of their hooves, to which the quaking of the land may have hyperbolic reference. The quaking is probably also a reference to both fearful people and the very structures of the land itself (see 4:24). The enemy has come to devour everything—land, city, and all creatures, as already specified in 5:17. In v. 17, the image of the enemy moves from stallions to snakes—from snorting, trampling terror to creeping, crawling poison—let loose by God himself (actual snakes may also be in view, see Num 21:6; Deut 32:24). Unlike snakes, however, this enemy will not be able to be charmed out of its deadly intentions; its bites will prove to be fatal. This may be linked to the theme of health and sickness (vv. 15, 22).

In vv. 18-22 and 9:1, the lament once again comes to the fore, and the images shift from external threat to internal hurt and sickness. The identification of the speaker in these verses is not always clear; it seems best to recognize several speakers, with God as the primary one. In v. 18 God through Jeremiah expresses grief and the loss of joy or pleasure at these events; God’s heart is sick and so is Jeremiah’s! In v. 19, the last two lines are clearly a divine lament (NRSV puts it in parentheses and quotation marks, NAB in brackets); it is placed between laments from the people (vv. 19b, 20). In this lament readers once again meet up with the “why?!” of God (see 2:29, 31; 8:5) at the people’s provocation of the divine anger with their unfaithful worship of foreign idols. It is a genuine divine “why?”!

The people in v. 19b bemoan the apparent absence of God in the city of Jerusalem and its temple (driven out by their sins, v. 14; see Ezek 8:6). If God were in Zion, it was thought that these things would not be happening to them (see Mic 4:9–10). In view of 2:6, 8, where the people are criticized for not asking where God is, these questions should be understood as appropriate in the situation. These would also be questions that exilic readers would ask (Lam 2:7; 5:20-22). Verse 19c makes clear that God is indeed present, but present in wrath, not as the God of a theology that would protect them come what may (see 7:1-15). This is an expression of divine suffering, but a suffering because of what has happened to the relationship. The people also lament (v. 20) the length of time that they have suffered under the Babylonian siege (through the summer and an apparently failed fall harvest). The reference to the harvest in v. 20 is no simple chronological marker, however; it refers back to v. 13, which speaks of harvest in terms of judgment rather than the joy that comes with the harvest. The fall (New Year) festival, associated with God’s kingship, could have been looked to as a time for divine vindication. But, it comes and goes and judgment remains the order of the day.

After quoting the people in distress (v. 20), God returns (v. 21) to an expression of deep pain at these developments (a suffering “with”); the various emotion-laden words reveal various dispositions: hurt, a broken heart, being disconsolate, and dismay. These words are piled up to show the deepest possible grief, such as would be the case at the death of one who is truly loved. If the speaker of v. 22a is God, it reflects a divine wonderment (ironic?) that this people have not availed themselves of the best healing resources available, those in Gilead. The first two questions are rhetorical: Yes, there is balm in Gilead; yes, there are physicians there; but, it is implied, they are powerless to restore health to a patient with this kind of illness. The answer to the question “why?” in v. 22b pertains to the nature of the sickness; no conventional healing methods are available for what ails Israel. It will become evident in 30:17 and 33:6 that only God can provide healing for Israel.

In 9:1, God is filled with grief; yet, there are no proper means to express the depth of these feelings. If only his head were a spring and his eyes a fountain, such might be sufficient vehicles to let out all the tears, to express the grief that is felt for all the people who have been destroyed (on God’s tears, see also 9:17-18; 14:17). This divine grief will not be a short-lived matter; it will continue day and night.

Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2002) 151–55.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (14) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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