Borrowing the title of Mitch Albom’s popular reflections on his visits with a beloved mentor, my thoughts from my regular visits with the prophet Jeremiah in some ways mirror his.
Words and insights from others can have a profound effect on how we see the world and respond to it.
Previous visits (see here and here) called attention to some of the warning signs of danger ahead, as the priorities of wealth and power were overtaking the principles of covenant faithfulness among the Israelites. With the passing of time, those dangers had become reality.
My most recent visit found Jeremiah incarcerated to keep him from speaking publicly about what he saw (Jeremiah 32:1-5).
The unstable King Zedekiah had rejected his encouragement to seek a solution to the Babylonian threat short of open conflict, preferring instead to follow the counsel of his more hard-line advisers to pursue militant resistance.
Still hoping for some assurance that our present-day situation was not on the brink of disaster, I asked him, “What do you think the outcome of this will be?”
Without much hesitation, he replied, “The wheels of this process that is affecting your time, like ours, have been turning for some time; and there is considerable momentum in the direction they are going.
“As we spoke last time, the alliance of king and court prophets has considerable effectiveness in shaping the narrative embraced by the people; and it will not yield easily to the appeals that you or I or anyone else will make for a different course.
“The force of the Babylonian empire is easy to identify and it’s effective in keeping fear at the forefront of people’s attention. In a time of stress and anxiety, people are more likely to respond to a call for action than to an appeal for reflection and negotiation.”
He continued, “But here is another, more basic thing – it was true for us, and it seems to be true for you as well: When a covenant is broken, the policies and systems designed to implement it break down as well, and efforts to use them to maintain covenant functions give way to conflicts that lose sight of the whos and whys of a relationship and focus instead on ways to keep the wounds in the relationship open.
“When there is nothing left but a contest to see who can prevail in that kind of conflict, everybody loses. Back in my day, it was the broken covenant that opened cracks in our community’s life that made the Babylonian overthrow inevitable. That’s why I couldn’t offer King Zedekiah any hope, even when he rarely asked, for a positive outcome of the course he had chosen.”
As we continued to talk, Jeremiah went on to say that if there was to be any hope that God’s covenant promise would prevail, it would be beyond a painful exile, where a new understanding of the covenant would replace the one badly damaged by corrupt politics and superficial theology (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).
“Now, you probably won’t go into the kind of exile we did, with an empire like Babylon besieging the place and displacing people,” Jeremiah said. “But there is a more subtle empire of moneyed power that can subvert your covenant from within and weaken it to the point that its guiding voice is no louder than a whisper.
“The officers of that empire will seek to squelch any voice that attempts to point out its problems. That empire seems to have been laying siege to the structures of your common life for some time, and you seem to be already in a kind of exile of spirit, unable to ‘sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’” (Psalm 137:4).
I could tell how deeply Jeremiah felt the emotional impact of this particular turn of history’s cycle, seeing in our experience what had been such a bitter disappointment for him in his.
His response was not so much anger as anguish. It was a people he loved and cared deeply about that were both the enablers and the victims of the broken covenant, causing grief that surpassed his anger.
But, even in the depth of the fragments of a broken covenant, his parting words offered a hope that is sometimes hard to see amid turmoil and distress.
“A lot of suffering and dysfunction comes about as a result of a broken covenant, whether large like a nation’s or small like a personal relationship – no way to get around that,” he said. “Any correction to those problems that will be more than superficial and short-lived will require a restoration/renewal of the covenant itself with a common commitment to its central importance.
“The promise I held onto in those dark days of the Babylonian siege was the possibility of that renewal and restoration once the inherent weakness of the empire ran its course (Jeremiah 32-33). I hope you can hold onto that.”
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).