Jeremiah is a difficult book of Scripture: difficult because it encompasses a doom and a sorrow that might have been avoided, difficult because of the crushing task Jeremiah faces in relating the coming doom to those who will not hear of it, difficult because of the magnitude and the fury of God’s wrath.
Having read the book in significant chunks over several days, I find it is the righteous rage that lingers.
God is so angry in Jeremiah. Terrifyingly angry. The language He uses to share His displeasure is violent. The descriptions of the coming doom are graphic. The prophesied violence and destruction is wrenching. Frankly, if you’re not at least a little uncomfortable reading it, you’re reading it wrong. The melting heat of God’s fury radiates from the pages.
Perhaps that’s why the expressions of God’s love and loyalty in the book can feel so abrupt to so many. After comparing Israel to a prostitute in the most graphic of terms, after condemning the city to utter desolation, God speaks of hope. He speaks of promise. He speaks of His loyalty, and what waits for those who learn to earnestly seek Him.
But the apparent shift from rage to affection isn’t a shift at all.
I love music, and so that’s the best metaphor I can use to explain what I see happening in Jeremiah: the love and the rage are two strands of the same melody. They’re simultaneous: God can feel both rage and love, can contain both, at once. When the rage is prevalent, it’s like a strain that has drifted to the top of the melody: loud and abrupt and jarring. But when the anger softens, the sweeter melody emerges to be heard.
I’m writing this because my own discomfort with reading Jeremiah led me to realize that I find it difficult to conceive of righteous anger walking hand in hand with righteous love. It’s not something that I encounter much in my human experience. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered it in my human experience. Righteous anger? Yes. Deep love? Also yes. Both at once? Not often, if ever.
I believe we think we’re good at being angry and loving at once. I have heard Christians say we can be angry and not sin in our anger—I’m not sure if that’s nearly as possible for most of us as we seem to think it is. I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced pure anger, free of sin. My self, my sinful self, always enters into the experience. Where anger is, even when it’s righteous and justified, my pride and contempt and selfishness creep in. I don’t think I am capable of loving wholly and holding righteous anger all at once.
But God is. And that may explain, at least a little, why His presence in Jeremiah can feel so alien and strange. It’s hard to imagine an anger that can call forth such a wrath might exist alongside affectionate, enduring, hoping, longing, perfect love.
It can in God—but only because God Himself is perfect, and there is no fault or flaw in Him. What hammered this home most to me was a curious passage in Jeremiah 36.
In this chapter, Jeremiah is essentially under house arrest and forbidden from going to the temple. God instructs Jeremiah to write down in a scroll “all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah and all the other nations from the time I began speaking to you in the reign of Josiah till now.”
Why? God is hopeful that maybe this will turn the tide (after repeatedly experiencing that this will not turn the tide) and bring the people to repentance.
So Jeremiah dictates the whole thing to his scribe Baruch, who goes on his behalf to read it at the temple, and some officials hear it and think that the king most definitely needs to hear this. After encouraging Baruch and Jeremiah to go hide, they drop off the scroll with the king, and this is his response:
It was the ninth month and the king was sitting in the winter apartment, with a fire burning in the firepot in front of him. Whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe’s knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire. The king and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes. Even though Elnathan, Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them.
What does God do?
He condemns the king—but he has Jeremiah rewrite the scroll.
What strikes me most about this, and as I read Jeremiah, is that while God’s rage is palpable, His actions betray His patience. He condemns—but He keeps sending Jeremiah out, again and again, to foretell the coming doom in hopes the people will repent. They set His scroll on fire after they’ve banned his prophet from the temple—He has it rewritten. Over and over and over, God says “Enough. Enough. Enough.” He tells Jeremiah to stop praying good for the people. But He still sends His messenger to them.
1 Corinthians 13 is famous as the love chapter of the Bible. I have often heard people encourage each other to replace the word “love” with their substitute: “[Name] is patient, [Name] is kind…” But it is easy to forget we can place God’s name there, too.
Even at His angriest, God always hopes. Always perseveres. God never fails in His love. And indeed, it is His frustrated love that feeds His anger.
I suppose, then, what I’m saying is this:
God’s wrath is real. He is no more tolerant of His people worshiping idols now than He was then. He hates sin. He hates what sin does. He grieves the inherent corruption of creation. And we mustn’t forget that. Mustn’t turn God into some shadow who cares nothing for justice or goodness or holiness. God has not changed.
But we also mustn’t forget the love that leavens the fury. It is the love that saved us from ever having to face it. It is the love that God exhibits in Jeremiah even in the midst of His great wrath and rage. And what staggers me the most is that the depth and breadth and intensity of the anger that we see in Jeremiah…
…is what God chose to suffer, Himself.
That was the solution. Confronted with His stiffnecked, stubborn people, who threw His scrolls into the fire and countenanced no regret, who ignored countless pleas and warnings, God still chose to offer them a road back. Still does. Every day.
So today’s message is simply this: You are loved.
Even in the middle of your worst choices. You are loved. By a holy God who cannot abide sin, and made a path for you to find Him, anyway.