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Jeremiah 4:19-31 – Personal Anguish at Creational Devastation


In these verses, the suffering of prophet and God are so linked that it is difficult to sort out who is speaking what. As if with one voice, prophet and God express their anguish over the suffering of the people and the land.


The devastation anticipated and described in Jeremiah 4:20-26 is the source of the anguish expressed by both prophet and God in this passage. The devastation is so thoroughgoing that modern readers might well think of a nuclear catastrophe. The vision of divine judgment speaks not only of personal dwellings, but the whole land of Israel. Indeed, the very cosmos itself is swept away by the whirlwind of divine judgment. The sounds and sights of war fill the scene--trumpets, alarms, shouts, standards, the noise of moving armies, the cries of suffering people.

Is the end of the world described here? The whole earth is a desolation! The language used is not hyperbolic; it is metaphor, indicating what the severity of Israel's judgment would be, indeed was, like. Israel's sins have these kinds of cosmic effects. This text is not a prophetic prediction of the end of the world; from the perspective of exilic readers, that has already taken place. The land of Israel has been devastated, and the text thereby shows that human behaviors can have deeply adverse effects on the environment. This is a vision of what human sin can do to the ecosystem, as we know all too well today.

Texts such as these (see also 8:18-9:3) should be interpreted in terms of the prophet's embodiment of God's anguish. Both God and prophet enter into the anguish of the people. In hearing these words, the people (that is, the exilic readers) should be able to see how God and prophet have entered into the anguish of the people's situation and made it God's very own. Such words reveal that the harsh words of divine wrath and judgment are not matched by an inner divine harshness. Words of judgment are proclaimed not with joy, but reluctantly and with great anguish. The inner-divine side of the word and deed of wrath is grief, grief over what has happened to people, indeed the whole earth.

Jeremiah 4:19-31

Sorrow for a Doomed Nation

19 My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain!
   Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly;
   I cannot keep silent;
for I* hear the sound of the trumpet,
   the alarm of war.
20 Disaster overtakes disaster,
   the whole land is laid waste.
Suddenly my tents are destroyed,
   my curtains in a moment.
21 How long must I see the standard,
   and hear the sound of the trumpet?
22 ‘For my people are foolish,
   they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
   they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
   but do not know how to do good.’

23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
   and to the heavens, and they had no light.
24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
   and all the hills moved to and fro.
25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
   and all the birds of the air had fled.
26 I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
   and all its cities were laid in ruins
   before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

27 For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
28 Because of this the earth shall mourn,
   and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
   I have not relented nor will I turn back.

29 At the noise of horseman and archer
   every town takes to flight;
they enter thickets; they climb among rocks;
   all the towns are forsaken,
   and no one lives in them.
30 And you, O desolate one,
what do you mean that you dress in crimson,
   that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
   that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
   Your lovers despise you;
   they seek your life.
31 For I heard a cry as of a woman in labour,
   anguish as of one bringing forth her first child,
the cry of daughter Zion gasping for breath,
   stretching out her hands,
‘Woe is me! I am fainting before killers!’

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