Jeremiah 4:9-10; 18-22
On that day, says the Lord, courage shall fail the king and the officials; the priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded. Then I said, “Ah Lord God, how utterly have you deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying,‘ It shall be well with you‘, even while the sword is at the throat!” (Jeremiah 4:9-10)
The context for this prophetic utterance from Jeremiah is his perception of an invading threat from the north, probably Babylonia, sent by God as judgment for Judah’s “foolish” and “stupid” (v. 22) disobedience. In fact, this is a stern critique of the failed leadership of Judah: kings, princes, priests and prophets (politicians and preachers) who are self-serving leaders oblivious to the impending danger. As one scholar observes, ”when all forms of official leadership have failed, only Jeremiah remains to provide shape to public life. He now undertakes to do the one thing still pertinent. He prays” (Walter Brueggemann, Jeremiah 1-25 : To Pluck Up, To Tear Down; International Theological Commentary, pp 51-52).
His prayer is a prophetic act. Judah’s leaders had been saying all is well (shalom) when a crisis of destruction was imminent, ”the sword is at the throat.” There is profound incongruity between the “royal ideology” and the lived reality of God’s people: They have treated the wound of my people carelessly saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14). The prophet, functioning as a liberating poet, has discerned and articulated what the official leadership was unable or unwilling to see. He courageously calls the unfaithful leaders to account and later points to one who would lead his people toward a future of true Shalom:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he shall be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:5-6)
The proposed name for the new king indicates a governance that brings well-being through justice (Brueggemann, p. 200). Righteous leadership in our time will be grounded in justice.
Rev. Dr. John H. Bennett, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) clergy (ret.); member, First Christian Church in Jefferson City