Jeremiah the prophet did some odd things. He not only got to speak words about the Lord, and get attacked in response, but also was told to act funny.
These funny acts get called all sorts of things: symbolic actions, sign-acts, prophetic drama, etc. Forget the title, it’s best to list what I mean.
- In Jer 13, Jeremiah was told to put linen clothing under rock. And then fetch it again once it was ruined
- In Jer 16, he was told to refrain: from marriage, from the house of mourning, from the house of joy
- In Jer 18, Jeremiah watches the potter at work, making the vessel he chose after the initial work went awry. As a related follow-up, Jer 19 sees Jeremiah preach of destruction (at the Potsherd Gate) then smash a clay jar before his hearers
- Jeremiah takes and drinks from the Lord’s cup of wrath, in Jer 25. This appears to be in Jeremiah’s mind, or as a vision – a symbolic activity, sybolising a symbolic act
- Jer 27-28 narrate Jeremiah wearing, then breaking, a yoke
- In Jer 32, the prophet redeems a family field. It’s the timing that surprises here, for Jeremiah is locked up and Jerusalem is under the siege that leads to her defeat
- Jer 35 introduces us to the Rechabites, a model of the faithfulness that Judah lacked
- Jeremiah has a trip to Egypt in chapter 43, to bury some stones in the pavement
- In chapter 51 Jeremiah tells a Jewish captive to take a scroll of the prophet’s words to Babylon. After reading its words of destruction upon Babylon, he is to throw the scroll into the river – with a rock tied on, of course
What is going on with all this? Why do we read about these acts? I am glad you are wondering! That’s what these two posts are about.
Firstly, there are three ideas which don’t adequately explain what is going on with these actions. That’s the remainder of this post. Then there is what I think is going on. That’s Part 2.
Not … psychological drama
Suggestion #1 is that the actions reveal Jeremiah’s psychology. As moderns, we love this theory. ‘Jeremiah must have felt … We sense what’s going on in Jeremiah’s mind.’ The Bible is less interested in this approach. It’s not necessarily wrong to probe the mind of Bible characters – though I think it can lead us seriously off-track into uncontrolled speculation.
But even if we get Jeremiah’s psychology 100%, so what? We still haven’t found the reason why these stories were written down for us. This explanation falls well short of being useful.
Not … communication technique
To stand near broken pottery – at the Potsherd Gate, and preach the approaching destruction, then smash a clay jar … that’s vivid! So some suggest that Jeremiah’s signs are like sermon illustrations. They support his prophetic preaching.
Communication helps understand some of what Jeremiah did, but not all of the actions. For example, some actions were not seen by anyone (the linen garment). If it was for illustration, Jeremiah could have simply told a story. Other actions were unclear: Jeremiah’s yoke might indicate present reality of submission, a future situation of submission, or be a command to submit. And how can negative signs illustrate (no marriage, no going to wakes or to parties)? This suggestion is partly right but not right enough.
Not … acts of power
A third suggestion is that Jeremiah’s actions were in the same field as magic or sorcery, though in a manner permitted by the Lord. That is, the signs effect some outcome. They change reality. So, when the scroll about Babylon is thrown in the river, it sets in motion the process towards Babylon’s destruction.
If we remember that the agent of all power of the Lord, this explanation again has some use. Also, the idea of exerting power overcomes a weakness of the communication theory – a powerful sign does not require an audience.
Unfortunately, again, this is not a sufficient explanation. Take the Rechabite family on chapter 35. Their faithfulness to the forefather’s command fails to effect any change. Jerusalem continues to ignore the word of the Lord.
To sum up so far: as we seek to understand Jeremiah’s use of actions as part of his life as God’s prophet, we can see three inadequate explanations of what was going on. These signs are not psychological dramas, communicative events, nor exercises of effective power.
Tune in to part 2, where I state what I think Jeremiah’s signs really are doing.