Like fire and a hammer


Jeremiah 23

The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem (detail - The p...

The Knesset Menorah, Jerusalem (detail – The prophet Jeremiah) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

23Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?

We have been raised in a culture that thinks of God as omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent – all knowing, all powerful and everywhere present.  So the question God asks through Jeremiah doesn’t stun us.  But in a world of petty kingdoms and tribal leaders, in a world where most people lived their whole lives within a few miles of the place they were born, in a world where the fate of other people was unknown to you and you cared only for the bounty of this field and the surety of that well, gods were local, too.  When neighboring tribes or cities went to war against one another, they each called on their gods for victory, and the battle was a battle of spirits as well as bodies.  As kingships claimed larger territories, their gods might be adopted by conquered peoples (they were more powerful, after all) or given a public place as a sign of submission to the new ruler while local deities continued to provide for local needs.  That there were lots of gods was obvious since their were many primal forces in the world and many peoples.  Gods, like kings, were limited in their knowledge, scope and power.  So when Jeremiah stands up and declares “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” it is a word that provokes.

Is the God of Israel limited?  Are there things he cannot see?  Is he a God of Israel only?  Is he bound to this land?  Can he be fooled?  Does he not know what is being said and done in his name?  Does he not know the evils that are perpetuated on earth?  Is he unaware of human bigotry and fear?  Does he not see what is done in secret in Washington and Wall Street – or what is done in plain view on some of our city streets?  Is he unaware of those who make bombs in the Middle East and strap them to women and children?  Is he unaware of the working conditions of the poor in sweatshops?  Does he not see the poisons added to infant formula or lead added to children’s toys?  What is hidden from us is not hidden from God.

  “‘Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?’ says the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord.” 

Of course, it also means he sees every cup of cold water given to a stranger, every simple kindness, every marriage living in tender fidelity, but that is not what prompts God’s message through Jeremiah.  What has God incensed are those who use his name for their own dreams and agendas.  God rises in judgment against those who claim a prophetic office but whose message leads the people away from God not closer.

27They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal.

The elite members of small societies tend to copy the elites of wealthier and more powerful ones. When Solomon built the temple he hired the craftsmen and designers from the wealthy cities of Tyre and Sidon.  The treaties with foreign rulers that brought Solomon’s many wives to Jerusalem also brought their gods.  When Assyria rose to power and Judah became a client state, King Ahaz of Judah built an altar copied from the one he saw when he went to kneel before Tiglath-pileser in Damascus.  Progressive religion always wants to move beyond the cultural backwater of tradition into the bright shiny world of the modern.  So the prophets spoke their dreams; Jeremiah spoke of the God of Exodus and Sinai whose old fashioned commands protected the poor and captive rather than the worldly elite.

Do you imagine, the prophet cries, that God is some backwater God, some local deity bound by the past?  Do you think God does not see you are speaking the imagination of your own hearts not the Word which divided the Red Sea and claimed a people?  Do you think God does not see you enamored with your own cleverness rather than the Voice that spoke on the mountain?

The voice of the LORD is not archaic religion; it is the hammer and fire that carves the massive building stones upon which the city rests.  It speaks God’s justice and mercy without which the city will surely fall.

And fall it did.

28Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.  What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord.  29Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?