“Jeremiah!” I suddenly called out to everyone’s surprise, including my own.
We were a group of old friends, passing the time of day in a cafeteria in southwest Florida. It was I who, in a lull in our desultory conversation, had suggested we play a parlor game of our adolescence: which character in history, living or dead, do you admire most? Who would you like to have been?
And now I was also the first to speak up. Apparently I had had someone in mind all along, and had both created and seized an opportunity to name him. But of all people—Jeremiah! The name has such odious connotations in ordinary speech: a Jeremiah is “a person who is pessimistic about the present and foresees a calamitous future.” Why should I invoke that depressing spirit?
My friends looked at me askance. If I had said Abraham Lincoln, or Albert Einstein, or Mother Teresa (with whom my wife had actually spent a day when we were living in Calcutta in the 70’s), or Mahatma Gandhi (“I would be friends with God, acquaintances with men”), or Freud, my choice would have made sense. These were famous people, makers and shakers of our world. But “who was Jeremiah?,” one of our company asked simply.
“He was a prophet in the Bible,” I answered.
“Where in the Bible?”
“In the Book of Jeremiah.” My glib response drew a laugh, and that was that. No one pursued my lead, no one asked what Jeremiah was to me that I should have fixed on him as my favorite figure in history. Maybe they were uneasy with the choice of a biblical character—it disturbed the separation of church and state, or reminded them somehow of the parlous nature of our democracy. In any case we soon went back to our coffee and buns and casual conversation about friends and enemies, parties and movements we had belonged to or outgrown or broken with in the past, experiences and adventures or misadventures in sundry places. Solemnly we agreed that the world was going down the drain. The usual platitudes in the tranquility of sunny, senior Florida.
But Jeremiah has stayed with me. For it was he who first spoke the lines that have coursed through my head almost, it seems, forever, or at least since I was fourteen years old—lines that I have often repeated with gusto:
If running against men on foot has
wearied thee, how wilt thou race
Let that man be like the cities which
the Lord relentlessly overthrew.
The fathers ate unripe grapes, and the
children’s teeth are set on edge.
These bitter words I had learned by heart in the original Hebrew. And there is another outstanding passage that still moves me, although it sounds a very different note:
In Ramah is heard the sound of mourning,
of bitter weeping. Rachel mourns her
children, she refuses to be consoled
because her children are no more. . . .
Thus says the Lord:
Cease your cries of mourning, wipe the
tears from your eyes.
The sorrow you have shown shall have a
reward, says the Lord.
They shall return from the enemies’ land.
There is hope for your future, says the Lord.
Your children shall return to their own
Powerful words, these, of hope and consolation; and yet I admit that my memory is more apt to dwell on the prophet’s angry anguish over the destined spoliation of his people than on his rejoicing at their anticipated redemption. On most days I am neither a Zionist nor a transcendentalist, but rather aspire to the lofty stoicism of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” Such is my secret aspiration. Of course, in reality I am rarely able to practice the wrestler’s art, to set my legs against the sudden and unexpected onsets of life. I am never ready. Rather, I tend like the dancer to shift my weight from leg to leg in a tremulous balancing act. Hence, I suppose, I trembled at the justice of Jeremiah’s stern invective. Like the people of the kingdom of Judah, I must secretly have been aware that my own sin was “written with an iron stylus, engraved with a diamond point on the tablet of [my] heart.”
Evidently it has always been so with me. A poem that I wrote for my college magazine bore the epigraph: “Call the professional mourners—Jeremiah.” I am sure that many of my fellow students, poor collegians much like myself in the Depression 30’s, read this as a call for the burial of decadent capitalism. But it was not. Though my prospects for a job were as slim as anyone’s, I shied from Communist and fellow-traveling propaganda, open or covert, and it was not a party line of the 1930’s but a frenzied prophecy of the 6th century B.C.E. that dominated my lyrical and social imagination. “Awake and Sing,” the leftist playwright Clifford Odets urgently cried in those days; but I had heard a very different song, and one far more “socially significant.” It had reverberated in my ears since I first heard it in the oddest of places: a self-study summer camp funded by a Hebrew high school in the out-of-the way commuter town of Arverne, Long Island.
At the beginning I did not appreciate the camp’s didactic philosophy, spending my time instead playing baseball and learning to swim. But on my third day I was called before a stern-faced and old-fashioned teacher who wanted to know why I had not handed in units one and two of my syllabus. I looked at him in astonishment, but, a docile if bright student, kept silent; I did not argue with teachers.
Then the old man hit me below the belt, saying that he had known my father, who had died two years before, and that he would have been very disturbed at my misbehavior. This was not strictly true: whenever it rained, Poppa used to excuse me from the progressive religious school where he taught and which I attended in the afternoons. But now I had no alternative: though I wanted to play, I would have to study an hour or two every morning. Resignedly, I opened the self-study curriculum and found that the units began with the Book of Jeremiah.
The first three verses of chapter one were a bore, a prosy recitation of dates and kings and genealogies—history as it was taught in public school:
The words of Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, of a priestly family in Anathoth, in the land of Benjamin. The word of the Lord first came to me in the days of Josiah, son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign, and continued through the reign of Jehoiakin, son of Josiah, king of Judah.
And so forth. Who cared? But verse four, the “call of Jeremiah,” grabbed my attention. This was the very matter of my dreams, asleep and awake: what was to be my calling? The boy Jeremiah is actually told, directly, by God, what he is to do with his life. The future for which he has been chosen is harsh but exciting: “The word of the Lord came to me thus: / Before you were born I dedicated you, / A prophet to the nations I / appointed you.” The boy Jeremiah hesitates (and I with him): “Ah, Lord God, I said, / I know not how to speak. I am too young.” God reassures him: “Say not I am too young, / To whomever I send you you shall speak. / Have no fear before them, / Because I am with you to deliver you, / says the Lord.”
I had no idea what a prophet’s mission was. It seemed hazardous—why else would God reassure him in advance? A prophet has to go where he is told, to speak what he is commanded, and not to be afraid. But what is he to speak?
Then the Lord extended his hand and
touched my mouth, saying:
See, I place my words in your mouth!
This day I set you
Over nations and over kingdoms,
To root up and to tear down,
To destroy and demolish,
To build and to plant.
Tremendous, the things that young Jeremiah and I were to accomplish by the power of words. And what words! Strange images follow, each with a special significance. Jeremiah is shown a “branch of the watching tree,” meaning that God watches to fulfill His word; a boiling cauldron that appears from the north, meaning that God was summoning all the kingdoms of the north to lay siege to Judah. But why? What had the people of Judah done to deserve this impending calamity? Frankly, I found their crime—“burning incense to strange gods, and adoring their handiwork”—not so horrendous. I had read all about the Greek gods and goddesses, who were like ordinary human beings, and although I knew that the God of Israel was one God, and there was no other, still, the pagan gods were . . . lively!
Nevertheless, not only was our one God the living God, but He spoke in wonderfully poetic language; and language, in those days, was my god. So I eagerly accepted God’s mission to Jeremiah, and welcomed His promise of protection:
For it is I this day
Who have made you a fortified city,
a pillar of iron, a wall of brass
against the whole land:
against Judah’s kings and princes,
against its priests and people.
They will fight against you, but not
prevail over you,
For I am with you to deliver you.
So my mission (like young Jeremiah’s) was to oppose the powers that be—a mission no teenager could refuse. I would be sorely tested, but with God’s irresistible speech behind me, how could I not reply as the child Samuel did in the temple of Shiloh: “Here am I, O Lord, for Thou hast called me”? When next I visited my teacher and rehearsed chapter one, reading the original verse by verse and paraphrasing it in my schoolboy Hebrew, he was visibly pleased. He urged me to go on; I did so with pleasure; we met conscientiously several times a week. Soon I began to understand why God was so angry at the people of Judah. The image that recurred was that of infidelity: like bad women, the Israelites had betrayed their husband, God, Who had brought them through the desert, the “land unsown.”
At the time, I assumed that this image was not meant to be taken literally. Not until many years later was I to grasp the full complexity of the matter: the prophet was referring to actual practices associated with the gods of Canaan, practices performed by the Israelites as part of their pagan idolatry. They were sinning, in short, not only against the social culture of the Jewish God but also against the moral instinct that Kant called conscience.
My stay at camp was limited to one month—my family could not afford the full season—and I went home with Jeremiah’s stern accusations, his vivid images, his magnificent rhetoric ringing in my ears:
Be amazed at this, O heavens,
And shudder with sheer horror, says the
Two evils have My people done:
They have forsaken Me, the source of
They have dug themselves cisterns,
Broken cisterns that hold no water.
In public school I gladly chanted Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” with its cheerful assertion that “Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime / And departing leave behind us / Footprints on the sands of time.” Yet these and other onward-and-upward examples of the American Dream, however appealing to my developing ego, faded before Jeremiah’s broken cisterns that hold no water.
Jeremiah had forearmed me, indeed, against both the “allrightniks” and the “allwrongniks” of the 1930’s. Reading the Saturday Evening Post in the subway to and from school, I luxuriated in its inane pleasantries. But mindful of the gray faces on streets filled with the unemployed, the despondent subway crowds, I could not shake the prophet’s disdainful mockery of those “who cry peace, peace, when there is no peace.” By the same token, the hopes aroused by the false red prophets of a workers’ Utopia turned sour when I recalled my own prophet’s derision of those whose faith lay in that “broken reed, Egypt,” whence their forefathers had fled after 400 years of servitude.
Was that why, so many years later, I cried “Jeremiah!” when asked whom I most admired and would most want to emulate? If so, it must have been with the painful regret that accompanies all failed longings for fulfillment. For I could never have summoned what it took for the prophet to proclaim what he proclaimed, or have borne being thrust as he was into a pit of slime (according to the report of Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews written six centuries later). And not just because of the sheer strength required to fulfill his mission. I could never have had the heart to undertake it, knowing (as he certainly knew) that it was an impossible one.
But this requires some background. Jeremiah’s extraordinary commitment, his driven insistence, was to counsel, publicly as well as privately, a policy that we in our time would call appeasement. It was a policy he had the effrontery to urge upon the successive kings of Judah who are named seriatim in that very first chapter of his book, starting with Josiah, son of Anion. This was the famous saintly Josiah who had “pleased the Lord and conducted himself unswervingly just as his ancestor David had done” (in the words of the second Book of Kings). But more significant than Josiah’s legendary piety was the supposedly serendipitous discovery during his reign of the Book of the Law—presumably a (lost) copy of the same code that Moses had elaborated from the Ten Commandments and encompassed in the fifth book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy.
We smile: we cannot conceive of a copy of the British Magna Carta or our American Constitution disappearing from sight for 700 years. Clearly this was meant to signify a turning point in the social and religious life of the people of Judah, and one with deep political connotations. The entire country had sunk so deep in idolatry, had so entirely assimilated the vices of its pagan neighbors, that the people had completely lost the source of their uniqueness—their special, incomparable relation to the one God Who had led them from Egyptian slavery to the revelation at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is in this light that Jeremiah’s thunderous prophecies assume enormous political as well as social resonance—and that his life and work can be viewed as a mirror of our own times, at the beginning of the third millennium, in a culture performing the same practices the prophet had abominated 2,500 years before: the same promiscuous sexuality, the same sweet incense offered up to the idols of ego.
In context, Jeremiah’s mission was undertaken more or less at the moment when Josiah initiated his “Deuteronomic reform,” which was itself made possible by a weakening of the hold over the Middle East exercised by the Assyrians, then torn by civil war. By the time of Josiah’s death a decade or so later, Assyria’s place as a world power had been taken by Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar. In a revolt led by Josiah’s son Jehoiakin, Jerusalem was captured by these Babylonians, and many of its prominent citizens, including the prophet, were taken into exile. In a summary account, the editors of the New American Bible tell what happened next:
Jeremiah urged the next king, Zedekiah, to refrain from joining . . . in another revolt. Weak and easily swayed, Zedekiah secretly consulted Jeremiah but publicly sided against him. In July 587 B.C.E. the Babylonians stormed the city and a month later burned Jerusalem with its Temple to the ground. After the king witnessed the slaughter of his sons, the Babylonians blinded him and carried him off to oblivion.
Jeremiah was treated well by the Babylonians, probably because he persistently spoke against revolt. The Babylonians gave him a choice either of enjoying a palace in Babylon or remaining behind in the land. He chose the latter. When the remnant in Jerusalem rejected his advice and fled to Egypt, they dragged the prophet with them. There Jeremiah died, to become a tradition and a book.
Omitted in this account is Jeremiah’s final ignominy, related toward the end of his book. It is a terrible admission of the failure of his mission. For even in Egypt, the attractive pagan idolatry that he had warned would be the downfall of Judah continued openly and unashamedly. Once again, Jeremiah’s warning fell on deaf ears. Worse, it met unequivocal rejection. In the translation of the New American Bible:
From all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to strange gods, from all the women who were present in the immense crowd, and from all the people who lived in lower Egypt, Jeremiah received this answer: we will not listen to what you say in the name of the Lord. Rather we will continue doing what we proposed; we will burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we and our fathers, our kings and princes, have done in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem.
And so Jeremiah died in Egypt. The prophet who had been without honor in his own country died without honor abroad as well.
In the centuries since his death, Jeremiah, rejected by his people, has been welcomed in the canon of the Hebrew Bible as one of the three major prophets (the other two being Isaiah and Ezekiel). His speeches, transcribed by his epigone Baruch, and emulated by the minor prophet Zechariah, are studied to this day. He is held up as an exemplary figure who defied the corruption of his age, both political and spiritual. And not by Jews alone: in the Christian imagination, too, he is linked with the prophet Elijah and John the Baptist as one who defied earthly kings, and he also joins Isaiah as the most quoted prognosticator of the messiah to come.
But why does he continue to occupy the background of my inner life after all these years, even, or especially in, the relaxed placidity of southwest Florida? Certainly, the powerful language is a factor. But what else? His prophecy of doom? Having never enlisted in the ranks of Utopian social-political idealists, I have consequently never had to regret the collapse of those hopes. His own failure, perhaps, which reminds me of the inevitable insufficiency of even the best of men? His implicit denial of the illusion of progress, an illusion so easily and so commonly affirmed? The momentary comfort he provides in the face of the sure knowledge that our leaders will be playing golf when next the bombs rain down?
Only God knows: and, as we New Yorkers used to jest in our sardonic youth, He ain’t talking.