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The elusive presence: Jeremiah 20:4-11.

Experiencing presence and absence

Jeremiah's name is forever associated with laments and complaints. In the Hebrew-Jewish tradition, however, he does not stand alone. Approximately one-half of the book of Psalms, titled "Praises" in the Hebrew Bible, contain laments! They are cries for justice and deliverance to a seemingly absent God from people who, like Jeremiah, are enduring great pain. These laments create a dissonance with a major theme in the Old Testament, that of Immanuel, the God who is with us and for us--the God who cares (e.g., Exod 3:12; Josh 1:5; Isa 7:14 and 41:10). The psalmists rejoice and give thanks to this Divine Partner whose mighty acts of righteousness and mercy have meant life to Israel. It is on such a God that Jeremiah pins his hopes (Jer 1:8) when he is called to prophesy. God promised to deliver him from his opponents, and these words were a "joy and the delight" to him (Jer 15:16; cf. Ezek 3:3).

However, this promise of support and protection was as deceptive as a mirage--it was as "a deceitful brook, like waters that fail" (15:18; cf. 20:7-8). As Jeremiah begins to speak the warning message that God gave him, he feels abandoned, forsaken by the very one who called him. His message of "violence and destruction" (vv. 7-8) is not taken seriously. People laugh at him and mock his warning that soon the land will endure unimaginable cruelties brought on by a conquering enemy. There will be, he announces, "terror ... on every side" (Jer 6:22-25). His opponents, however, turn a deaf ear to his threatening proclamation and make fun of his warning call. Some scholars think that his enemies may have used the phrase as a title for him, something like "Mr. Terror Man" (Jer 20:10). His enemies, however, do not limit themselves to mocking words; they persecute him and attempt to kill him (Jer 11:18-21). His friends also have proven untrue. They have not only left him; they watch and hope for his downfall (20:10). Standing alone and exposed to the attacks of his persecutors, Jeremiah begs God not to become a "terror" to him because "you are my [only] refuge" (Jer 17:17). He wants to pull away from his commitment to speak this message, but he feels pressure from within to continue (Jer 20:7). He is at the end of his strength! Finally, in angry and despairing words that echo Job's own longing for the peace and rest of non-birth, Jeremiah curses the day when he was born, the day that would be the beginning of sorrow and suffering (20:14-18; cf. Job 3:1-26). The prophet, who is calling on people to trust in God, now finds his own confidence in God wavering on the edge of rejection.


Jeremiah longs for the comforting presence of Immanuel, but now, when he is in desperate need, God appears nowhere to be found. In the temple, however, people praise God's interventions in the past and saving actions of the present (see, e.g., Pss 34; 103; 135; 136). Jeremiah repeats such praise also (17:14, 17; 20:13), but in the midst of his suffering it no doubt lacks the sure conviction of the early days when it was "a joy and delight" to accept God's call (15:16). It is praise coming from one hanging by a thread but still trusting that what he is experiencing has not escaped God's eyes. Fully aware of the miracle of the Exodus, Jeremiah no doubt is hoping that God would "notice" his suffering, hear his cries, and deliver him as he once heard and delivered the Israelites under Moses (Exod 2:24-25; 3:7-9).

The text that we are examining in this article is but one of seven or eight texts in which Jeremiah struggles with his relationship to God--swinging back and forth between confidence and doubt, hope and despair (e.g., 17:14-18). We should not therefore think of the prophet as one whose usual faith and optimism was marred by a one-time fall into questioning and doubt. No, it appears that throughout Jeremiah's ministry he was pressured by questions of God's inaction that allowed his enemies to have the upper hand. In the end, however, even if he had questions and serious complaints about what was happening to him, he proved faithful to his call.

Jeremiah appeals to us because he does not pretend to be the model for a "strong" faith that is ever trusting, optimistic, and confident. He is a model, however, for an honest relationship with God. He trusts his Divine Partner so fully that together with words of praise he is able to share his doubt and disappointment. It is apparent that he believed that God would accept him as he truly was, whether in praise or lament. Although Jeremiah was one of the great prophets of Israel, in truth he was only a human being who sought to follow God's will. He makes us aware that the God-human relationship is not as simple and clear-cut as some would lead us to believe.

Jeremiah and other lament texts

The prophet is not alone in his struggle to maintain confidence in God when confronted with realities that appear to deny any trace of a caring divine face. Similar cries are raised in the books of Psalms, Job, Lamentations, and Habakkuk. The mood of lament also lies heavy on the heart of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. These books testify that the life of faith is not for the fainthearted or for those who want only to live in the sunshine of such a psalm as Psalm 34, which proclaims: "When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears, and rescues them from all their troubles."

The laments found in the above biblical books struck a note of needed reality in Israel's life and worship. They, together with other texts that celebrate God's saving actions, were widely read and finally preserved as Holy Scripture for the faith community. These lament texts "connected" with the ancient Israelite-Jewish community, and they find a receptive hearing among people today. When life gets hard, people of faith read with appreciation and relief these texts whose feet-on-the-ground realism releases them to speak honestly to God. They feel reassured that before their Divine Partner they do not have to be "theologically correct" but can in prayer to God be who they really are in thought. The inclusion of laments in Scripture tells us that the life of faith is not always a close walk with God along a smooth untroubled path. Further, laments assure us that when the road is rough it is not an act of unfaith to release our inner thoughts in lament--not to someone about God, but to God. Honest response to God is to acknowledge what we are thinking and feeling, whether it be praise or lament.

Should it be lament in which we speak of our difficulties, it does not mean that we are pulling away from God in unbelief. Rather, we are moving toward God. We can be confident that we are being heard and understood. God's affirming words to Job, even though Job admits that he went over the top in some of his complaints (42:3), make this clear to us. God judges the theological correctness of the friends and, speaking to Eliphaz, declares: "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has" (Job 42:7). God, according to the author of Job, respects the honest response of Job more than the pious-sounding words of the friends that load guilt on the one in pain. The final cap on the relationship of Job and his friends to God is God's decision to ask Job to pray for the friends!

For many years while teaching seminary courses on the Old Testament and lay study courses in churches, I found that students and laypersons often resonated with the laments of Jeremiah, Job, and the psalms as well as the reflective character of the book of Ecclesiastes. The reason that these texts attract such favorable attention is that they speak freely of a side of reality that many of us have thought about but only seldom have allowed to be given free voice. Christians often feel uncomfortable in expressing despair and anger to God regarding suffering that has come their way. There is an even greater reluctance to express our disappointment and doubt of God's own action in our lives. Such behavior is viewed as faithless and rebellious against God. However, neither Jeremiah, the psalmist, nor Job departed from faith and loyalty to God. Their continued loyalty to the covenant with God explains the decision of the later believing community to include these texts in what became Scripture.

Lament and praise

It is important to remember that Jeremiah's life was not only about lament. Both he and the psalmists were able to raise their voices in praise to God even though suffering terrible hurt within. Pushed to the edge of faith by suffering, the prophet still remembers God's just and merciful acts in Israel's history and is moved, even if briefly, to praise and express confidence in God (20:11-13).

It may seem strange that one who complains with such strength against God could also utter words of praise. That, however, is not surprising, because Jeremiah and the psalmists speak to God about all of their thoughts and experiences and bring forth both praise and lament. A trusting relationship to God is revealed in lament as well as in praise because, as mentioned above, in lament one does not speak about God but rather to him. Unlike speaking about God, which does not involve any kind of a relationship between the lamenter and God, speaking to God assumes a previous and even an intimate relationship. Even in times of deep hurt and discouragement Jeremiah did not pull away from his Partner. Coming out of a priestly family, he grew up in the worship tradition of the temple and was familiar with both the praise and lament of believers. Even when experiencing sharp disappointment with God--to the point of cursing one's day of birth--there was always hope and expectation that the Divine Partner would take notice of what was happening to him. Only when there is the conviction that God cares about what is taking place does it makes sense to complain.

In the New Testament there is little that compares to the bold questioning and challenging of God found in Jeremiah, the Psalms, and Job. The only passages that approach texts found in these Old Testament books are those associated with Jesus. Such a discovery is quite unexpected because, given our belief in the divine Sonship of Jesus, it is difficult to imagine that he would take up a lament to his Father.

But several texts in the New Testament appear to point to Jesus' own questioning struggle in accepting his path of suffering (cf. Paul's plea in 2 Cor 12:7-8). For example, Jesus pleads in Gethsemane that the cup of suffering be removed from him (Mark 14:36). This prayer, says the author of Hebrews, was offered up "with loud cries and tears." Further, Jesus' cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:36) takes up the desperate cry of abandonment from a sufferer out of the past. Some interpreters believe that this cry underscores the Christian confession of the early creeds that Jesus is as truly human as he is divine. In his passion, it is believed, we experience the mystery of the incarnation, namely, the divine-human Jesus suffering desolation. Others, however, hold that this plea taken from the first line of Psalm 22 is an ancient way of referring to the whole psalm that ends on a note of praise. Such an interpretation underscores the confidence that Jesus has in God. It also serves to underplay Jesus' experience of abandonment, which is thought to focus too much on Jesus' humanity. But even though Psalm 22 ends on a note of praise and confidence, it should not be overlooked that in about one-half of the verses the psalmist despairs of his fate and pleads for help.

Praise and lament are not contradictory expressions. In Jeremiah, as in many lament psalms, both lament and praise are present. In fact, there is only one lament in the Psalms (Psalm 88) that does not include within it praise. To affirm, therefore, that Jesus, in citing this psalm, expressed confidence in God does not exclude the possibility that he was also suffering the desolation of the psalmist.

Lament and confession of sin

Further, regarding lament in the Old Testament, it may be observed that while confession of guilt is a part of some laments, such is usually not the case. This lack of confession of guilt in the lament psalms and the laments of Jeremiah as well as the protestations of innocence (e.g., Jer 15:15-18; Pss 17,26) are not so shocking if we remember that these laments have to do with some specific occurrence (e.g., being oppressed unjustly). In such cases, those lamenting are affirming that in this specific matter they are not guilty of wrongdoing. However, they are not claiming to be without sin in other aspects of their life. This is somewhat similar to a "not guilty" finding in our court system concerning a particular event. Saying that one is not guilty does not imply that one is completely innocent of fault in the living out of one's life.

A case that borders on our discussion occurs with Paul according to the book of Timothy. Paul calls himself the "foremost" of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), but he nevertheless defends his integrity, as do Jeremiah and the psalmists, when he says "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (1 Tim 4:7). Even though a part of sinful humanity, Paul was a person of noble character in his life for Christ. Confessing his sinfulness was not the same as declaring that he was absolutely devoid of virtue. It is not necessary to confess one's sinfulness every time one asserts some good about oneself. Even if Jeremiah and the psalmists view themselves to be among the sinful, it should not be surprising that they could cry out in lament in some specific case of suffering without accompanying that cry by a confession of sin.

Although in the Old Testament there is a strong declaration of deep sinfulness (e.g., Isa 6:5; Pss 32, 51), one finds in the New Testament a much stronger emphasis on the sinfulness of humankind (e.g., Rom 3:9-23). Claus Westermann believes that this increased emphasis on sin and guilt explains why the mood of lament is relatively rare in the New Testament. (2) He explains that the Christian tradition, under the strong influence of Pauline theology, laid heavy emphasis on sin and guilt. Everyone, according to Paul, is guilty of sin, deserving of judgment, and in need of forgiveness. Between suffering in this world and the guilt of sin, the latter is by far the more important. One needs to confess one's sin, receive forgiveness, and be restored to God's family. Once one has experienced the forgiveness of sin and salvation through Christ--with the assurance of a glorious life after death by the resurrection of Jesus--there is little reason to lament over the pain and suffering that one must endure in this world. The "little while" that we must endure suffering here on earth is as nothing compared to the eternal glory that is to come (2 Cor 4:17; Col 1:5, 12; 1 Pet 5:9-10).

Lament and Christian worship

If in the New Testament there is a relative absence of the lament tradition, we should not be surprised at the general lack of lament in Christian worship. True, as noted above, we have the example of the lament cry of Jesus. The Christian reader, however, tends to concentrate less on the lament aspect of Jesus' prayer than on his commitment to do the will of God (Mark 14:36; see also Heb 5:7-8 and Phil 2:8). His obedience, which is seen as an example for those following him, has strongly influenced Christian piety. For many Christians, this obedience translates into a submissive, passive behavior in which one accepts what comes one's way as caused or for some reason is allowed by God. To question or to complain to God, as Jeremiah does, seems to many to reflect a loss of faith. But as the psalmist says, God knows what is in the heart (44:21), and we are urged to "pour out" our heart before him (62:8). God is one who knows us and accepts us as we are, so it is not necessary to hold back from our Divine Partner our true feelings of disappointment, doubt, and anger. The God we know from the Scriptures would not be surprised to hear such laments. To whom else can we reveal our true feelings and thoughts if we do not do so in prayer to God?

One cannot survive, however, with an exclusively lament view of the world. The life of faith is one in which both praise and lament have a place. Both are essential aspects of true worship. Lament keeps praise in contact with reality, and praise from the one who laments is the sign that, though suffering great hurt, this one has not given up confidence in God.

Revival of lament in the church

In the Black church, unlike some other major church communities, the lament tradition (e.g., in its spirituals) has for a long time been a significant part of church life. Within the last twenty years, lament has received increasing attention in other Christian circles. Walter Brueggemann has been a prominent force in underscoring its importance for the whole Christian church. (3) He declares that Christian worship has focused too heavily on the hymn of praise--almost to the exclusion of the lament. The church, he believes, must be a place where both hymns of praise and laments are at home. For Brueggemann, being a person of faith does not mean denying the natural responses of complaint and impatience as well as the questioning that comes when misfortune arrives. These thoughts, which we know are present, are not to be pressed down and hidden within; rather they are to be presented to God. Lament is an expression that offers the Christian congregation opportunity to bring real life and faith together. It not only promotes healing for those within the congregation, it also has the capacity to open Christian ears to the human cry outside the walls of the church.

Martin E. Marty's reflections on the presence and absence of God have provided momentum for a revival of lament within the Christian community. (4) Marty uses the seasonal designations, summer and winter, to speak about praise and lament. Many within the Christian tradition, he observes, take a summery view of life. No matter what happens, they hold to an attitude of praise and thankfulness. These people, indicates Marty, lack full reflection on the hard realities that large numbers of people face day by day. A "theological correctness" blinds the eyes and hardens the heart to those attempting to weather the blistering winds of winter. Given the laments of Jeremiah, the psalmists, and pleadings of Jesus, it is remarkable that still today there are those in the church who wish to make all of life into one season: summer. To be sure, summertime is a grand season of the year, and to live lifelong without experiencing its bright warmth would be an unbearable sadness. Most people, however, find themselves often assaulted by winter and its hardships, and summertime songs do not bring comfort. In fact, Marty observes, the pain of those suffering the coldness of winter is not lessened but is actually increased by those displaying the unwavering piety of a summery disposition. Hurt is added to hurt! Marty urges Christian congregations to become acquainted with the lament psalms and underscores the truth that these texts come from those "who have horizons where the summer sun does little warming, but who also do not lose trust." (5)

The laments of Jeremiah, the psalmists, and others who continue to hold fast to God are a reminder that the God who loves us does not desert when summer fades but, when the difficult days arrive, keeps a ready ear open to our cries.

Fredrick C. Holmgren

Research Professor of Old Testament

North Park Theological Seminary

1. Title taken from the influential volume by Samuel L. Terrien, The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978).

2. Praise and Lament in the Psalms, trans. K. R. Crim and R. N. Soulen (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), 273-75.

3. See his article "The Friday Voice of Faith," Calvin Theological Journal 36 (2001): 12-21.

4. Martin E. Marty, A Cry of Absence: Reflection for the Winter of the Heart (Harper and Row, 1983), 40.

5. Marty, A Cry of Absence, 40.
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Author:Holmgren, Fredrick C.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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