Reading through Jeremiah again, I noticed a couple of new factors that just mitigate a little the harshness of the prophet that strikes us at first glance.
Jer. 20:7-18 concludes the series of Jeremiah’s complaints to God that began at the end of chapter 11. However, 20:7-18 seems composite itself. Verses 7-10 are true complaint, featuring the nickname given Jeremiah by his opponents, ‘Magor-Missabib’, or Terror on Every Side, equivalent I think to calling him Chicken Little. (If you want to hear a powerful song, check out Phil Keaggy’s rendition of this idea at the end of True Believer.)
What follows is a song of deliverance in vv. 11-13 in classic psalmic fashion, where the persecuted person celebrates his rescue by God. But then vv. 14-18 unexpectedly return to dark lament, in the form of the evidently stereotypical curse on the day of one’s birth. I say stereotypical because it is the form of lament that opens the body of the book of Job.
Here’s where our first mitigating feature comes in. Like Job’s voice in Job 3, Jeremiah curses roundly the poor guy who brought the news about Jeremiah’s birth to his father:
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, “A child is born to you – a son!” May that man be like the towns the LORD overthrew without pity. May he hear wailing in the morning, a battle cry at noon.
Talk about shooting the messenger! But here’s the point. This is rhetorical. What purpose would it serve for God to tackle that poor guy years later for a job well-intentioned and kindly performed? That’s not the purpose. Jeremiah (more likely than his editor alone here, I think) is letting off steam.
We should keep in mind when we read the bitter tones of the ‘oracles against the nations’ (e.g. Jeremiah 46-51) the role that rhetoric can play. They can make it sound as though God hates non-Israelites from the very bottom of his heart. Then how do we account for the sudden magnanimity of the gospel in the New Testament? We ought to keep in mind the natural extremity of rhetoric.
My time’s up. Second part next time.