Making Jeremiah the prophet relevant to modern day high school students is a neat trick, and I’d like to have a long talk with the teacher who can pull it off. The problem is Jeremiah’s preoccupation with idolatry, the crafting and worshiping of wooden statues. The entire prophecy is a diatribe against this practice, and since few of my students are pagan sculptors, they have a hard time relating.
Additionally, Jeremiah’s focus on idolatry creates an unhelpful prejudice against the Israelites, who must have been unbelievably ignorant to do something that stupid. Once you are sitting in judgment over the characters in a story, of course, you have stopped listening to the author, and whatever lesson the teacher had in mind is finished before it starts.
To make matters worse, I sometimes think I agree with my students on this one. I’m not a pagan sculptor either, and those Israelites do seem awfully stupid. How can we read this story for profit in a modern, Christian age?
Preachers in my tradition use a piece of devotional shorthand to make the idea of idolatry relevant: an idol is anything that you love more than God, and idolatry is spending time on that thing instead of worshiping God. By this subtle shift, they can then have Jeremiah speak all the Divine threats of the book against whatever sin they like, simply by stating the obvious truth that nobody loves God as completely as he should, and that any sin is therefore an idol.
Such preachers attempt a literary reading of the prophecy by treating ancient idolatry as a symbol: a physical object representing a distinct but related idea. In this case, eager to make Jeremiah’s message relevant, they take idolatry to symbolize sin, by which they mean moral failing and ethical weakness.
But earnest devotion does not equal good reading, and this interpretation falls apart before a faithful literary analysis. You cannot use Jeremiah to condemn an inordinate interest in video games, a dependence on chocolate, or an illicit love affair, because idolatry does not symbolize lust, sloth, gluttony, or any other moral failing.
God Himself, speaking through the prophet, explains repeatedly what it does symbolize:
“Do not provoke me to anger with what your hands have made” (25:6).
“You have provoked me to anger with what your hands have made” (25:7).
“The people of Israel have done nothing but provoke me with what their hands have made” (32:30).
“Why provoke me to anger with what your hands have made?” (44:8)
The Israelites have done two things to provoke God to anger: they have made statues with their hands, and they have trusted in these statues for salvation. God is not angry because of their sloth, their lack of personal holiness, their lustful thoughts, their gluttonous overeating, their half-hearted devotion, or their lack of religious energy. He is provoked because they have put their trust in the works of their hands.
Who worships his obvious failings? Who depends on lust, sloth, and gluttony to save him? Only by a prodigious stretch of the language can we say that indulgence is idolatry in Jeremiah’s sense. It requires no stretch at all, however, to say that we worship our strengths. Devotion, character, virtue, obedience, diligence, faithfulness, righteousness, spiritual maturity – we put actual faith in these good things all the time. We strive to enlarge them and expect spiritual benefit from succeeding. They are the works of our hands, spiritually speaking, and we look to them to save us. If idolatry symbolizes anything in Jeremiah, this is it.
Through the prophet, God loads curses on this practice through all 52 chapters of the longest book in the Bible, including this searing condemnation from chapter 17:
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord … but blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him” (17:5, 7).
It must be one or the other with Jeremiah; there can be no mixture of sculpture and salvation, you might say. Trusting in the works of our hands is the only damnable idolatry mentioned in the entire prophecy, which is saying a lot for a book concerned exclusively with damnable idolatry.
Jeremiah’s use of symbolism provides the key to its continued relevance: sculpture symbolizes spiritual striving; woodcarving symbolizes spiritual work; idolatry symbolizes spiritual dependence on our achievements. We may not be literal sculptors, but we might be earnest Christians hoping to excel in virtue and so make names for ourselves and effect our own deliverance. God’s symbolic condemnation of this practice sounds a much-needed warning in our hard-working, achievement driven age.
The further I go in a literary reading of Jeremiah, the more uncomfortable I get. Though innocent of the literal offenses against which the prophet rails, am I guilty of the symbolic ones? Having learned from the faith what Christian living is supposed to look like, do I put my hope in being able to execute it? I know better than to confuse righteousness with immorality, but do I confuse it with virtue? Perhaps most troubling of all, do I teach my students to carve these statues too?
Thankfully, Jeremiah offers hope to the literary reader by means of yet another symbol: the Sabbath. God promises to avert the coming judgment altogether if the Israelites will cease their laboring:
“But if you are careful to obey me, declares the Lord, and bring no load through the gates of this city on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy by not doing any work on it, then … this city will be inhabited forever” (17:24-25).
If idolatry symbolizes spiritual work, the Sabbath symbolizes its opposite: spiritual rest. Lay down your load of achievement, Jeremiah says. Stop striving for spiritual success. Stop depending on your own efforts. Trust God alone for salvation, and you will be saved indeed. I want my students to learn this lesson in the symbolism of Jeremiah the prophet. Hopefully, I can learn it myself along the way.